It’s a scooter thing

Those who love Vespas and Lambrettas form a unique subculture in Sacramento

Dozens of old-school scooters gather at Espresso Metropolitan.

Dozens of old-school scooters gather at Espresso Metropolitan.

Photo By Tammy Stone

Sitting in front of Espresso Metropolitan in Land Park, parked in a narrow space between two cars, sits a silver Vespa. Its paint is chipped and rusty in spots, but chrome bits twinkle in the morning sun like they must have when it came rolling off the assembly line in Italy many decades ago.

Another Vespa pulls alongside it, sounding like a pile of rocks in an empty coffee can. A man wearing leathers rises from his sidewalk table and saunters over to the man parking the scooter, coffee in hand, as the new rider dismounts and removes his helmet. The two shake hands, gazing at their scooters.

A little later, a third scooter and rider arrive. And then another, and another, and another. The influx continues. Soon, packs of riders are arriving on the machines. The space between the two cars is quickly filled and scooters begin to spill onto the sidewalk, occupying every available space in front of the café.

Scooters zip up and down the street, bellowing blue and white smoke from their tailpipes. Trucks and trailers carrying scooters pull in, park and unload their two-wheeled cargo.

People stroll up and down the rainbow-colored metal line, slapping backs, shaking hands, hugging and laughing aloud—all of it set to the soundtrack of revving two-stroke engines on this late April Saturday morning.

Scooter guys
Chris Sanchez was 5 years old when he started riding around with his father on a Vespa in the Windy City.

“I’d stand on the floorboard and hold onto the handlebars,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes we’d go on the freeway. No helmets, of course, because who had a helmet law back then?”

Sanchez spent his formative years in Chicago’s Mod/Ska scene. “There were about five Vespas in the crowd I ran with,” Sanchez recalled, although he wasn’t into Vespas at the time. “VWs were my thing.”

Yet that changed after he moved to Sacramento in 1989, and his Bug kept getting stuck in reverse.

“I didn’t want to mess with it, so I sold it to a VW buff who offered to trade me two Lambrettas and a Vespa. I traded him and stripped the Series 3 to the bone. We rebuilt it from the ground up and called it the Celtic Cruiser,” this self-professed Europhile said with pride.

Perhaps the gravitation toward scootering is in Sanchez’s bloodline. His whole family, with the exception of his mother, used two-wheeled, motorized transportation. His father rode motorcycles and scooters. His brothers have ridden motorcycles off and on. Even his sister rides a scooter.

Eventually, after purchasing the scooters, Sanchez was invited by a couple of locals to the meeting of a scooter club called the Burgundy Topz. All Mod-ed out in his suit and tie, Sanchez said to them, “You guys don’t look like Mods,” to which they replied, “No, we’re just scooter guys.”

In 1946, during the aftermath of World War II, Piaggio unveiled the Vespa motorscooter in Italy. A year later, Innocenti followed with the Lambretta, and ever since, scooters have played an integral part of the European transportation scene. Moreover, they became an icon of European urbanity.

More refined and less intimidating than an industrial-looking motorcycle, scooters hide their fuel-efficient engine within a pressed steel body. The doughnut-like tires, buzzing motor and rounded curves of its shape differ from most other two-wheeled forms of motorized transportation.

Small, unobtrusive, easily parked anywhere, nimble in traffic and on narrow streets, relatively inexpensive to buy, scooters enjoy an obvious utilitarian appeal. Yet it is popular culture that has given them such mystique in the minds of many Americans.

From Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck putting around in Roman Holiday to Sting cruising London as a Mod in The Who’s Quadrophenia, scooters have always had a European je ne sais quoi that has intrigued Americans.

Realizing the potential to capitalize on this fascination, scooter companies began to import and sell them in the United States. But after years of marketing scooters to stateside Europhiles, federal air quality standards caught up to the two-stroke engines that power most classic scooters and, in the early 1980s, the sale of new European scooters ceased.

Japanese companies tried to fill the void with quieter, faster and more reliable scooters. They found a brief niche, but never caught on with the old “scooter guys.”

Labeled “twist n’ gos” because of their automatic transmissions, derided as “Tupperware” because of their molded plastic bodies, the new scooters had none of the vogue charisma of their Italian counterparts.

So many American scooterists opted to keep the older machines running, continuing to import the old scooters from Europe and purchasing parts (sometimes inferior) from India and Indonesia when vintage Italian parts could not be found. For most of them, it was classic scooters or nothing.

Vespa central
There may be no better place in Sacramento to view a representative sample of classic scooters than Vespa Haus. Just ask any of the Burgundy Topz who can be found milling about the locale, turning wrenches, smoking cigarettes, eating Taco Bell and, of course, talking scooters.

Tucked away in a Midtown alleyway (though moving soon to a new shop at C and 16th streets), there are always several scooters parked out front that have to be moved out of the entranceway so Tommy Magnuson can get in and out of the packed shop.

With the rolling barn doors pulled back, one can witness the evolution of Vespas, Lambrettas and other European vintages, hoarded like treasure. Some are in various states of disrepair while others gleam with bright, smooth paint-jobs, dead-ringers for factory-fresh scoots. Tools and parts litter the joint.

A display case houses various scooter trinkets that only a scooter aficionado could love. Draped over one wall is a sampling of exhausts, some rusty and dented, others appear straight out of the box. Well-fingered copies of “Scootering,” “Scoot Quarterly,” and numerous parts catalogs rest on a countertop.

Magnuson, 32, is a Burgundy Topz member and the shop manager. Raised in the suburbs of Sacramento, he is the son of Seventh Day Adventists.

The Sneaky Devils—(from left to right) Kirsten Quistberg, Marion Peppers and Amanda Bronson—on their way to the annual rally of scooterists.

Photo By Tammy Stone

“Yeah, it was pretty strict,” he admits, although that didn’t stop him from starting his scooter obsession in his early teens after one of his friends from church (and current business partner) brought a Vespa home one day.

Since acquiring his first scooter, a Rally 200, Magnuson has lived and breathed scooters continually, and in the past few years, has devoted himself entirely to seeing Vespa Haus and scootering in Sacramento grow.

“It is really satisfying putting together an old scooter that hasn’t run for 10 or 15 years, kicking it over and just hearing that thing purr,” he said gesturing to the rusted hulk of a scooter with a clean, refinished engine. “I think one of the things I love the most is seeing the look people have after I fix their scooter that they haven’t ridden for 10 years. When they hop on and ride it for the first time in all those years, you can just read in their face the flood of memories coming back to them.”

But not all is cheery at the Vespa Haus. Several crumpled frames lay piled in various corners around the shop, testaments to the danger of riding on roads dominated by four-wheeled “cagers.”

“That’s the dark side of scootering,” said Sanchez, who stopped by the shop for a chat. Within the scooter circle, most live by the adage, “There are those who have gone down, and there are those that will.”

Sanchez is living proof. Two years ago, a car pulled out in front of him at an intersection near Sutter’s Fort and his scooter slammed into the three tons of metal being driven by a neighbor. He broke his back, both legs, his knee and a big toe. But even $250,000 of surgery and months in physical therapy were not persuasive enough to deter his passion for scootering.

“I knew if I didn’t get back on a scooter after that,” Sanchez said, “I would never get back on.”

“Damn! I meant to bring over a carburetor to show everyone the proper way to take it apart,” said Kirsten Quistberg, one-quarter of the Sneaky Devils, the female answer to the all-male Topz. “You have to get into the mechanics or people will think you are lame and say things like, ‘You had to have your boyfriend fix your bike. Ha, ha.’ ”

Quistberg and her three compatriots can generally be found on Monday nights sipping brews and eating chips at the Streets of London pub on J Street. Customers at a nearby table may be befuddled after overhearing women utter phrases like, “I like getting all greasy and smelling like gas.”

But given the context, it’s nothing but wholesome scooter talk.

“You have to know your scooters, especially if you are going to be talking to a bunch of guys. Otherwise, they’ll eat you alive,” said Marion Peppers, who co-founded the Devils with Quistberg several years ago after the two moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area, where they had been involved in the scooter scene.

“It’s really a double-edged sword, because if the guys start talking techie and you don’t know what they’re talking about, they’ll ignore you,” said Peppers, who sometimes can be caught sporting a pair of devil horns sprouting from her shock of red hair. “At the same time, they want you to be the cute scooter girl with the outfit that matches the scooter paint-job.”

“I will never, ever be that girl,” said Quistberg, staring down her follow club member over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses.

The two agree that the Sacramento scooter scene is unique unto itself.

“Other scenes in bigger cities tend to consist more of music, clothes, parties and more of an overall social status thing,” Quistberg said.

“Here, it’s more a closeknit group of friends that have been riding scooters for a long period of time,” said Peppers. “People here really like to ride their scooters.”

Back at the gathering
The enclave of scooters and their riders have assembled in a mass in front of Espresso Metropolitan, enshrouded in a plume of two-stroke engine smoke, engines revving, headlights blazing. Like a gigantic metal amoeba, the front of the group slowly pulls out into the intersection, creating a seemingly magnetic draw for the other scooters behind.

As they roll along, passersby on downtown Sacramento streets wave and watch until the line is out of sight. Even Harley riders out on Saturday afternoon cruises acknowledge the column of machinery with salutes and amused smiles.

Winding in serpentine fashion, the procession carves its way into the Sierra foothills, eventually turning onto a gravel road where a couple of outhouses mark the final destination. Amid the forest of valley oaks, riders pull off into an open field of hay and park, the motors quieted until the next morning.

Beer flows freely from a tapped keg as people meander around the field of newly scooters. Many refer to their machines by name.

“It’s the Mach 5 from Speed Racer,” says Magnuson who has just pulled in on a newly built red and white scooter with a large “5” on the side. “It’s built for speed with a 210 top end, 30 millimeter carb, a cut crank and a reed valve induction.”

The Taxi Cab bike is yellow with a checkboard pattern painted down the side. The Mad Max bike has pieces of sheet metal riveted all over it. The Forty Lords bike got its name after someone modified the Fort Ord bumper sticker plastered to its frame. The Bubble Gum scoot is decorated with multi-colored pieces of chewed gum.

“So many things have happened because I got into scootering,” says Sanchez, sitting atop a rare German scooter called a Heinkel. “I hooked up with a job as a graphic designer through someone in the club. I became friends with a lot of people and made some great contacts. I met my wife.”

Tents are pitched. The 50-gallon drum grill is fired up, burgers cooked and a raging bonfire lighted as the day scoots into night. Cheers erupt from the lines of spectators, some of whom are dressed as cartoon characters in theme with the Burgundy Topz “Scootooning” event.

Shaggy and Scooby Doo converse as Quistberg—wearing a leopard print bra, shorts and no shoes—claws her way on all fours toward the keg where a cup of beer awaits. The task would not be so difficult were it not for the 50-foot length of rubber motorcycle tire inner tubes tied together, looped around her waist and tethered to a nearby tree. The “beer bungee” is legendary at this annual rally.

Peppers wanders up to cheer on her fellow Devil.

“There are people who have never crossed paths in life before and they come to an event like this and they have the ability to talk to anyone here because of the common interest over scooters,” she says.

And the scooters? Well, they speak for themselves.