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Bikes in The City: Clean Living in Difficult Circumstances, Martin ‘Sticky’ Round
To be truly modern is undoubtedly to be electric. But will scooterists in rapture over their mid-century masterpieces ever embrace a new millennium’s modernism?
I’m a bit of an oddball, and I accept that. In the past I’ve ridden classic Lambretta scooters to Istanbul and Ukraine and raced a Vespa in the Sahara, but that’s not what they are really intended for. Scooters weren’t even conceived as weekend transport for a ruck with the Rockers at a seaside resort 60-miles from home. Scooters were always destined for the daily commute. However, Italian designers did such a thorough job of making their machines look cool that generations of riders have fallen in love with the styling as much as their practicality.
Very few people feel as strongly about other utility objects like fridges, washing machines or tumble driers. You will notice that all of those machines share dull, boxy styling and run on electricity. I wonder; does the fuel they use make it harder to love them?
Electric Lust Orchestra
I’ve tested quite a few electric scooters over the years – not the stand-up barely-legal type beloved of city centre drug dealers and hipsters – but road legal electric versions of a traditional scooter. So far, they’ve consistently fallen short — not in terms of styling; that’s personal and it’s just as easy to make a stylish electric scooter as a petrol one. Not in terms of the ride, either. I might love the smell of two-stroke and changing gear on a petrol engine but I can fully understand the appeal of a silent, twist-and-go, low-maintenance electric scooter with tooth-pulling torque. I totally get that, if your priority is practical transport. What sucked on early electric scooters – and still isn’t entirely solved to this day – is range.
For the Scooterboys of the 1980s — but equally for teenagers from the 1950s onwards — a scooter primarily represents freedom. Freedom to customise. Freedom to go where you want, whenever you want.
Electric scooters aren’t there yet in terms of utility. You might be able to buy one with enough range to get you to work and back if it’s a short commute, but you aren’t going to be visiting the seaside unless you plan to stop somewhere and charge it up on the way. In terms of utility we are at the technological equivalent of a washing machine that only allows you to wash one sock at a time, or a fridge that only accepts five cans of beer. It’s close. There may be a cigar, but you don’t have a lighter and it’s a no smoking zone anyway.
Change is a comin’
The core problems of electric vehicles are energy density and recharge time. For scooters you are either offered good range with crappy performance or good performance with miserable range.
If you want good performance and range then the scooter needs to be big; something like the Vectrix maxi-scooter of 2006. That would zip along at almost 70mph, but then you still had to wait hours to recharge it. Taiwanese scooter firm Gogoro solved the refuelling time conundrum by establishing battery banks around some cities. You could navigate to them using the Gogoro App. Once you place your empty battery in spare space in the wall of charging points, another fresh battery would appear like a gigantic game of whack-a-mole. Sadly, the Gogoro principle only works where the specialist recharging infrastructure has been built. Outside of a city, a Gogoro is back to the painfully slow-charging problem of its rivals.
What the world really needs, in order to make modern electric scooters as useful as their petrol counterparts, is a universal swappable battery system that you can exchange as easily as you can fill up with petrol. The good news for 2021 is that four of the main motorcycle and scooter manufacturers (Piaggio, Honda, Yamaha and KTM) have agreed a common standard for a swappable battery. In theory, with easy battery exchange, you could ride your electric scooter wherever you wanted without waiting to charge it up.
In this way, the freedom principle at the heart of the scootering impulse is restored. If any vehicle provides freedom then people will love it — particularly if it looks cool.
Old Skool Rools
As for the rest of us in the UK, if you still have a classic scooter, it’s currently not all bad news either. For the moment there remains an exemption to most of the inner-city emission restrictions for historic vehicles over 40 years old. As such, many Vespas and Lambrettas can still be used without paying.
For when that no longer works, several companies (e.g. Retrospective Scooters in London and also Saigon Scooters in Vietnam) have both developed electric conversions for classic models. For now: I will be sticking to my exempted two-strokes. There’s something about that smell that never gets old.
Martin ‘Sticky’ Round is author of ‘Scooterboys – The Lost Tribe’ ‘Frankenstein Scooters to Dracula’s Castle’ and ‘The Complete Spanner’s Manual for Lambretta Scooters’.
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