A VESPA’S ALLURE cannot be denied. The scooter first came to public attention in 1946 as a cheap alternative to navigate the cobblestoned streets of bombed-out Rome. Yet, despite its wasp-like structure – hence the name vespa in Italian – the scooter remains chic to this day.
Its popularity is universal and in Penang, Vespas of different colours and models abound. In the town of Bagan, San Motors specialises in repairing and restoring Vespa scooters. Its owner Leong Hooi San can often be found tinkering about his workshop until the early hours of the morning, fixing his customers’ beloved rides.
Photo: Tan Tihn Chern.
The 57-year-old has harboured a deep passion for motorcycles since childhood; in fact, Leong was an avid motorcycle racer up until the early 2000s. He competed in nearly all the grand prix races that were held across different locations in Malaysia. “It was the heady thrill of the race that sparked my interest in motorcycles in the first place,” he says.
Read also: The Motorbike - Symbol of Penang and its Economic Vibrancy
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, annual grand prix for cars and motorcycles were held in Penang, with the roads from George Town to Tanjung Bungah barricaded by the authorities. These events were then a major sporting activity.
Leong began his career as an apprentice at a neighbourhood motorcycle workshop where he acquired the know-how and tricks of the trade in motorcycle repair. “In those days, there were no automotive colleges where you could enroll and get tutored by certified lecturers. Although government vocational schools like the one located in Ayer Itam offered automotive courses, they were only limited to cars. If you were interested in repairing motorcycles, the best way to learn was to do what I did.”
Leong does not sugarcoat his experience, explaining that the working conditions were often tough to handle, but it was also important to be diligent, determined and sincere. “No matter how difficult the work got and even if I got injured in the process, I’d make sure to plaster on a smile and carry on.”
Having saved up enough, he eventually branched out on his own to establish San Motors in 1985. He has been repairing motorcycles ever since, from the common Honda C70 to Yamaha superbikes.
Leong’s love for the Vespa scooter can be described as a slow burn. “Restoring a Vespa takes skill, and many years to master. But I suddenly realised that this is what I truly love doing,” he says. Leong says that a recent resurgence of public interest in vintage Vespa scooters provides him with a viable business opportunity: “To my surprise, customers who come to me now are either looking to purchase a scooter or to have a vintage one, like what they had when they were in their late 20s and early 30s, restored.”
Leong Hooi San stands at the entrance of his workshop.
Recent decades have not seen much change in the offering of vocational courses on motorcycle repair in Penang, while workshops for motorcycles remain far outnumbered by their automobile counterparts. “It is all about profitability,” says Leong. “Regardless of how much motorcycles have evolved, the car repairing industry is still far more lucrative.” Operational costs for the latter are hefty, considering the replacement of spare parts such as gearboxes and engines. “Car engines are more complicated to repair too.”
To look deeper into the issue, Penang Monthly speaks to the automotive Despark College and Han Chiang University College which also offers a Professional Automotive Programme for interested students.
Senior lecturer Izad bin Idris from Despark explains: “The demand for cars continues to grow even during times of slow economic growth; and because the promotion of car ownerships is robust, this is mirrored in the car workshops that continue to dominate the market which in turn, encourages the establishment of automotive colleges like Despark.”
The sophistication of car engines is also another reason. “Repairing cars requires a complex set of skills and knowledge which can only be gained through training, and is further sharpened through years of hands-on experience. Each part of the vehicle has its own specific technical design with different levels of difficulty to repair.”
Take the changing of engine lubricant as an example. For motorcycles, this can be done hassle-free at home with minimum amount of space and equipment required. Cars, however, require bigger workspace and specific equipment, and so owners would rather send their cars to workshops for servicing and maintenance.
It is a prerequisite for students to obtain at least a Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) – the Malaysian vocational skills Level 2 certificate – to find employment at automobile workshops and service centres, while a SKM Level 3 is the minimum required if they wish to set up a business.
Despite both having the same principles and concepts applied in their engine operation and transmission, the majority of automotive students prefer to learn more about the workings of a car. “There are so many additional aspects found in cars which we don’t see in motorcycles such as traction control, aerodynamics, types of engine (hybrid or diesel), electronic panels and air conditioning systems, to name a few,” Izad explains. And so, graduates with expansive knowledge on cars will have a greater competitive edge, and are able to work in both industries.
Though the current market trend continues to be dominated by the automobile industry, Izad says that automotive colleges have also started seeing the benefit of motorcycle repair courses. “There are still people – albeit not many – who are passionate about fixing motorcycles.”
Han Chiang Center of Automotive Studies
While Izad reckons the automobile repair industry will continue to see an uptrend, Mohamad Asron Syafiq bin Basiron who lectures at the Professional Automotive Programme at Han Chiang University College thinks otherwise. In terms of popularity, the motorcycle does not lag far behind. This is largely due to its affordable price point.
Izad bin Idris. Photo: Enzo Sim.
Mohamad Asron Syafiq bin Basiron. Photo: Enzo Sim.
“Granted, the car industry is more valuable due to production costs, as well as advancements in technology associated with the constant enhancement of safety features. This need for the assurance of consumer safety drives further demand for the automotive repair industry,” he explains. But to be fair, the technological evolution of motorcycles has also caught up with those that have been introduced in cars such as the ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System), EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution), TRC (Traction Control System) and Active Suspension System – all of which have been undergoing major innovations.
Recent decades have not seen much change in the offering of vocational courses on motorcycle repair in Penang, while workshops for motorcycles remain far outnumbered by their automobile counterparts.
“Both industries are generally equal in terms of profitability especially now during the pandemic when the demand for motorcycles are on the rise, reflecting the increase of public demand for delivery services.” Further boosting the motorcycle’s demand is the growing number of youths today that own superbikes from manufacturers like Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, SYM and Modenas. This is coupled with their willingness to spend on modifications to enhance their bikes’ technical and aesthetic appeal. Lower acquisition costs for motorcycle spare parts and equipment also facilitates the easy set-up of motorcycle repair shops.
Continued demand for motorcycles is expected in the foreseeable future, and as a long-headed educational institution, Han Chiang has forged a partnership with Ducati Sheng Fatt, which allows for internship opportunities for its students. “Gaining sufficient practical experience via industrial training is as important as the technical skills and knowledge learned through college classes; and so, an internship placement at Ducati Sheng Fatt will definitely help our students’ future career development,” says Mohamad.
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.