FUN: The Fiat Punto is too expensive for a car that was launched in 2005, but it’s a frolicsome vehicle to drive and the ride quality is perfect for SA’s deteriorating suburban roads. Picture: QUICKPIC
FUN: The Fiat Punto is too expensive for a car that was launched in 2005, but it’s a frolicsome vehicle to drive and the ride quality is perfect for SA’s deteriorating suburban roads. Picture: QUICKPIC

THEY might look like tuk-tuks, but the little scooter-based three-wheel "auto rickshaws" proliferating around Johannesburg and soon, we are told, the rest of the country, are in fact giant monuments to free enterprise.

They may have simple single-cylinder motors, they may be flat-out at 75km/h yet only be licensed to carry passengers at 45km/h, and they may have the crash-test resilience of a mosquito, but the Bajaj tuk-tuk, as seen in South Africa, is a magnificent thing. We should build statues of it; name a national order after it for excellence in business — the Order of the Tuk-Tuk.

And, above all else, they are a simple lesson in the social value of risk-taking capital in an unfettered environment.

To my astonishment, I am told the Bajaj tuk-tuks are imported duty-free, meaning a Joburg businessman who’s spotted a transport gap can import 50 of the things at R35,000 to R40,000 each to get the ball rolling. Fifty as opposed to, say, 40 productive assets in the economy — this is a better result for everyone than a couple of extra bucks for the fiscus.

Then, in the absence of any real alternative, the owners of these tuk-tuk taxis have spotted an underserviced need, that of short-trip transport in and around various Joburg business and leisure hubs such as Sandton, Rosebank, Greenside and Parkhurst. As a result, people are drinking and driving less because an affordable alternative exists, and people are getting to their meetings on time and sweat-free without being fleeced for R200 by a "metered taxi" thug at a Gautrain station.

The state, of course, is inevitably there in terms of various laws and licences regarding the transport of passengers, third-party liability and so forth — laws intended to keep people safe — and in its taxation of fuel, too. But at 60c/km in petrol the latter is a relatively cheap intervention, and the former a cost more of time than serious money.

All of which comes together to illustrate something rather marvellous. This, you see, is the holy grail. It’s cheap and affordable urban transport (R5/km is the going rate).

It in no way requires any additional infrastructure investment, so it’s a boon for the overburdened taxpayer, and it’s also — praise the heavens — "green". These tuk-tuks are light and fuel-efficient and have a minuscule carbon footprint.

They’re also great agents for empowerment — every driver keeps what he earns, less a R1,500-a-week rental for the tuk-tuk. Until, that is, he’s saved enough to buy a two-or five-vehicle franchise from the original operators.

In a matter of months (they both started up in November), two companies in Johannesburg are transforming unemployed people into business owners, all the while greasing the wheel of the economy and getting drunk drivers off the road.

It’s beyond fantastic.

And, of course, you know where this is going. It is the very absence of the state, of interventions or of programmes or developmental diktats that has made all this work so well. The lesson, of course, is that when it comes to job creation and business, less government is often more, whether you operate tuk-tuk taxis or dig platinum out of the ground.

But they never learn.

Watch this space. Tuk-tuks will one day soon attract import duty. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat.

A similar feeling of confidence flooded the senses when I realised the first car test of this year was to be none other than a Fiat Punto. I was pretty sure this thing would feel archaic and silly. It’s old now — launched in 2005 — and must surely be feeling its age, I reckoned. I was pretty confident I was in for a dull week.

But this happens to me from time to time. I forget. I forget that there’s something in the water in Italy, and that even if this car is long overdue for replacement, there is an innate excellence at Fiat for building small cars.

Now, of course, they sent the top-of-the-range 100kW turbo model, which costs what can only be reasonably described as R220,000, which is way too much for a dated Fiat Punto. But without the context of that price, it’s a fun little car. What always strikes me is the ride quality. Built for Italian cobbles and other imperfections, the little Fiat manages to simply ride out the worst of our deteriorating suburban roads.

It also goes a bit. Get the clutch control right and it’ll zip to 100km/h in 8.5 seconds.

It is, however, a car that requires work. You’ve got to stir that gearbox to keep the little 1.4l motor on boost otherwise it corpses dreadfully.

Handling is classic Fiat — it rolls about the place with scrabbling tyres but the steering is good. It’s fun, frolicsome stuff.

Inside it’s cheap and plasticky, as you’d expect, but there are satellite controls on the steering wheel and a decent stereo. It also has six airbags.

The driving position is also pure Fiat — Italians evidently have short legs and incredibly long arms — but you do eventually get used to it.

On one level it’s hard to recommend this car at this price; it’s an old design and will soon be replaced. Yet on the other hand, it’s a bunch of kilowatts for the price and — in Joburg at least — that superb ride quality, somehow firm enough and pliant enough too, is a real boon on our bad roads. So, not an outright thumbs-up, but one, perhaps, to test drive should you need a zippy urban runaround.

There is, as it happens, an entry-level car for R134,000, but it’s endowed with a rather measly 57kW. Up on the thin-aired Reef, I’m not convinced it’ll actually move in a manner discernable to the human eye. In this case, you might as well be in a tuk-tuk, a vehicle notable for offering the first truly useful, cheap service to get you home from the pub, however slowly. I’ll drink to that.