High gasoline prices are a good thing. Just ask the people of Pontedera, Italy, a tiny industrial town near Pisa.
Theirs is the home of Piaggio SpA, maker of Vespa motor scooters, the high-mileage, relatively low-speed motorized bikes seen all over Italy and other European countries.
Now, with U.S. prices for regular unleaded gasoline cresting at $2 a gallon, Piaggio has launched a major assault on the American automotive market, heavily targeting cities on the East and West coasts where commuters are seeking less costly modes of personal transportation.
Other scooter manufacturers, such as Honda Motor Co. and Yamaha Motor Co., are pursuing the same market. They are betting that thousands of Americans, at least for daily runs between home and office or quick trips to the supermarket, are willing to abandon their more fuel-thirsty cars and trucks for scooters -- also known as mopeds and motorbikes -- that can get from 60 to 90 miles per gallon of gasoline.
So far, according to figures published by the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine, Calif., that bet is paying off in terms of rapidly rising U.S. scooter sales.
MIC analysts say U.S. scooter sales rose to 84,000 last year, up from 12,000 in 1997. They are projecting a 20 percent increase in scooter sales for 2004, up to 100,800.
High mileage, low purchase prices and, in the case of Vespa, Italian styling flair are boosting the ranks of scooter owners.
Certain misconceptions also are playing a role in higher scooter sales. For example, there is a popular belief among scooter shoppers that they can buy and ride the bikes with little or no training and without getting a license.
The truth is that scooter laws vary from state to state. But generally, as is the case in Maryland and Virginia, the more lenient scooter laws, such as those not requiring a license, apply only to scooters having engine displacements of 50 cubic centimeters or less and that have a top speed of 30 miles per hour -- those generally forbidden on highways. Examples include the Honda Fusion 50 and the Vespa ET2.
Scooters with an engine displacement -- the volume of air-fuel mixture that can be held in a combustion chamber -- exceeding 50 cubic centimeters and with top speeds above 60 miles per hour generally require a motorcycle license, according to an MIC summary of state scooter laws.
For example, there is Vespa's 200 cubic-centimeter Granturismo (GT), recently introduced in San Francisco. The Vespa GT, which can get up to 70 miles per gallon and run 70 miles per hour, has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $4,899, compared with $3,999 for the ET4 and $2,999 for the ET2.
Those kinds of retail prices, combined with high mileage figures, are proving irresistible to some consumers, and that is turning into a good thing for Piaggio, Vespa and the people of Pontedera.
Vespa long has been the cult-mobile of scooters, made popular in movies such as "Roman Holiday," a 1953 flick starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. More recently, there was the romantic film "Under the Tuscan Sun," in which Diane Lane hitched a ride with her lover.
Then, of course, there is almost any news photo of a modern-day Italian street in which a Vespa scooter is bound to be somewhere in evidence. Says Piaggio USA Inc. President Costantino Sambuy, "This is the right time for Vespa in the United States. We're coming in with the right product at the right time."
Vespa scooters were relatively strong sellers in the United States in the early 1970s, when gasoline shortages caused more of a problem than high pump prices. But the little scooters, absent emissions-control mechanisms, ran afoul of clean-air standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Gasoline shortages ended. Gasoline prices rose along with smog levels. Vespa sales fell.
Vespa officials now say they are in better shape to deal with America's clean-air regulations. And the company hopes to counter the vicissitudes of the U.S. petroleum market in the same way that car companies handle that problem.
It's simple: When gasoline prices are high, push models such as the super-fuel-efficient ET2 and the new Piaggio Typhoon 50. When gas prices are low, and consumers start demanding more horsepower and speed, well, there is the higher-performance Granturismo.
It's not just gasoline prices and low purchase price that have pushed Vespa sales, though, Sambuy says. Think marketing: "There was no one really marketing them until we came in [with Piaggio USA Inc.] in 2000."
And, according to the Piaggio marketing mandate, never, ever forget to emphasize style -- including styling in Vespa accessories such as hats, jackets, watches, bags, et cetera. Which may be why 35 percent of Vespa's buyers are women, Sambuy said, unusual for a two-wheeled vehicle, for which women buyers are often in the single digits.
General Washington metro area scooter laws:
* No scooters on bike paths.
* Scooters may use street bike lanes when proceeding under 30 miles per hour.
* In Virginia, a scooter is considered a moped, and is not subject to motorcycle licensing requirements, if it is under 50 CCs and has a maximum speed of less than 30 miles per hour.
* Neither Maryland nor Virginia requires helmets for moped riders. (But most medical authorities, citing increased risk of head injuries, strongly recommend the use of helmets when riding bikes of any type.) Maryland requires that scooter operators have an operator's permit.
It is best to check both your local and state vehicle laws before purchasing a scooter. This column also recommends that you speak with your auto insurer.