Thursday, May 1, 2008

A potted scooter history

Scooter evolution from the 1930s to the 1960s.

When many people think of scooters, they think of Vespa. And why wouldn't they? They are rightly famous and almost singlehandledly made the motor scooter 'cool' and 'sexy.' It could even be argued that Piaggio's Vespa saved scooters from obscurity and oblivion.

Scooters had, of course, been around for quite a while. From the moment the internal combustion engine was invented people started bolting them to bicycles and push scooters. The motorcycle immediately took off, but the motor scooter wobbled as unsteadily as the bizarre contraptions they often were - small, unstable, underpowered, without suspension or any attempt at rider comfort. It was only in post-depression America that a niche market for scooters opened up amongst the upper middle classes, eager for the particular combination of novelty and mobility that scooters offered.
ABC Scootavia from the 1920's

It was the Second World War, specifically the invasion of Europe, that lifted the fortunes of the scooter industry. Their small size and mechanical simplicity made them appear to be the perfect support for mechanised infantry. The America manufacturer, Cushman, dominated the market during the 1940s, producing 300 scooters a day for both military and civilian use. After the war, Cushman and other manufacturers, such as Salsbury, planned a mass transport revolution with stylish and innovative scooter designs. Salsbury's flagship, the 1947 Super Scooter Model 85, was certainly stylish and space age, but was a commercial failure. The War had made America an industrial giant and its citizens were the wealthiest in the world. American consumers weren't interested in the scooter companies visions of cheap mass transport; they wanted cars and they could now afford them. America's post war prosperity was the death knell of the American scooter industry.

The 1947 Salsbury Super Scooter (Vintage Motor Museum, Whiteman Park)

In the UK, sidecar manufacturer Swallow had observed Cushman scooters being used by at RAF around their airfields and saw an opportunity to produce a budget vehicle that would be suitable for the English 'everyman.' Clearly based on the Cushman and powered by a 125cc Villiers engine, the 1946 Gadabout was spartan vehicle, without either suspension or styling. It proved to be a mediocre seller and was soon to be overtake by events on the continent.
A 1946 model Gadabout in Australia (owned by G Wilkie). Only about 2000 were built and many were exported to Australia and the colonies.

In Europe it was a totally different story. Most European cities had been destroyed or badly damaged during the War and it would be decades before the national economies of Europe fully recovered. There was a desperate need to both kick-start an industrial recovery and provide cheap mass transport. In Italy, Germany and Japan, military aircraft manufacturers such as Piaggio and Heinkel had been banned from building aircraft or anything remotely military and they desperately needed to find a new role if they were to survive. Enrico Piaggio had been impressed by the Cushman scooters the US military had used in Italy and saw an opportunity. Piaggios' 1946 scooter prototype, nicknamed Paperino ("Donald Duck") was stylistically reminiscent of the more bizarre pre-war scooters and quickly shelved, but a new design, featuring a step through body and simple, elegant lines was an instant hit. Piaggio is reputed to have said, "It looks like a wasp (Vespa)", due to it's slim waist and high pitched buzzing engine, and the name stuck.

Vespa's 1946 prototype, the Paperino.

Piaggio's design was scarcely original - the design was so remarkably similar to that of other contemporary Italian scooter manufacturers, such as the Iso, that someone could fairly be accused of 'plagiarism' - but that wasn't important. Piaggio's marketing turned the Vespa into a phenomenon. The youth appeal of the Vespa is what is most remembered today, but that was actually the sentiment of a later era. Vespa's initial success was with working families, especially housewives, who could easily drive or ride on the scooter without getting their dresses caught or dirty. Mechanically the Vespa was a simple, clean and relatively reliable machine, and it became the all purpose workhorse of post war Italy. It appeared in movies (eg, Roman Holiday), was endorsed by film stars, politicians and even the Catholic Church.

A Vespa 125 from the early 50's in Verona, Italy. 2004

Vespa's success set a standard that all other scooter manufacturers tried to attain. In fact, re-badged Vespas were built under license my a myriad of scooter manufacturers from America, to Russia, to India. In comparison, Vespa's main Italian competitor Innocenti's first Lambretta was a graceless, naked tubular frame with an engine.

Lambretta D

In 1951 Innocenti released the LC 125 with body panels. Larger, more powerful and very stylish, these new Lambrettas threw down a serious challenge to Vespa that was to last until Innocenti finally retired from the scooter market and sold Lambretta to India in 1971.

Lambretta TVC

In the US, the craze for European scooters led even veteran motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson to come out with their own model, the Topper. It proved to be an embarrasing failure. Cushman however continued to dominate the scooter market with their minaturised motorcycle/scooter hybrids, such as the Eagle. But once again the fad quickly ended and motorcycles continued to outsell scooters by a significant margin. Both Harley Davidson and Cushman abandoned scooters to concentrate on their core market.

The Harley Davidson Topper - square, styleless and dull - like all 60's US scooters.

Scooters were very popular and very eccentric in post war Britain. The most eccentric by far was probably the Piatti, which looked nothing so much as a fat sausage sporting an improbably large seat. Despite its Italian sounding name and very advanced features, the Piatti and many other similar domestic scooters couldn't really compete with their Italian counterparts.

A Piatti. Unanimous winner of the weirdest scooter award.

Typically perhaps, the French struck out in their own direction, producing a number of very interesting, stylish and innovative scooters that we almost two wheeled cars, of which the Terrot and Peugeot with their front hood and luggage boot were typical examples. The French however, never aimed or succeeded in penetrating the export market and these innovative scooters were almost unknown outside France.

A stylish Peugeot scooter.

German industry had been virtually destroyed during the War and so the first German scooters were basically Lambrettas and Vespas built under license with imported parts, which explains the familiar lines of such German scooter classics as NSU, Puch, Zundapp and Durkopp. But the Germans were never particularly satisfied with the Italian machines and it wasn't long before they were completely re-engineering them into something more typically... German. The Italian scooters were built for an Italian environment of small towns, country lanes, twisting, weaving cobbled streets, driven at relatively low speeds. Germany was a country of autobahns and wide roads. The Germans wanted power, mechanical reliability and comfortable handling over long distance. As with Italians, it seems as though industrial espionage was at work in the 1950s as almost all the scooters featured a wide, fixed front wheel faring, large 10 or 12 inch wheels and aerodynamic streamlining. Lined up together the Bastert, Faka, Goggomobile, IWL Pitty and the Heinkel all have a very similar silhouette.
A 1951 Goggomobile. G. O. G. G. O.....

Like their Italian predecessors, the first generation of post-war German rollers were something of a disappointment, being invariably heavy and underpowered (especially carrying all that extra metal!). But future models came with much more powerful engines, better suspension and much improved road handling. Most of these German machines were really motorcycles in a scooter body. Stylistically, the fixed front wheel fairing didn't make it past the early 50's, being replaced in the early 60's by the more traditional appearance of the Zundapps and Puchs. All that is except for the Heinkel, which would doggedly maintain the style until they ceased producing scooters in the mid 1960s.

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