“They are motorbikes; just a different type of motorbike.” That was how an acquaintance of mine summed up the question of whether scooters should be considered real motorbikes.
This guy, (the acquaintance, not the bloke on the left - that's just a photo) who almost qualifies as an “old bloke”, spent much of his younger years riding sports-bikes and sports-tourers; and riding them fast. He’s ridden to many far-flung parts of Australia, and also lived in and rode around Europe for a while. But he’s never owned a scooter. So his answer was kind of surprising. (Although his time in Europe was probably a factor).
We were discussing scooters, and their incredible rise in popularity. And I raised the question of whether we should consider them to be “real” motorbikes. It’s a somewhat controversial issue; especially today with scooters growing in size and power and also very much in popularity. In 2006 scooters were the biggest-selling category of road bike, with sales having tripled over the preceding three years. And since then they’ve continued to sell in ever-increasing numbers.
A big factor has been the spiraling cost of petrol; which has seen many people deserting cars for cheaper, more fuel-efficient, two-wheeled conveyances. And when it comes to cheap transport, scooters have it made! They’re cheap to buy and cheap to run. But are they real motorbikes?
It’s a difficult question to answer because the machines themselves are so diverse! Once, scooters were all pretty much the same; tiny little step-though things with tiny little wheels, powered by tiny little two-stroke engines hidden down under the seat somewhere. They weren’t proper motorbikes. Or perhaps we should put it this way; real motorcyclists didn’t consider them to be real motorcycles! But now it’s all changed. These days they range from those same tiny little things up to luxury cruisers. Engines range from 50cc to 650cc. Top speeds range from about 60kph to over 160kph. And while the littlies still have the old single-arm type front-suspension, larger ones feature proper motorbike type forks. Most scooters now even come with disc brakes.
In bodywork they all feature some form of step-through type style, but that’s about where the similarities end. You get everything from the basic Vespa style machine – with leg-shield front, floor, and cushion-on-a-box seat – up to things with a full fairing, electric windscreen, and fully-contoured seats accommodating rider and pillion in sumptuous luxury. For example, Honda gave their biggie the name “Silverwing;” suggesting that it’s a kind of scaled-down, step-through Goldwing. And, to a fair extent, that’s what it is! It runs a 582cc engine producing 37kw, weighs 218kg and retails for $12,990. A bit different to your average Vespa!
The Suzuki Burgman is another good example of the crossover between a scooter and a motorbike. It looks like a scooter – albeit a fairly big one – but underneath there are some serious motorcycle bits. Take the 400 model, for example. It’s got a 400cc engine, proper motorbike-type suspension, and weighs 180kg. Shaun Moloney, writing in Cycle Torque, described it in these words. “With 400cc of grunt, loads of space under the seat, comfort for two and the ability to tour around Australia, the Suzuki Burgman 400 gives you the ease of a scooter and all the benefits of a decent sized motorcycle.” And it'll happily cruise at 120kph.
But it’s not just the maxis that are bike-like. The Peugeot Geopolis 250 has a single-cylinder 250cc fuel-injected motor, decent suspension, and rides on 16” wheels. It’s almost like a proper (small) motorcycle wrapped in scooter clothing.
So, are they real motorbikes? Well, at this point I have to admit to a bit of prejudice. See, I’m an old bloke, and in some ways, perhaps an “unenlightened” old bloke. You know, “Real men don’t eat quiche;” that sort of stuff. And, “Scooters aren’t real motorbikes!"
Mind you I am changing! I do eat quiche; and I’m changing my views on scooters too. (I think the model on the left looks good - the scooter's not bad either!). But it’s a slow change, because I’ve always had a fairly negative view about them.
This prejudice against scooters was formed long before I could even legally ride one. If you’ve read the article about my first ride (which was on a Lambretta!), you’ll understand some of the reason behind this. But even before that first terrifying ride, there were a couple of incidents that had raised safety concerns about scooters. The first was an acquaintance of the family who was killed on a scooter. She was riding down an inner-city street doing about 25mph and somehow the thing hit a curb, flipped and threw her off. And killed her. (No, of course that's not her in the photo - I just put that in because ..... well I just did!).
The other incident happened to my cousin, who used to ride a scooter to work. One day he hit a big pot-hole with the front wheel. The little wheel dropped into the hole and stopped. But he, and the rest of the scooter, didn’t. He survived without serious injury, but he never rode again.
So, while still a very young bloke, I formed a view that scooters were inherently dangerous. And to some extent, I still think that’s true; especially in regard to the smaller machines with their little wheels, dodgy suspension, and indifferent handling. But of course they’re not all like that; as I’ve already indicated above. And especially in the case of the maxis, you could probably argue that they are safer than many “proper” bikes!
But it’s not just perceptions of safety that cause this prejudice. They don’t feel like a normal motorbike! You sit there on a big seat, looking a bit like a poodle begging for food; your feet flat on the floor, your hands straight out in front of you holding the bars. (Obviously I’m thinking of the smaller machines again here; not the maxis).
Your hands and feet do different things compared to what they do on a normal bike too.
Your feet do nothing; they just stay planted on the floor. Your right hand acts as normal, twisting the throttle and squeezing the front brake; but that clutch-lever at your left-hand isn’t a clutch-lever, because there isn’t a clutch. There aren’t gears either, well none that you actually change. That lever at your left hand is the rear brake. You’ve got to go back to your days of riding a push-bike (which is a bit of a stretch for most of us!) to ride these things.
Okay, now I have to admit quiche is actually not bad. In fact I quite like the stuff my wife serves up! And scooters, once you get around the above-mentioned issues, aren’t bad either; and certainly have their advantages. That big box-like affair underneath the seat is just that, a big box; and it holds lots of stuff! Most machines have other little niceties too, like hooks on the front panel to hang your shopping-bags on etc.
Another bonus (on the maxis anyway) is the protection from the elements offered by the bodywork and big screen. As an article in Roadrider magazine put it, “The protection these things offer has to be experienced to be believed, as does the convenience.” So, very practical; and handy to go shopping on, and even touring!
But I still have another issue with scooters; well, not so much with scooters as the people who ride them. Although the machine, by it’s very nature, encourages the problem. What I’m talking about is the way people who use scooters dress; the gear they wear, or more precisely, don’t wear! The easy, practical nature of scooters encourages people to just hop on and ride. The law says they’ve got to wear a helmet, so they do; but it’s usually a very basic open-face. And how many riders do you see with a good protective jacket, gloves and boots? Yes, some (like the guy in the photo at the top), but not many.
Okay, I know the same criticism can be made of some people who ride other types of bikes; like certain cruisers, for example! There’s a point to be made here. Regardless of what type of bike you ride, the same dangers are present, and you should dress accordingly!
But back to our question. Are scooters real motorbikes? Well, you can’t argue against their practicality as an urban conveyance; and they’re a lot more fun to get around the city than driving your family sedan. And particularly in the case of the maxis, they can pretty much do the same things as a normal motorbike; including fanging along winding roads (check out the lean-angle on the scooter in the photo!) and even inter-state touring. But they still have problems being accepted as real motorbikes.
It’s mostly an image thing. Stephen Dearnley, founding-member of the Ulysses Club, has reportedly said, “The problem is the name; we should call them step-through motorbikes.” It’s a good point; but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. To show what I mean, take a look at the use of motorbikes in movies.
Scooters have been used in movies. The most famous one was “A Roman Holiday.” They put Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on a scooter while a couple of blokes held up an over-size post-card of Rome behind them and wobbled it around for the camera. (Have you noticed how, in those old movies, whenever anyone rode a motorbike or drove a sports car there was no wind, not a single hair was blown out of place!). As a prop to inspire lovesick holiday-makers the scooter worked wonders! But it has it’s limitations.
For example, take Marlon Brando and his buddies and put him on a scooter as he rides into town. That waitress wouldn’t be asking, “What are you protesting about?” She wouldn’t be able to because she’d be laughing too much! Or what about “Easy Rider?” Put Peter Fonda on a scooter and have him riding out across the desert. Nah, not the same is it! And what about “Stone”? Take away their big Kawasaki 900s and put ‘em all on Honda step-throughs. It’d turn that iconic Aussie biker film into a comedy!
But it’s not just the rebel-type movies. What about Burt Munro? If we could go back in time, give him a scooter and tell him, “Hot that up and take it to the salt-flats!” How do you think that’d turn out? No, “The World’s Fastest Vespa” just doesn’t sound anywhere near as exciting does it! Then there’s Ewan and Charlie. Give them each a scooter and say, “There you go mate, ride around the world on that!”
Now, as I’ve already said quite a few times, it’s not that scooters aren’t capable of performing motorbike-type duties. And just to really prove the point, in late 2006 a guy by the name of Julio Languiller rode a Honda Silverwing around Australia, completing the 15,000km journey in just 15 days. Yep, more than a 1,000km a day – on a scooter! (That's him, on the Nullabor Plain, on the left). Now, the Silverwing is, as I mentioned above, a pretty big thing by scooter standards, but it’s still a scooter!
But does that mean we should all be doing that? Does it mean that, if we want to go long-distance touring, instead of buying that Yammie FJR, Honda ST, or BMW, we should all go out and buy a scooter? I don’t think so! Because the fact that these machines can do something like that doesn’t mean that they should be doing it! Those of you around my age might remember a bloke called Hans Tholstrapp. He was an adventurer-type guy. He once drove a Morris Mini Moke from the bottom of Tasmania to the tip of Cape York. We all nodded in appreciation and politely applauded, but we didn’t all rush out and trade our Holdens and Falcons on a Mini Moke did we! Because despite it’s achievements, the Mini Moke wasn’t a real car. And scooters aren't real motorbikes! Well, I still have problems accepting them as real motorbikes anyway.
But, of course, I’m wrong! That acquaintance of mine was right; as was Stephen Dearnley. They are motorbikes, just a different type of motorbike.

Now, for a brief over-view of scooters, what’s around, what they can do, how much they cost and so on, plus some further comments – from me, but also from people who know; people who own scooters – click the button below.
Click here for a brief over-view of the different categories of scooters, and what's around in each category,general specifications etc, plus a few more comments.
Click here to return to front page. Click your BACK button to return to previous page.