Wednesday, June 5, 2013

50 Years/414,000 Miles of Scootering

The following article appeared in a relatively obscure U.S. scooter club newsletter, Scootin’ the magazine of Scoot-Tours — the National Touring Scooter Riders Association. The club had its strongest presence mostly about five to fifteen years ago, serving the interests of large-displacement scooter riders.  Back then the scooter of choice for most Scoot-Tours members was the Honda Helix; later many members rode Suzuki Burgmans. It was mostly an older crowd and certainly many of the members were old enough to remember American scootering’s heyday in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Mr. Gerber’s letter was written in the early-1990s, when Helix sales were at their peak.

Herein Mr. Gerber outlines his scooter-riding career. It underscores some of the sources of his own unique origins in his interest in scooters. Like a young teenager of today who obsessively reads skateboarding magazines, he ate up each issue of Scootourist magazine. (See Flashback in this issue.) The magazine helped shape his passion for world scooter travel. His adolescent heroes were those people who bravely explored the world by scooter.

Mr. Gerber was known for his strident opinions. Even though we knew him better, he sometimes came across as excessively angry. I chalk this up to his burning life-long passion for all things scooter: for preserving the hobby and for keeping the community together. He had no kind things to say about the ET4 when it arrived in the U.S. Before Piaggio’s return to the U.S. in 2002, the VCOA raffled off a gray-market imported ET4 Vespa at Amerivespa San Diego in 1999. At the gala dinner and award ceremony Mr. Gerber won an award. (We think it was for furthest traveled.) While up at the stage he helped himself to the microphone and launched into a passionate non-sequitur about the ET4. He likened calling it a Vespa to a dolled-up transvestite winning a beauty pageant. Given the un-PC nature of his comments and how there were many dealers in the audience aspiring to someday soon sell  ET4s, many jaws dropped. To John Gerber, the ET4 was a betrayal of the utilitarian simplicity and long-range reliability of the manually-geared Vespa. There was a long list of outrages with this new modern “Vespa,” but at the top was the drive belt. He felt that no self-respecting long-range scootourist should have to put up with the indignity of a drive belt turning to confetti somewhere on the road.  

It is for this reason that it is interesting that at the end of the story below he gives a grudging acknowledgement to the Honda Helix. Maybe to him it was acceptable for some other scooter to go automatic but not his sacred Vespa? Some may disagree, but I think that more recently he was making a few side-long glances at modern Vespas, particularly the ones with touring capacity. (He still held out hope for a 250cc manual Vespa.) Above all — and there is no doubt about this — Mr. Gerber supported scootering in all forms. In spite of his strident pronouncements he would never let his own personal preferences be divisive to building a world fellowship of scootering.

The original title of the letter was Thirty Years/343,000 Miles of Scooters. I changed the title to more accurately reflect Mr. Gerber’s complete life in scootering at the time of his death.

I enjoyed the account of Jean Bartlow's amazing 600,000-700,000 miles of scootering. Surely, this must be a record for both total miles and continuous years of scootering. There are undoubtedly some real stories here and hopefully newsletter readers will have the opportunity to hear much more of Jean's exploits and scooter experiences.

Although my own three decades of scooter exploits pale in comparison, I would like to take this opportunity to share them with newsletter readers. My involvement with scooters began as a teenager in Oklahoma during the late-1950s and early-1960s. Like many other Midwestern states, Oklahoma allowed a 5hp scooter license at age 14. This meant there were few things as desirable to a teenage boy as a scooter. Approximately 30-40 graced the parking lot of my local high school, mainly Cushmans and Mustangs, but with a scattering of Vespas and Lambrettas. Unfortunately, my meager paper route earnings were not enough for a scooter, so my first machine was a used Ward's Mobylette moped, surely one of the most unreliable two-wheelers of all time. This was followed by a new Sear's Allstate Puch moped. Although the Puch was extremely reliable, I was soon disappointed by its lack of performance and continued to save for a scooter. Finally, in 1962 I had saved up enough to purchase a used 1957 Lambretta 150 LD for $150.

Several things converged to extend my interests into scooter touring. During this time, I subscribed to the San Francisco-based Scootourist magazine, which did a great deal to turn me into a hardcore scooter enthusiast. Each month's issue was eagerly awaited and read from cover to cover many times over. I was particularly fascinated by the articles of Ted Jacques describing various global scooter exploits. Several years earlier I had met a scooterist travelling around the world on a Lambretta. I vowed to do the same thing someday. By now living in Wisconsin, I took the Lambretta on numerous trips throughout the state and neighboring Minnesota, putting 8,000 miles on it in less than a year. The Lambretta met its end when it caught fire on a trip to Colorado in 1963. I immediately, I purchased a used 1961 Lambretta TV 175 Series II at a shop in Denver for $140 and continued back to Wisconsin, covering an amazing 950 miles in 24 hours. Although I put 9,000 miles on it, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the Lambretta's lack of reliability and poor parts service. I soon set my sights on a Vespa.

By the following year I had saved enough to buy a new Vespa Grand Sport 160. The GS, with amazing performance and near total reliability, was everything I had hoped for in a scooter. It was to be the start of a long love affair with the Vespa that has continued through a succession of six Vespas. Almost immediately, I set out to systematically tour the U.S. and later the rest of the world. To date, I have travelled by Vespa in all 48 of the continental states and over 80 foreign countries on five continents.

The Vespas owned, approximate mileage, and major trips taken (those over 4,000 miles; trips under 4,000 are too numerous to list) can be summarized as follows:

Model        Years used        Total mileage
GS 160        1964-1967        51,000
1964 Wisconsin to East Coast, 4,500 miles
1965 Wisconsin to West Coast, 7,000 miles
1966 Mexico and Central America tour (Wisconsin to Panama and back), 11,000 miles

SS 180        1967-1970        37,000
1967 European tour, 7,000 miles
1968 Minnesota to California, 7,000 miles
1979 Minnesota to East Coast via Trans-Canadian Highway, 4,000

Rally 180    1970-1972        35,000
1970 Minnesota to Quebec, 4,000 miles
1971-1972 Pan-American Highway tour (Minnesota to Tierra del Fuego), 25,000 miles

Rally 180    1973-1978        46,000
1973 European tour, 5,000 miles
1974 Rocky Mountain tour, 5,000 miles
1976 Southwest tour, 4,000 miles
1977 Pacific Northwest tour, 5,000 miles

Rally 200    1978-1983        60,000
1978 Trans-Asian Highway tour (Singapore to London), 20,000 miles
1979 Canadian Maritime provinces tour, 4,000 miles
1980 Rocky Mountain tour, 4,000 miles

P200e        1983-Present        74,000 (thus far)
1984 Southern tour, 4,000 miles
1986 Southern tour, 4,000 miles

In addition, I own two vintage Heinkel Tourists (a large luxury touring scooter much like the Helix) on which I have put 23,000 miles. Taken together, all of this adds up to a total scooter mileage of 343,000 miles. (Editor’s note: Again, as noted above, shortly before his death, he tabulated his total miles at 414,000.) Today, time and circumstances do not permit the amount of long distance touring I would like to do. Most trips are confined to weekend trips around New England on my Heinkel or an occasional 2,000 mile two week trip.

Scoot-Tours members will undoubtedly wonder why, given my passion for scooter touring, I do not ride a Helix, the touring scooter par excellance. In part, this is due to a lingering resentment over what the Japanese motorcycle industry did to the European motorcycle and scooter industry in the U.S. during the early 1960s. I also find Vespa reliability second to none. The fact that Vespa parts cost only about a third the price of Helix parts is also of some significance. My current goal is to get one of the new Vespa Cosas, which are presently unavailable in the U.S. However, I do not think the Helix merits the criticism commonly leveled against other Japanese motorcycles and scooters (i.e. homogenous machines lacking in personality and character). Could any scooter possibly match the presence and personality of a Helix? I also admit to finding the freeway touring capability of the Helix highly appealing. And, as my nine-year-old son starts to do more touring with me, the passenger carrying capacity of the Helix assumes increasing importance. Perhaps at some point...

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