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Original Issue


Almost everyone, it seems, wants to be putt-putting everywhere on a gizmo that is more than a bike but less than a cycle

The traditional American response to the "less is more" concept has been that the only thing more is more. Particularly with personal transportation: the larger, flashier and faster the better, and at least two for every family. But battered by the economic crunch, the energy crunch and the air-quality crunch, Americans are questioning the way they get around. Enter the mo-ped. Something more than a bicycle, something less than a motorcycle, mo-peds suddenly seem to be an answer. Thirteen thousand of them are being sold each month in this country, and in three years the annual sales figures are expected to be in the millions.

For all the mo-ped pluses—they don't cost much (between $325 and $550), use little fuel (a gallon of gas every 100 to 200 miles) and very few pollutants come wriggling out of their peashooter-sized tailpipes—the plain fact is that even in a conscience-stricken nation, the overriding reason they are so popular is that they are so much fun.

A mo-ped is a two-wheeled vehicle that, as its name implies, uses both a motor and a pedal-operated chain drive for power. The motor is small, very small, which means it occasionally needs help getting up hills. That, and starting the machine, is where the pedals come in; in such situations, the rider provides the extra boost in power to get, or keep, the thing going. Approximately 30 models of mo-peds are being sold in the U.S. So far, only one American company makes them, the Columbia Manufacturing Co. of Westfield, Mass. The machines are being imported from France, Austria, Holland, Italy, Taiwan and Czechoslovakia. In 1975 some 25,000 mo-peds were sold in the U.S.; by the next year sales had more than tripled and, according to a conservative estimate, in 1977 150,000 will be sold—to go not quite careening down the byways (nowhere are they permitted on limited-access highways) of America.

The state with the greatest number of mo-peds is California, which also brought you hula hoops and skateboards—and has the most stringent exhaust-emission-control laws in the land. Mo-peds were made legal for street use in California on Jan. 1, 1976, and sales have grown so quickly that now almost every dealer is back-ordered. Brewster Gallup, president of Batavus West, a distributor for the Dutch-built mo-ped, says, "We opened a retail outlet in Newport Beach on Sept. 3, 1976. We put 54 out the door by the end of the first month and thought we were doing great. But now we've got two ship containers down at the docks, waiting to clear customs, and each one holds 154 mo-peds. The day they reach our warehouse they'll be gone. If the price of gasoline continues to rise, you may find mo-peds in every family."

Fred Ross, a salesman for the Austrian-made Puch, says, "I can foresee the market going crazy for the next five years. We shipped 1,500 last month and could have sold a lot more if we had had them."

In Florida, too, mo-ped madness is reaching epidemic proportions, and variations on the basic theme have been spotted—20 Boca Raton students have been fined for modifying the mufflers on their machines in a way that raises the gentle putt-putt to a fierce growl. As of May 1 there were an estimated 18,000 mo-peds in the Sunshine State. Says Pompano Beach Commissioner William Alsdorf, who owns one, "The guy next door to me has one and drives it to work every day. I'll take mine over to City Hall occasionally, but I got it for the exercise and for short errands." Middle-aged vacationers are two-wheeling all over southern Florida, perhaps indulging in sentimental memories of their honeymoons in Bermuda, and two fiftyish brothers who live in a Boca Raton condominium drag-race in the parking lot, eliciting a sigh and an "I guess it's just some more toys for the boys" from a fellow resident.

That statement would make Florida police—among others—wince. As mo-peds become more popular there is increasing concern about reckless use of the vehicles. There have been injuries and some fatalities, but no one knows the actual extent of mo-ped accidents because the statistics are still included with those for motorcycles. The National Safety Council has not yet taken an official position on mo-peds, but it has issued a list of recommendations regarding their operation, speed, use of helmets, etc. Unofficially, a spokesman said that the council feels mo-peds should be treated much like motorcycles.

Quite obviously, mo-ped madness has caught not only American manufacturers unaware but the safety Establishment as well, which is a paradox because it was a decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that triggered the boom. In 1974 three French mo-ped manufacturers (VeloSolex, Peugeot and Motobecane) petitioned the U.S. Government to change the classification of the two-wheelers, which until then had been lumped with motorcycles. That meant the same safety standards regarding brakes, tires, lights and controls applied to mo-peds having a top speed of between 17 and 30 mph as to a 750 cc. motorcycle easily capable of triple that performance. In October of 1974 the NHTSA eased its standards for vehicles having a top speed of 30 mph. Handbrakes were permitted, turn signals no longer were necessary, and taillight candlepower requirements were reduced.

It was almost precisely what the moped manufacturers had asked for, and in January of 1975 the three French manufacturers, along with other importers, distributors and dealers, formed the Motorized Bicycle Association, which now has more than 100 members. In addition to acting as a central source of information for the mo-ped industry, one of the MBA's major functions has been to encourage individual states to classify mo-peds separately from motorcycles, so that, for example, riders don't have to wear helmets or carry liability insurance. By the end of 1976, 23 states had enacted laws that classified mo-peds as something between a bicycle and a motorcycle; recently, eight more states and the District of Columbia joined the fold, with Maine being the latest. And as Maine goes....

Well, sort of. As of right now the welter of conflicting legislation and regulation concerning mo-peds is so confusing that no one, not even dealers and certainly not buyers, can be sure which license, insurance and venue requirements apply. Not only are the regulations different from state to state but they also can vary from municipality to municipality. All the states do agree that the machines cannot have more than two horsepower and a displacement of more than 50 cc. That, however, is where the consistency ends. In some states a driver's license is required, in others you only need to be 14 and have the vehicle registered. In many places there are no license or registration requirements. One instance of the confusion can be found in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, where a 19-mile oceanfront bicycle path runs between Santa Monica and Palos Verdes. Some jurisdictions along the route consider a mo-ped, at least when it's being pedaled, a bicycle; others don't. Manhattan Beach is one that doesn't. "We issued warnings at first," says Sergeant Robert Cashion of the Manhattan Beach Police Department, "but now we are citing. Our ordinance prohibits mo-peds on the bike path. Mo-peds are relatively new, and it's a little too early to get the complete feel, but each day it's becoming more and more of a problem."

For the time being the confusion seems to be working in the mo-ped's favor. Not only is it not unusual to see a Little Leaguer putt-putting to a game, but opportunistic adults who have lost their drivers' licenses also have been known to buy mo-peds and not leave the driving to someone else.

The first flurry of mo-ped sales was to student and student-aged buyers looking for inexpensive, easy-to-park transportation for short distances. What could be more ideal for darting from home to class to gym to home or dormitory? Now the majority of buyers seem to be in the 25-to-50 age group; commuters are riding mo-peds to train and bus stations; housewives are mo-pedaling to the tennis courts and to the market; city dwellers ride them to and from work.

Such buyers are split 50-50 between those seeking practicality and those simply delighted with a new form of recreation. Bea and Jim Howell of San Carlos, Calif., commute to their jobs on his-and-her Ciaos, manufactured by Vespa. Their reason for buying mo-peds was to strike a blow against escalating gas prices, but they have now found a further justification. Each has a pilot's license, and they claim mo-peding helps them with their flying. They say, "You use a lot of the same reflexes."

If the Howells represent the practical, then a group of 30 women in affluent Walnut Creek, Calif., represent the fun-loving. Every Wednesday at 10 a.m. the women, aged 30 to 50, meet for group runs on their mo-peds, all dressed in T shirts with THE MO-PED MAMAS emblazoned across their chests.

On the steep hills of San Francisco and around the Bay Area a bicycle with a motor is a great help, and Bill Grimason and Tim Hodges, the owners of Mo-Ped City in Berkeley, are among those reaping the benefits. They opened their shop last November and are currently selling more than 50 of the machines a month. "For 10 years this vehicle was legally considered a motorcycle and there was no demand," says Hodges. "Now when we tell people a mo-ped creates½5 the amount of pollution of a standard automobile, people listen."

In addition to their appeal to the public conscience and the simple pleasure of riding them, mo-peds have another lure: they are only slightly more complicated than a bobby pin. The current models all have two-cycle engines, similar to an outboard motor, so gas and oil have to be mixed by the operator. None have transmissions that demand the complex coordination of hand and foot required by motorcycles. Instead, they come with "automatic transmissions" (actually clutches with a lot of slippage), and the drum brakes are controlled by handlebar-mounted levers. The least expensive mo-peds generally rely only on their skinny wheels to absorb road shocks, which can make them skittish on ripply road surfaces, but as the price goes up, so does suspension sophistication and, as a result, ride control and comfort. Some models even have straddle fuel tanks, which appeal greatly to those with motorcycle fantasies.

If the mo-ped's sudden success is based largely on its simplicity—anyone who has taken the training wheels off his two-wheeler can master the motorized version almost instantly—so are the potential problems. There is growing concern not only about inexperienced operators, but also about the disparity in top speed and ability to accelerate between mo-peds and other vehicles sharing the same roads. Sergeant Dave Helsel of the California Highway Patrol says, "In almost all collisions the operator of a mo-ped ends up in the hospital. The injury factor is very high." Bruno Porrati, president of Vespa of America, emphasizes. "A mo-ped is not a toy. It must not be treated as a toy." And a Florida motorcycle shop owner says, "It's not a bicycle. It has a motor that will go fast enough to get you in trouble, but not fast enough to get you out."

Not everyone concurs with that pessimistic view, however. Commissioner Alsdorf is in favor of regulating the bikes but opposes helmets and insurance requirements, saying, "You can't go speeds that are suicidal and you really can't cause enough damage to justify insurance." However, fatality figures from Britain, according to the National Safety Council, place the mo-ped "between the bicycle and the motorcycle, but much nearer the bicycle."

While the debate over the safety of mo-peds is revving up, the craze for the machines rolls on. And for all the growth pains that are sure to come, the popularity of mo-peds is in a sense heartening. Paul Zimmerman, executive director of the MBA, says, "There's a definite need in the U.S. for such machines. People have become used to wrapping themselves in 4,000 pounds of steel. With the energy situation, that can't go on forever. The mo-ped will never replace the family car, but it can replace the second or third car."