Gas Scooter History
Step-through gas scooters have been around since the 1890's. The Autoped, produced from 1915 to 1922, is often cited as the first U.S. mass-produced motorized scooter. There was no seat - the driver stood on a step-through platform.
Powering the Autoped was a 155cc four-stroke engine mounted over the front wheel. After riding, the steering column could be folded onto the platform to store the scooter more easily.
Picture Courtesy Smithsonian Museum
The popularity of motor scooters in the U.S. continued growing in the 1930's. Much of this was from the advent of newly-built military bases, looking for a better way to relay communications.
Popular in the 1930's and 1940's, Moto Scoot scooters were powered by either a Briggs & Stratton or Lauson engine. Some models featured an automatic centrifugal clutch integral with a Salsbury-type transmission or CVT.
America's entry into World War II had many scooter manufacturers converting their facilities toward making military equipment. When post-war Moto Scoot production resumed in 1946, the name had been changed to American Moto-Scoot.
Scooters During World War II
Being small, light, quiet, and maneuverable, scooters were of great use throughout World War Two. American, British, German, and Italian militaries all utilized gas scooters. Cushman alone would supply the U.S. military with nearly 15,000 scooters.
Designed to be dropped by parachute to support airborne troops, the Cushman 53 scooter featured a single-cylinder, four-stroke 242cc engine producing 4.6 horsepower, and capable of transporting a full-sized adult.
U.S. Airborne divisions air-dropped thousands of olive-green Model 53 scooters into Europe during WWII. After the war ended, Cushman produced a civilian version of the Model 53, called the 53A.
During the war years, Cushman was allowed to sell motorized vehicles to American civilians because they were considered "energy-savers."
Among the British-built WW2 scooters was the folding Welbike, also designed to be dropped by parachute. The scooters were produced by the Excelsior Motor Company of Birmingham and powered by a 98cc two-stroke engine. The original Welbike was built between 1942 and 1943, with a reported 3,641 units produced for military operations.
Post WWII Europe
After the war was over, the Italian government offered financial support to companies producing inexpensive vehicles. Severe gas rationing made the scooter's fuel economy very attractive to people all over Europe.
Whereas early American and British scooters forfeited looks for functionality, Italian scooters had both. Clean, curvy shapes were pleasing to the eye, making them popular with men and women alike.
During WWII, the Piaggio airplane factory in Italy was completely destroyed during air raids. After the war ended, they switched from airplane manufacture to lightweight, economical scooters.
The Piaggi-built Vespa was introduced in 1946, featuring a unibody steel chassis and sheet metal body, shaped to protect the rider from road debris. Power was supplied by a two-stroke 98cc engine mounted to the swing arm. In 1948, a 125cc Vespa was offered.
Vespa was an immediate success and enjoyed instant notoriety. By the end of 1949, they produced 35,000 scooters. A year later, Vespa began manufacturing in Germany, and in 1951 began manufacturing in Great Britain and France. In all, Vespa scooters were produced in over 12 different countries.
Within 10 years, Vespa would produce over one million scooters.
In 1947, the Italian company Innocenti debuted their new scooter, the Lambretta. Instead of being built around a unibody chassis, they were built on a more conventional tubular frame. Whereas the Vespa was powered by a swing-arm mounted 98cc engine, Lambretta scooters had a frame-mounted 125cc engine.
Lambretta scooters rode on 10" wheels and had cable-operated mechanical brakes. A second seat provided extra versatility.
After building some four million scooters, Innocenti ceased Lambretta production in 1971. In 2017, Lambretta debuted the V-Special model, which is based on the SYM Fiddle.
Other Italian scooter manufacturers include Benelli, Gilera, and Malaguti.
After WWII, the Heinkel company switched from aircraft manufacture to designing and building scooters. Messerschmitt took over the German license to manufacture Vespa scooters from Hoffman in 1954. Other German scooter manufacturers include NSU, Zundapp, Maico, Glas and DKW.
Compared to the more common 10" wheels of other scooters, the Zundapp Bella featured 12" cast aluminum wheels. A wide double seat and cast aluminum fold-down foot boards allowed for comfortable two-up riding. A large two-gallon gas tank provided longer trips before re-fueling.
The Zundapp Bella was offered in both 150cc and 200cc models. Between 1953 and 1964, about 130,000 examples of the Bella scooter were sold.
After WW2, the British-built Welbike morphed into the Corgi scooter, slightly modified for civilian use, but powered by the same 98cc engine. The Corgi was utilized by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), and were often used as transport for the maintenance staff.
Several British motorcycle companies, including Triumph and BSA, also produced scooters. The Triumph Tigress scooter was also sold as the BSA Sunbeam. Differences between the two were purely cosmetic. Engine choices were a 175cc two-stroke single-cylinder engine which produced 7.5 horsepower, or a 250cc four-stroke twin-cylinder producing 10 horsepower.
From 1951 to 1961, the U.K. based Douglas company produced Vespa scooters under license.
Aside from supplying the U.S. Army with scooters during the war years, the Cushman Company produced civilian motor scooters from 1936 to 1965. Most were powered by a single-cylinder gas engine operated by a foot starter.
By 1950, Cushman was producing 10,000 gas scooters per year. Production peaked in the late 1950's with production at about 15,000 scooters per year.
In 1965, Cushman stopped building scooters, but continued building golf carts and utility carts.
Based in Compton, California, Salsbury began building scooters in 1936. Two years later, they introduced a continuously variable transmission (CVT) model. This was purported to be the first use of a CVT on a scooter.
Salsbury switched to wartime production in 1942, and returned to scooter production after the war. Their popular step-through models included the C-47, P-48, and P-49.
Not only did Sears sell Cushman scooters under their Allstate brand, they also imported several Vespa models re-badged as Allstates. The last year of sales (1966-1967), the Allstate was simply called the Sears scooter.
From the same company that produced such iconic motorcycles as the Knucklehead, Panhead and Shovelhead, the Motor Company produced the Topper scooter from 1960 to 1965. Based off the German DKW RT125, the two-stroke engine was also used on the Harley-Davidson Hummer motorcycle.
The H-D Topper had a fiberglass body, continuously variable transmission, and pull-cord starter. Ultra-rare options include a factory sidecar and a 200-pound capacity, side-mounted utility box.
Other American scooter manufacturers include Powell, Moto-scoot, and Rock-Ola.
In 1983, Honda launched the Aero 50, featuring a fully automatic transmission. As the Japanese model didn't meet U.S. emission standards, several changes were made and it was re-launched in 1985. The Honda Aero 50 is often referred to as the first modern scooter.
Up until the mid-eighties, Vespa and Lambretta dominated the gas scooter market. It was around this time that Honda introduced the Elite scooter, and Yamaha it's Riva model, which began the Japanese taking over (at least in sales) the scooter market.
Scooters currently made in Taiwan include SYM and PGO. Also entering the U.S. market were Kymco, the Genuine Scooter Company, ETON and MZ.
India imports two major scooter manufacturers, LML and Bajaj. LML produces the Stella, a copy of the Vespa, for The Genuine Scooter Company.
Since the mid-nineties, China has become a global leader in gas scooter production.
Lane Motor Museum
In 2015, I had the pleasure of visiting the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. Along with an impressive display of European cars and motorcycles, there was a nice array of vintage scooters on display.