Scooters, which originally became popular in the United States in the 1950s more as a fashion accessory than as serious transportation, are gaining a new popularity with people like Dr. Richard Bromberg, who is spending more time traveling the roads of Fort Lauderdale astride his Piaggio scooter, less behind the wheel of his Toyota Prius hybrid.
“I can fill up my scooter with gas once a week for $8,” said Bromberg, 74. “And every time I do, I feel I’m sending a personal message to foreign oil producers.”
With gasoline near $4 a gallon and used-car bargains scarce, sales of scooters -- some of which are rated by the manufacturer at or above 100 miles per gallon -- have gone from warm to red-hot, retailers say.
“Our scooter sales are up about 60 percent over last year,” said Ron Marchisotto, sales manager for Varsity Cycle in Fort Lauderdale, where Bromberg bought his Piaggio. Scooter prices range from a suggested list price of $1,399 for a Kymco -- a Taiwanese scooter -- to just under $7,000 for a top-of-the-line Italian Vespa, Marchisotto said.
Kirby Mullins, owner of Seminole Powersports in Sanford, said his scooter business still takes a back seat to motorcycles, “but scooter sales have effectively doubled in the last year. We’re having trouble keeping them in stock.”
Florida’s climate makes the state a natural for scooter drivers, but the Sunshine State isn’t alone in seeing a spike in sales. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s first-quarter 2011 sales report, motorcycle sales rose 7.2 percent, but scooter sales rose almost 50 percent. The MIC report includes U.S. sales from only four major scooter manufacturers, so the total increase in scooter sales is likely even greater, especially since the MIC doesn’t track the fast-growing Chinese import market.
Three years ago -- particularly during the summer of 2008, when Florida’s average price of gas soared to a high of $4.08 a gallon on July 16 -- scooter sales also increased, compared to 2007. Overall motorcycle sales dropped 7.2 percent in 2008 in the United States, but scooter sales rose 41.5 percent to an estimated record total of 222,000.
Particularly popular with Florida riders are smaller Honda and Yamaha scooters, particularly those with engines that are 50 cubic centimeters or less. For those scooters, you only need a regular auto driver’s license to operate them. For larger scooters, you’ll need a motorcycle endorsement.
Those smaller scooters “are great for commuters who don’t have to travel on highways, or just for people who want to run up to the convenience store,” Mullins said.
Typical of the two styles of small scooters is the 2011 Honda Ruckus, which has a slightly rugged look, resembling a mini bike. The Ruckus has a 49cc one-cylinder, four-stroke engine (the more old-fashioned two-stroke engines burn oil), and weighs just under 200 pounds. Honda rates it at 114 mpg. Top speed, Mullins said, is about 30 mph. Suggested retail price: $2,499. Even Honda calls the Ruckus “a bare-bones example of two-wheel transportation.”
The 2011 Yamaha Vino Classic also has a 49cc one-cylinder, four-stroke engine, and it weighs 178 pounds. But the design is a salute to the traditional look of vintage Vespas, the manufacturer most identified with the scooter’s “step-through” design, which means you essentially sit on the seat with your feet flat on the floorboard, rather than straddle it as you would with a motorcycle. The Vino Classic, says Yamaha, is rated at 110 mpg, and costs $2,250.
The king of scooters remains Vespa, though. The Italian manufacturer, which also built Richard Bromberg’s Piaggio, essentially created the modern scooter market just after World War II with the introduction of the original Vespa, Italian for “wasp.” Vespa has sold more than 16 million scooters worldwide since it was introduced in 1946.
The user-friendly traits of the original Vespa is a main reason scooters are gaining in popularity -- they are more simple to operate than motorcycles, as almost all have automatic transmissions.
“A scooter feels nothing like a motorcycle,” said Marty Francis, who has hosted “Cycle Rider Radio” in Orlando for over 10 years. “Some of the larger scooters -- with engines bigger than 500cc’s -- can cost as much or more than comparable motorcycles, but the handling isn’t the same,” Francis said.
Kirby Mullins said the market for larger, pricier scooters has declined, while demand for smaller ones has risen. “Scooters aren’t for everybody,” Mullins said. “There’s a genuine mix of people who use them for transportation, and for recreation. But with gas prices what they are, and with the year-round climate that we have in Florida, it’s easy to justify owning a fun little scooter to hop on to go pick up a loaf of bread, rather than crank up the V-8 engine in your SUV.”