Vintage Vespas with customised sidecars a hit with retro riders

Once the workhorse of delivery companies and small tradesmen, the sidecar has emerged as an unlikely automotive fashion statement in Singapore, thanks to Mr Johnny Chen.

The 49-year-old general manager of a prototyping company spends his free time fulfilling a boyhood dream: creating customised sidecars for vintage Vespa scooters.

Growing up in a kampung near Pek Kio in the 1960s, he was riveted to the World War II TV series Combat!, where American soldiers battled sidecar-outfitted Nazis in occupied France.

"There were a lot of scenes with sidecars that fascinated me," he remembers. "But it wasn't until I sat in an actual sidecar that belonged to an ice-cream seller that I knew I had to have one some day."

Initially, he was unsure of the rules and regulations regarding sidecars here. But he thought: "If the ice-cream man can ride his sidecar around, why can't I?"

After many exchanges with the Land Transport Authority to clarify what can and cannot be done, he set to work three years ago.

Scouring the Internet, he found a sidecar builder in Indonesia who was willing to export his works.

Since then, the enthusiast has been sourcing for vintage Vespas here to restore, before joining them to the personalised sidecars. He has to modify the sidecar frames to conform to LTA regulations.

Mr Chen says he was faced with a dilemma after his first sidecar was completed.

"I was torn between wanting to be the only guy with something so cool and making more to sell as a business," he quips.

In the end, he chose to start the business and has since sold 26 of his works through his website,

The price for a fully restored vintage Vespa coupled with a sidecar is about $13,800.

Mr Chen says the wait for one is about two months.

Business has been pretty brisk. At the beginning of last year, he had five vintage Vespas in stock. Today, he has only one left.

There may be road blocks ahead, though. With recent motorcycle COE premium hitting record highs and the prices of vintage Vespas creeping up, Mr Chen is unsure if his business can still be profitable - even though he claims demand has not slowed down.

He says: "Three years ago, a vintage Vespa cost between $2,000 and $3,000, but one in the same condition now costs $3,500. Factor in the higher COE and I might have to sell each one at $15,000 to $16,000 in the future, which might put off some people."

Even so, the self-professed "Vespa freak" is undeterred. He reckons there is a place for his funky and unconventional mode of transport.

"As society becomes more affluent, people look for things that remind them of the good old days," he says.

He adds that for him, nothing is more nostalgic than "the sound of an old Vespa going pop-pop-pop as it passes by".

Which is one reason why he has confined himself to customising sidecars for Vespas. The other reason is that the dimensions of the Vespa-sidecar combo meet LTA requirements.

Mr Chen says there are fringe benefits to riding a scooter with a sidecar.

"You get away with a lot of things. People say, 'Hey, it's so cute, you can park here, no problem.'

"At hotels, I'm always told to park at the entrance - next to the Ferrari," he says.

The writer is an occasional contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

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