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Helping You to Roam, as in Italy

Vespas and other hot-selling scooters afford a zippy ride plus a cool image

September 18, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a recent morning, Gary Newman set off for work from his Studio City home on his chromed-out Vespa. He tucked his colorful tie into his sweater and strapped on his helmet. As he sped by a local golf course, men turned to watch. When he stopped, they crowded around like young boys to take a look.

"You need a beautiful woman on the back," yelled one man. "With her hands in the air ... like this!"

Newman, 50, who sells lawn crypts for Mount Sinai Memorial Park, had a Vespa 30 years ago and had dreamed of having another ever since. Shortly after a Vespa boutique opened in Sherman Oaks in late 2000, Newman rushed to get one. He bought a white one for $4,000 because his son told him it looked sexy. He invested another $4,000 in chroming it out and putting in a racing engine. And though he got it for kicks, before long it became his main mode of transportation. He has since logged 11,000 miles on the scooter, and his four-door BMW 528i often sits in the garage. "I tell you," he says, "this is just a lot more fun."

Today's scooter fad cuts across gender and age demographics. Motor scooters are much easier to ride than motorcycles and are characterized by a step-through design. Generally, they have smaller engines than motorcycles, automatic transmissions and smaller wheels. They appeal to both genders. Riders are old-time aficionados and young hipsters, millionaires who take their scooters on their yachts to Caribbean islands, college students who zip around campus.

And not just in L.A. Nationwide, motor scooter sales have more than quadrupled in the last six years, according to the Irvine-based Motorcycle Industry Council. In 1996, 12,000 scooters were sold nationwide. Three years later, the figure had more than doubled to 25,000. And by 2001, sales of scooters reached 50,000.

Some manufacturers attribute the revival of scooter chic to the surge of Italian designs hitting the American market. Italian manufacturer Aprilia entered the U.S. market at the end of 1999, and after a nearly 20-year hiatus, Piaggio relaunched its retooled, retro, eco-friendly Vespa stateside with the Sherman Oaks boutique and hopes to open its 80th shop by early next year.

Both scooters and motorcycles have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years due to better technology, more interesting designs and improved niche marketing. Indeed, some of today's scooters--such as Aprilia's Atlantic 500, and Honda's Silver Wing, which sells for about $7,500--are beginning to blur the line between scooters and motorcycles, in both their appearance and engine size.

"The level of development in two-wheel technology in the last decade is really wonderful," says Ty van Hooydonk, a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council. "Scooters are a lot better than they have ever been. These really are the golden days of motorcycling and scooters."

But for most scooter buyers, it's all about image.

In the U.S., Piaggio doesn't focus on selling a scooter. It focuses on selling a lifestyle. "It's like a Mercedes or a BMW," says Mike Malamut, president of Vespa of California, who runs the Sherman Oaks, Santa Monica and Newport Beach boutiques.

Scooters were designed in Italy as runabouts to get you around town inexpensively, but Vespas sold in the United States are "more like a toy, or a luxury item," Malamut says.

In Italy, where the roads are narrow, parking places scarce and gas more expensive, scooters are simply a mode of transportation. "They are a way to go from A to B," says Giancarlo Fantappie, president of Piaggio USA.

But in the United States the strategy is different: Vespa boutiques here are slick and futuristic. In Sherman Oaks, banners of movie stars riding Vespas adorn one wall. Customers can sip cappuccinos brewed on the premises as they look at accessories--helmets, trunks, T-shirts, even soap. Piaggio brought in its own Italian designers to create the store, importing every detail, down to the light fixtures from Italy. "The whole concept of the boutique is not the motor scooter per se," says Fantappie. "It is to sell a little piece of Italy."

The scooter-as-fashion marketing approach appears to be benefiting non-Vespa scooter vendors as well. Scooter manufacturers such as Honda and Yamaha sell their scooters alongside motorcycles, not out of a separate boutique. Some dealers find the current scooter cachet is pulling in a new clientele in search of cool.

But that Italian influence is affecting what customers are asking for. Due to customer demand, Yamaha in 2001 introduced the Vino Classic, a $1,600 scooter with a 49-cc engine. The scooter was specifically designed to appeal to customers' fetish for European flair, with rounded, more organic styling and smooth, swooping lines.

"There have been a lot of European scooters that have come over here and sparked a lot of interest," says Brad Banister, spokesman for Yamaha Motor Corp., USA.

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