How Vespas (don’t) Work

Nitro pointed us to HowStuffWorks’ “How Vespas Work” article. The first page is comically full of misinformation (corrected below, for fun). The second page reiterates most of the inaccuracies of the first page without going into much detail on how they actually work, and the next three pages rehash Eric Brockaway’s history of the Vespa and Mods and then link to Vespa’s corporate pages, which are famously devoid of any useful information. It’s a fun, cringeworthy read.

Here are some sample quotes from the first page:

Scooters are two-wheeled vehicles powered by a small engine. Although it’s similar in concept to motorcycles, it has some important differences. The wheels of a scooter are fastened to the end of a short axle, rather than being mounted between a “fork” in the frame.

Well, on a vintage Vespa, this is sort of true (it’s really mounted to a one-sided “fork” or steering column more than a “axle”), but many vintage scooters and nearly all modern scooters feature a front wheel mounted on a traditional fork. If the focus of this story is Vespas, talk about Vespas, but don’t apply their characteristics to all scooters.

The engine is usually concealed in a cowling of some kind, making them quieter and less likely to get oil or grease on the rider’s clothes.

I’ve never heard the noise argument made before, perhaps that was an intention, but noise generally comes from the exhaust, not the engine, and putting something in a hollow metal container rarely makes it quieter.

Today, a scooter can be defined as a two-wheeled vehicle built on a monocoque frame with a 250 cubic centimeter (cc) engine or smaller. There are scooters with larger engines, but they essentially represent a subclass of vehicles in between scooters and motorcycles.

Ugh. The only modern scooter with a monocoque frame is the Vespa, all others have steel tube frames with plastic body panels. Scooters currently range from 50cc up to 800cc (the Gilera GP800) and while the line between motorcycles and scooters continues to blur and the definition of a scooter is somewhat liquid, there’s no reason maxiscooters should not be considered part of the subset of scooters. Aside from maxiscooters, there are plenty sub 500-cc scooters that fall undeniably into the traditional definition of a scooter.

Many jurisdictions legally consider them motorcycles.

Assuming that by “them” the author meant “scooters larger than 250cc”, almost all states consider any two-wheeled motorized vehicle to be a motorcycle, though many have “motor-driven-cycle” classes for bikes under 150cc, and “moped” classes for traditional low-powered pedaled mopeds. A handful of states treat 50cc scooters as mopeds, but not many. There’s not a single state that doesn’t consider a 150cc or larger scooter to be a motorcycle. (Note: OK, reading more, I can see the guy is clearly British, so perhaps he’s right about England.)

Most models can achieve better miles per gallon (mpg) ratings than all cars, but the most eco-friendly hybrid cars are in the 60-70 mpg range–equal to the Vespa.

This statement isn’t false, but it’s misleading and doesn’t even scratch the surface. One currently-available hybrid car gets 64mpg, only one other hybrid gets over 50mpg. Most hybrids get 45mpg or so. There’s no clearly-mandated test for motorcycle mileage, so we have to take manufacturers’ numbers with a grain of salt, but Piaggio’s MPG ratings (60ish) are on the very low side of scooter MPGs, some Yamaha models promise over 120mpg. Realistically, most scooters get between 60 and 90mpg in normal real-world conditions, better than just about any car, so implying that scooters are comparable to hybrids is inaccurate. If you’re just talking Vespas, maybe it’s a more fair comparison, but again, the scope of the article jumps back and forth between Vespas and scooters in general in mid-sentence. (Do the British cite MPG or Miles per Litre? Maybe he’s not British)

Navigating city traffic and tight urban streets is a lot easier on a scooter than in an SUV, and parking is no problem.

Again, maybe that’s the case in England, but American scooterists have always found parking in an urban environment to be nearly impossible, even if they’re willing to pay the same rates as cars. In nearly all localities, scooters are expected to follow the same rules of the road and parking restrictions as automobiles. Lane-splitting is prohibited just about everywhere but California.

They’re easier to ride than a motorcycle…

Not true at all, aside from shifting (and not all scooters are automatics) riding a scooter uses every single skill required by a motorcyclist, and the same training and caution should be exercised whether one rides a scooter or a motorcycle.

and the body panels ensure that clothes aren’t likely to be splashed with mud and road dirt.

Clearly written by someone that hasn’t ventured out into the rain on their new Vino yet.

A scooter is a lot easier on the wallet than a car, as well. A brand new scooter can be as little as $800,

Sadly, this is true, but its totally irresponsible to say that without pointing out that buying an $800 motor vehicle and riding it on public roads is more or less suicide. And the dollar signs are making it pretty clear he’s not British.

Of course, a scooter with the legendary Vespa name on it often comes at a premium (prices range from $2,000 to over $6,000), and vintage scooters go for collector’s prices, sometimes fetching thousands of dollars.

The bottom-of-the-line Vespa LX50 has an MSRP of $3200, which last I checked, is over $2000. Vintage scooters have occasionally sold for five figures, saying “thousands” is weird and vague, since modern scooters cost “thousands” also.

It continues for four more pages, with such nuggets as “Scooter wheels range from eight to 12 inches,” and a sidebar asserting that India and Southeast Asia were responsible for Vespa’s hard times in the ’80s (never mind the ragingly successful Honda Elite!).

Really, for a story supposedly describing how Vespas work, it really doesn’t explore the technical or mechanical subtleties of a Vespa at all, aside from briefly describing how an internal combustion engine works. The original Vespas are masterpieces of engineering simplicity, yet the actual workings of the engine and controls are just barely glossed over, and the centerpiece of modern automatic scooters, the continuously variable transmission, is mentioned but not explained.