Viva motor scooters! No, that's not an advertising statement, just a heartfelt sentiment from a longtime scooter lover, and it refers to those agile transporters – well known almost everywhere except North America – quietly going about their business at 70 or more miles per gallon of gasoline.
There are several important caveats, of course, about riding motor scooters: They're no-go in snow or ice, they can legally carry only two people or an equivalent load (in the United States), and defensive driving is the name of the game.
What makes scooters such excellent "second cars" is fantastic fuel economy, great visibility from the driver's seat, adequate power and brakes, and they are just plain fun to drive.
My love affair with scooters started when my grandpa had a Cushman scooter with a sidecar for a few months shortly after World War II. My rides in that sidecar were a thrill to a small boy and carried over into later life.
As an adult, I have joyfully owned two Vespas and two Honda scooters. I got started while stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The time was late 1964. I was a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Army, had little money, but needed "wheels" since our battalion was garrisoned in the middle of sugar cane fields at least 10 miles from officer habitations.
My boss offered to sell me his rusty 1957 Vespa scooter, along with an old football helmet and a five-minute driving lesson, all for $70. That price seemed ideal. And it was. Soon the rusty look began to weigh heavily on my better self. For $22 – exactly 10 percent of my monthly base pay – a body shop painted the Vespa.
My better self, however, was left out of the color-selection process. After four years of the rigors of West Point, extremely focused Airborne and Ranger training during most of the summer after graduation, and the discovery that life in my first real Army unit was to be 18 months of similar confinement, something went "aarghhhh" in my thoughts.
I chose to quietly revolt against all authority and convention by painting the Vespa shiny pink with white trim – a very un-infantry thing to do. There were some raised eyebrows in my unit but no one chose to comment.
In May 1965, on one day's notice, we of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were airlifted from Okinawa to Vietnam for "30-day temporary emergency duty." We were the first Army ground combat unit on the scene. Naturally I left my pink-and-white Vespa on Okinawa to await my return the following month.
However ... the war escalated, I stayed for 15 months on that first tour, and my Vespa, officially abandoned, became an early personal casualty of that war. I never returned to Okinawa and sincerely hope that someone had as much fun with that shiny Vespa as I did!
No scooters graced my life for the next 15 years – until 1981 – when a beautiful, used, silver-gray Vespa attracted my attention as a possible commuter vehicle from the suburbs of Seattle. I owned the quirky, entertaining vehicle for six years until Honda introduced larger, more powerful scooters better suited for freeway driving.
Thus a nice, used Honda Elite 250 entered my life in 1987. That machine served with aplomb until 1999 when I discovered the largest Honda scooter, the Helix – the best of the best. They were not easy to find used and in good condition, and we watched the ads for several months until we located a nifty, bright-red, 1996 model for sale only a few miles from our farm.
Now, as a dedicated Helix rider of nine years, I like to brag that my scooter has a longer wheelbase than Harley motorcycles. It can also carry two 50-pound sacks of chicken feed on the back seat, plus a briefcase or two gallons of paint in its "trunk." It has a lot of acceleration from its 250-cc engine and allegedly can reach 90 m.p.h. It gets a consistent 72 m.p.g. in city traffic, it takes precedence over cars when loading Washington State Ferries, and, of course, it is just plain fun to ride.
I suspect that high fuel costs will result, at last, in bringing a lot more scooters to US roads – and twinkles to many riders' eyes!