Around Maine on Two Little Wheels - Scooter Questions

There are two occasions when you realize why you’re riding a scooter around town. One is flying across the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge between Portland and South Portland all alone at ten pm. The other is paying the three bucks it costs to fill up the tank.

Given the run up in gas prices over the last couple of years, it’s probably not a surprise that I’m seeing more and more scooters around Portland these days. In Europe and Asia, where gasoline has been priced higher longer, scooters are far more common than in the United States. In the land of bigger and faster, scooters have been a curiosity. But now bigger and faster is giving some ground to cheaper and more efficient. While a bicycle might be both cheaper and more efficient than the scooter, a scooter is probably the cheapest and most efficient way to play in traffic with the big boys.

With a small engine and wheels and step-through design, the constant velocity transmission (CVT) scooter might be the simplest motorized vehicle in the world to drive. It’s not quite like driving your armchair, but it’s not that far off. The low center-of-gravity makes it extremely stable and nimble on the road. For the most part all you do is twist the throttle and go.

Vespa in the Wild: Parked Outside One City Center in Portland

Mike Politte is the owner of Stanley Subaru in Trenton, near Ellsworth. He just added a line of scooters to his business this year and he’s been amazed at the reaction. “Everyone has been incredibly receptive. Business has been tenfold what I forecast.” Politte’s dealership is the only one in Maine selling Vespas, which are the top-of-the-line in scooters. They’re beautiful, and all metal. The Italian company has been making scooters for the better part of a century. Basically what Harley is to motorcycles, Vespa is to scooters. Of course you pay for the prestige, and Vespa scooters tend to cost more than most other brands.

I’d been thinking about picking up a scooter for a while, and the idea picked up some steam when I saw my colleague Stephen Nash’s 50 cc Honda Ruckus parked outside the office. Steve swears by his scooter as an energy and cash-saving measure — and he commutes to the office most days on his bike. I had some questions, and Steve answered them. Then I went looking for a ride. Unfortunately it was November last year and most every dealer had sold out of their stock.

When spring rolled around, I was still thinking about the scooter, especially as I watched the gas prices rise with the temperature. I visited dealers to see if their new stock had arrived, but the price on my preferred model, the Yamaha Vino 125 was just a bit too steep. Finally I took the plunge when I found the very scooter I was looking for, slightly used, at a local dealer.

Stephen's Honda Ruckus

I hadn’t counted on all the attention you attract driving around town, and just like Stephen, I got asked questions all the time, by people on the sidewalk, cars next to me waiting at the light, or people I met in parking lots, checking the thing out when I come out of a store. So I thought now that I have put a thousand miles on my scooter this summer, I would put together a short list of the most common questions people ask me while I’m on my scooter.

What is it? Mine is a Yamaha Vino 125. If you watch American Chopper on cable's TLC, it’s the same scooter Mikey and Vinnie took on their New England trip. I chose the 125 because it has a larger engine than the 50 (or 49) cc scooters and I’m a really big guy. I wanted enough power to haul my mass up the street at a reasonable speed. For a smaller person, a 50cc scooter might be fine. Smaller scooters have other advantages, which I’ll get into later.

How much did it cost? Mine, used, was two thousand dollars. A new one would cost about $2600 plus taxes and fees, which might bring it up to three grand. You can get bigger scooters, but right after the 125/150cc level the prices leap to the $5000 range.

The 50cc scooters seem to run around $1800-2200 retail new. Yamaha makes a 49cc version of my Vino125 called the Vino Classic, and Honda makes a 49cc called the Metropolitan that is completely adorable. The Honda Ruckus, like the one Stephen has, is about as masculine a 49cc scooter as you’ll find. If you really want the classic scooter, The Italian brand Vespa is available at one dealer in Maine in Trenton.

This Honda Elite was seen in a Portland Parking Garage next to Stephen's Ruckus

How fast does it go? That’s kind of a complicated question. For me, and again, I’m a really big guy, I can get up to 30mph with little trouble pretty much anywhere, even up a hill. Given a little time and a straight road, I can easily get the thing up to 45 miles an hour, and if I have a downhill or a nice tailwind to get me going, I can do 50 or 60mph. Usually the only place I have any trouble is on relatively rural roads with speed limits at 45 to 50. If cars come up behind me, I pull over to the side and let them go past, whenever possible. Stephen reports his 49cc Ruckus will get up to 40 and even faster on a long flat stretch, but he’s a normal-sized man. The speedometer on his Ruckus only goes to 40. Stephen says the 49cc is a 20-40 mph vehicle.

Can you take it on the highway? No. And I wouldn’t want to. That’s one of the things I like about it. You have to plan routes that don’t involve the highway. It's definitely a way to learn new things about the places you pass everyday. You couldn’t keep up with highway speeds, anyway. There are touring scooters with much larger engines that can keep up on the highway.

Where did you get it? Mine came from a motorcycle dealer. Most motorcycle dealers have at least a few on the floor this time of year.

How much did it cost to register/insure? Your mileage may vary, but for me the insurance for the year was about $140 and registration was about $60.

Yamaha C3
The Yamaha C3 is a newer model. This one shared the bike rack outside One City Center with the Vespa above

Do you need a special license? For my Vino 125, yes. Fortunately for me, I’ve had a motorcycle license since I was a teenager, even though it’s been well over a decade since the last time I’d ridden a motorcycle. The 49/50 cc models require only a regular drivers license to ride on the road. You’ll need a motorcycle license for any scooter or motorcycle with an engine larger than 50cc. Mark Politte says that’s an obstacle for some, but, getting a motorcycle permit really isn’t very hard. Most people take a one-day motorcycle safety class and then a written test. The road test is similar to the one you took to get your driver’s license, except the tester follows behind you in a car and signals you with horn and headlights.

What kind of mileage do you get? I’ve been getting about 65 miles per gallon. A smaller person might do better and I’ve heard the 50cc scooters get as much as a hundred miles per gallon. Mike Politte explains, “Gas mileage has a lot to do with where you drive and how you drive and the size of the driver.”

Don’t the bugs hit you? Yes the bugs hit you, and the wind, and the rain, and small bits of sand from the tires of vehicles ahead of you. It’s all part of the experience, But driving the scooter in town still is a whole lot more fun than driving in traffic in a car.

How does your big rear feel on that thing? Just fine thanks. Though my wallet is thicker with the gas money I save.

by Chad Gilley
July 30, 2007