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A Clique for Classics

May 11, 1999|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tattooed and leather-clad bikers can be an unnerving sight around a family restaurant. The Hollywood Rat Pack, however, invokes nothing more than smiles and friendly waves from strangers when it meets once a month at Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood.

True, a dozen Vespas lined up along the curb aren't nearly as intimidating as a growling pack of Harley-Davidsons. We're talking "Roman Holiday" here, not "Easy Rider." Still, the owners of classic scooters are enthusiastic about riding the open road, feeling the wind on their faces and the power . . . OK, not that much power.

"Hell raiser" is not a term often associated with scooter riders. Dressed in Levi's and flight jackets with rally patches, riders often attract as much attention as their bikes, which are known for multiple mirrors, fancy chrome jobs, 10-inch tires and four-speed selectors on the handlebars.

The days of "Quadrophenia" and arguments between scooter-straddling mods and motorcycle-riding rockers are long gone, replaced by disagreements over which is better--the Italian-made Vespa or rival Lambretta. A compromise is reached without a drop of blood: "Lambrettas look better," says Rat Pack member Chris Taylor.

"Vespas run better," counters Adrian Howard.

Mike Frankovich founded the Rat Pack about one year ago, after his discharge from the Navy. He became enthralled with Vespas following a stint in Hong Kong, where he noticed scooters ruled the crowded roads. In June, he organized his first ride. The Rat Pack now boasts a membership of about one dozen, and is one of three scooter clubs in the area, the others being Hard Pack of Orange County and the Vespa Club of Pasadena.

At the Rat Pack's monthly meets, discussions usually range from an upcoming rally to whether Jerry Seinfeld got ripped off for spending $12,000 on a restored Vespa P-200. (Other celebrity Vespa owners include Brian Setzer and Ellen DeGeneres.)

Scooter clubs are growing in part because of the Internet and increased visibility. Third Eye Blind used scooters in its music video. Several Rat Pack members were hired for Mike Myers' much-anticipated sequel, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

But as their popularity gains momentum, scooters are becoming harder to find. In the 1980s, California banned the import of two-stroke motors for environmental reasons. Since California was the biggest market for scooters in the U.S., Vespa stopped importing them altogether in 1983.

But Vespa is gearing up to try again, with a new, environmentally friendly four-stroke model. Until then, bike riders will keep their eyes open for the pre-1980s classics, which are still legal.

"A lot of bikes that were sitting in garages for years are coming out again," says Frankovich, who owns six Vespas and a 1960 Harley-Davidson.

The advantages to riding a scooter are numerous, club members agree. They get about 70 miles a gallon, and riders can better navigate through traffic. On a recent ride, the club visited the Getty Museum without reservations (they aren't required for two-wheeled vehicles).

And, as they mingle outside Barney's at a recent meet, a blond stranger in a convertible drives by. She honks and waves.

"That," says club member Steven Elliott, "is another reason to ride."

The Hollywood Rat Pack: (310) 839-3980 and http://www.scooterclassifieds.com/ratpack. both cq

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