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Very easy riders

With sales skyrocketing, could scooters be a new generation's hot wheels?

For a while, Angie Thibault was content to ride a bicycle from place to place, hauling herself around Allston and Cambridge and to classes at Emerson College. But after five or six years she'd had enough. "I basically got tired of pedaling," says Thibault, who didn't want a car. She found her solution: a shiny, pale-green Vespa scooter she calls her "baby."

Thibault, 24, who now works as a theater technician at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway in Davis Square, bought her Vespa ET2 in March. Commuting on it from Chestnut Hill and taking it as far as Worcester, Gloucester, and Cape Cod, she has 5,500 miles on it already. "I ride it every single day, rain or shine," she says.

So do tens of thousands of others. Motor scooter sales are booming in the United States, rising 580 percent from 1997 to 2002, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Vespas -- those icons of hip, mod "dolce vita" -- are the most prominent. With their air of European adventure, they are practically synonymous with scooters. And as Vespa introduces its new, more-powerful Granturismo 200cc model to the American market today, it adds to a lineup that's captured the imagination of a growing number of urban scene-makers, nostalgic baby boomers, and fuel-conscious commuters.

But Japanese companies and savvy smaller firms are also taking the market seriously, filling dealerships with more scooters than Americans have seen in decades. Thanks to improved technology, the new, environmentally friendly bikes can hit speeds as high as 60 miles per hour while getting as many as 100 miles to the gallon. In traffic-heavy cities, their maneuverability and easy parking has appeal. Scooters with engines of less than 50cc officially count as mopeds, so they require no motorcycle license in most states, including Massachusetts.

So is this a new golden age of scooters? If so, what brought all this on?

Our Vespa adventure

Vespas had a heyday here in the '50s and '60s, when foreign films spread the image of them as a new, democratic vehicle for a free-thinking generation. Celebrities from Anthony Perkins to Natalie Wood and Ursula Andress jumped onboard. But strict clean-air regulations in the early 1980s forced the old two-stroke scooters off the market.

A turning point was Vespa's decision to return to the States in 2000. With it came a return of glamour.

"Before, there were only ugly-looking mopeds, something people would laugh at," says Costantino Sambuy, president and CEO of Piaggio USA, which imports Vespas. "We have transformed the market so that now people look at a scooter and say, `Cool.' "

It doesn't hurt that celebrities are being seen on Vespas again. Jerry Seinfeld, Robert De Niro, Kirsten Dunst, Andy Dick, and Lenny Kravitz ride them. So do heartthrobs Jimmy Fallon and Alessandro Nivola. Gwyneth Paltrow dodges London traffic on a silver one with matching helmet. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick have three in the family.

Vespas are showing up in the movies again, too. Diane Lane's fantasy in "Under the Tuscan Sun" includes a sidesaddle scoot with an Italian policeman. Hilary Duff gets swept off her feet in "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" by a pop star on a baby-blue number; her website makes this an interactive game called "Lizzie's Vespa Adventure." Jude Law plays the lady-killer on a Vespa in the upcoming remake of "Alfie."

This summer brought the launch of "Scooter Girl," a hit comic series from Oni Press, and -- for the preteen set -- the My Scene Barbie, complete with Vespa.

But ask any Vespa rider today, and all the hype is beside the point. It's the history, the culture, the style, the enduring myth they're after.

"They are looking to belong to a cult," says Maz Abdel-Hafiz, general manager of the Vespa Boutique in Allston, as he pours an espresso. His shop is lovely: filled with burnished scooters, accessories, and floor-to-ceiling posters of '60s movie stars on Vespas.

Everyone who walks in has a Vespa story to tell. "If a guy didn't ride one in college, his father had one when he was young, or his neighbor," Abdel-Hafiz says. "People buy these not for six months, but for 20, 30, 40 years. It's a love affair."

Retro-rama

By 8:30 on a Sunday night, a table at the Common Ground in Allston has filled with riders. Bikes are lined up outside. It's a weekly gathering of the Boston Stranglers, one of dozens of scooter clubs across the country. Vintage scooter enthusiasts like these form a subculture: With their lovingly refurbished old Vespas and Lambrettas, they come out to play in rides and rallies, exchange tips on suspensions and exhausts in scores of Internet newsgroups.

Their vintage sensibility has spread to the new scooter crowd. Though there are plenty of "sport" scooters available (hint: they look like neon-colored sneakers), the biggest trend is toward new retro-style scooters.

"I do have a fascination with that retro look," says Karl Hartwig, 37, a software programmer from Jamaica Plain who bought a Yamaha Vino two years ago. Yamaha and Honda both sell scooters that resemble Vespas but cost less ($1,699 compared to $2,999 and up).

"We are selling a lot of Vinos," says Christopher Shelley of Riverside Kawasaki-Yamaha in Somerville, a man with a keen eye for categorizing his customers. "We get hipster types," he says, as well as professional women in their late 30s and early 40s who want something to bounce around on, and a few older guys: "Your typical Cambridge guy. He does his own thing."

One guy who's definitely doing his own thing -- and making a living at it -- is 33-year-old Woody Woodbury. Woodbury, who lives in Hyde Park, owns eight vintage bikes, down from a peak of 23. He founded the Boston Stranglers more than a decade ago, and last year he opened Javaspeed, a scooter and coffee shop in Providence.

Woodbury says he's seen attitudes change toward scooters: "Americans have always obsessed over the bigger the better. That's why we have these monster SUVs: `Let's get something 10 times more than we really need.' " But the thrill of riding is pulling people to scooters, he says. People in cars are "isolating themselves from the road. And the scooter brings you back to the road. You're out there, you're exposed. You have to be aware, you have to be alert. You're not distracted by your cellphone, you're not sipping your coffee. You're riding. And they just are a lot of fun."

Fast women, bold men

OK, they're fun, but there is a downside. When it comes to scootering, hell is other people -- Boston drivers.

Riders often get compliments from strangers, but there is negative feedback. "When we're stopped, we're an icon. When we're riding, we're a hazard," says Noel Hidalgo, a Boston Stranglers member. Thibault has heard people yell: "When is it going to grow up and be a Harley?" "Get a real bike!" is one Woodbury's gotten, always from someone in a car. Some of the epithets lofted at Hartwig are unprintable. He tells hair-raising stories of aggressive drivers anxious to pass him, only to realize his Vino can get up to 50 miles per hour with its "derestricted" engine. (Vinos usually get around 30 miles per hour, but many owners skirt the law and modify their scooters to boost the speed.)

Once a guy in a BMW pulled up beside Hartwig on the VFW Parkway. "It's kind of a psychological thing -- he just has to pass me to prove his manhood," Hartwig says. "So he's going faster and faster, and we go around this bend, up over this rise. And there's a state trooper with a radar gun." Only the car got pulled over. Hartwig thinks some police don't know what to make of 49cc scooters like his, with no license plates. He's never been stopped.

While guys may have macho attitudes to overcome, women are blithely blazing ahead. Only 8 percent of US motorcycle owners are female, but about 40 percent of Vespa ET2 buyers are women. Women are forming their own scooter clubs across the country; the first national All Girls Love 'Em & Leave 'Em Scooter Rally took place last month in Palm Springs, Calif.

"The motorcycle market is geared toward men," Woodbury says. "All testosterone-driven, very big bikes," while the scooter is friendlier, less intimidating. "Women aren't trying to prove anything. You know, they tend not to get the fastest car. They tend not to get the biggest car. They get the cuter car."

Thibault might put it differently. She's no girly girl; she can fix her bike herself. Like many others, she's modified it, adding chrome crash bars, mirrors, and a rear rack, among other items. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty," she says. "I've put a lot of work into it, so there's a certain amount of pride when people say, `Oh, it's so beautiful.' "

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