JAKARTA: As Nando Anjasmara Azani cruised along the streets of Jakarta, people - both young and old - could not help but stare at his vehicle.
The rusty three-wheeled low-rider was built from the ground up using salvaged plywood sheets and scrap steel held together by crude and shoddy welding works.
The motorised tricycle had come a long way from its original form, a classic Vespa. All that remained were the Vespa’s original frame, suspension, wheels and engine, while its body is saved for a future modification project.
Azani spent months building his tricycle, from constructing its five-sided metal frame, extending its steering column to lowering its stance so that the chassis sits just centimetres off the ground.
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But despite its unique look, Azani’s Vespa modification is pretty mild compared to other creations in Indonesia.
Across the country, there are Vespas stretched to 5m long, equipped with a 6m trailer. Other Vespa enthusiasts even incorporate fallen tree trunks into their creations.
Meanwhile, there are Vespas being turned into tricycles while some are transformed into standing scooters. Some Vespas are modified to look like a hot rod, a dune buggy or a tank.
“Whenever I see other people’s crazy rides, it makes me want to get even crazier,” 24-year-old Azani said.
“You can never get satisfied when you’re into modified Vespas. Just when you think your ride is crazy there will be another one out there which is even crazier.”
Indonesians sometimes see these creations as eyesores and refer to them as “Vespa rosok” (scrapyard Vespa) or “Vespa gembel” (trashy Vespa).
But to enthusiasts like Azani, these are a form of self expression and they prefer to call this style of customisation “extreme Vespas”.
Vespas first became popular in Indonesia in the 1970s. People were drawn by the scooter’s sleek design and distinctive look.
The scooter became a common sight on the streets of Indonesia and a community of Vespa enthusiasts began to flourish.
While some enthusiasts kept their scooters the way they rolled out of the factory, there were others who preferred to make their ride stood out by adding personal touches.
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“But in the olden days, people were only putting up stickers, flags, custom wind shields and headlights while retaining the original Vespa shape,” Vespa enthusiast Yoyok Pratomo, 49, told CNA.
Pratomo noted that extreme Vespa modifications did not happen until late 1990s and early 2000s, when decades-old scooters began piling up scrapyards and landfills across Indonesia.
“You could buy a used Vespa for 700,000 rupiah (US$49), maybe even less if you get it from the scrapyards. Vespas are built to last, unlike other types of motorcycle. They have strong body and chassis that will last for years. Spare parts are abundant so you can bring their engines back to life,” he said.
“With very little money you can build the ride of your dream as long as you are willing to put the time and effort into it.”
Most of the enthusiasts interviewed by CNA are funded by odd jobs here and there.
DRIVEN BY PASSION, FUELLED BY PRIDE
Extreme Vespa owner Ahmad Fadilla, 29, has been modifying the same ride for the last seven years.
“I like extreme Vespas. If I keep my Vespa the way it is, then what is the difference between mine and other motorcycles out there?” he told CNA.
Fadilla said ever since he was a child, he had been obsessed with stretched cars and limousines as well as large vehicles like trailer trucks.
“I thought: ‘What a great way to carry all my friends with me.’ That’s why I wanted my motorcycle to be big and long,” he said.
And so he chopped his scooter in half and stretched it by 5m. Over the years he added more wheels, had his ride run on two separate Vespa engines and built a 6m trailer. With its trailer attached, the entire rig spans 12m.
“If I go to a (extreme Vespa) gathering, I take pride in having the longest bike around. I like how the crowd stands up and watch me as I arrive. It’s a huge ego boost,” he said.
“Luckily no one has a longer bike. If I see a longer bike I might just have to beat them (by making mine even longer).”
While Fadilla still sees his ride as a work in progress, Soleh “Bendot” Pujiantoro prefers to move on to the next project after one is completed.
“I never build the same bike twice. They all have different looks, different styles and present different technical challenges,” Pujiantoro, who has built dozens of extreme Vespas for himself and for customers at his workshop, told CNA.
“I like extreme modifications. It’s where I can follow my heart. My creations are the fruits of my labour and my own works of art. The things you can be proud of wherever you go.”
His latest creation is a four-wheeler which runs on two Vespa engines with a body made to look like a hot rod.
“It’s an extreme Vespa,” the 26-year-old replied when asked if his creation is a car or a motorcycle.
It was an ambitious project for Pujiantoro and there were days when he thought he had bitten more than he could chew.
For the creation, he had to learn how to build a hot rod body from scratch made out of rusted sheets of metal as well as figuring out how to get the two Vespa engines to run in unison.
“It was all trial and error,” he said, adding that it took him two years to finish the project and get the vehicle exactly how he had envisioned it.
The patience and determination were worth it, Pujiantoro said.
The creation wowed everyone when he unveiled it for the first time at an extreme scooter gathering in September last year, earning him respect from fellow builders and putting his tiny workshop on the map.
Pujiantoro said he is now saving up money to build an extreme Vespa in the shape of a vintage school bus.
But being part of the extreme Vespa community is more than just coming up with crazy creations.
Owning an extreme scooter had allowed people like Fadilla to go to gatherings and meet new friends from across the vast archipelago.
“The extreme Vespa community has a strong camaraderie and brotherhood. You can meet someone for two minutes and the two of you bond just like friends who have known each other for two years,” he said.
Azani said he once embarked on a month-long solo trip with his modified Vespa, considered to be the ultimate rite of passage for a Vespa enthusiast.
“I travelled all the way to Lombok from Jakarta,” he said, referring to the tourist island just East of Bali, 1,300km away from the Indonesian capital.
“Along the way, I didn’t have to worry about needing a place to stay for the night because fellow Vespa enthusiasts would always open their doors for me as I would do for them.”
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Azani said part of the pain of owning a vintage Vespa, extreme or not, is embracing the fact that the decades-old engine and parts would eventually break down. When that happened, a helping hand is never too far away.
“If your ride breaks down on the road, there will be another Vespa lover helping you out, even though you don’t know each other. You don’t have to ask for their help. You don’t even have to stop them,” he said.
Azani said he once had a fellow enthusiast offering him a spare motorcycle to continue with his journey while his broken Vespa was at the workshop.
“The camaraderie is that strong. Members of the community are that nice,” he said.
But many outsiders viewed the extreme Vespa community as a nuisance or even unruly troublemakers, judging the enthusiasts by their rugged looks and worn-out clothes as well as their tattooed bodies and pierced faces.
Police in several areas had also cracked down on extreme scooters, labelling them as unsafe.
“It is actually illegal for these trashy Vespas to operate on Jakarta’s streets. By law, these vehicles can only operate at events and specialised tracks, not on public roads,” Agus Suparyanto of the Jakarta Traffic Police told CNA.
“There are rules on how people can modify their scooters. There are safety regulations and requirements which they must comply with. They can’t just chop their motorcycles in half and put it back together. We have taken actions against them and impounded these vehicles.”
Azani said he once had one of his Vespas confiscated during a police raid. “Since then, I am more careful. I only take my Vespas out on quiet roads near where I live. If I want to go on a longer trip, I usually go at night,” he said.
Fadilla said he uses a regular motorcycle to get around and only take his stretched vehicle out to gatherings and shows.
“As much as I like the attention I get when taking the stretched Vespa out for a spin, it is cumbersome and impractical,” he said.
“Some people respond negatively towards extreme Vespas like mine. But there are people who can appreciate them, including some police officers who would just let us slide without a ticket. They know that we are just cruising around, enjoying the fruits of our labour and not looking for trouble.”
Pujiantoro said he would also think twice about riding his hot rod-like Vespa on public streets.
“I can’t get a licence for my creation because it is neither a car or a motorbike,” he said.
“There are people who are prejudiced against people like us. They shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I wish more people would open their hearts towards members of the Vespa community. It would be even better if they get involved. That way they can see for themselves our camaraderie, our brotherhood and our friendliness.”