Speaking up for scooters
I never harboured childhood dreams of owning a traditional motorbike - it was always a scooter I hankered after. (Yes, I was a weird kid.) The look, the sound, the small size and the ability to hop on and go appealed to me from the age of twelve or so, but I was twenty before I had a scooter of my own.
I took CBT in 1997 and the A1 Light Motorcycle licence a year later, and was perfectly happy with my succession of retro-looking 125cc Vespas. However, a week of trying to keep up with the Pans on the BWAM France trip in May 2005 convinced me that I needed something bigger. In June I took another test and graduated to a maxi-scooter.
I took the full automatic licence - I still didn't fancy all that messing about with gears. Luckily the current crop of scooters includes a wide range of large-engined machines, known as maxi-scooters, and the day after passing my test I took home a 500cc Gilera Nexus. The extra oomph has given me a lot more confidence in my vehicle, especially when joining motorways and on overtakes, has allowed me to range much further afield and gives me a chance of passing the Advanced test (only possible on a bike that can sustain the National Speed Limit). Although I don't regret a single moment of the years I spent on 125s, I love my 500 to pieces.
What is a scooter anyway?
Some people will refer to anything scooter-shaped as a ‘moped’ (or indeed ‘hairdryer’). A moped, of course, is a motorcycle with an engine capacity of less than 50cc; the Nexus has ten times that!
‘Scooter’ is more a stylistic term than a technical one. As the fuel tank is located under the seat or between your feet, you mount a scooter by stepping through rather than swinging your leg over. You sit more upright than on most bikes, with nothing between your knees, and rest your boots on a footboard rather than pegs.
Modern scooters are automatic, using a continuously variable transmission (CVT), so there's no clutch, and the back brake is operated from the left handlebar, as on a pushbike. Acceleration and speed are controlled entirely by the throttle and very smooth.
Because there's no engine braking you'll use the brakes more than you would on a geared bike, but scooter brakes tend to be very efficient with newer models having linked brakes or ABS.
There are many different styles of scooter. The Piaggio X9 is a great commuter machine, while the 600cc Honda Silver Wing and 650cc Suzuki Burgman eat up holiday miles and easily swallow a week's worth of luggage. Gilera's Runner and Yamaha's TMAX are at the sportier end of the spectrum. The Vespa GS and LX marry classic looks with modern technology. Whatever your needs and tastes, and whatever shape and size you are, there's a scooter to suit you.
What are the advantages?
Scooters are very comfortable. Because your feet are tucked behind the legshield, they don't get so cold - and you'll have more protection in a crash, if you manage to stay on the bike. It's easy to adjust your posture to prevent stiffness. Seats are wide and soft. Hardcore bikers might scoff at the idea of being comfy on a bike, but it's common sense: if you're in physical discomfort you can't concentrate properly on the ride.
The lack of gears makes a scooter the best choice for stop-start city traffic, not to mention nippy away from the lights. But don't write them off as urban runabouts; that comfortable riding position means they're ideal for longer journeys too.
Fuel economy is excellent, with 250cc and 500cc scooters commonly doing 50 - 70 miles to the gallon. It's not unheard of for owners of big thirsty bikes to keep a scooter for commuting and trips to Sainsbury's.
One warm summer evening I visited the Mucky Duck at Effingham with a group of maxi-scooter riders. While other bikers juggled helmet, leathers and luggage, we strolled into the bar unencumbered having stowed everything safely away. There's room for a full-face helmet, sometimes two, under the seat, and it's easy to fit a topbox too. A glovebox for your map, sunglasses and other paraphernalia, and a hook on the legshield (popularly known as the ‘curry hook’, since it's a great way to transport your takeaway) further increase the storage capacity.
Who rides them?
Think of a scooter rider and you'll probably envisage a Mod in a fishtail parka or a chav with his helmet perched cheekily atop his head. When I acquired the Nexus I joined an online forum for maxi-scooter enthusiasts and soon learned that these vehicles are owned by a wide range of bikers, from students to grannies. Forum members use their machines for picking the kids up from school, for travelling solo across continental Europe, and everything in between. I've yet to encounter a chav, but I know of four other scooter riders who are IAM Members or Associates, and several who are members of MAG or BMF.
Some scooter riders are unable to get their leg over a bike due to illness, injury or advancing years, but find a step-thru suits their needs. Some are car drivers sick to death of queues, the congestion charge and the price of petrol, who want a bike that's easy to handle and good in traffic. And some, like me, simply love scooters in the way that other bikers are passionate about Harleys or sports bikes.
More and more scooters are appearing on our roads, and they are getting bigger and faster all the time. Technology is advancing, allowing more efficient and powerful automatic transmissions to be developed, and the big motorcycle manufacturers are taking more interest in scooters as their share of the market increases. There are rumours of an 850cc model from Piaggio, while Honda's proposed ‘sports automatic’, the E4-01, looks a lot like a 900cc scooter to me.
Let's hope that the riders of these powerful machines elect to take some advanced training - and that the IAM makes them welcome.