Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Body painting, flower power, free love (for the lucky ones!) 'ban the bomb' protest marches, amphetamine-aided rock music all-nighters and the media-fuelled mods versus rockers clashes between motorcycle riders and scooterists - it was all part of the allegedly 'swinging sixties'. But I never got into the 'mods and rockers' thing (writes Bruce Cox) and sat comfortably on the fence with good mates on either side. I owned both a black leather jacket and some Italian suits while racing motorcycles and writing for motorcycle magazines on the one hand and at the same time publishing the scooter magazine pictured above on a contract deal for media mogul Michael Heseltine's Haymarket Press.
Motorcycles were always the focus of my publishing career that spanned fifty years in both Europe and the USA including a period in the 1960s when motor scooters were at the height of their popularity. At this point, I should admit that scooters were never as high in my affections as full-sized motorcycles but, even so, I appreciated their place in the two-wheel world, never looked down my nose at them as many ‘bikers’ did and not only appreciated the styling of scooters but also their technical aspects. Such as, for example, the Vespa with its integrated construction of engine and final drive transmission also acting as the pivoting arm in the rear suspension system. Not only that, having tested several scooters at the motorcycle magazines for which I had worked, I had soon come to realise that their performance was well on a par with that of similar-sized motorcycles of the ‘sixties. And looking back on the scooters that I tested, there were three that still stand out in my mind, all for their decidedly ‘unscooterish’ performance.
The first was the Maicoletta from Germany (above) that could be ordered with either 174cc, 244cc or 277cc two-stroke single cylinder engines and which cornered, thanks to its 14-inch wheels, pretty much like a motorcycle. I tested the 244cc version, which had the same basic engine as the company’s motocross bikes and which would hit 70mph.
Next was the Triumph Tigress (above) and its BSA Sunbeam counterpart, i.e. the same bike with a different badge. With its twin cylinder, four-stroke 250cc engine this British bike was another with a top speed of around 70mph and I remember how much I enjoyed hearing the rumble and roar of the four-stroke motor compared to the buzzing of its smaller two-stroke rivals
Thirdly, there was one of the smaller Italian two-stroke rivals that is still well remembered by me and the whole scooter fraternity – which was the 150cc Lambretta Rallymaster.
The story of the Rallymaster (above) is an interesting one, going back to 1961 when Alan Kimber, then Sales Manager with Lambretta UK, entered one of the company’s 150cc scooters in the International Six Days Trial. This was held in the rugged Welsh border country around Llandindrod Wells and was a gruelling event, mainly on cross-country trails and ‘green’ roads. It was mostly contested by special off-road versions of full-sized motorcycles but, despite being hampered by the scooter’s bulky bodywork and small wheels, Alan did what many riders of ‘proper motorcycles’ failed to do and won a bronze medal by completing all six days within the prescribed time limits. And that would have been far from easy on the muddy Welsh lanes for almost a whole week - a tough enough challenge on a proper off-road motorcycle, let alone a scooter with all its built-in handicaps.
This success led to the special Rallymaster model which was as much a marketing and PR exercise as it was an attempt to generate any significant volume of sales. It was designed by Alan and assembled at Lambretta Concessionaires specifically for the UK sporting scooter enthusiasts competing in road and off-road rallies and trials as well as circuit racing. As far as I am aware, it was only produced in 1962 (which was when I tested one) but such was its appeal that scooter ‘retro’ fans are still building replicas today.
The Rallymaster engine was based on the standard 150cc unit, but given a larger bore carburettor, high performance exhaust, and a closer ratio gearbox. This gave it a top speed of 58mph, which bettered most, if not all, of the British two-stroke motorcycles in that capacity class and its looks matched its performance as it was a real eye-catcher with distinctive black and red horizontal stripes painted across the side panels.
And then there was ‘the one that got away’ - one which I would love to have tested but never had the chance. That was the Moto Rumi which would apparently top 70mph thanks to the howling twin-cylinder 125cc two-stroke engine that it shared with the company’s sports motorcycles and which regularly scored class wins in the famous French 24 Hours endurance race and in the Italian public roads long distance races like the Milan to Taranto and the Motogiro d’Italia.
Moto Rumi ceased operations in 1969 and, in fact, that had been the fate of most motor scooter manufacturers by that time. Production of the Maicoletta and its quirky stablemate the Maicomobil (below) had ceased in 1966 while their fellow German scooter marques, the Zundapp Bella and the Heinkel Tourist had gone in 1964 and 1965.
The Zundapp Bella
The Heinkel Tourist
The Durkopp Diana (above) had also gone and the Hercules company was concentrating on mopeds. Between 1955 and 1957, its 200cc scooter powered by a Sachs engine had been imported into the UK by racing car constructor, Cyril Kieft, and badged with his surname. He then moved on to become the ‘K’ in the new British DKR venture.
British attempts at scooter manufacture generally fared poorly against the European opposition as they were usually made by small and underfunded companies using the proprietary Villiers engines and lacking the continental flair for styling.
The DKR brand (above) featured some of the better-looking UK scooters, though the all-enveloping front end wasn't to everyone's taste. They were offered with Villiers 150 and 200cc single cylinder two-strokes and even a 250cc twin. But, although initially successful, the brand had disappeared by 1966. Gone too was the Dayton Albatross, also Villiers-powered and also offering the options of either a 200cc single or a 250 twin.
Like the DKR twin, the Albatross 250 (above) offered near-70mph performance but was probably doomed by rather clunky styling and perhaps by being named after a big clumsy seabird that has difficulty taking off and which brought ruin to The Ancient Mariner in the epic poem of that name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Even the giant manufacturing combine of BSA/Triumph had given up on its BSA Sunbeam and Triumph Tigress scooters by 1965. The 100cc Triumph Tina (aka T10) hung on for a few years longer, mainly because the company had such a large stock of them to get rid of!
Scooters in America
The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California is one of the finest such facilities in the world. It was therefore good to see on my various visits that motorcycles and scooters have been given a place amongst the many millions of dollars-worth of cars on the museum floors. Well, in the case of scooters, perhaps not so much on its floors as on its walls, as on one of my visits to the museum there was a colourful quartet of small-wheelers contained in an eye-catching floor-to-ceiling ‘glass case’ display cabinet.
All four of the brands featured have always been rare to non-existent in the UK and nowadays they are rare in the USA as well. The Moto Rumi will be reasonably familiar to UK readers but you will probably have to be either American or Japanese to be familiar with the names of the Allstate Cruisaire, the Harley Davidson Topper or the Fuji Rabbit. On second thoughts, however, everyone should at least recognise the Cruisare on sight for they were, in fact, a Vespa sold by Sears Roebuck, the US retailing giant.
It was in 1953 that Sears began selling a licensed version of the iconic Vespa (Italian for “wasp”), called the Cruisaire. Built in Italy by Piaggio, the Allstate Cruisaire shared the Vespa’s 125cc engine, but was less well-equipped to better appeal to the often more frugal customers who shopped at Sears. Not surprisingly, considering that they were Vespas in all but the name on the badge. Allstate scooters proved to be popular across the US, and they were catalogued by Sears until 1975. -
Among the Japanese companies prohibited after World War II from making products that could be used as weapons, former airplane maker Fuji Heavy Industries used its production capacity to build scooters for basic civil transportation. A Japanese icon from its introduction, the Rabbit pre-dated the ubiquitous Italian Vespa into production by a clear six months. As the first motor scooter manufactured in Japan, it was enormously successful and revolutionized the country’s post-war vehicle industry. Eventually the Fuji Rabbit scooters evolved into some of the most technologically sophisticated scooters of their era, featuring electric starters, automatic transmissions and pneumatic suspension systems and were the first Japanese-made scooters capable of reaching speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour.
Other Japanese scooters included the Mitsubishi Silver Pigeon, which started production around the same time as the Rabbit, and these were so important to the country’s post-war vehicle industry that In May 1948 both a Silver Pigeon and a Rabbit were presented to the Emperor of Japan. Starting in 1954 the Rabbit also faced competition from the Honda Juno.
As the Japanese economy expanded, the demand for scooters decreased in favour of more comfortable four-wheel transport, and Fuji diversified into automobiles in 1958 with its now familiar Subaru brand via the introduction of a 360cc twin-cylinder mini car. The last Fuji scooter rolled off the production line in June 1968.
On the home front in the USA, there was the Harley-Davidson Topper that was manufactured from 1960 through 1965 and was the only scooter that HD ever produced. It featured a continuously-variable transmission via a composite rubber drive belt and pulley wheel system and had bodywork making use of fibreglass – a relatively new material back then as far as volume production was concerned. The front body, front fender and floorboards of the Topper were made of stamped steel, and the engine cover and body were made of moulded fibreglass. The Topper had a 165cc single-cylindertwo-stroke engine with reed valve induction that was mounted horizontally between the scooter’s floorboards. Its starter was of the rope-operated recoil spring type similar to lawn mowers, small outboard boat engines or the early E-model Lambretta.
The reed-valve induction motor required a petrol/oil mixture, mixed by the rider at the advised ratio when filling up. Therefore, storage space was provided under the Topper’s seat; where Harley Davidson suggested storing extra containers of the preferred two-stroke oil as this was not generally available in the more remote gas stations of the USA.
Unlike most scooters with enclosed engines, the Topper's did not have a cooling fan as it was expected that the low, horizontally mounted unit would be cooled by air passing under the scooter. Some Toppers in America’s ‘sunshine states’ did develop overheating problems, however, particularly in heavy ‘stop/start’ city traffic where there was no continuous air flow under the bodywork.
But on the open roads this was not a common problem, as proved by a 600-mile California trip undertaken in a 1959 Harley publicity stunt to prove the scooter’s reliability. In this ride a Topper was driven 600 miles from Bakersfield, California into Death Valley and back again without repair or adjustments. The route went through the Mojave Desert to Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 282ft (86m) below sea level. In the baking desert heat, the Topper was then ridden to Whitney Portal, 7,851 feet (2,393m) above sea level and overlooking its previous Death Valley destination. This was the closest road point to the 14,000ft summit of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, the highest mountain in the USA outside Alaska. After this, the Topper returned to the lower altitudes of the Mojave Desert and back around the base of the southern Sierras into California’s agricultural central valley and its original starting point at Bakersfield.
The Topper’s engine powered a continuously variable transmission called ‘Scootaway Drive’ that included a safety device which did not allow the scooter to move from rest at engine speeds higher than 1800rpm. The main complaint from early Topper owners with the transmission system was that road grime would get into the exposed belt and pulley system and cause the belt to slip. A new transmission, with the primary drive sealed in an oil bath, was introduced for 1961. Final drive was still by an exposed roller chain and gave no problems.
The Topper had five-inch internal expanding drum brakes on both wheels. The front brake was controlled by a hand lever on the handlebar and this was fitted with a parking brake lock. The rear brake was operated by the conventional floor pedal.
The more-powerful Topper H was introduced in 1961 (and sold through 1965) with a new alloy cylinder head that increased the compression ratio to 8:1, plus a re-usable foam air filter, and revisions to the cylinder ports and air intake tube.
A de-tuned version of the Topper was also available, with the power restricted to 5hp. This was advertised as the Topper U and was made to comply with laws in some states in the United States that allowed motorcycles with rated engine power below a stated maximum to be operated either without a license or on a special license by riders (especially in thinly populated states with towns spread many miles apart) at a younger age than would be allowed a regular motorcycle license.
These days, all those American brands are gone, as well as the British and most European brands from the 1960s. But the scooter market is still strong, with Vespa still prominent alongside Japanese offerings from firms like Honda and Yamaha and several Chinese-built brands. There are even high-performance sports scooters like the Yamaha 530cc, 45hp T-Max or the same company’s three-wheeled urban warrior with twin front wheels so that it stays upright when stopping and starting in city traffic. In fact, the demand for small-wheelers is at least as strong these days as it was when the scooter was a style icon of‘the ‘swinging sixties’.