CIAO! FROM THE FUTURE
By Peter Lauer
I'm a scooter enthusiast. I've had motorcycles. A Honda 110 that my brother bequeathed me when he went to college. Unfortunately, he came home and tried to impress the girl across the street by teaching her to ride. She drove it up a 40-foot hardwood tree. I swear both wheels were vertical on the trunk for the briefest moment before it all came crashing, irreparably as it turned out, back to the buckeyes on my Ohio lawn. Needless to say, a relationship never gelled. Anyway, from that point on motorcycles puttered somewhere down in the dark recesses of my monkey brain.
It was years later when I finally said to hell with it I'm getting a bike. It was a CBR 600 F2, which had just come onto the market and I felt pretty slick. That was fun, so I got something with a bit more heft: a Goldwing 1500 SE. I wanted to experience a "wingding" before old age and matching riding suits turned my wife, Lesley, and I into sexless dromedaries on wheels. Sadly the Goldwing crashed, Lesley went into shock, and that was it for touring bikes. Next, I thought I'd try a cafe racer, Moto Morini 500. That was stolen. Got another sportbike, had a kid, considered mortality, sold it, and figured I was done with motorcycles.
That is until I saw that Al Gore movie. I was driving a Ford Bronco and felt so guilty that I went out the next day to buy a hybrid. Funny thing about hybrids: they don't get such great mileage. What could I do? How could I save the world, decrease my footprint, reduce our blahblah on foreign blahblah, etc... Suddenly a light bulb: throughout my recent years of cycle-less (joyless) commutes in Southern California a secret desire had kindled, repressed and unspoken. It was a tiny voice that finally broke silence to murmur "Scooter."
Scooter! of course, and why not? Now, thanks to Al Gore, I had the perfect excuse. Who could argue with 70 miles a gallon? Plus, I live in L.A. What better city to ride a scooter? Canyon roads, postcard-perfect wending corniches, traffic jams that would magically vanish, no more valet parking. Scooter paradise was calling me. While Lesley went back east to visit family, I immediately snuck east on Ventura Boulevard to the nearest Vespa dealer.
I never considered any scooter but a Vespa. That's all I knew of scooters: movie stars zipping around sound stages, island rentals in the breezy Caribbean, Quadrophenia, La Dolce Vida! I pulled out in an LX150, corso rapidamente
directly to my laptop, and proceeded ordering anything to maximize a retro scooter effect - chrome, chrome, and more chrome. I was living the dream.
I'd call, drunk with fuel-efficient superiority, to hybrid-driving friends and colleagues. At groovy record shops, undoubtedly groovy strangers left cards on my scooter inviting me to hipster scooter clubs and retro rallies. A sub-culture emerged and embraced me. I felt young again, better yet...timeless. Plus, I could stop on a dime - beat anybody through an intersection, and lane share through the narrowest queue. I crossed town faster than ever averaging no more than 40 miles an hour and without ever going on the highway. Every day was like being on vacation, and the highlight was the commute!! I had found myself an identity to revel in. I was Scooter Man.
And then... A golden opportunity: would I like to review a new scooter for a red-hot online motorcycle magazine? Me? I mean...io stesso? Ciao!
I revved with glee. This would be the affirmation of my new identity. Hell yes, I would. What's the scooter? The LX250? The Vino? Stella? Some other neo-retro Vespa wannabe?
The Piaggio MP3 400.
Piaggio, huh? Isn't that a Vespa or visa versa?
But then I blinked. MP3? This sounded familiar. I sucked my teeth sourly as chagrin stuck its pin in my dream. I'd seen pictures of this MP3, this "thing", this three-wheeled insectoid freak that looked less like a scooter than a Segway suffering a breach birth. This was a mutant, a monstrosity, a two-headed harbinger of the post apocalypse. My scooter enthusiasm was based on role-playing in a swinging 60's jet set Euro fantasy. How could I say Ciao!
on some Star Wars (and not even the original trilogy) space pod?
The choice was clear: I would accept the assignment and review a scooter I'd come to detest before even laying a hand on it. What? But why, you may ask? That's not fair! That's not impartial! That's not journalism! No. It's the Internet and I'm operating with an agenda. A few phone calls later and the offending freak was on its way to my house. In a strange and beautifully vindictive twist of fate, I'm told I might be the first reviewer in North America to have at this beast.
I prickle with a disproportionate sense of my own power. I can kill the changeling in its crib. If only I'd had this opportunity with iTunes or Starbucks.
For three full days the spider will have the fly all to itself. In the interest of fairness (diabolical laughter), the spider will treat the fly like any other conveyance. The spider won't go out of its way to swat the fly, but merely subject it to an ordinary routine of daily use. Relating a few noteworthy outings should suffice to accomplish my sinister purpose.
A FIRST RIDE
The fly has landed. It looks less like a scooter than a snowmobile from Mars. I'll admit I'm impressed to see it sitting on the slope of my driveway without a kickstand. Even with a kickstand I can't trust my Vespa on the incline. I usually leave it in the street while I run up and open the garage. Of course, if I had three wheels and an emergency brake I wouldn't tip over on a slope either. Fine, that's one redeeming quality about the Abomination.
Disengaging this freak for deployment requires a new order of operations, not unlike learning the steps of starting a Prius for you Paleolithic gasaholic types. In this case you hold the hand brake, throw the lever on the emergency brake, which is right in front of your knees, and flip a toggle switch on the handlebar to loosen the tilt. That's what I do. The tilt takes about an instant to engage and suddenly I feel the weight of the 400cc scooter transfer to my own center of gravity. Weird. It feels like a motorcycle but the distribution is unique. It's the front end with its two wheels and parallelogram suspension, a nice way to say wheels tilting and cantilevering in sync. I guess it's a good parallelogram because the thing feels stable up there. I start the engine, which has a rumble to it, neither cycle nor scooter but a scooter from another world where they make scooters differently.
My first ride is to back down the drive so Lesley can get her car out of the garage. To do this I'll have to head up the street, U-turn, and come back. Short and sweet. Oddly, I find, upon returning to my drive that I don't want to stop riding. I follow Lesley down the street until she pulls over and asks what the hell I'm doing mindlessly trailing her while leaving the garage door wide open, at which point I turn around, at a very nice motorcycle-ish lean by the way, and head back home. This is my first ride on the Freak.
It isn't terrible.
I'd been wanting the book that "LET THERE BE BLOOD" was based on - really because Daniel Day Lewis' utterly black hearted view of humanity makes me feel good. So, let's see if the Mutant can get me to the bookstore and back. Again, I kind of enjoy the process of simply disengaging the tilt and rolling down the driveway. Off we go. This thing has some thrust. I gun it, there's a momentary shaft-drive type lull followed by a whoosh of acceleration that I certainly never had on my Vespa. The Space Oddity is off and running.
First challenge: the drainage depression that crosses my road. Every car slows for this dip but me because I drive a '95 Bronco and don't give a shit. I hit it. Why not? The thing's got two front tires - let's see if there's any advantage. Fwhump! Hmm... That was very smooth.
Chrome would've dropped off the Vespa. Of course, that being said, once the chrome was reattached it would look fantastico!
I stop at an intersection where an unemployed (striking writer) dad is crossing the street with his toddler. They both regard me as an unwelcome invader. I must admit to taking a certain pride in this. Scooter Man is becoming Super Freak.
The bookstore presents a challenge. Normally, on a normal scooter, I ride up onto the sidewalk and drop the kickstand wherever I feel like it. Nobody cares. But this thing is, like I say, a snowmobile from Mars. I go ahead and park it on the sidewalk by the café tables and nobody gives me a dirty look, coincidentally no one is there, but, regardless, I must admit I'm self-conscious. The MP3 has a significant enough profile that it probably merits an actual parking space. On the up side, there's plenty of room for my book in the ample storage area. And I like the trunk. It pops like a miniature actual trunk with the remote control key and everything. So far so good, I drive back home and push it a little bit, zigging and zagging and bypassing traffic. The Freak handles well. You definitely feel the heft in the front end, but you also feel very stable and smooth up there. Crossing a cleft in the tarmac at a diagonal presents no trouble whatsoever.
I have a shrink appointment because Lesley thinks I'm solely responsible for our marital concerns. Of course she's wrong - she's the problem - and I need the shrink to understand this so I can stop these needless appointments.
This will require me to put the Alien in a parking garage. With the Vespa, some guy usually flags me over to an empty corner where I park for free no questions asked. We'll see how parking attendants respond to the Freak.
But first a glitch: the clock on the Mutant was set to a different time zone when it was dropped off and suddenly I'm late. I guess this means I'll be taking the freeway. No problem. As it turns out, the thing has terrific pick up and stability despite it being an unusually gusty day. I look around and find myself a bit disappointed that nobody seems to be taking notice of my flying saucer when, up ahead, I glimpse another insectoid-looking scooter of about the same class. This guy's sure to take an interest in the latest technology from space.
I roll back on the throttle and find myself pleasantly surprised by how quickly and effortlessly I catch up. Unfortunately, I'm wearing a half-face helmet and by the time I'm alongside this other guy my eyes are running like faucets and I can't gauge his reaction through the liquid blur. I can't even tell if he's looking at me. In fact, I'm not sure it's a "he".
A Plan-B occurs: I'll race up ahead and take the next exit allowing me to slow down, clear my vision, and watch as the other rider passes by on the overpass above to my left. This is remarkably easy. The thing jumps from about 65 miles an hour to about 85 as easily as the Vespa goes from 40 to 41. As I'm gliding down the exit ramp I look up and find myself gloatingly satisfied to see my fellow scooter enthusiast craning his neck in bewilderment at the Freak.
I make it to the shrink with more time than I'd anticipated only to discover that, perhaps, I am solely responsible for our marital concerns.
Topanga Canyon. Finally a road tailor made for two-wheeled... er... Whatever. I'm picking up my son, Simon. You've heard of "No Child Left Behind"? My child was left behind. Lesley and I pooled our resources with a friend, yanked our boys out of the utterly dysfunctional Los Angeles public school system, and hired our own teacher up in the canyon. Topanga is famous for its freaks so the Mutant should fit right in. I intend to climb the switchbacks aggressively to see how these cantilevered front wheels can really handle. Of course, it would be rather unfortunate if I were to wreck one of the only two MP3 400s in North America, but too bad, I want to see this thing lean.
I thread my way up the queue to be first in line at the bottom of the mountain. This is not as simple as with the Vespa, the Mutant being the width of a full-size bike, but the balance is nice, the center of gravity is low, and, although at very slow speeds the front end can feel cumbersome, I manage.
The light turns green and away we go, me and E.T. Back and forth, carving up the mountainside, initially cautious but the thing gives me no reason to hold back. A decreasing radius here, an off-camber turn there, the Freak veers with ease. The only trouble is that, with two front wheels canting parallelogramically, I notice that the oncoming traffic is starting to take notice rather than watching the road. A head-on collision would be sad.
But all goes well. I arrive at my son's new school where he, his classmate, and our teacher all seem to think the Alien is quite pleasing to look at. They're each young enough to not to care about "retro" this or "classic" that. The thing is a Freak from the future and this is, apparently, good.
A NIGHT RIDE
The photo shoot. I promised Simon that he could take pictures of the Mutant after he finished his homework, but pre-algebra is taking longer than I'd anticipated. Meanwhile, due to recent rains and gusty winds, one of the most spectacular sunsets of the year is slipping into the ocean.
To make matters worse, when he finally comes out, Simon and his friend Trace insist on scooter rides. I race them up and down the neighborhood. Simon, incidentally, enjoys this much more than riding on the back of the Vespa. Then off we dash to the ocean in hopes of catching a rhapsodically volcanic sunset that taunts me with psychedelic glimpses all through the shadows of Topanga Canyon. I fail. By the time I'm at the beach a darkling gloom has pooped on my pictorial hopes.
Interestingly though, Simon asks to ride shotgun and follow Trace and Lesley to a restaurant down the Pacific Coastal Highway. Simon would never ask to ride on back of the Vespa on a road as busy as the P.C.H. Obviously he felt quite comfortable on the Freak with its sturdy handles, smooth glide, and well-contoured seat. No matter, though, Lesley won't allow it and Simon has to content himself by wearing his motorcycle helmet in the backseat of an Audi A4 wagon - again, however, a testament to his enthusiasm for the Freak.
But wait. A weakness! It's dark now and I'm driving back through the canyon. And I mean it's really dark. Winding this way and that way I find something's not normal. Every time I veer left my vision dims. I pull over and wipe off my visor and try it again. Same thing. I pull over again and check the headlights. That's when I see a bizarre aspect of the Mutant: it has two headlights but they serve different purposes. The one on the right is the low beam - the one on the left is the high beam. This is a strange choice because when you're using your low beams, presumably out of consideration for oncoming traffic, and you veer to the left, the throw of the low beam headlight doesn't carry very well into your intended direction. It's not the end of the world, but it is an annoyance. It's also a dilemma for me personally. Faced with what I consider a flaw I discover that somehow, somewhere, I've begun to root for the Mutant.
After a long day of reviewing a scooter enthusiast needs his caipirinha. I march to the front of the house only to find my lime tree stripped of any ripe fruit by the neighborhood poachers. Bastards yes, but bastards who know their cocktails. So it's off to Whole Foods.
As rides go this should be pretty inconsequential were it not for a series of twenty-something males I encounter in the parking lot. Clearly these inchoate potential scooter enthusiasts do not share my swingin' 60s retro aesthetic. They go fairly berserk for the Abomination.
"That is so random!" cries one, malapropriately drawing "random" from his vocabulary in what can only be deemed a random fashion. The guy who bagged my limes is equally impressed, as is a third proto-adult who declares, "That is exactly
what I've been looking for!"
Later, reintroducing a steady trickle of limejuice and cachaca
to my liver, I consider that perhaps I need to open my mind to the possibility of a coming paradigm shift in motor scooting. Maybe the Mutant has a place in this world. Maybe I'm the mutant, an oddball clinging in futility to an antiquated notion, a stupid old fart.
THE LAST RIDE
I'm in the dog park when Lesley calls to remind me I forgot we're looking at a house in ten minutes. It's a buyers' market. I figure that means someone has to buy our house, so we won't be moving anywhere. The property is fifteen to twenty minutes away and I'll be late to meet our realtor - unless, of course, I leap into the future onboard the space scooter. No matter, at this point I find I'm looking for any excuse to ride the Freak. It's fun. People ask me about it. I'm proud to appear to be on the cutting edge. I'm in on a secret. I'm a time traveler delivering the spark that will inspire tomorrow's scooter enthusiasts to the next stage of evolution. I am Prometheus bringing fire. I'm--
"I'm here for the Piaggio."
Somehow I wasn't expecting the end of my time with the Freak to come so quickly. I pop the trunk and remove a few belongings. I consider wiping off the muddy dog park boot prints from the leg well, but I don't. I'm an old dog who's learned a new trick and dogs leave their marks.
My Vespa sits in the shadows as I open the garage door and light streams in on two scooters: one mod, one Post-Modern. The apple couldn't have fallen farther from the tree. A tree, by the way, that I hadn't bothered to climb since the apple first tempted me a week ago.
I roll the Fr... sorry ...the Piaggio MP3 400 down my drive and watch it mount the trailer that will deliver it to its next reviewer.
I feel guilty. Guilty for the bias with which I approached the future, and guilty for the neglect I'd shown my old faithful. Look at it: a classic - candy apple red and gleaming with chrome. I straddle my LX150 and fire it up.
Putt Putt Putt.
That's more like it. That's what I want in a scooter. Cafes, bongos, cigarettes, espresso, anything else that evokes bad European teeth, and 63 miles an hour tops. But that's me, that's my dream.
Down the street, the MP3 400 rounds a bend and heads off into its future. It's been an illuminating ride and I wish it the best.
For this scooter enthusiast it's goodbye. For tomorrow's it's undoubtedly hello.
Peter "Speedy Pete" Lauer is an acclaimed Hollywood Writer, Director and Producer who's helped bring us some of our favorite TV shows including Strangers With Candy, Chappelle's Show, Dead Like Me, Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle and more.
What's even cooler is that he's a normal guy just like the rest of us, and he rides!
You can check out his latest project, "Reaper" on CW Tuesdays at 8pm
Photos: Simon Lauer & Trace Montgomery
Here's all the Official Stuff from Piaggio...
Three-Wheel Scooters Continue the Personal Transportation Revolution
Italian manufacturer Piaggio launched a revolution in the personal transportation category when it rewrote the rules with the three-wheel MP3 250 scooter. For 2008, the company again raises the bar with the introduction of two all-new MP3 models, the MP3 500 and MP3 400 maxi scooters. Based on the trademark technical innovations that transformed the MP3 250 into an immediate best-seller, the higher-displacement MP3 500 and 400 offer riders the added benefit of high-performance four-stroke engines, aggressive styling and a new level of premium safety, comfort and convenience equipment. Designed to go the distance, the newest MP3 models are uniquely suited to enjoying the diverse terrain of America's highways and byways.
All MP3 models feature Piaggio's innovative three-wheel configuration. Unique in the category, each MP3 delivers unparalleled stability, road grip and parking ease thanks to two independent tilting, articulated front wheels and an electro-hydraulic suspension locking system that allows the scooter to remain locked upright while at a standstill. At the same time, the MP3 sacrifices nothing when it comes to riding thrills - with a 40-degree lean angle, every MP3 delivers all the maneuverability, agility and entertainment of a motorcycle. Dry or wet conditions, smooth asphalt highway or pot-hole studded city streets, the MP3 models are resilient travel companions.
New for 2008 MP3 500: Racy, Revved and Ready to Go
Whether effortlessly carving through a set of twisties or confidently navigating pockmarked urban terrain, the 2008 MP3 500 is the personal transportation choice most likely to get your adrenaline into high-rev mode. Distinguished by top-of-the-line performance and aggressive styling, the MP3 500 has the strongest appetite for aggressive riding of the three available models.
Even standing still, the MP3 500 looks ready for action. A double steel tube bumper with metal mesh inserts give the vehicle a rugged look, as do a sleek black metal handlebar and black ten-spoke wheel rims. A five-lamp headlight unit is not only visually striking, but highly functional - the two biggest head lamps are equipped with off-road-style shockproof covers. But, despite its race-inspired design, the MP3 500 doesn't skimp on rider comfort. From an aerodynamically efficient front fairing to a wide, comfortable footrest panel, generous seat and handy rear rack, the MP3 500 offers total riding comfort to both the rider and passenger.
At the heart of the MP3 500's performance is a liquid-cooled, electronically-injected 492.7cc four-stroke powerplant with peak horsepower of 40 hp at 7,250 rpms. The MP3 500's torque curve is ideal for strong, smooth acceleration with plenty of power available at low and mid-range revs. A peak 31.12 ft.-lb. of torque is available at 5,550 rpm. With a top speed of 89 mph, this maxi scooter is ready to go - but it will do so with minimum noise and reduced emissions, thanks to its twin spark system.
Strong performance potential depends on an equally strong chassis and superior brakes and the MP3 meets all the criteria. The MP3's innovative parallelogram front suspension technology provides category-leading stability and impeccable road holding, while large 240 mm triple steel disk brakes ensure fast stopping power. The MP3 requires 20% less braking distance than best-in-class two-wheel scooters.
The 2008 MP3 500 is available for a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $8,899. Color choices include Passion Red and Demon Black. A full range of travel and security accessories, including a Tom-Tom satellite navigation system, are available.
New for 2008 MP3 400: An All-Around Long Distance Performer
Train tracks, rough road, miles of slick pavement, parking on steep hill - bring it on. The 2008 MP3 400 is the maxi scooter of choice for anyone who believes that personal transportation should be flexible enough to handle short jaunts, high-traffic commutes and long, leisurely rides with equal aplomb.
Because the MP3 400 has been designed to meet the everyday needs of owners, every element of the scooter has been maximized for rider comfort, safety and convenience. Storage onboard is plentiful, including an exceptionally large underseat storage bay that can hold up to two full-face helmets. Add any number of accessories, such as a roomy top box, tall windscreen or Tom-Tom Navigation and the MP3 400 serves virtually any riding purpose. When you consider power, convenience, safety, fuel economy and fun, there is no doubt the MP3 400 is the ultimate commuting vehicle.
The MP3 400s excellent performance begins with its 398.9ccc liquid-cooled, electronically injected four-stroke powerplant. The four-valve single puts out a maximum of 34 hp at 7,500 rpm, with peak torque of 27.3 ft.-lb. at just 5,000 rpm. With power and torque fully available at low revs, accelerating and passing are a breeze. While the MP3 400 is happy to chew up highway miles all day long, there's always quick burst of power on tap for sporty maneuvers in challenging traffic conditions.
Thanks to the new engine and a large 14-inch rear wheel, the MP3 400 has a 65mm longer wheelbase than the MP3 250 for superior stability in fast curves or during hard braking.
Like its MP3 siblings, the MP3 400's innovative character comes from the original Piaggio parallelogram suspension design. The unique tilt mechanism that allows the two front wheels to function independently is composed of four cast aluminum arms, with four hinges fixed to the central tube. Two guide tubes are on either side of the parallelogram, connected to the arms via suspension pins and ball bearings.
The 2008 MP3 400 is available for a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $8,699. Color choices include Cortina Gray and Midnight Blue.
2008 MP3 250: The Start of the Revolution
With the world debut of the MP3 250 in 2006, Piaggio served notice that a new era in personal transportation had just begun, thanks to the three-wheel scooter's uniquely functional and fun character. Designed to be the easiest to own and ride scooter ever, the MP3 250 also adds plenty of performance, safety and convenience features to the mix.
There's no mistaking the MP3 250 on the road. Aerodynamically superb thanks to extensive wind tunnel testing and inspired by the sporty Piaggio GT line, the MP3 is compact and sleek. While three 12-inch wheels provide the ultimate stability and road grip, Piaggio's original suspension design and tilt mechanism give the MP3 250 all the agility of a traditional two-wheel machine.
MP3 250 riders enjoy a premium level of protection and generous storage space for category leading fun and functionality. Shock-resistant splashguards on either side of the front shield keep road debris and the elements at bay. Underseat storage holds up to two full-face helmets and items up to 3 feet in length. It can also be accessed from the rear for added convenience.
Riding the MP3 is a thrill and parking it is a cinch. Thanks to its compact size, the MP3 250 fits into the smallest of spaces and its articulated front wheels mean that one wheel can be placed up to 7.8 inches higher than the other. Like all the MP3s, a quick flick of the handlebar switch activates the system the patented electro-hydraulic front suspension locking system that keeps the MP3 250 upright without using a center stand.
The 2008 MP3 250 is available for a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $7,199. Color choices include Passion Red and Graphite Black.
About The Piaggio Group:
With over 6,700 employees, an annual production of more than 680,000 vehicles in 2006, 5 R&D centers, 7 production facilities in Europe and Asia, and operations in over 50 countries, the Piaggio Group has a consolidated leadership in the European 2 wheeler market. Its production includes scooters, motorcycles and mopeds in the 50cc to 1,200 cc displacement range, marketed under the Piaggio, Vespa, Gilera, Derbi, Aprilia, Scarabeo and Moto Guzzi brands.