The recent proliferation of $4 gasoline has brought renewed interest in economical two-wheeled transportation, particularly the latest styles of motor scooters from Japan and China. The Internet and the manufacturing boom in China are playing key roles in this new market, offering a wide variety of machines in the $1000-1700 price bracket.
Small motorcycles and scooters have fascinated me since the 1950’s. You can visit my Tiddlerosis website to see more than you will ever want to know about the explosion of small Japanese motorcycles in The Sixties. I followed the evolution of the Cushman Eagle, the Whizzer, the Simplex (built in New Orleans), and the Mustang (yes, Maybelle, there was a line of small motorcycles built in the U.S. under the Mustang brand name in the ’50’s and early ’60’s). Many Americans ordered their small two-wheelers from the Sears & Roebuck catalog back then. Although these models were all marketed under the Allstate or Sears brands, most motorcyclists from the era know these were manufactured by Cushman, Puch, Vespa, and Gilera. Scooter fans of the time generally rode Vespas and Lambrettas, both built in Italy. Even my cat Powduh Puff knows that once we met the nicest people on a Honda at the end of 1959, everything about the motorcycle world changed forever.
You can still buy a Vespa motor scooter that will cost you as much as a Honda Rebel, go a lot slower and provide less driving entertainment, as well as less safety. Would you prefer to hit a pothole with a twelve-inch front wheel or an eighteen-inch one? Would you rather have the bulk of your transportation’s weight distribution directly underneath you or hanging out back with your caboose? Yes, Maybelle, that $329 Allstate Cruisaire from Sears is now pretty much the same as that $3500 Vespa 125 from the snooty-environmentalist scooter dealership next to the Starbuck’s down on the campus drag. You can still meet the nicest people on a Honda. Now it’s a $3000, 250cc Rebel twin instead of a $300, 50cc Cub with 4.5 horsepower and the cutest little legshields you’ve ever seen.
There is another alternative, folks, and its source is a company called Lifan, and it has a lot more in common with Honda than just an Asian heritage with five letters in the name. If you saw Ted Koppel’s four-part story on China recently, you learned about Lifan. The company builds several small engines, one of which has been used in so many different scooters and go-karts from China that you will swear it’s the second coming of the Honda 50, which in a bizarre way, it is. One of the Lifan designs is a direct copy of the legendary, small Honda single. The Chinese version is 110cc and you can find it powering vehicles all over the Internet. The second common Lifan design is a 150cc single that is even more common than the 110cc model. The plot thickens immeasurably when you discover that not only do the Chinese copy everyone else, but they copy their own Chinese competitors’ designs like crazy! There are countless affordable scooters built in China and sold on the American Internet. I hope to untangle some of the confusion and educate you exactly as to what sort of gas-sipping transportation is available to any American with a credit card and an online connection right now. Although Lifan is the market leader in more ways than one, there are numerous other brands.
Before we get to the actual models available, you need to understand a few basic marketing concepts. When Honda first approached its future dealers in 1959, it shocked the handlebars off them with the future sales figures the company was proposing and predicting. Spreading eastward from the ubiquitous loading docks of L.A., Honda developed an enormous dealer network. Yamaha and Suzuki were left standing on the docks saying, “Me too, me too.” Lifan and the other Chinese brands seem to have little interest in developing dealer networks. The World Wide Web is the leading Lifan dealership. This means little customer service, of course, and I’m sure many of you will immediately think anyone who buys a cheap Chinese scooter online gets what he deserves. There is more than a grain of truth to this concept, of course. The more experienced you are with motorcycles and marketing, the more likely you are to have a good experience with this manner of doing business. Then there’s that $3000+ Italian scooter. The Vespa is only the most legendary. The Aprilia Scarabeo is one gorgeous hunk of scooter with brilliant engineering and a Ducati price! Kymco is a Taiwanese brand that sells through both established dealers and online, and even their prices will choke a small moped. There is no doubt at all that the online marketing is a key element in the price competitiveness of Lifan and other Chinese brands.
Although there may seem to be literally hundreds of different brands, models, and model names of Chinese scooters, they actually boil down to only about six different types. The lowest and slowest are the 50cc models. In previous years, most of these used two-stroke engines; now they are mostly four-stroke. At the opposite end of the price and power scale are the 250cc models. These mostly compete with the Honda Rebel in price and the ability to drive legally on freeways; whereas the 50cc models might need to be duck-walked up a steep hill. In between these two extremes lie the most commonly usable scooters for transportation, the 150’s using either the Lifan engine or a direct copy of it. I have seen horsepower ratings ranging from 7 to 9.8 hp for these models, and some websites even claim that many of these are actually 125cc engines masquerading as 150’s. Whatever the case, these scooters are plenty strong enough to climb hills, carry two people, and scramble out of the way of marauding Honda Cubs. For the sake of simplicity here, I am lumping all 50’s and 250’s into one group each, but I am separating out the 150’s into four types. The reason for this is that you can imagine that most of the 50cc models are just slower, cheaper versions of many of the same 125/150cc versions, and most of the 250cc types are outfitted to look like giant turtles with huge seats, windshields, and storage capacity bordering on excessive. For many practical reasons, only the 150’s come in a large variety of styling types, although the usages of all types are more determined by their engine displacements than by their styling cues.
Before I proceed any further, I want to insert a disclaimer. Although I have been having a kitten for one of these 150cc jewels for years, I don’t want to give up any more garage space or one of my classic Japanese motorcycles, either. Take this story however you want. Not only have I never ridden one of these Chinese scooters, I haven’t been on any scooter since I replaced my 1957 Allstate Cruisaire with a 1963 Yamaha Rotary Jet 80! If you want to throw out this whole story with the saltshaker, I ask only that you visit Tiddlerosis before making what might be a rash decision. I do know a few things about pooter-scooters.
Beginning right smack in the middle, we have the 150cc Chinese scooter with modern styling. It is distinguished by its 13″ wheels, sleek and stylish lines and graphics, speedometer/tachometer/fuel gauge instrument panel, up-front glove box, under-seat helmet storage, and a luggage rack of some sort that may or may not include a matching storage box in the price. If not, the matching box is usually an option. Some of the more deluxe models have a rear disc brake, but most have a drum brake in the rear with a disc only in the front. At a price of $1200-$1400 to your driveway, this is the ringleader of the pack for your cost-effective transportation needs. If you study the websites closely, you will see that there is a virtual multitude of these critters scattered all over the net. Although they are sold with many different brand and model names, and enough color and graphics choices to boggle the mind of an Internet neophyte, they are all basically the same scooter with the exact same engine.
The second type of 150cc scooter is styled to look pretty much like a 1957 Cruisaire, but its features and attributes are much the same as the model with more modern styling. For about the same price as the modern variant, this model usually trades the tach and storage capacities for the retro styling, and its wheels are usually 12″ in diameter. Most of these have drum rear brakes, although there could be a few models with discs in the rear.
The third variety of the 150cc models is a fully adult sized and equipped model with a gigantic seat and a windshield. As you may have already guessed, this is one of those models commonly sold as a 250cc version, too, for a $1000 (more or less) premium added to the price of the 150cc variant. Of course you get the privilege of buzzing down I-95 with the eighteen-wheelers for that price premium. I’m sure having one of those monsters buffet your big windshield as it passes is a barrel of monkeys. The 150cc, all-but-the-freeway legal models lack the 13″ wheels, tachometer, and wild graphics of the sportier 150cc variant described above, but otherwise are the steal of the bunch for two-wheeled transportation comfort. I can only guess that their 12″ wheels and drum rear brakes are the results of strict cost-cutting. These models are generally priced only about $200 more than the sporty, 13″-wheeled versions with exactly the same 150cc engine. Not only does Powduh Puff know which version is obviously faster, he also knows which type is more comfortable. You whips out your credit card and you makes your choice.
The last scooter type is the one that makes my Tiddlerosis heart go pitty-pat, pitty-pat. It is a somewhat skinnier model with 16″ wheels, legshields that are not as wide as a circus fat lady, and that sweet little 110cc copycat engine. The only catch is that the online retailers charge as much for this one as they do for the big cruiser described above. I guess they know the beauty of selling a Honda clone. This design is currently far less available than all the other scooter types described in this article, but access to it is slowly increasing. The bigger wheels are the key. You don’t have to fear potholes with quite the same level of trepidation and the overall handling is better balanced. These models usually include a tachometer, but the design of the whole instrument cluster is a bit less perfect than that of either the large cruiser or the modern sporty type. The graphics packages and color choices leave a little to be desired, too. Blatantly inspired by the Honda Cub, the Aprilia Scarabeo, and the Kymco People, with the first extinct and the latter two overpriced, this little sweetheart is somewhat irresistible. I hope this model proliferates and improves in the future.
I should give an honorable mention to yet another variant that tries to split the difference between the sporty type and the cruiser type. This model is usually referred to as having European styling. It has a windshield a little smaller than that of the standard cruiser and the 13″ wheels of the sportster. The seat is between the sizes of these two types, and it usually has more downward slope toward the front edge. I am not a fan of this type simply because the windshield and instrument panel do not turn with the handlebars. To a decades-old fan of the sort of two-wheelers that would not embarrass Peter Fonda or Steve McQueen, this effect is quite disconcerting to me. The eerie feeling of sliding off the front end of the seat and not being sure exactly which way my front wheel is pointing gives me the cooties. If this design happens to start your motor, you will find it somewhat less common, like the Honda 50 clone, and priced about the same as that model, as well as the even larger cruiser. Other than the disconcerting elements, the reason I give this model only an honorable mention is that if I wanted a sporty model, I would go completely in that direction, but if I wanted a cruiser, I would go in the opposite direction. This European type seems to be a somewhat silly compromise, being neither the fastest nor the most practical.
You may have noticed that I have not included any actual, specific model names or brands in this article. Nor have I included any plugs for the horde of online retailers of cheap Chinese scooters. Like the Chinese operations in other fields of marketing, the brand names, rules, and reputations seem to change daily with their underwear. There is no substitute for thoughtful research before you decide to make a purchase. I do want to mention Northern Tool, a respected American catalog company that carries at least a few of these low-priced scooters. The main operation and warehouse of Lifan is located in Dallas, TX. A typical competitor of Lifan is Tank, and the crazy part is that I cannot even tell you if Tank is in any way related to Lifan or not. Such is the mysterious world of cheap Chinese scooters. The Kymco USA site will show you their whole lineup, if you don’t mind whipping your credit card a little harder. Feast your eyes on the Aprilia Scarabeo, made in the same country that produces Ferraris. Rabbit Scooters displays many of the models discussed in this article, but I cannot speak for their reputation. I could list many more dealers similar to Rabbit, with nearly identical models, similar prices, and unknown reputations, but this article is long enough already. Go out there and save some gas!
Floyd M. Orr is the author of four books available at Amazon and the proprietor of Tiddlerosis, a site dedicated to the history of the many brands of small motorcycles and scooters sold in the U.S. in The Sixties.