The Scooter Gang

I ride a Scooter……………There I have said it. We moved to PE at the end of 2009 and after a couple of months came to the conclusion that Port Elizabeth is probably the Scooter capital of South Africa, Cape Town may dispute this, but until I see proof I will stand behind my statement. There are definitely more scooters on the streets these days and those riding them are young and old.

I suppose Port Elizabeth blends itself to the scooter, it’s mainly flat and most places you need to get to are within a 15km radius. The Big Boy scooter that we own was bought for Tania, but after a week of riding it to see how it performed I decide that it was mine. While I South Africa the scooter phenomenon is fairly new in countries like Italy and France it’s a culture.

So who invented the Scooter, well I suppose that depends whet you define as a scooter, the first pedal driven machine was invented in 1840 by Kirkpatrick McMillan who came up with the idea when 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. The first bicycle was born (or.velocipede as it was known in those days), it had two wheels and pedals where used to get it to move. After the idea caught on the race was on to find a faster way to get around………….”The need for speed was born

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 were they the first scooter? Many will disagree and throw this counter argument at you. 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. However until after world war 11 the scooter industry basically stagnated then the VESPA arrived. The Vespa is today the Rolls Royce of the scooter fraternity.

The company called Piaggio (in Italy) had been in the manufacturing business for years, eventually relying on aircraft as their main product. But the decision to make bombs made them a strategic target during the War and thanks to the allies and bombs made in England, 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, saw a gap in the market and realised the 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 coming up with a prototype.

He came up with 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 he showed it to his boss he looked at it and said, ”Sembra una vespa!”, which is Italian for “It looks like a wasp!” The Vespa was born.

The Vespa was a two-wheeled vehicle, much like but completely diferent from a motorbike 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. My friend in Clarens Dave Green owns a few Vespa’s , even a rare 3 wheeler. I must say I rode the one on a number of occassions and always got stares from pedestrians.

Another Italian, Ferdinando Innocenti, who 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, 123 cc 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.

The Scooter just about sold itself, but due to its use in movies such as “Roman Holiday” and Quadrophenia that came out in the 1960’s and featured scooters. Scooters also started to be 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.

Up until the mid ‘80s, Vespa and Lambretta pretty well dominated the market with their cool Italian scooters. Then the Japanese entered the scene and 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 and they took a large chunk of the scooter market.

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.

So whether you want to use the scooter as a mode of transport to get you to work and back or you just want to zip around your city or village there is a scooter just for you.

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