Scooters offer wind-in-your-face independence - and great gas mileage

Scooters offer wind-in-your-face independence - and great gas mileage

August 20th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

This British-themed scooter is on display at Scenic City Scooters.

Photo by Shawn Paik/Times Free Press.

VESPA FACTS

• Piaggio, Vespa's manufacturing company, was founded in Genoa, Italy, in 1884 by 20-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio. At first, the company made fittings for luxury ships, but by the turn of the 20th century, it also made rail carriages, goods vans, luxury coaches and engines, trams and special truck bodies.

• Vespa means "wasp" in Italian and got its name after Piaggo looked at a prototype's wide seat for the rider and narrow "waist" and said "It looks like a wasp."

• The first Vespa was made in April 1946.

• The popular 50 cc model was introduced in 1963 in reaction to a new law in Italy that said license plates were required on all two-wheelers over 50 cc.

• Vespa produced a car called the Vespa 400 in 1957. It came in 2- and 4-seater versions with a 349 cc engine that had 18 horsepower and a top speed of 55 mph

• In 1953, after Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode a Vespa in the film "Roman Holiday," more than 100,000 Vespas were sold, up almost 40,000 from annual sales in the preceding years.

• In the 1960s, Britain was the second-largest Vespa market in the world behind Italy because of the popularity of the scooter with "Mods," one of the teenage cultures in the country at the time. The Mods' rivals, Rockers, rode full-sized motorcycles such as Triumph and BSA. Rock group The Who based their 1974 album "Quadrophenia" on the Mod/Rocker cultures. The scooter on the album's cover was actually a Lambretta, not a Vespa.

Keith Sullivan has ridden his yellow, 2-year-old 150cc Vespa scooter all over town. More importantly to him, he's ridden it out of financial trouble.

A divorce two years ago put Sullivan, owner of Sullivan's Personal Fitness, into a financial hole, and rather than keep digging, he chose to buy a scooter instead of a car. While he's endured some teasing, he says it was one of the smartest things he ever did.

"People made fun of me as much as they wanted to, but honest to god, it saved me," he says.

The Vespa made its debut shortly after World War II and gained international fame when Audrey Hepburn rode one around Rome in 1953's "Roman Holiday," and again when The Who featured one in the 1979 movie "Quadrophenia." This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Italian scooter's signature 50cc model -- the one with the bright colors and side mirrors that jut out like mouse ears.

Around here, the hills have helped make the more powerful 125cc version the more popular scooter, whether it's a Vespa or one of the newer Honda or older Lambretta models, according to Stan Obal with Scenic City Scooters. Obal works on scooters at the shop and has a small number of nearly 40 vintage bikes he and his wife have collected on display there.

Included in the collection is his daily rider, a 1959 red and white Lambretta that looks every bit of its 54 years. The paint is well-worn and the bike has more than a few dings and bruises, but it is still a head-turner.

"It's original," he says. "I don't like to redo them. They are only original once."

The bikes, "even the 49cc models," must be tagged and licensed in Tennessee, according to a clerk in the Hamilton County Clerk's office. They're counted in the same category as motorcycles, so she could not provide the exact number of scooters in Hamilton County.

Scooter collectors are similar to motorcyle riders in what they hunt for, Obal says. To motorcycle folks who covet the larger bikes, you have your Harley-Davidson people and you have your Indian motorcycle people. With scooters, there are Vespa people and there are Lambretta people.

Keith Sullivan sits on his 2-year-old 150cc Vespa.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Obal says the Jimmy character in "Quadrophenia" rode a Lambretta, a Li 150 Series 3, while the film's character Sting (not the singer) rode what looked like a Vespa GS but was actually "a Rally 200 with panels added," Obal says, adding that he's learned about such trivia because it "comes up all the time."

Both the Lambretta and the Vespa originated in Italy and both took their design ideas from the Cushman scooter, which was made in Nebraska and used extensively by the U.S. military in WWII throughout Europe. They were designed so men and women could ride them easily with the front "shield" protecting the rider from mud and water. Soldiers found that scooters, because of their small size, allowed them to get through bombed-out areas that were full of rubble.

The Vespa is actually made by Piaggio, which means "wasp" in Italian. There are dozens of Vespa models, but they're all distinctive because of their shapes and bright color schemes, and because the body, which also serves as the frame, is made from pressed steel.

The Lambretta was manufactured in Milan, by Innocenti, which sold the factory to the Indian government in 1972.

The scooters, especially the vintage models, appear to be simple machines, and some believe them to be as easy to work on and repair as a lawn mower. Obal says that is patently false.

"I take my lawn mower to a lawn mower mechanic," he says. "Scooters are easy to work on if you know what you are doing. I have people bring me the things they've tried to repair all the time."

Stan Obal, from Scenic City Scooters, sits on his daily rider, a 1959 Lambretta scooter.

Photo by Shawn Paik/Times Free Press.

People from all over the country send him engines to repair or rebuild, he says.

New scooters start at about $2,000 and go up from there, as does engine power. The 2014 Honda Forza, a 279cc liquid-cooled bike that looks more like a racing motorcycle, starts at $6,099.

"Honda also has the Metropolitan," says Aaron Roberson, marketing director at Southern Powersports. "It's in the European style and they redesigned it last year so it is even more so. It's about $1,900 for the 50cc."

Obal says the most expensive vintage scooter he knows about was a 1946 Vespa Model 98 that sold for $50,000.

"You hear about all these crazy numbers, but that is the only documented one that I know of," he says.

Obal advises new riders to "ride safe, have fun and take a cellphone," just in case.

Sullivan bought his Vespa for financial reasons, but now that he is in better shape financially, he is considering getting an automobile, but that doesn't mean he won't keep riding a scooter.

"I love it," he says. "I say this is my last scooter, but I will always have something like it. Everything I do is within a mile. If it's raining, I walk. I spend maybe $10 a week on gas. The ease of it is amazing. I literally get on it and go."

Obal, who has been riding scooters since 1991 and in 2006 rode one from Oregon to Coney Island, N.Y., following the Oregon Trail, says new buyers all say the same thing after riding a scooter for awhile.

"'I feel free. This has changed my life.'"

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.