Scooters Come Zipping Out Of The Past

But nostalgia isn't the only reason for their popularity

Stand-up scooters are all the rage among preteens and adolescents. But a growing number of adults are zipping around on scooters of a different kind: the motorized bikes Europeans have relied on for transport since the 1940s. Audrey Hepburn rode one in Roman Holiday, but more recently, scooters have made cameos in The Talented Mr. Ripley and the Austin Powers films, as well as numerous music videos and print ads.

The exposure has given the scooter a retro cachet, allowing it to ride the same nostalgia fad as the Volkswagen Beetle. There are also practical reasons for the scooter's growing popularity. With gas prices soaring and urban parking spaces hard to find, "scooters have become unbelievably popular," says Barry Synoground, publisher of Scoot! Quarterly, a magazine dedicated to the trend.

As a result, more makes and models are available with a full range of options and prices. Italian makers Aprilia and Italjet have entered the U.S. market with classically styled scooters reminiscent of models made in Italy by Vespa and Lambretta after World War II--but boasting engines that meet today's emissions standards. Before 1998, aficionados seeking vintage styling made do with restored American-made Cushmans (the company quit making scooters in the 1960s), or Vespas and Lambrettas that were imported before stricter pollution laws banned them in the 1980s.

NEW BREED. Other new entrants are MuZ of Germany and Derbi of Spain, both offering more futuristic, aerodynamic designs. They join Japanese manufacturers Honda and Yamaha, whose scooters also have a modern, sleek look. Regardless of style, you can spend anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the size and complexity of the engine and various extras such as antitheft devices and hand-tooled leather saddles.

The first thing to understand about scooters is that they aren't motorcycles. You don't straddle them; rather, you sit, resting your feet on a floorboard in front of you. Scooters also have leg shields to protect you from dust and puddles.

Most of the newer models are automatic, so you don't have to worry about shifting gears. And they're easier to maneuver than motorcycles, thanks to their smaller wheels and wheelbase. Scooters are hundreds of pounds lighter than motorcycles, zippier, and "just plain more fun to ride," says Tom Karppi, a 39-year-old archivist for the U.S. Navy and member of the Funky Spunk Monkeys scooter club, which meets every month to scoot around Annapolis, Md. Karppi gave up his Harley-Davidson for a snappy red-and-white Aprilia in 1999.

When buying a scooter, you have to decide how environmentally friendly you want your machine to be. New models, which get 45 to 65 miles per gallon of unleaded gas, emit far less exhaust, and thus comply with clean-air regulations. Most manufacturers now make scooters with four-stroke engines as well as the traditional two-stroke kind. Four-stroke engines--similar to your car's--keep the lubrication and fuel systems separate. This checks emission levels, because no oil is burned in the combustion process. Two-stroke engines, meanwhile, now feature improved exhaust designs that meet emissions standards.

Cleanliness costs. Scooters with four-stroke engines run $1,000 to $2,000 more than those with two-stroke engines. If you have your heart set on a vintage scooter, don't worry. In most states, older models are grandfathered in, so you can ride them without fear of sanction.

URBAN MACHINES. You also have to decide how large an engine you want. Scooters range from 50 cc to 250 cc. "If you're going to do any freeway riding, climbing hills, or you're just a big person, you need to get one of the larger engines" of at least 200 cc, says Scott Feeley, manager of Apollo Motorsports, which sells and repairs scooters in Houston. Smaller scooter engines max out around 40 mph, whereas the larger ones get up to about 60 mph. That's powerful and safe enough to tool around city streets, but not advisable for busy interstates.

You generally don't need a special license to drive a scooter, although regulations vary by state. Bear in mind that, in some states, scooters with larger engines (more than 50 cc in New York, for example) are classified as motorcycles, which means you'd have to get a motorcycle license and pay more for motorcycle insurance. Insuring a scooter costs about $200 per year, vs. $700 for a motorcycle. Laws also vary as to what age you must be to ride a scooter, whether you can ride between lanes of traffic, and if you have to wear a helmet (though most riders say you should). Contact your state's highway department to find out the rules of the road.

Whether you're looking for an alternative mode of transportation or just a really fun toy, a motor scooter might be right up your alley.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.