Joe Martino preps a Vespa at Colonial Heights Automotive. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT — Scooters are quickly moving off showroom floors these days, so much so that a local dealer had only one scooter in the building.
And it wasn’t for sale; it was there for service.
Dealers said the surge in scooter sales, driven by gasoline price increases, has made some models difficult if not impossible to find in the Tri-Cities or elsewhere across the country.
Scooters generally are defined as having automatic transmissions, smaller wheels and a step through body. They are an outgrowth of motorized bicycles called mopeds — still the legal name for them in Tennessee and Virginia law — but do not have pedals.
The opportunity to get 50 to 120 miles per gallon has people shelling out from less than $2,000 to about $9,000 at area scooter dealerships. The vehicles, some of which can transport two people, have become trendy in large metropolitan areas and on college campuses, according to area dealers and a spokesman for a national motorcycle industry trade association.
“Suzuki nationally is sold out of scooters,” said Greg Easley, owner of Kingsport Cycles, a dealer for Suzuki’s Burgman scooters, along with Suzuki, Kawasaki and Triumph motorcycles.
Two other scooter dealers in town have inventory for sale, including Vespas and Hondas.
But Easley, who’s been in business more than 10 years, said one female customer already is resigned to awaiting the 2009 models in the spring. The dealership’s been out of the Suzuki scooters for about six weeks, and the dealership also is out of the other line of scooters it carries, Vento, which he said has distribution issues.
Some of the last Burgman scooters Easley’s dealership sold went to out-of-state buyers, including one to Alabama and another south of Atlanta.
Another female customer’s Suzuki scooter was in for service Tuesday, making it the only scooter in the building.
Nationwide, the Irvine, Calif.-based Motorcycle Industry Council reports a boom in scooter sales from 12,000 in 1997 to 25,000 in 1999, 50,000 in 2001, 96,000 in 2004 and an estimated 131,000 in 2007, which MIC spokesman Mike Mount said could reflect demand outstripping supply.
“Through the first two quarters, scooter sales are up 66 percent over what they were the first two quarters of 2007,” Mount said.
In contrast, he said “dual-use” motorcycles, with smaller engines and for use on- and off-road, sales increased 22 percent during that same period.
Meeting scooter demand
The increase in demand for scooters caught the industry off guard, according to Easley. He said that street motorcycles of 650 cubic centimeters or less also are proving very popular in a year where gas has hit $4 a gallon.
“The gas prices went up so fast that nobody was able to react except for the Chinese guys that spit them out, little cookie cutters,” Easley said.
He said the scooter industry is worried about bad reputations of inexpensive scooters that sell new for less than $1,000 but are difficult to service because of a lack of spare parts, technical specifications and no dealer networks.
“They’re disposable,” said Jonathan Hurd, sales manager for Kingsport Cycles.
Easley said one man came in with a broken plastic wheel on a scooter for which he paid $200 that would cost about $300 to replace with a metal wheel.
“In many cases, the product won’t be up to the same standards of the products they’re selling,” Mount of the motorcycle council said. “You may be buying at a good price, but you’re not buying value.”
Bill Bomar of Johnson City sells a 49 cubic centimeter gas-powered scooter for $359, drop shipped anywhere in the United States, by word of mouth, at flea markets and on Craigslist. It’s called the X-Treme XG-470, although he also sells larger ones and electric ones.
“Everybody said that sounds great that they get 90 miles per gallon. There’s definitely a market for them,” Bomar said, adding that replacement parts are available on the X-Treme Web site, which handles the 30-day manufacturer’s warranty.
For the record, Bomar said the gas scooters he sells have metal wheels.
He said the scooters, which can fold into a car trunk, are good for three- or four-mile commutes, not 25 miles.
James Hayes, owner of Jim’s Motorcycle Sales that does business as Appalachian Cycle, said he couldn’t agree more with his competitors at Kingsport Cycles.
The Honda and Kymco scooters at Hayes’ dealership sell for about $2,000 to $7,500, with the average buyer spending $2,500 to $3,500.
Mount said Honda and Yamaha long have sold scooters in the United States, but that Suzuki began in 2003 and Vespa re-entered the U.S. market in 2001. Hurd and Easley said speculation is that Kawasaki is getting ready to launch a scooter line, and Mount said Kawasaki was the last of the Japanese-based motorcycle makers not to sell scooters.
“We would try to get the customers on the right machine,” Hayes said, explaining that a 49 cc machine might be good to travel a few miles but would not be suitable for a commute to Bristol or Johnson City.
Hayes also emphasized the need for service and parts after the sale.
“With this sudden explosion of popularity in scooters, there is a very large difference between the reputable companies and those that are not,” Hayes said. “They don’t seem to have a problem at all until they can’t get the things fixed.”
Likewise, Easley said that the Suzuki models, which sell new from around $6,000 to $9,000, are backed by a full line of service and replacement parts.
Joe Martino and his son Josh, owners of Colonial Heights Automotive, said scooters also are selling well at their business since they began selling them in early August. They also emphasized the need for service after the sale.
The business, which also sells used vehicles and motorcycles, is a dealer for scooters from Vespa, SYM and Genuine Scooter Co.
Joe Martino said the Vespas, made by Vespa/Piaggio of Italy, sell for from around $3,300 to $8,800, while the SYN scooters are $1,800 to $5,500 and the Genuine scooters are $1,600 to $3,600.
The business will service the scooters it sells, including work under the one- to three-year warranties.
“We’re catering to the repeat customer,” said Joe Martino, who has been in the motorcycle and vehicle sales business for 40 years. “A lot of retired people are coming in and women who are working who want to run around with it for work or to run errands.”
The Martinos said the younger crowd isn’t as interested, but that the scooters are becoming more popular in general. Easley at Kingsport Cycles said the average scooter customer is a male 45 to 50, although he said females are buying more.
“The typical scooter buyer is not a motorcycle person. They’ve not had motorcycles in the recent past,” Hayes said.
Josh Martino said some older customers remember having or seeing the classic Vespas that came out after World War II and in the 1950s, and the Vespa line includes a retro machine that is a modern take on that design.
“It’s kind of like old rock bands. Younger people never heard of them,” Josh Martino said.
The Martinos said gas mileage up to 120 mpg and the ease of operation, including automatic transmissions, make the scooters popular. Joe Martino said the upkeep is not bad, either, judging from some scooter owners whose machines have 5,000 or 6,000 miles and still have original brakes and tires.
“Most motorcycles will get 40 to 60 miles per gallon,” Easley at Kingsport Cycle said. “Scooters will generally get 50 to 70 miles per gallon.”
Josh Martino said scooters generally range in weight from 225 to 550 pounds and nowadays, with an average of 250 to 350 pounds, and most always have automatic transmissions.
“It doesn’t compete with a motorcycle. It’s not trying to be a motorcycle,” Josh Martino said.
Motorcycles often weigh 500 pounds or more and require shifting gears.
“The biggest scooters get about 70” mpg, Joe Martino said. “We’ve got some that will do 120 miles per gallons.”
In contrast, a used 1200 Harley Davidson the business is selling gets about 45 mpg, and an 883 Harley would get about 55 mpg, Joe Martino said.
As for maximum speed, Joe Martino said some 500 cc scooters will go 100 mph.
Joe Martino said the scooter he drives, a 150 cc Vespa, gets about 80 mpg and will go faster than 40 mph, plenty fast for his needs around town.
Piaggo has a new MP3 out that has two front wheels, which gives the machine better braking power and better traction. Like many scooters in the Vespa line, it has disc brakes, but it’s near the top of the price range at $8,500. A 500 cc Vespa sells for about $6,799.
Josh Martino said those are the most popular sized scooter, although his father said the 250 cc and up scooters are seeing the fastest growth.
For comparison’s sake, a 250 cc scooter is about 15 cubic inches, which would make a 50 cc engine three cubic inches. A larger two-cycle string trimmer engine is 30 cc, although most scooters are four-cycle engines.
Joe Martino said not all scooters are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Department of Transportation.
And Jeanie Gammon, Sullivan County clerk, said that any scooter or other vehicle with a manufacturer’s statement of origin, or MSO, that is stamped off-road use only can’t be registered and tagged in Tennessee.
She said that applies to scooters, motorcycles, golf carts and other vehicles that people try to bring up to highway standards with turn signals, brake lights and such.
Of mopeds, scooters motorcycles and the law
Under Tennessee “moped” law, Gammon said any scooter with an engine of a displacement of 50 cubic centimeters or less and no more than two horsepower does not have to have registration and license plates but can, at the owners discretion.
The operator is to have a valid operator’s or chauffeur’s license. Tennessee does require insurance or a motorcycle endorsement on a driver’s license.
In Virginia, the law is that no license is required for a moped of 50 cc or less, although a July 1 change says any moped that can travel at 35 mph or more is considered a motorcycle and requires registration, tags and licensing for a motorcycle, said Melanie Stokes, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle spokeswoman.
Gammon said no scooter of less than 50 cc can be driven on the interstate.
As for electric scooters, X-Treme’s Web site indicates that a federal law trumps any state regulations, saying that an electric scooter with 750 watts or less and traveling at 20 mph or less requires no license. The site recommends buyers print out the information and carry it with them in case of a traffic stop.
But Brenda Thornburg of Fall Branch won’t have to worry about licensing since she’s seeking her motorcycle license endorsement. On Aug. 16 she purchased a 150 cc Vespa scooter from the Martinos and plans to take a motorcycle class next weekend to get the required endorsement to ride it.
“I’m going to the post office, the Dollar Store, just general areas in Fall Branch,” Thornburg said. “It’s a lot easier on gas.”
The 70 mpg scooter wasn’t her first choice, but she said her neighborhood was too hilly for a bicycle and that she used to have a smaller used scooter about six years ago but that it didn’t have enough power for hills.
“I wanted one that had a little more horsepower to it,” Thornburg said.
The Vespa, Suzuki and Honda dealers recommended the motorcycle class taught by Appalachian Motorcycle Rider Education Program at Sullivan South High School. Successful completion results in issuance of a certificate that can be used to get Tennessee to add a motorcycle “M” endorsement to a driver’s license.
James Cook of Bristol, Tenn., operates the school and can be reached at 878-4969 or through www.appalachianridered.com. The cost for the basic education course is $200, while a one-day advanced course is available for $100.
“If they buy a scooter from me, I’ll pay half the fee and I’ll provide them a scooter to take their test on,” Joe Martino said.
Another issue with the increasing number of scooters, motorcyclists and bicyclists on the road is car and truck drivers paying close attention to the scooters, motorcyclists and bicyclists, Josh Martino said.
“People are going to have to start getting used to it,” Josh Martino said, saying that scooters have long been popular in Europe and recently became popular in larger U.S. metropolitan areas, including Nashville.
Hurd of Kingsport Cycles, said all drivers need to be more aware of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles on area roadways.