In this era of rising gas prices and tightening emissions standards, owning a car can be tough. On the other hand, turning in your keys to become a full on motorcycle rider is tricky when you have gym bags and children and other crap to cart around. Plus, they're messy when it's rainy or cold outside.
But some places in the world allow you to have it all: car roominess combined with motorcycle fuel economy. I'm talking about the Tuk Tuk (or auto rickshaw if you want to be all proper), India's little gem that can schlep everything from groceries and farm goods to entire, nine-person families in more style and comfort than simply walking or using a wheelbarrow could ever provide.
(Full disclosure: I wanted to drive a Tuk Tuk so bad, I pestered a moto-taxi driver in Bahía Solano, on Colombia's Pacific Coast, to let me borrow his for a little while. He was a really good sport, and waited patiently at the airport bar while I sped around in his 2012 Bajaj RE GDI, narrowly avoiding colliding with several farm animals on the road into town.)
Unfortunately, you'd have to move to a country where they sell these to get your hands on one. For whatever reason, you don't see them too much in the States — probably because even on local highways, their modest 40-50 mph top speed would hold up the flow of traffic. But in areas where long, straight stretches of tarmac are rare, Tuk Tuks go fast enough to get you and a lot of people/stuff where you're going. Also, safety. People all over South Asian — and more recently, Latin America — have been relying upon these three-wheeled workhorses for decades.
Nicholas, the guy who let me borrow his moto taxi for a test drive, bought it brand new six months ago. But it's still basically the same Bajaj (a knockoff of an Italian model) that has thronged South Asian roads since Bajaj started manufacturing them in 1960. His is the gasoline-powered model, but they come in different configurations, including diesel and natural gas (I wouldn't be surprised if you could get one to run on urine if you were in a real pinch). The seats are nice and it ran pretty well — until the water that was in the gas he'd bought got into the carburetor.
But that's what happens when you live in a place where the only connection to the outside world are 60-foot cargo ships and even smaller airplanes that land on an airfield that's closed part of the year because of the weather. Gasoline comes in by boat and costs 50 percent more than everywhere else (more than $6 per gallon) and isn't regulated by the government. (The only government I was able to find in Bahía Solano was a city councilmember who happened to be at the airport bar. But he was already about nine beers deep when he explained to me in garbled Spanish how things work in that part of the mundo.)
Regardless of whether or not supply problems plague the place you call home, this is not your father's Bajaj. No sir. The RE GDI boasts a direct petrol injection that not only gets 33 percent better fuel economy than last year (sorry, no word from the EPA on what, exactly, that is), it spews less harmful emissions into the world's increasingly car-polluted atmosphere. Oh, and the newer models sport two, count 'em, two headlights for increased visibility. A marked improvement over past years' cyclops-illuminated iterations.
Say what you will about the small wheels and vinyl tops, but Bajaj, the Indian company that makes Tuk Tuks, really has a good thing going here. Aside from a few minor changes over the past 52 years, they've kept its look largely the same. It's like the auto rickshaw version of a Volkswagen Beetle. The gentle curve of the windshield and its little bug eyes (or eye, depending upon the model) give it a friendly, trustworthy look.
Tuk Tuks comfortably seat a driver and three adult passengers, along with a bunch of luggage. But let's be honest — you can fit way more of either inside. When Nicholas' Tuk Tuk broke down, we hopped into another one, picking up our new driver's wife and child and another guy along the way. The driver's wife — his compañía, as he called her — sat on the front bench with him while the old man we scooped up held their 3-year-old daughter on his lap. Voila. Six people and luggage; no muss, no fuss.
Interior decor was like the inside of one of those World War II troop transport trucks, but the bench seats were adequately padded and comfortable. Good luck if it rains. With plastic side curtains (instead of real windows) and no air conditioning (hahahahaha!!!), it gets steamy pretty quickly inside.
Assessing a Tuk Tuk's acceleration is highly subjective. On a flat road with no passengers or cargo — the conditions when I was driving it — they're like almost any other small motorcycle. In other words, they jerk you back into the seat as soon as you twist the throttle. Loaded down with people and junk, they struggle to make it up hills, which there are a lot of in Colombia. That said, they always seem to make it wherever they're headed (unless there's water in the gasoline).
The brakes work well enough, I guess, but don't expect anything great from a vehicle with 12-inch-tall tires. When the Tuk Tuk is loaded, braking is marshmellowy. When it's empty, it skids on the gravel roads when you touch the brake pedal (at least there is a brake pedal instead of those bicycle-style hand squeeze brakes common on motorbikes). It is what it is.
Suspension? Pish posh, that would only add to the weight of a Tuk Tuk, taking away from its stellar people/crap-carrying capacity. The ride is harsh, to say the least. Luckily, as we rode out of Bahía Solano on the hour long drive to El Valle — a town on the Pacific Coast — there was a long stretch of concrete-paved road smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Normally this would have been a rutted dirt track, but apparently back in the '80s, that particular valley was a popular place for cocaine lords to buy campesinos when they felt like vacationing. Accordingly, the road budget in that area spiked. From what I hear, this is a common occurrence in Colombia's rural parts.
With a motorcycle handlebar-style steering wheel, these things turn on a dime. Because their wheels are so small and their floors so low to the ground, they stay pretty planted around turns. Most of that, though, is probably due to the fact that they're so slow.
Bajaj decided that the best (or cheapest) shifter is one where you have to twist the left handgrip to shift up or down. This works, but it can make gear selection a little vague. Other than that, the gearbox shifts and transfers power to the wheels just fine, giving the Tuk Tuk the feel of a low end ATV in that respect.
Like I said, you can fit at least four people and a bunch of luggage inside a tuk tuk, but in places where they're typically used (i.e. not in high-speed, first world urban areas), normal restrictions don't apply. You can carry as many people and/or as much stuff as is physically possible in one of these babies. Remember that phone book stuffing fad from the '50s (before college students discovered acid and marijuana)? It's like that, only useful.
Don't expect an auto rickshaw to work well where speed limits allow people to drive faster than 30 mph on a regular basis. But if you feel like shedding the chains of American/European consumerism and living the simple life, a Tuk Tuk would be pretty sweet to have around. What these really boil down to is that Parking Lot Mechanic mentality we like to see where people stop short when the words "I can't" begin forming on their lips and instead see just what an underpowered tin can on rollerskate wheels is capable of. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to drive one of these to the Northwest Territories (as long as it's summer). Who's with me?!
Oh by the way, if a tuk tuk breaks down, no problem. You can just find another guy who has one to stick his foot out the window and push the dead tuk tuk with his living tuk tuk/soccer shoe-clad foot (see video).
It's difficult not to find these little things lovable, whether or not you opt for the single or double headlamp setup. They're cute from the front, and look like a stunted Model T from the back with the ribbed vinyl roof up. Plus, riding around in one on a sunny day is an absolute blast.
There are probably about three collectors in the U.S. who would give a rat's ass about Bajaj's three-wheeled lynch pin. Most of the world uses them because they're cheap and reliable. In other words, the typical Tuk Tuk owner doesn't give a shit about collecting stuff. They're more worried about making enough money to feed their families.
But who knows. Maybe someday when a bunch of previously poor people's children or grandkids become middle class, they'll begin collecting Tuk Tuks as quaint relics of the hardscrabble life their people once led.
2012 Bajaj RE GDI (Tuk tuk)
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston; Bajaj Mexico; Associated Press