The history of motor scooters begins in the 1800s with the first well-documented successful example being the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller, which was patented in Munich, Bavaria in 1894. Characterized by the typical scooter step-through frame, and using a twin cylinder water-cooled engine, the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller, though not a significant commercial success, nevertheless led the way in shifting from pedal to power driven transportation. It was not until after WWII, however, that further progress was made.
Following the second world war when technology and development were at a very low ebb in Italy, subsidies were granted by the Italian government to companies engaged in producing vehicles. Ferdinado Innocenti of the Lambratte region of Milan conceived the modern scooter. In collaboration with designer Corradino D'ascanio, Piaggio's ingenious aeronautical engineer who designed, constructed and flew the first modern helicopter, and based on earlier military motorcycles, the first designs were produced of a motor scooter resembling those we know today.
D'Ascanio, who could not stand motorcycles, set out to design a simple, sturdy, and economical vehicle that was also comfortable and elegant. First produced in 1946, the first Vespa had a 98cc engine and a top speed of 47mph. In 1948, the first 125cc Vespa was produced. He imagined a vehicle built on a unibody steel chassis with a front fork which, like a plane's landing gear, allowed for easy wheel changing.
Upon seeing the vehicle, Enrico Piaggio remarked "Sembra una Vespa!" ("It looks like a wasp!"). It did not at all resemble an uncomfortable and noisy motorcycle. The steel frame's shape protected the rider from road dirt and debris and the shape emanated sophistication and elegance at first glance. By 1949, 35,000 units had been produced and a million by 1960, by which time they were also manufactured in Germany, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and, of course, Italy.
Vespa has had many images. It was first the two-wheeler of the post war economic boom, then, during the anti-Vietnam war years, a symbol for revolutionary ideas and social alienation.
The story continues today with the new generation of Vespa models, which range from the vintage-lovers' PX with manual transmission, to the Granturismo and Granturismo Sport (GTS), the largest and most powerful Vespas, and the LX, the latest restyling of the classic Vespa design. Vespa has fascinated millions of seved as an icon of Italian style and elegance as well as a means of personal transport that has become synonymous with freedom. See our Vespa Page.
Back to early scooter beginnings, Innocenti, in collaboration with Pierluigi Torre, went on to produce the Lambretta (named after the river valley where the factory stood), which made its debut at the 1947 Paris Motor Show. When gasoline was strictly rationed, the new Lambretta was highly economical getting better than 160 mpg. With a 123cc engine and achieving a maximum speed of 45 mph, the new scooter was highly successful.
In Japan, Taiwan, Tailand, and much of the Orient, motorscooters dominate the roads. In Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, there are 11 million registered motorscooters, and the Kymco Motorscooter has gained a reputation as one of the best in the world.
Following Cushman in the 1950s, many manufacturers all over the world have come out with fascinating designs for the American market. The Italian scooters Vespa, Lambretta, Benelli, Piaggio, Gilera, and Malaguti followed a grand tradition but were later joined by China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Spain, England, and Germany who produced such scooters as Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kymco, Phantom, Aprilia, Roketa, Peugeot, Tank, Bandit, and many more.
The current battle rages between the revival of classic motorscooters; the somewhat cheaper established brands of Japan and Taiwan: Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kymco, with their dealers and worldwide support; and several inexpensive lines of Korean and Chinese scooters. As support is irregular and sometimes non-existant, it is advisable to do business with a reputable dealer who will handle registration and other details that could be very problematic with certain brands. The Chinese models, Roadrunner, Tank, Phantom, Roketa, Rascal range in price from 1/3 to 1/2 those of equivalent Japanese models but are a mixed bag. Roadrunner, Tank, Roketa, Chaunl, and Phantom come from reputable companies.
The Tank (a peculiar name for a diminutive scooter, and they also make bicycles) is inexpensive and has a reputation for reliability.
Many new scooter brands are becoming available all the time and are hard to keep up with. The Roadrunner I-scooter which came out in December of 2006 seems to have established itself well. TANK has been around for several years and is fairly well respected. The Chaunl scooters handled by Global Trailer have been sold since 2002 and seem also to be a solid choice. If you can't manage a Vespa, Honda (Find a local Honda Dealer), or Kymco, these are all viable options. If the fit is right, an electric motorscooter can also be the right choice.
For more reading on the history and magic of Scooters, try:
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