The tuk-tuk has landed

The ability of tuk-tuks to beat the queues makes them the cab of choice from Bangkok to Bombay. But could they be the solution to our congestion, too? Sean O'Grady finds out

Enter the tuk-tuk. Those who are fortunate enough to have holidayed in Thailand will have at least a passing aquaintance with these strange pottering devices. These crude, noisy, smelly three-wheeled vehicles have been motorising that particular emerging economy for decades, and many a tourist has enjoyed their charm (provided they settled their fare before rather than after the ride).

That, you might think, was that. The tuk-tuk: OK in Bangkok, but not likely to stray far beyond. Wrong. Imports to the UK have already begun. You may reasonably expect one to be tuk-tukking along a street near you soon.

Well, maybe not. Only a handful have been brought in so far by Steve Webb of the Tukshop (geddit?) in London. On the basis of the Indian and Thai models he's sold so far, he's confident about their success in this country. "I first caught sight of a tuk-tuk on holiday in the Far East in 2002. I was instantly captivated at how something so functional could ooze so much style. These iconic vehicles were clearly 'people's champions' in their respective countries, much as the Mini was in the UK or the Citroën 2CV was in France. I was hooked and now the only challenge was to get them running on the roads here."

Following UK road approval at the end of 2003, the response has been "fantastic" according to Steve, with Asian restaurants quick to see their potential. Curry houses in Glasgow, Swansea, Luton, Torquay and Southampton are currently running them.

It's hard to say whether, at £4,000 on the road, the tuk-tuk is fab value for money in British terms. They're cheaper than any new car, but then again cars have four wheels. It's rather more than most of the scooters it resembles, in that it has bodywork - some metal piping and a canvas top. I don't think Pininfarina was consulted.

Anyway, the tuk-tuk comes equipped with (ahem) a number plate, a headlamp, indicators and rear lap seatbelts. There is a 150cc engine beating away under the driver, and the transmission consists of five forward and - get this - five reverse gears. There is even a simple immobiliser mechanism.

Take it on the road and, provided you're taxed and insured, the police can't touch you. Unbelievable. According to Steve Webb: "Many customers buy them for personal transport, which is no surprise when you consider the benefits of 70 mpg, room for three passengers and road tax from £15."

But would you want one? Its controls are a sort of cross between those of a car and a moped. It has handlebars and a wrist-action throttle, but a car-like gear-shift, a clutch and a foot-operated brake on the right hand side of the front platform. This is the confusing bit, because it is exactly where the accelerator is on a car.

I think you can imagine what happened next on my maiden tuk-tuk run. Things became very unbalanced indeed and I almost ended up on the pavement as I overcorrected the steering and forgot where the brake was. I had sort of noticed it before, but it was only when my life stopped running before my eyes that I truly came to terms with the level of crash protection one of these contraptions offers. Nil. Tukking hell, you might say.

When car-makers get chastised, as they do, for not fitting even their more basic vehicles with side as well as front airbags as standard, they should insist everyone has a near-death experience in a tuk-tuk to realise how we Westerners are pampered. Life and limb are valued quite a bit cheaper in Asia.

At least I was moving when I almost mowed down a bus queue on the Isle of Dogs (so equalling Bangkok's annual tuk-tuk accident rate rate in a single afternoon). Quite a bit of the time, I am sorry to say, the tuk-tuk was sitting by the side of the road while Steve tried to repair it. This usually meant opening the tuk-tuk's bonnet, which doubles as the driving seat, and undertaking repairs while lying in the gutter. I've been there myself, but some of us were staring at the stars....

Steve assures me that the troublesome component, a cable that operated the gear change, has been replaced by a much sturdier bar, and that reliability has been restored.

As someone who lives in London, I do wonder whether there is another tuk-tuk market - those chaps who go around the capital in pedal-powered tricycle rickshaws. Might some aspire to a tuk-tuk? London's cabbies already despise the rickshaws. There could be serious trouble if these start pouring onto the roads as well.

Me? I've already cancelled my two week break in Phuket and will instead be tuk-tukking my way around Chinatown in Soho. The girlfriend's delighted.

The Tukshop is on 02380 388440 www.tuktuks.co.uk

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