An anti-Harley thing

The S&M (Santa Monica) Scooter Club schedules rides every month. Above, the group takes a break in front of the Topanga Ranch Motel. Photo by Baretta / TMT

The Vespa scooter is gaining popularity as more and more riders discover the easy, free riding joy of whirring down the highway.

By Greg Sidor/Special to The Malibu Times

Rumbling packs of motorcycle enthusiasts can be regularly seen riding down Pacific Coast Highway or gathering at such places as Neptune’s Net or off Mulholland Highway at the infamous Rock Store. With their black leather jackets and growling Harleys, Hondas, Ducatis and other bike brands, they’re hard to miss, and perhaps a bit intimidating to some. Well, a new brand of two-wheel, pack-riding enthusiasts have joined their rougher cousins-Vespa riders-and rather than scary, they seem more cuddly and cute.

Instead of donning black leather and helmets with skull and crossbones on the side, those who ride Vespa scooters are more likely to wear matching pastel outfits and flashy headgear. That doesn’t mean they’re any less serious about their machines. The Italian bikes are becoming increasingly popular in Los Angeles and have spawned clubs devoted to their appreciation.

Malibu resident Michael Bedard, an artist and member of a Santa Monica Vespa club, has been riding scooters since he was a teenager.

“It’s almost an anti-Harley thing,” Bedard said. Those who don’t feel like tempting fate by speeding down the highway on a gigantic motorcycle can have a great time cruising on their Vespas, he suggested.

Nearest to Malibu is the S&M Scooter Club (the first two letters standing for Santa Monica), organized by the local Vespa dealer on Broadway Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard. Manager Victor Osaka created the club after noticing a seasonal effect on riding.

Concerned that his clients were putting their scooters in the garage during the winter months, Osaka set about forming the club. “I wanted to get people to ride when they normally wouldn’t,” he explained.

The group now consists of more than 40 enthusiasts, said Osaka. Rides are scheduled every month, offering members the chance to “go for a light, easy ride for some camaraderie.”

The rides have destinations that take members through scenic areas, letting them appreciate the view without being boxed in by car windows or overwhelmed by the bulky weight of a rumbling Harley. At the end of the excursions, members show off their scooters and share stories and riding tips.

The Vespa scooter was designed in post-war Italy as an affordable vehicle easy to navigate on the nation’s damaged roads, according to the scooter’s official Web site. Piaggio, the company that manufactures the Vespa, had previously built airplane components, according to the site. More than 16 million scooters have been produced.

Vespas have a sleek look to them, but lack the large exhaust pipes and howling engines of their larger cousins. The scooter is big enough to provide a safe ride, but small enough for weaving in and out of L.A. traffic. There’s something inherently pleasing about the gentle curves of the frame, giving the scooter a friendly look.

“They’re much more agile (than larger bikes),” Bedard said, adding that the scooters can get up to 65 mph, and accelerate briskly. He said that people react to Vespas in a way that separates them from other bikes.

“When you ride in a group, people come running out of their houses to wave,” Bedard said. There are club members of all ages, he said, but the idea of the youth culture plays an important role in fueling the enthusiasm. Some people see the scooters as a throwback to the ’60s, and get a kick out of riding something considered retro in some circles.

Bedard is continually surprised by the devotion of fellow enthusiasts. “We had an event in September where two guys came all the way out from New York,” Bedard said. An annual Las Vegas gathering attracts riders from around the world, he added.

In addition to being considered fashionable, both Osaka and Bedard admit that when it comes to Vespas, it’s mostly about having fun.

“It’s what any motorcyclist will tell you,” Osaka said. “It’s total freedom. It’s not having a cage around you. It’s a very special feeling.”

“There’s a special feeling about driving and owning them,” Bedard said. “They have a big grin factor. It’s fun to drive with others.”

So much fun, in fact, that there are about 20 clubs in Southern California alone, Osaka said. Most of these are devoted to vintage Vespas, which are very hot collector’s items, the Vespa dealer said.

“I recently saw a bike built in 1946. It’s now worth about $18,000,” Osaka said.

New Vespas retail for about $4,000, Osaka said, noting that “their popularity is soaring. We’re selling three scooters a day during the summer.”

Some clubs modify the bikes for racing, holding competitions at local speedways, Osaka said.

New riders are appearing all the time, and club members don’t seem surprised. “Once you get one, you never get off it,” Osaka said laughing.

To learn more about the S&M Scooter Club, visit