You may have heard of them – scooters. Seen them in the local grocery store or big box…
What you’re thinking of is a mobility scooter. Nor is a scooter a moped or a child’s toy. How many times DO I HAVE TO EXPLAIN…
Sorry. I’m not bitter. Just perturbed. I’ve been roundly mocked for my choice of two-wheeled transportation before. Called all sorts of rude names. Had my sexuality questioned. Whatever. I’ve reached the point where I just smile and go on with my life – pretty confident that those who mock aren’t really worth my time anyway. So, in order to cut down on the people that I roundly ignore, I present the following as a brief guide to the scooter – check here for a more complete history.
Developed in the dark days following World War II, the original Vespa was named as such due to its insect-looking profile and the sound emitted by the two-stroke engine under metal bodywork. “Sembra una Vespa!” was the apocryphal exclamation upon viewing – “reminds me of a wasp!”
The vehicle was designed to be easily ridden by people wearing business clothes – hence the engine was covered, a legshield provided protection from the front, and there was a wide open space to step through, rather than a gas tank to climb over. Through the decades, improvements were made – including larger engines, pre-mix systems for two stroke oil, larger wheels and brakes and more comfortable accommodations. But, by the early 1980s – Americans had either switched over to a compact car for a commuter or a full-sized motorcycle for fun and sales were dwindling – Vespa pulled out of the US market.
By 2001, with the retro design fad in full swing, Vespa’s parent company, Piaggio decided to re-enter the North American market with an introductory line of scooters including the ET4 and ET2. Powered by 150 and 50 cc carb’ed and air-cooled engines, they were the first in a succession of new scoots introduced over the next few years. Other bikes, marketed as Piaggios were imported as well, but the Vespas always sold better. Maybe it was because of the durable metal bodies, or the performance, or wide range of colors… Nah. It was because they were cool.
Based on the scooters of the 60s, the design of the ET series was all sex – curves everywhere, a truly feminine form. It was, however, a very small bike. It did have a pretty good amount of storage – the “pet carrier” was heated significantly by the engine, but could easily swallow a couple of six packs of bee… soda. While the 150 engine was capable of pushing the bike and a lightweight and aerodynamic rider over 65 mph, that was on a good day. On level ground. With a tailwind. Taking on a passenger provided a new exercise in bowleggedness for both riders.
Fortunately, the GT series was introduced soon thereafter. It was bigger in every dimension and more powerful as well. Packing a 200 cc water-cooled engine, the GT could power its way past legal highway speed limits on to a max of 74 miles per hour. It was more comfortable for one- or two-up and while about 100 pounds heavier and riding larger tires than the outgoing ETs, handled nearly as well. The straightline stability provided by that heft was certainly welcome too.
Further developments of the GT series have included a series of engine displacement increases and the addition of fuel injection. Newer GTs sport a 277 cc FI engine that supposedly will propel the bike to over 80 miles per hour.
With the economy in the tank, however introductions have been fewer and further between. Old-school Vespa aficionados probably see the writing on the wall – a 1980s pull-out coming soon? Time will tell – the problem at this point may be that instead of touting fuel economy and ease of use, Piaggio chose to market the bikes as luxury lifestyle items.
Today’s Design Review subject used to be mine. A 2004 model GT200, it was repainted after a local police officer attempted to occupy my space after committing at least seven traffic infractions in the space of a block. I recently sold it to concentrate on the two ET-series Vespas and a 1972 BMW sitting idly by in the garage.
Ray Lindenburg is an Associate Editor with Hooniverse.com, but he also contributes to his own site Hatchtopia.com. Head over there for all things hatchback.