When I was in high school, there was a large group of "mod" kids into scooters – vintage scoots, naturally, as only the preppy kids in their Docksiders boat shoes and Polo shirts rode the plastic-covered twist-n-go scooters from Japan. The Mods looked down on the Preppies, the Preppies snubbed the Stoners (unless they needed weed), the Stoners avoided the Jocks, and everybody beat up on us Drama Freaks. For some reason, the guys on the rugby team got along with everybody. All that tension would make you think the Mods would stick together, but even within that world there was a hierarchy that persists to this day.
Lowest on the totem pole (in the common wisdom) is the largest group, the Vespa P-series hoi polloi. A P-series Vespa, starting with the P125X, P150X and P200E of 1977, is the pinnacle of two-stroke Vespa design, with only slight changes until the factory made its last P125X not too long ago (and they're still being license-built in India). With auto-lube, electronic ignition, electric start and many other improvements, it offers a relatively reliable, trouble-free ownership experience, but thanks to the manual gearbox and two-stroke aroma, still places the P-person solidly into the vintage-scooter world.
Next up the ladder of authenticity are the old Vespa owners, who snub the "too easy" P-series and opt for the less-dependable, but still pretty good classic models from the '70s, '60s and even rare "handlebar" models from the 1950s or older.
Barry Synoground's 1962 Lambretta Li150.
On top – or maybe side-by-side with the old Vespa people, depending on whom you ask – are the Lambrettites. Lambrettas, by virtue of their gorgeous styling, technological prowess (for their era) and rarity, are admired and prized by classic scooterists.
And of course, there are subcultures within subcultures. The original Lambretta plant in Milan shuttered in the '70s, which led to license-built Lambrettas from Spain (under the brand Jet) and India (as SIL). The newer versions offer a ready source of parts, as they often bolt into older, Milinese Lambrettas, as do the surprisingly large range of soup-up parts and other accessories.
So what's it like to jump into this world of vintage scooters? Can you just find a sleek, sexy '60s-vintage scooter on eBay, grab your martini shaker and a jar of stuffed olives and be on your way? If only. Riding and maintaining a vintage scooter – like any old vehicle – is an experience fraught with heartbreak, danger, frustration, inconvenience, and ludicrous expenses... and for the committed, one that is absolutely irreplaceable with modern equipment.
To see exactly what these people see in keeping these charismatic vehicles going, I got in touch with the de facto mayor of San Francisco's vintage-scooter community, Barry Gwin at the S.F. Scooter Centre
. Gwin's been wrenching on classic Lambrettas and other scooters since 1983, and he opened his current business in 1999. He has an impressive museum with countless rare, interesting and otherwise valuable scooters upstairs from his shop in San Francisco's Soma district – guided tours can usually be had for the asking.
Barry quickly put me in touch with three vintage scooter owners: mechanic Diego Torres; nightclub owner/bowtie wearer/two-stroke enthusiast Barry (no relation) Synoground and food writer
Paula Crossfield. Nice people all, but maybe too trusting, as they let me take their babies out for a day of riding the crowded, chaotic and bumpy streets of San Francisco so I could ponder the question: what's the best choice for a vintage scoot?