Originally created 02/25/03

Italian motor scooters attract people on a budget



DALLAS -- On a balmy winter's day, one sleek Italian motor scooter after another buzzes up to a bar.

Before long, there's a virtual swarm of the increasingly popular Vespa, Italian for wasp.

Forty-seven-year-old Mark Slevin bought his red 1970 model in September. It cost him $1,400. "Whenever I've got a pretty day and a day off, I get out and ride," he said. "This is a mid-life crisis on a budget."

The Vespa's U.S. resurgence can be attributed to suburbanites looking for something fun to do on the weekend or city commuters looking for an alternative to a car.

"They're in what is currently a miniboom in the scooter market," said David Edwards, editor in chief of Cycle World magazine. "Vespa all but invented scooters. It's good to see Vespa back in the U.S."

The Vespa, made by Italy-based Piaggio since 1946, first turned up in the United States in 1951.

Thirty years later, the Vespas fell victim to a California environmental law that challenged their emissions. At the time, a large percentage of Vespas were sold in California. By 1985, Piaggio packed up its scooters and went home, abandoning the U.S. market after other states followed California's lead and adopted stricter emissions standards.

The company returned to the United States in 2000, with two new models that are friendlier to the environment. Both are fuel efficient and emit fewer pollutants than the models sold in the early 1980s.

The ET2 model uses synthetic oils instead of mineral oil, meaning it emits less smoke. It races to 40 mph, gets about 60 miles to the gallon and costs about $3,000.

The ET4 engine is lubricated with motor oil in the same way a car's engine is lubricated, allowing for a cleaner burning motor. The faster of the two, it hits 60 mph, gets about 45 miles per gallon and costs about $4,000.

"They're perfect for city commuting," said Shane Hall, who has had his black 2001 Vespa since last summer.

"People ask me about mine all the time," he said. "I'm seeing more and more old ones. And a lot of people are interested in the new ones."

In 2001, 7,500 Vespas were sold in this country. Last year, U.S. sales almost doubled to 13,500, said Mike Cunningham, national sales director for Piaggio USA and Vespa USA. The company expects to sell about 18,000 this year.

A swarm of Vespa riders isn't exactly an imposing gang of bikers, but they have the respect of the Harley-Davidson crowd. Jimmy Renfroe, suited up in a black leather jacket, wanders over from a group of Harley riders to check out the scooters as they cozy up to the bar.

"Everybody's a bike lover," he said.

"As long as you're riding, it doesn't matter what you ride," added Matt Nelson, of Mesquite. His ride: a Dyna Wide Glide Harley.

As the Vespa riders fired up and fell into line for their Sunday spin, the riders on the big bikes across the street shouted and cheered.

About 60 Vespa stores have opened in the United States since 2000. Three are in Texas: in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

Steven Sharp finds that people come into the Dallas store he manages with hopes of rekindling memories of scooters they used to have.

"The most common draw we get is people coming in and starting their stories: 'I used to have one of these things,"' Sharp said. "It's almost quintessential midlife crisis - they want to relive the past."

With happy memories of scooting around a lake in the 1970s, 58-year-old John Adams just bought a 1974 Vespa. "I think it's middle-age crazies, just something to play with," he said.

But Sharp said all ages, men and women alike, get a kick out of the Vespa, which is available in white, pearl, alabaster, platinum, red, light blue, cobalt blue, black and light green.

"The more people see them, the more people want to know what they are and buy them," Sharp said.

Thirty-three-year-old Eric Link got a Vespa for his birthday about two years ago and quickly had an idea to sell them as a side business. Before long, there was a shipment of 14 scooters in front of his house.

"All day till dark people were coming by, just checking it out," he said.

He was so enamored of his new ride, he joined a Vespa club started by two fans in 1998. Last spring, seven regulars showed up for the weekly ride. That figure is doubled today, with as many as 40 riders at times.

On the Net:

Vespa USA: http://www.vespausa.com