Born to Scoot

For the St. Louis Scooterists, there's no better season than summer

May 26, 2004 at 4:00 am
Like doorstep-delivered bottled milk or gas station attendants dressed in spiffy uniforms, the Sunday drive is a piece of postwar Americana that has almost entirely evaporated off the landscape of everyday life. Except, it turns out, if you live in St. Louis and own a scooter.

The St. Louis Scooterists -- not so much an official organization as a casual group of two-wheel enthusiasts, usually twelve to fifteen scooterists strong -- have been carrying on the summertime tradition for the past five years or so, gathering most Sunday afternoons in warm weather inside Tower Grove Park, then taking off on their classic Vespas, old-school Lambrettas or newer models to whatever destination may tickle their fancy. Usually, the destination's a good 50 to 80 miles away, be it a leisurely country drive, an outing to get some food or a ride up the River Road in Illinois. Says scooter aficionado Rebecca Andrews, "Every type of bike is represented, as well as every type of rider."

Indeed, the increasing popularity of scooters in the United States is largely attributed to their wide appeal; commuting office workers, students looking for cheap transportation and style-conscious riders are all drawn to the machine. And among all forms of motor-powered transportation, perhaps no one machine better embodies the mantra to stop and smell the roses -- or at least to slow down and smell the roses -- than a scooter. Like a convertible, it allows the rider an uncanopied perspective on his or her surroundings, which often leads to idle chitchat with passersby while idling -- both a literal and figurative taking down of walls. The scooter, though, takes this barrier-breaking one step further, freeing the driver (or rider) from the waist down as well. It just may be the perfect summer freedom.

"In the winters, especially when it snows, I mostly have to rely on friends for rides around town," says Washington University Ph.D. student Anna Mackay, who bought her first scooter, a Vespa, when she moved to St. Louis a couple years ago. "But then once summer gets here, people are asking me for rides on the back of my scooter."

In fact, scooters may be starting to eclipse motorcycles as the in thing on two wheels, according to Jeff Bach, a motorcyclist-turned-scooterist who owns Extreme Toy Store, a shop with outposts in St. Charles and Lemay Ferry that sells scooters, ATVs and other, well, extreme toys.

"I went through my motorcycle years, going fast everywhere I went," says Bach, who owned his first motorcycle at the age of seventeen. "I've got three kids now and I don't need those kinds of risks, which is why you'll now find at my house two scooters but no motorcycles. There's a certain macho element that comes with being a motorcycle enthusiast, but scooters aren't about keeping up with the Joneses." Proving Bach's point that the aggressively virile personality of a motorcycle, or someone who rides one, is losing its stronghold in favor of the friendlier face of a scooter: One of the key figures in the St. Louis scooter scene, Mark Andrews (Rebecca's husband), is also the man who happens to own Iron Age Tattoo in the Loop.

And while they may not be considered "macho," scooters are arguably as chic as they've ever been in this country, Bach attests. The Italian Vespa scooter in particular has become something of an automotive design icon, its shape and curves as recognizable as those of a Harley or a Hummer.

Surprisingly, Vespas only returned to the U.S. market four years ago, following a sixteen-year hiatus caused by new American emissions standards; suddenly, two-stroke engines such as those on Vespas weren't allowed to be sold stateside. In 2000 Vespa finally returned with a four-stroke engine, and "for whatever reason, it was the right time, right place," says Bach -- credit the similar trend toward foot-powered sidewalk scooters, the Vespas' placement in the 1999 Italian-postcard movie The Talented Mr. Ripley or the overall trend of grown-ups looking for childlike fun -- and the Vespas were an instant hit.

Ironically, considering that the Vespa's styling is widely considered a very European aesthetic, the United States is now the scooter's only expanding market in the world. While scooter sales in America are currently growing at the rate of about 30 percent a year, sales are shrinking in Europe, where tougher government emissions standards are finally catching up to those enacted here in the 1980s.

Among St. Louis scooterists, probably much like similar scenes in other cities, there are friendly rivalries between old-school and new-school enthusiasts. New scooter models, more user-friendly because of their automatic transmissions, are often "looked at differently by those who own and appreciate the classic models," says Bach, and are referred to, somewhat derisively, as "twist-and-gos."

On the other hand, the increased power inside a newer model makes it speed-friendlier as well, an advantage that the St. Louis Scooterists are taking advantage of more and more during their Sunday drives. Though scooters still aren't conducive to highway driving (not to mention that they're not allowed on highways), "we're looking for new routes this summer that will get us up to highway speed," says Bach.

Local hardcore enthusiasts looking to push the technological envelope are known to work on their scooters to amp up the power; Andrews boasts a Lambretta (another classic Italian make, which, like Vespa, is hoping to re-invade American shores with updated, emissions-friendly models) that can hit 100 miles per hour. Such speed also comes in handy when racing scooters, which is another summertime activity with a healthy-size following in St. Louis. The ten-year-old HardLuck Scooter Club (or just S.C., as it's more commonly known) is widely credited with introducing scooter racing to the Midwest under the banner of Mid America Scooter Sport (M.A.S.S.). These hardcore vintage-bike enthusiasts "engineer the fastest tiny engines on ten-inch wheels," says Rebecca Andrews, and operate under one simple equation: "Engines equal good."

While that segment of the scooter scene certainly turns out for the Sunday rides, the feel on the rides is friendly, inclusive and come-one-come-all, says Bach. "In my experience, people come to scooters for a wide array of reasons. You might buy one because you don't want to spend $10,000 on a Harley, but you're comfortable spending $2,000 on a scooter. Or you're looking for a way to get to work during the week using less gas than your car would need. No matter what the initial reason, though -- whether it's because they get good gas mileage, or they're in, or they're easier to ride and maintain than a motorcycle -- it seems that for pretty much everybody, the practical reasons eventually become secondary to the fact that scooters are just so much fun."