The city with hundreds of BSA motorcycles in daily use

By Ashley Blair

Imagine a thriving, bustling city of a quarter of a million people. In this city there are hundreds of BSA motorcycles in daily use.  Stoke-on-Trent in the 1940s? Auckland in the 1950s? Wolverhampton in the 1960s? No, this is in 2013! The city that has hundreds of BSAs in daily use today is in Indonesia. Pematang Siantar, known as Siantar, in Sumatra, 50 miles southeast of the island’s capital Medan . BSAs are used on becak or motorized rickshaws that are not only in daily use but are earning their keep up to 70 years after they left Small Heath. There are ex-army M20s, abandoned in large numbers after the Second World War, are as well as B31s and B33s from the 1950s and 1960s.

BSA earning its keep in Siantar, Sumatra. Photo by BSA Owners Indonesia

Siantar, in the hills at 400 meters above sea level and much cooler than on the coast, was the administrative hub for tea, rubber, cocoa and palm oil plantations in the 1900s.  Hotel Siantar, built by a Swiss businessman, is still in use today with its stained glass windows, its chandeliers, billiard table, art deco lighting and rattan chairs. Dutch colonial houses can also be seen. Sumatra was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and the Siantar hospital was used as a prison for 800 women and children in 1942. 

BSA’s began to be used as becak in 1958 when Mbah Lanang and Soetikno together with some friends began looking for a motorcycle that could be used to pull sidecars for public transport on the steep streets around Siantar.  They chose BSAs because they were powerful, simple and relatively easy to maintain and there were a number of them available. As the demand increased more were imported from Java.   Although becak are unique to Siantar there was an attempt by the city authorities to replace the aging BSAs and modernize the becak fleet in 2006. This was strongly opposed by both owners and the BSA Owners Motorcycles Siantar or BOM'S. Indonesia has an active BSA Owners Club. Becak have now become an icon representing the city and a tourist attraction in their own right. They have also been officially protected under the Cultural Heritage Law. Becak have pride of place in street parades on Tourism Day and the International Festival of Youth and Sports Day. There is still concern that collectors will come from Jakarta, or even overseas, and offer large sums of money and reduce the number of becak. To prevent this happening proposals are in place to stop any being sold outside the city.

Apart from the sidecars, becak have many customized parts such as crash bars, seats and lights. In the early days when parts were difficult to get several small factories started local manufacture and parts such as carburettors from Japanese motorcycles were adapted to fit BSA’s. Now there are a number of mechanics in Siantar who specialize in keeping the BSAs running.  Prospective owners scour Indonesia for BSAs to build up the fleet. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were thought to be about 2, 000 of the BSA becak in Siantar. Estimates of the number still in use today range from 400 to 1,000.

In 2008 the Betor - the becak motor community - held a parade with 175 BSAs decorated with flags, ribbons and coloured paper.  This parade called Becak Hias Siantar was endorsed by the Siantar mayor who wants to make it an annual event.

Saturday maintenance, Siantar. Photo by Jony Chandra

Saturday maintenance, Siantar. Photo by Jony Chandra  


BSA Parade Siantar

Parade of BSA becak in Siantar, Sumatra.  Photo by BSA Owners Indonesia  

Special thanks to Luka Muhamad, Denpasar, Bali, founder of BSA Owners Indonesia.

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