Press, twist, go! Go! Go!

A look at the development of the scooter


Dick Henneman - January 2004

Myself, I blame Mussolini.

You see, you could argue that if he hadn't got Italy involved in World War II, the country wouldn't have ended up in such a mess in 1945. It's industry had been razed to the ground, there was massive social disruption, transportation had been pushed back into the medieval era and commercially the country was near enough bankrupt. There was an urgent need to get everything moving again.

Along came Piaggio, one of the country's major industrial and munitions companies. They'd been almost bombed out of existence during the war, and needed a project to get production rolling again. At the same time the whole country was in desperate need of low-cost transport so that it could get mobile again and get back to work. Starting out with a small motorcycle that the company had originally made for Italian parachutists, Enrico Piaggio came up with the prototype of the first scooter; but he didn't like it and asked Corradino D'Ascanio to redesign it. This was a bit of a strange choice as D'Ascanio was an aeronautical engineer and didn't like motorcycles. He thought they were uncomfortable and bulky, with wheels that were difficult to change when you got a puncture - a fairly common occurrence at the time on Italy's poorly surfaced roads. He got rid of the chain by using a stress-bearing body and direct drive and made tyre changing easier and cleaner by using an aircraft undercarriage-type single-sided arm instead of a fork. To make it easier to ride, he put the gearchange on the handlebars, and then used bodywork that would give a degree of weather protection to the rider. When the re-designed prototype, with it's narrow body and bulbous rear, was shown to the boss of the Piaggio, he thought it looked like a wasp [Ita = Vespa] and so the first scooter got its name. Production of the first 2,000 units powered by a 98cc 2-stroke engine developing 3.5hp at 4,500 rpm got under way in 1946, and the 3-speed machine could reach a speed of 60 kph. The following year Innocenti, who'd been working along similar lines, bought out the Lambretta. Both vehicles were an immediate success and by the mid-Fifties over a million scooters had rolled off the production lines.

Mainland Europe was quick to pick up on the practicality of the scooter, but it didn't really start to catch on in the UK until the Sixties when it became the icon of the Mod culture. Parkas, rabbit's feet on whip antennas, chrome bars, and enough lights to be visible from the moon were the order of the day, as were clouds of 2-stroke fumes and the sweet smell of Castrol-R. Unfortunately, the culture also acquired a reputation for weekend beach fights against the Rockers on motorbikes, mob rule and general social disorder, factors which were not likely to sway the general British public into the merits of using a scooter. But in spite of all this general two-wheeled mayhem that gave the papers of the time an awful lot to write about on holiday weekends, one bike manufacturer still thought that "You meet the nicest people on a Honda".

Things got quieter as the Seventies wore on, maybe because of the then recently introduced helmet laws, and from a social perspective scooters just seemed to fade away. The Lambretta had ceased production some years previously although the Vespa was still going strong with new model introductions and engines sizes increased to 200cc. In the Eighties the engineering took another step forward with the introduction of automatic transmission, and Honda entered the fray with its Spree model. However, changes to the "leaner laws" and the general economic climate of the times were not doing any great favours to either bikes or scooters, and getting around on any form of two-wheeled transport wasn't really the done thing.

However, the Nineties bought with it a new interest in scooters, and this time for all the right reasons. The 50cc scooter with automatic transmission was the new way to get through the traffic congestion that was clogging the urban environment. It was quick, it was cheap, but most of all it was fun; and if it was good enough for celebrities and Pop Stars to buy them and use them, then it was certainly good enough for the buying public, and especially the younger sector. All of a sudden scooters were funky and cool, colour and design was everything, and street-cred was all about the two wheels you rode. Success breeds, and pretty soon a whole lot of manufacturers that we'd never really heard of along with usual suspects, were producing scooters and selling them in the UK. The result was a sales boom that took scooters to the top of the bike lists, pushing even the venerable CBR600 down into second place.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

If we'd got to the stage when to ride a scooter was socially acceptable, then why should you have to be stuck with 50 or 125cc? The technology and engineering was now available to make machines that had all the advantages of the scooter concept but with the performance of a motorbike.

However, some of the first generation "Super Scooters" weren't too successful, and stability and handling were sometimes a little suspect. Whilst the weight of a 50cc 2-stroke engine attached to the swing arm isn't going to affect the dynamics of the rear suspension too much, the same can't be said of a 250 or 400cc 4-stroke. Weight distribution was also a problem that was made worse when carrying a pillion, to the extent that in some cases using the front brake had little effect on forward progress!

It's often been said that you can't keep a good idea down, and it didn't take long to get these problems sorted. Changes to suspension geometry and wheel sizes, moving the engine forward and onto the main chassis all had the desired effect, and we now have a range a scooters that can commute, do the ton two-up, and can even be used for touring holidays. Seats that rise on gas struts to reveal carpeted and illuminated storage areas are standard features, some models even have integrated top boxes and heated hand grips, and you've simply got to have somewhere to plug in the charger for your mobile phone.

So what's next? Well, if I knew the answer to that then I wouldn't be writing this. I'd be out there selling the idea to a manufacturer and making a lot of money in the process. But I think it's fair to say that we haven't seen the end of scooter development yet, not by a long way. With public acceptability firmly in the bag, manufacturers aren't going to stop production and working on new ideas for scooters in the foreseeable future, although increasingly stringent environmental regulations may see the end of the small 2-stroke engine. However, Aprilia have already got a Di-Tech powered scooter in production, using an air-assisted direct injection 2-stroke that exceeds all the Euro emission laws. Peugeot are using compressed air in a slightly different way and their supercharged 125cc Jetforce looks like it could be just about the coolest "twist 'n' go" scooter on the planet this year.

And what about the rumours of a Yamaha R6 engine bolted to an automatic transmission package? Beat that from the lights if you can!

So whatever happens to scooters in the next few years, it looks like there's exciting times ahead, and if you haven't tried the "twist 'n' go" experience yet then give your left (or right) foot a rest and have a go. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


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