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High gas prices fuel scooter sales

| Thursday, April 27, 2006

It's about as loud as a lawnmower, could fit in the back of an average SUV and gets around 70 miles to the gallon.

It's the Vespa, and with gas topping $3 a gallon, it's trendy again -- on its 60th birthday, no less.

"I love that you don't have to straddle a hot, dirty engine," as with full-sized motorcycles, said James Riel, 30, of Beechview. Riel, a Vespa owner since 1996, rides his scooter to work daily. He said he spends $5 a week on gas, compared to the $45 or $50 a week he'd spend if he drove his truck.

This gas efficiency has played into its sales growth. American sales of small-bore cycles aren't yet at their peak -- 300,000 units in 1978. But sales are up 500 percent since 1999, with 130,000 purchased in 2005, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Yesterday morning at European Motorcycles on Perry Highway, the company's president Lee Marks sold a $5,000 model to a customer who said he was sick of paying through the nose for gas.

"It's a deciding factor for a lot of people," said Marks, who owns the only Vespa dealership in the area.

But they're buying the image, too.

"You can't ride one without smiling," Marks said.

A Vespa will cost between $3,000 and $6,000, but will last more than 20 years, if properly cared for, Marks said.

"People don't buy them and trade them in, they hold on to them. They love them," he said.

The image of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck jetting around Rome on a Vespa in 1953's "Roman Holiday" gave the scooter swagger, but a new generation of hip, scooter gangs is updating its allure.

The Creatures of the Loin gang out of San Francisco's rough-and-tumble Tenderloin District grew from 25 to nearly 100 since 2004. In Chicago's Ukrainian Village, the Peddy Cash gang, bundled in wool caps, often ride into the wee hours. The Moped Army was founded in Kalamazoo, Mich., and boasts about 300 members. The subject of a documentary film and a comic book, the Army draws about 10,000 regular visitors to its Web site. Its motto: "Swarm and destroy."

Pittsburgh doesn't host any of the Heck's Angels or Hardley Davidsons scooter gangs, but Vespa enthusiast Riel said "it's a great city to scoot in," even with its challenging topography.

Riel, a member of the Pittsburgh Antique Scooter Club, doesn't recommend trying to navigate the hills on a bike with an engine smaller than 125 cc, though. The larger the engine size, the more powerful the engine. Riel takes his 200 cc Vespa through the Liberty Tunnels regularly and said he's even trekked up Route 279 to the North Hills with no problems.

"You have to be cautious," he said. "Just like on any two-wheeled vehicle, you don't get the same respect on the road as a car. You have to be careful and be confident in what you are riding."

James Stitt, sales manager for European Motorcycles, teaches the state-sponsored motorcycle safety program. In Pennsylvania, scooter riders are required to get a motorcycle license. Scooters, while easier to maneuver than motorcycles, do take practice, Stitt said. What distinguishes a scooter from a motorcycle is mainly its small-bore engine and small-diameter tires.

The first Vespa rolled out of the Piaggio aircraft plant in Pontadera, Italy, 60 years ago this month.

According to Vespa's Web site, the roads in post-war Italy were in bad shape, prompting engineer Enrico Piaggio to design a vehicle that was simple, inexpensive and economical, for Italians to get around.

This century, its efficiency has kept it relevant: In a February open letter to American mayors, Piaggio USA called for a switch to scooting as a way to address the growing gas crisis. The company claims that by converting to scooters, Americans would reduce their fuel consumption by 58 percent, carbon monoxide emissions by 90 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent.

"This (moped resurgence) is a reflection of a deeper generational shift going on," says Neil Howe, a cultural historian and coauthor of "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation." "The idea of a big, bad, dangerous gas-guzzling machine is not the millennial style."

The Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report.

  • The word "vespa" means "wasp" in Italian, but it refers to the shape of the vehicle's tail, not the sound it makes. When he saw the design for the first one, legend has it, creator Enrico Piaggio said "Sembra una vespa!" ("It looks like a wasp!") and the name stuck.

  • The movie "Quadrophenia," based on the double-album of the same name by The Who, prominently features a Vespa -- a connection to British Mod subculture.

  • Princess Vespa was a character in the movie "Spaceballs," a possible play on words alluding to the goddess Vesta in Roman Mythology, to whom Vestal Virgins were dedicated as priestesses.

  • The 1953 film "Roman Holiday," starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, is a living testimony to the 1950s Vespa mania in Italy.

  • Vespas originally had a manual transmission with three or four gears; today's models have automatic transmissions.

  • The average age of a typical Vespa rider is about 40.

  • There were 275 Vespas sold in Pittsburgh in 2005.

    Source: Wikipedia, Vespa, staff research

    Additional Information:


    The Pittsburgh Vintage Scooter Club has two upcoming rallies: the first is New Somerset, Ohio on June 23 through 25. To find the two-lane road route, visit

    The group holds its annual Pittsburgh rally is the last weekend of September. Anyone 'scooter curious' is invited to attend.

    Going the distance

    Ford Expedition: 15 MPG

    Hummer H3: 17 MPG

    Dodge Caravan minivan: 22 MPG

    BMW 325 ci: 22 mpg (premium)

    Honda Civic: 34 MPG

    Toyota Prius (hybrid): 55 MPG

    Vespa: 70 MPG

    2006 Models: (all automatic transmissions, except the hybrid, which is continuously variable transmission) Figures are combined city and highway mileage, using regular grade gasoline unless otherwise noted.


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