By on August 9, 2018

“The kapchai menace must be stopped.” The fellow who shared that particular opinion in a major Malaysian newspaper will no doubt find that many people agree with him. I can see his point; after spending much of the last two weeks driving across Malaysia and Thailand I have come to loathe the sight of the things.

There is no gap in Kuala Lumpur’s molasses-like traffic so small that it will not immediately be filled with a swarm of the little motorcycles. Every lane change has to be accompanied by a constant iguana-eye monitoring of all four sides of one’s automobile lest it inadvertently lead to manslaughter — or worse yet, family-slaughter, since it’s common to see up to four people crowded onto a kapchai‘s thinly padded seat.

Yet the kapchai is the sole “mobility option” for millions of low-income people across Southeast Asia. The very best of them, the bad-ass 100-mph five-speed Yamahas and Hondas in their Repsol or Petronas liveries, cost about $2,100 brand new. The rest of them can be seen at roadside dealers in serviceable condition for between $300 and $500. Adjusted for local currency, they’re about the cost of a hundred meals sold by a roadside vendor. Imagine that you could solve your personal transportation needs for the cost of a hundred Big Macs, and you can easily see the appeal. If you then use the kapchai for a little smash-and-grab urban robbery, as many people do, it pays for itself very quickly. If you don’t… well, the operating costs are still very low.

I’d guess that about 95 percent of you are now asking yourselves, “So what exactly is a kapchai, anyway?” The best way to understand it: the kapchai is a kangaroo, and the kapchai is also a Toyota SUV. I’ll explain, of course.

To begin with, a kapchai is not a scooter, although it’s also not not a scooter, if you catch my drift. The name ‘kapchai’ is Chinese slang for “little Cub”, the cub in this particular case being the Honda Super Cub. The Super Cub was not a conventional scooter, although it had enclosed bodywork like the scooters of the time. It was, strictly speaking, an “underbone” motorcycle that mounted its single-cylinder powerplant beneath its single large frame tube. Its wheels were relatively large and it offered motorcycle-style footpegs instead of a flat floor.

The greater control and improved ride offered by those differences made the “kapchai” popular on the rutted and crowded roads of Southeast Asia. By the Eighties, the underbone motorcycle was a genre to itself there. In the past few decades, the performance and capability of these little bikes have gradually increased to the point where some of them would acquit themselves reasonably well here in the United States. The best and brightest kapchai now offer hand clutches and close-ratio transmissions to go with their impressive disc brakes and upside-down forks. There’s a major race class for them — the Petronas Cub Cup — and a club-level kapchai series for people on tighter budgets. The market ecosystem of these fundamentally indestructible, easily field-serviceable bikes works well for Malaysia; the new ones are bought by ambitious young people and over time they filter down to the families that are just getting by.

Heading north out of Kuala Lumpur towards the border with Thailand, you see the kapchai aging and rusting, moving more slowly, carrying more families in headscarves and fewer sharp-dressed teenagers in Valentino Rossi jackets. Once across that border, however, the kapchai mostly disappear. Yeah, you see a nontrivial number in service, but they’re mostly attached to homemade sidecars, carrying fruit to market and children to school. The all-purpose transportation role that they play in Malaysia is filled in Thailand by scooters.

In many cases, these scooters are kissing cousins to kapchai from the same manufacturers. Yamaha’s SMAX scooter features about the same performance envelope as the YZ15R kapchai, but it’s a flat-foot vehicle with a centrifugal clutch. The Chinese makers, too, offer the same basic mechanical package in both kapchai and scooter formats; one for south of the border and one for north of it. The question is: why?

Thailand has more dirt roads than Malaysia; it should prefer the bigger wheel. Highway speeds are lower, but in both cases they are well above what a 150cc bike can do; I regularly saw four-wheeled traffic running at over 100mph in both countries. Yet by the time you reach Hua Hin the kapchai are nonexistent, supplanted by angular-faced, Transformers-styled scooters.

Also present and accounted for on the Thai roads: the class of small-scale motorcycles represented by the Honda MSX125 “Grom” and Kawasaki Z125 Pro in the United States. They’re novelty bikes here but in Thailand they carry families on the freeway; at one point I saw two adult women, a teenaged girl, and a toddler crammed onto a single Honda Grom, flat out in top gear and passing fruit trucks on the road shoulder. There’s also a moderate contingent of 250cc motorcycles, most commonly the Yamaha R25 — which is simply a tamer version of my wife’s 320cc Yamaha R3 sportbike. While I occasionally saw a 250cc bike in Malaysia, the Grom-type motorcycles are entirely absent.

Over the past week, I’ve concocted any number of theories for this disparity between motorcycle ecosystems, ranging from media influence to the rate at which Honda dealerships appeared on the main highways of Thailand in the Seventies and Eighties. Turns out that I needn’t have looked any further than the tax and tariff tables. Both Malaysia and Thailand extract a heavy penalty on motorcycle imports from other Asian countries, but Malaysia has been playing the game longer. When the Japanese manufacturers set up their Malaysian operations, the “underbone” bikes were already reasonably popular so that’s what they built, starting a trend that never changed. The Thai factories were set up afterwards, and in the case of Yamaha and Honda they were also intended to make products from export consumption. My wife’s Yamaha R3 was built in Thailand. If you have a Honda Grom in the States, it was made in Thailand. That’s why Groms are popular in Thailand but not in Malaysia; they’d be 25 to 40 percent more expensive than a Malaysian kapchai of similar technical merit.

Which brings us to the Ford Expedition. The slot filled by the Expedition and Tahoe in the United States is filled by the Toyota Fortuner in Southeast Asia. The Fortuner is basically a Hilux with a cap on it. An Expedition would be a much better choice. But the Expedition incurs significant tariff penalties due to its engine size and country of origin. So everybody sticks with their Fortuners. The way they stick with kapchai, or Groms.

I’m not anti-tariff, not by a long shot. In circumstances where externally sourced items have an unfair advantage — due to currency manipulation, let’s say, or a complete lack of environmental regulation in the exporting country — I think a well-chosen tariff can go a long way to restore the balance. When you have tariffs with no clear purpose, however, you get marsupial populations of vehicles that have grown up without any competition. They become easy prey for a future in which those barriers are relaxed, the same way that “imported” cats are wreaking havoc on Australia’s wildlife. The solution to problems like that can be unpleasant, to say the least. As our President and his administration consider the next steps in trade relations with the EU and elsewhere, I hope he moves both cautiously and judiciously.

Could we use a little protection from low-cost labor and environmental-nightmare production? Absolutely. Do we want to be like Malaysia, trapped beneath the underbone? I think not.

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20 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: Marsupial Adventures of the Kapchai...”

  • avatar

    I’ve only seen videos of urban traffic in those regions, and that’s scary. the idea of trying to filter through that stuff on my street glide makes my skin crawl.

    OTOH it’s probably a lot safer than trying to lane split in California since (hopefully) the cagers in Malaysia and Thailand are more bike-aware then the average numbnut here.

    • 0 avatar

      Aside from cost, a good reason why Street Glides aren’t exactly the most popular bikes over there…

      Lane splitting in Cali is safe enough. Traffic generally moves faster in US than Asian (and even European) cities, so consequences of contact can be greater. But there’s also more space, and fewer other bikes. Riding in Asia, and even Spain/Italy, at least for someone not used to it, you have the added uncertainty of a million other bikes attempting to dive into the same vacant slot you were just eyeing….

  • avatar

    The hulking $60k twin turbo Expedition with the approach angle of a 1990s Corolla is a better fit for underdeveloped SE Asia duty than a true-midsize (think 3rd gen 4Runner) Fortuner on a Hilux frame (most with 4cyl gas and diesel engines and true mechanical locking diffs)? Get real Jack-o.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The main roads in Malaysia and Thailand are, by and large, in better shape than their American or British counterparts.

      Everybody with whom I spoke in SEAsia on the topic openly wished that they could get larger trucks. In particular, the Malaysians said that they’d buy Expeditions and the like in a heartbeat were there no additional tax consequences for the engine size.

      • 0 avatar

        Would they just deal with the extra foot of width and 2 feet of extra length?

        Are LC200 Land Cruisers prevalent? Or are they also car-non-grata due to their larger 4.5L+ sized engines?

        Russia has an annual registration fee system based on engine output, anything over 250hp gets hit hard. So the LC200s over there still used the old belt driven 4.7L way past when the newer and more powerful chain driven 4.6L came on line globally.

  • avatar

    Having the engine mounted in the chassis is a great advantage over mounting it on the swingarm in terms of handling and carrying capacity.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Good point, although I wonder how strong the difference really is on modern examples.

      • 0 avatar

        At the limit, the Cubs are still better handlers than the Vespas. But, just as with RWD vs FWD cars, they’re now both so good that it doesn’t really matter all that much anymore, to anyone who doesn’t specifically make a point out of caring. And the space efficiency of the Vespas, are leagues ahead.

  • avatar

    The kapchai-type bikes are also remarkably prevalent in Greece, though there’s plenty of normal scooters (and motorcycles; I counted several Hayabusas and Blackbirds on an island with no straight roads longer than 500 metres) as well.

    I had always assumed they were an evolution from mopeds. I believe there was (is?) some combination of tax, licensing, and age rules that made mopeds and their moped-like successors attractive.

  • avatar

    Thank god Jack managed to squeeze in and pop off about Trump and politics in that second from last paragraph!


    I was getting worried as I read this really lazy, phoned-in, meandering mess!

    YIKES! That was a close shave!!!

    • 0 avatar

      their precious NRA is infiltrated by Russian spies…

      BUT BUT BUT she was offering nookie! How could they possibly resits nookie?

    • 0 avatar

      But I love the marsupial population analogy. Speaking of isolated potentially threatened species, we have our sauropods lumbering about with special protections – bigger footprint, lower efficiency requirements. Here in good ol’ SW Florida, a week ago a super doody dropped wheels off on a rain soaked shoulder, ground looped and landed on a Benz ML. Squashed it and the driver too. A few days later, a woman ran a red light in a Fit and a Dodge Ram did just that. In profile only the last 1/3rd of the Fit had a profile. I don’t think the little putt-putts JB wrote about would have a chance in hell here.

  • avatar

    I don’t know why but every time I glance at the thread title, I initially see the last word as “Kenpeitai.”

  • avatar

    I took a read of that opinion piece, and my guess was confirmed. All the people that this guy wants off of motorcycles should be taking the bus. The bus that doesn’t move at all in traffic, that is. “It’s good enough for thee, but not for me,” essentially.

    I haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur, but it sounds just like Jakarta. And I imagine the buses are in a similar condition. Ancient, spewing clouds of exhaust, open to the elements with no A/C, and people hanging off of them. I’d ride a bike too in that situation.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi TMA1,
      You are invited to come to Kuala Lumpur and there’s no spewing black smoke of diesel buses here. All are modern SCANIA buses with air condition and some of it are free of charge. The kapchai story is true though and I’m one the guy who ride it everyday. It’s the most cost effective and fastest mode of transport in congested roads of Kuala Lumpur.

  • avatar
    George B

    Where do the Ford and GM 2.7 liter turbocharged engines for full-size pickup trucks land on the scale of taxes on engine displacement?

    • 0 avatar

      Their tax system is retarded. Adding turbos is no different than adding cylinders and engine size, on demand. Yet a V8 with cylinder deactivation equals the same fuel efficiency or better, depending on hard turbo vehicles get driven.

  • avatar

    A while ago I was in a south Asian country with very high tariffs. The only people who had late model SUVs were the NGOs b/c they were either exempt or had more money than they knew what to do with. If you have no shame I highly recommend getting a job with an NGO, they live like feudal lords. Anyway one time I caught a ride in a 20+ year old Toyota Corolla. At the time, in the US it would have been a $500 car. I asked the hack how much the car cost, he said $7600. In a country that at the time had by some estimates a PPP of ~$300/year. I did have fun riding motorcycles there. They were generally set up properly, about 125 cc, with a 4 speed in the more logical “Grand Prix” configuration.

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