The History of Scooters – Riding Through the Years
Have you noticed that there are more scooters on the streets these days? Don’t they look like fun? They look as though you can just hop on them and have a blast riding around town. And you can! They’re delightful machines, offering not only a very affordable mode of transportation, but a lot of opportunities to have fun just zipping around. We’re going to look at the history of scooters, and see how people have been depending on them to get around town, for over a century.
The Industrial Revolution instills man’s need for speed
The invention of the scooter could be credited to a number of people, depending on our definition of a scooter. It just happens that a Scotsman named Kirkpatrick McMillan (“Pate” to his friends) came up with the idea of a pedal-driven bicycle somewhere around 1840. He was working as a blacksmith when he was asked to repair a hobby horse, which had wheels and was propelled along by pushing it with your foot, just like the modern-day scooters popular with the kids.
From this, Pate took a crank that he’d already invented, and integrated it into a contraption that had two wheels, and was propelled with pedals. This first bicycle, called “velocipede”, took a while to catch on, but the idea sparked the idea that there must be ways to get around faster. The need for speed was born.
Many people experimented with the bicycle, trying to find a way to make it go faster. Then, in 1868, in France, Michaux-Perraux attached a small commercial steam engine to a bicycle. There were other attempts to use gas engines on a bicycle to speed it up. Gottlieb Daimler, known as the “Father of the Motorcycle”, was successful with the gas engine/bicycle combination. It was called a motocyclette, and used aeronautical design principles.
But the first real “scooter”, or 2-wheeled vehicle, that was mass-produced, was developed by Hildebrand & Wolfmueller. This wasn’t just a bicycle with a motor attached, it was a distinct unique entity in itself. But that was the extent of the scooter industry for many years – until after World War II.
The Vespa sets the stage for the scooter industry
An Italian company, Piaggio, had been in the manufacturing business for years, eventually relying on aircraft as their main product. But since they were building bombers, they became a strategic target during the War, and their factory was totally destroyed. In fact, all of Italy was in bad shape, especially their roads and transportation systems.
Enrico Piaggio, the founder’s son, recognized the drastic need for an affordable transportation method for the Italian people, something that could be easily maneuvered around the war-torn streets and roads. Corradino D’Ascanio, one of Piaggio’s aeronautical engineers (credited with inventing the first helicopter) was given the task of filling this transportation void.
D’Ascanio’s invention fit the bill to a T. Using the same principle of one-piece construction that was used in airplane design, he created a vehicle with a single steel chassis. He called it a monocoque, a French word meaning single shell. It also shared the airplane’s front wheel principles, using a fork design, so that the wheel could be easily changed.
When D’Ascanio finished his model, he presented it to Enrico Piaggio, who took one look at it and said, ”Sembra una vespa!”, which is Italian for “It looks like a wasp!” The Vespa was born. And if you think of what a wasp looks like, it’ll give you some idea of how sleek and streamlined the Vespa was.
The Vespa was a two-wheeled vehicle, different from the motorcycle (which D’Ascanio disliked immensely). The front of the steel frame was wide, stopping dirt and dust from flying up on the rider. So it not only catered to the Italian desire to always look good, but it also provided a reliable form of transportation. And true to Italian style, they loved the scooter’s sleek, elegant and classy look, with it’s bright colors, like pastel green or, if you preferred, jet black.
The first Vespa was built in 1946, and in its first 3 years of production, it sold about 35,000 scooters, so it was obviously very popular. By the mid-fifties, Vespas were being exported to other countries, like Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and Spain. No matter what country you lived in, zipping around on a scooter gave the rider a sense of freedom and independence, feeling that they weren’t a part of the traffic, but somehow “above” it.
The Lambretta was hot on the heels of the Vespa
Another Italian, Ferdinando Innocenti, was pioneering in the steel tubing industry when, after opening a huge new plant in 1931, he decided to use his steel tubing technology to come up with a cheap form of transportation. Just like Piaggio, after the War, Innocenti saw the need for an affordable, reliable form of transportation, like a motorcycle, but less expensive, and with a little more weather protection for the rider.
Expense had to be a factor in the solution – both to manufacture and to run. And the solution came in the form of a scooter called the Lambretta “A”. It used a single-cylinder, 2-stroke, 123cc engine – a fair amount of power. One of its biggest selling features was it’s gas mileage – it could go about 120 miles on a gallon of gas, and that was pretty important because there was a real gas shortage following the War.
The Lambretta was basically the same design as the Vespa, with a step-through steel frame, and seating for a rider and passenger. The rider’s feet rested on the floorboards, with the front frame protecting his lower body from the weather. There was also a windshield to protect the upper body. And there was still that Italian sleek look, and that sense of adventure and excitement that came with riding these open air wonders.
The scooter gets international exposure
There wasn’t a lot of advertising done for scooters. The concept pretty well sold itself. But one thing that really increased its popularity was its use in movies and advertising. For example, there’s a famous scene in “Roman Holiday”, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, where they ride around a fountain on a scooter. There was also The Who’s movie, “Quadrophenia”, in the early ‘60s, that showed people zipping around London on scooters.
Scooters were also used in many forms of advertising, including posters and commercials. The commercials weren’t actually for the scooters, but they were very noticeable in the ads. Scooters were always portrayed as a fun vehicle, light and maneuverable, easy to ride and easy to handle. And as it is with most ads, they’re designed for people to remember them. Scooter sales proved that they did just that.
The Japanese put their ingenuity to work
Up until the mid ‘80s, Vespa and Lambretta pretty well dominated the market with their cool Italian scooters. Then Honda, with its Elite scooter, and Yamaha, with its Riva model, jumped into the scooter market. These new scooters had fresh modern lines, not like the Italian models at all. The Italians saw them as cheap plastic copies, but consumers loved them – they were selling like hotcakes.
Today, Honda’s 1200 dealers in the U.S., 90% of which carry Honda scooters, give it a big piece of the scooter market. But their first big contribution to the scooter industry came in 1983, with their Aero 50. The Aero 50 has been referred to as the first modern scooter. It’s more stylish lines and sharper angles, added to its fully-automatic transmission, made it a much more functional scooter than its predecessors. It was lightweight and easy to handle, which led to its description as a “twist-the-throttle-and-go operation”.
The 49cc air-cooled, 2-stroke engine gave the Aero 50 great fuel efficiency, but it didn’t meet U.S. emission standards. However, in 1985, it got a makeover, with a wider, bigger seat to make it more comfortable. Honda’s slogan in all their advertising was “your ticket to ride happy”. And have you ever seen an unhappy scooter rider?
Another big reason for the Japanese scooter success was their ability to develop engines that were more environmentally-friendly. The old Vespas and Lambrettas gave off heavy exhaust, and with emission laws becoming a factor in the U.S., the Japanese scooters swept the market. Scooter riders also liked the convenience of the automatic transmissions on the Japanese models.
The Japanese scooters were so successful that they eventually drove Vespa out of the U.S. market. The Vespa had become out-dated, with its 2-stroke high-emission engine and its manual grip-shift transmission. Piaggio decided it could do just as well by staying in its own market in Europe. And they actually did that quite well, without having to make any changes in its scooter designs.
Other Oriental manufacturers get into the act
Yamaha came in second in the Japanese scooter production race, which was pretty good, considering they offered only 3 models to choose from. Their success is built on their low prices and flexible tuning options, while still providing smart, sleek looks.
Suzuki has just recently entered the U.S. scooter market with their Burgman maxi-scooter series. They’ve done very well by finding a niche market and sticking with just that. They’ve been described as practical, comfortable, fast, stylish and economical – all the makings of a great scooter.
Kymco, from Taiwan, jumped into the scooter market in May 2000. They also sell ATVs and motorcycles, but their scooter sales have gone very well. Also from Taiwan is MZ, which is an offshoot of MZ Motorcycle Company from Germany. They have 4 models in their scooter line, but they’re not street-legal in California (where the emission standards are very high). But they do very well on the East Coast. MZ scooters are distributed through Motorrad of North America.
Then there’s TN’G, China’s contribution to the scooter industry. The name TN’G was derived from the descriptive term we mentioned earlier: “twist and go”. They were first distributed by CMSI of Seattle, and could be bought at Costco. Since TN’G’s agreement with Costco ended, they’ve set up their own distribution network, with 172 dealers across the country.
India hasn’t been left out of the picture
There are two major scooter manufacturers in India, LML and Bajaj. LML originally modeled their scooters after the Vespa P-Series, but they’ve changed over the years, culminating in their current model, the Stella. The Stella is custom-made for The Genuine Scooter Company in Chicago. Those who favor the Vespa really like the Stella because of their similarities. It has a 150cc air-cooled reed-valve 2-stroke engine, with a 4-speed manual transmission.
India’s other scooter manufacturer, Bajaj, offers two models to choose from, the Chetak and the Legend. They both have 150cc 4-stroke, a 4-speed manual transmission, and an anti-dive front suspension. LML are currently working on developing a 200cc model with a 4-stroke automatic engine, soon to be released.
Bajaj has since expanded to the U.S., opening Bajaj USA. They’re very excited about their new addition to the scooter industry – the 3-wheeler utility vehicle. There’ll be 3 models, each sporting a scooter chassis, with variations that include a rickshaw model, and two pickup models – one enclosed and one open. These cool new 3-wheelers will go 40 mph, using a 9 hp engine, which gets 80mpg. And they can carry up to 1000 pounds. Scooters have definitely come a long way.
U.S. scooter markets drive the industry
Since the United States has such a large population, other countries do their best to gain their share of the markets there. There are four major areas in the world that compete for American scooter sales: Japan, China/Taiwan, Italy/Spain, and India. We’ve already mentioned Italy’s contribution, and Spain runs parallel to that. There are also other countries, contributing on a lesser basis, like Taiwan, Korea, England, Germany, and the U.S. itself.
It appears that the history of scooters has led to the United States as the major factor in new innovations and what the consumer wants. Out of the top 10 U.S. scooter markets, it’s no surprise, with their great weather and their focus on cheap environmentally-friendly transportation, that California was number one in 2003. The Bay Area in San Francisco sold the least scooters of any other U.S. market, perhaps because of their numerous very steep hills. This may actually be a misconception, because the new scooter models have much more power than the older ones, so those figures may change.
A powerful factor affecting the motorized scooter industry is the laws that regulate the use of these vehicles on the streets. Take California, for example. They have high emission standards because there are so many vehicles adding to air pollution. But motorized scooters, according to California law, aren’t classified as “motor vehicles”, so as long as they conform to regulations (under 50cc, traveling no more than 35mph) they don’t need to be licensed. That translates into another great reason to rely on electric or gas-powered motorized scooters for transportation.
Where is the scooter industry going in the future?
Man’s need for speed is gradually being replaced by their need to recede, as far as the world’s resources are concerned. There’s a strong emphasis these days on creating more fuel-efficient vehicles, at a lesser cost. This falls right into the hands of the scooter industry. Scooters are epitomized by their lightweight construction, which gives them much higher fuel-efficiency ratings that any other kind of motorized vehicle. Of course, if you get an electric scooter, your fuel costs are zero!
And more and more scooters are being built using 4-stroke engines, which are in accordance with the new tougher emission standards. And the great thing about these developments in scooter technology is that they do it all without losing the sleek stylish lines that attract so many scooter lovers.
Scooters are definitely the way to go if you’re looking for cheap transportation. They’re easy to handle, fit in small spaces, can be parked almost anywhere, can zip around traffic jams, are economical – the advantages over other vehicles are many. And there are also many models to choose from, so you can get just the right one to fit your lifestyle.
Today, you can buy electric scooters, or an electric bike, a motorized scooter, a mini-scooter, a maxi-scooter, a 3-wheeled scooter, a gas scooter, a kids electric scooter, and even a mini Harley Chopper scooter. Whether you ride your scooter to work or to school, or whether you use your scooter to run errands, or whether you just want to zip around having fun on your scooter, there’s a model that suits you.
So get online and check out the scooter reviews, ratings and comparisons on the Internet. With all those scooters to choose from, there certainly has to be one that’s waiting just for you!