One of the unheralded great things about Thailand is the very high quality of the automotive mechanics. There is a great network of vocational schools built into the secondary school system. Grammar school and high school add up to twelve years, but they are organized very differently. Grammar school is grades one through six. High school is grades seven through twelve, divided into two groups of three. The first three years, seven, eight, and nine, are mandatory and free. The remaining three years are optional, and there is a small charge for the “public” schools. Here’s where the difference comes in. There is an alternative to that last three years.
Thailand is full of vocational schools, I think the best translation is “technical schools.” Instead of the last three years of high school, ending at age eighteen, students have the choice of attending one of these technical schools, a course of study that goes for four years. (So, grades ten, eleven, twelve, and “thirteen.”) Therefore ending at age nineteen. The course of study at these vocational schools is rigorous.
For the course in automotive mechanics, for instance, there are not only classroom work and shop classes, but also numerous internships at places like the Toyota dealership or the municipal bus terminal. Those students graduate at nineteen, ready to hit the ground running as knowledgeable car mechanics.
There are huge benefits to this system. Thailand is not a particularly poor country, but neither is it particularly prosperous. It is a relatively advanced developing country. There are many shiny new cars, trucks, and buses on the roads, but there are also many very, very old examples in all types. And then there are the many fine examples of showroom-condition cars that may be forty or fifty years old. Like the BMW 2002 in the above photographs.
These cars are often daily-drivers for people who may be members of rich families or may just be enthusiasts. The owner sometimes is the mechanic, but more often he takes it to a shop.
Mechanics outside of the big cities often set up shop in front of their own house on a residential street. They do the work outdoors, in the driveway. This is up to and including replacing or rebuilding entire engines. I’ve watched men in older Bangkok neighborhoods who were on the sidewalk in front of a shop-house, sitting on a block of wood with a large, oily cloth spread out in front of them, to their left a small bucket of solvent, to their right, the almost naked carcass of a Toyota engine, and on the oily cloth all of the smaller parts of the engine, some still individual and some in sub-assemblies. These engines, when reassembled, generally start the first time and run a couple of hundred thousand kilometers trouble free.
It’s almost eerie to come across an ancient Honda motorcycle, fifty years old and looking every inch of it, now a kind of Frankenstein creation after various parts have been replaced over the decades with anything that was handy, and then see some old man go over and start it with one gentle kick, sailing quietly into the sunset. The ruin becomes a living, breathing help-mate for a person who needs it to get around. This is possible partly because there are talented mechanics everywhere, and partly because the mechanics charge almost nothing for their services, especially in places where many people have almost no money.
I couldn’t give you a complete list of the curricula available at those technical schools. I do know that the course of study devoted to food-service and cooking is also particularly good. Those always have restaurants attached, and I’ve eaten in several of them. The food is always excellent, and cheap (the staff are all students working free). They can be fancy, too, because the kids love to practice things like carving fruit to look like fish, or flowers. These schools are one of the reasons that you can eat or drink almost anything that anyone sells you in Thailand without fear of being sickened. Even the smallest, roughest food-shack would not think of giving you water, or even ice for the water, that would make you sick. They may drink the tap water themselves, but they would not give it to you, nor even ice made from it. They are educated in such matters, and besides, they’re too proud of what they do. They are very concerned with their customers’ well-being.
Thailand is an interesting place. You don’t walk in thinking “what a dump,” in fact the parts that are not so glossy and perfect seem quaint and inoffensive. Then, over the course of some years, you find things that are of such high quality that you must admire a people who can so consistently get great results without necessarily having been dealt the winning hand in the first place.
Oh! My BMW
How could I forget! I had one almost exactly like this. I bought mine in 1970. It was a 1968 model 1600ti. The sporty version with two substantial Solex carburetors. It was pretty quick, and a lot of fun to drive, but without access to the vast network of cheap, talented mechanics that exists in Thailand, I just couldn’t afford to keep up with the repair bills. I’m sure that it went into the compactor not long after I sold it in 1972.
My advice to young people is always: buy the Toyota. That way you don’t have to worry about mechanics at all.