This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 11, 2008 - Sales of name-brand scooters -- motorcycles that typically have small engines and a step-through design -- have increased for years as gas prices crept higher and higher. And more options are available for potential buyers with Vespa returning to scooter production and new manufacturers entering the market. Roughly 157,000 scooters sold nationwide in 2007, compared to 12,000 in 1998, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade association.
And as gas prices soared beyond $4 a gallon this summer, dealers across the country began reporting record sales. Mike Mount, a council spokesman, said that in the first half of 2008 scooter sales were up 66 percent over totals from that time a year ago. The percentage increase isn't unprecedented, he said, but the number of overall purchases is record-breaking.
Stores are selling out of scooters. Manufacturers can't keep up with consumer demand. Riders increasingly see the scooter as a long-term way to cope with high fuel costs: The two-wheelers get, on average, 60 to 100 miles per gallon, and prices typically range from $2,000 to $10,000.
St. Louis reflects the national trend. In the first eight months of the year, Vespa St. Louis has already doubled scooter sales for all of 2007, according to co-owner Stephen Zompa. Models from 2008 and 2007 are already sold out, he said.
Online Scooter Group
The St. Louis Scooter Forum is filled with posts in the "newbies lounge" from new riders sharing stories about long eyeing a bike and seeing record gas prices as the tipping point.
Bev Brinson, publisher of ScooterWorld Magazine, said she's not surprised to see heightened interest in scooters this summer. Every time fuel costs rise there's an increase in scooter sales, she said. When more bikes are on the road, people take notice and foot traffic increases in dealerships, which ramp up marketing efforts.
Once riders begin doing serious research, they discover other perks: free parking near some bicycle racks, for instance.
"The gas drives [customers] there, but once they see how much they can save on other things, it's a dramatic moment," Brinson said.
Many of the frequent posters to the St. Louis Scooter Forum will meet in person this weekend for a scooter rally featuring city and country rides. Maggie Madonia, co-founder of the St. Louis Scooter Club, which is hosting its first rally, said she expects upwards of 75 people to attend - mostly locals. Check the website, www.rivercityrally.com , for events and places, as the weather may force changes.
Two summers ago, after riding two-wheelers in Italy and Bermuda, Madonia bought her first scooter. She said fuel prices didn't factor into her decision.
"I thought to myself, 'You know, I'm 43 years old. If I don't get one now I'll never have one'," said Madonia, who lives in West County.
By the time she bought her second scooter for non-city driving 18 months later, Madonia had made dozens of friends who accompanied her on rides.
A staple at weekly St. Louis Scooter Club meetings, Madonia said there's been a marked rise in attendance. "Not a week's gone by without a new person showing up," she said. "People are saying, 'I want to buy a scooter - what should I do?' "
Madonia also has noticed increased activity on the scooter forum this summer (the site has more than 230 members).
The growing interest in scooters comes at a time of heightened awareness of vehicles and their environmental footprint.
Several years ago, an Environmental Protection Agency study showed that most scooters on the road have higher emissions than cars. The EPA has since raised emissions standards for scooters and tightened enforcement of bikes that don't hold certification labels showing compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Brinson said most major companies reacted quickly to the EPA changes and offered more efficient, cleaner-burning engines. But there's still a black market for scooters, she added. The EPA has warned consumers and dealers to be wary of foreign imports that cost less but don't adhere to emissions standards.
"Some consumers buy them cheaply online," she said. "Web sites come and go quickly. People try to get their scooters licensed and they can't (because of emissions rules). The consumer is left holding the bag."
Zompa, the Vespa St. Louis co-owner, said he has stopped carrying a line of imported scooters because the engines didn't meet the environmental agency's standards.
He added that he no longer sells new two-stroke engines, which tend to be cheaper but also pollute more because they run on a mix of gas and oil. Four-stroke engines are cleaner but have less power.
Brinson said major companies are still importing two-stroke engines that meet EPA standards. The agency has a list of legitimate importers and products available to consumers.
A Seasonal Ride?
With a new set of St. Louis scooter owners learning how to ride and care for their bikes this winter, Brinson and others offered the following suggestions:
- Think twice before riding in the snow. There isn't an aggressive snow tire for scooters. And avoid riding on ice at all costs.
- Bigger bikes are typically better at handling inclement weather, but Madonia said a common mistake is for new riders to be overconfident and not respect weather conditions.
- Keep your core body temperature up while riding in cold weather. Full-face helmets, leg warmers and heated gloves help cope with chilly air.
- Before buying a scooter, understand the laws and what they say about what engine size is needed to ride on large roads and highways.
- Don't just throw your scooter into a garage and figure it will run like new come spring. Zompa said riders need to remove and store the battery, and oil the cylinder, among other protective actions.
It's late summer (technically). Temperatures are cooling and humidity is low.
"This is the time of the year to be riding a motorcycle or scooter," Zompa said.
But will the summer of the scooter bleed into the fall, and what are new riders in store for once the cold weather hits?
According to a Motorcycle Industry Council survey conducted several years ago of motorcycle owners, 77 percent of all riding happens in spring and summer months. Zompa said his peak sales are in July, and he'll sell roughly one scooter a day until the weather breaks.
"Eventually it'll just fizzle out," he said.
Scooter owners across the city will pack away their new ride until spring, prompting some to wonder if they've made a good investment.
As one post on the St. Louis Scooter Forum puts it: "Few people will see the value in buying a scooter if they don't plan to ride once it starts to get cold. Nothing bites more than making a payment for something that will sit in your garage covered up for a few months out of the year."
But Brinson said more people - herself included - are riding year round.
"People buy their scooters as weekend warriors and realize how viable they are as a primary mode of transportation," she said.
Elia Powers is a free-lance journalist.