When Bill Schwab comes to a stop at a traffic light on his Vespa, car drivers chuckle and motorcycle riders snicker.

"They just laugh at me," said the Peco Energy lineman of his daily work commute to Port Richmond. "I'm a big guy. I got a bunch of tattoos. When people see me on my little scooter they smirk."

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But Schwab, 46, always has the last laugh.

"I get 70 miles per gallon," Schwab said. "I tell 'em and they shut up real fast."

Schwab owns a Harley Davidson, a Corvette, and a pickup truck. But they've remained locked in his South Jersey garage since he bought his scooter. He rides it daily from Delran, up Route 130, over the Betsy Ross Bridge, to his job in Philadelphia.

Gas prices - now hovering over $4 - have been very, very good to scooter manufacturers, with the Italian-brand Vespa leading the pack. Drivers are dumping their cars, buying the gas-sippers to commute to work, and even saddling up for long rides to the Shore.

Sales of Vespas in May more than doubled nationwide as the price of oil rose to over $100 a barrel. Americans bought 1,300 of the Italian-made scooters in May 2007. Last month, sales of scooters topped 2,700.

And with gas soaring nationwide, it's little wonder.

As the market for SUVs and trucks tanks, demand for gas-stingy scooters has grown tremendously, said Ty Van Hooydonk, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Vespa, regarded as the top-of-the-line brand, is leading the pack. But dozens of other scooter manufactures are also seeing a huge bump in sales, said Van Hooydonk.

"Across the board, sales of scooters up 24 percent this past quarter," said Van Hooydonk. "Motorcycle sales are also up 7.5 percent."

This year is shaping up to be Vespa's best-ever in the United States, said Paolo Timoni, president and CEO of Vespa's North American operations.

Vespa scooters also have become must-have toys for celebrities. Julia Roberts was photographed last week riding a Vespa in Rome with her husband. Matt Lauer owns one; Tiger Woods and Jerry Seinfield two a piece; and Jay Leno at least three. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow are all said to be Vespa riders.

The iconic two wheeler has had more than it's 15 minutes of fame on the silver screen. It played a starring role in Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, later was featured in the Who's Quadrophenia, and is set to make a comeback in two weeks in Get Smart with Steve Carell and Ann Hathaway.

Scooter chic, aside, recent buyers in the Philadelphia region said they bought Vespas because they were practical, relatively inexpensive, and cheap to run.

Cimone, a 29-year-old massage therapist from Fishtown, had an old BMW sportster but wanted something that would burn less gas.

She had her eye set on a Prius.

"Too expensive," said Cimone of the $21,000 electric-gasoline hybrid.

For a little over $4,000, she rode home from a Philadelphia scooter dealer with a baby-blue Vespa.

"I got the smallest one, with 50 ccs, and I love it," Cimone said. "They're contagious as the chickenpox, but totally awesome!"

At Philadelphia Vespa, a scooter dealership at Second and Spring Garden Streets, store manager Ginger Knight said scooter buyers now come from all age groups and interests.

"It used to be more of a sub-culture thing," said Knight, whose adoration of the scooter led her adorn her right arm with multiple Vespa tattoos.

"In the past the Vespa was more of a toy, now it's more of a car replacer," Knight said. "Some people are using it at a second vehicle. Others are selling their cars, buying a scooter and getting a membership to Philly CarShare."

Demand has been so strong at Vespa dealers that the most popular colors - black and red - are hard to keep in stock, said Steve Przybycin, manager of Admiral Vespa in Mays Landing.

"Our sales are up 200 percent," said Przybycin. "Demand far exceeds supply. And it's obvious if gas continues to rise, so will interest in the scooters."

Tom Marano, 61, polished his fire-engine red Vespa last week in the parking lot of Cranberry Elementary School in Medford.

A former Lindenwold police detective, Marano fell in love with the scooters while on vacation in Rome and bought his Vespa 250IE last summer in Mays Landing after gas reached $3.

"It cost me $6.98 to fill it up this morning compared with $70 for my Ford Explorer," Marano said. "What do you think I'm spending most of my time on now?"

Marano rides it to the Shore every weekend from his home in Medford. Occasionally, his wife rides on the back. But more often, it's his Cairn terrier, Aster, who rides along.

"This is really the Mercedes of the scooter world," Marano said. "If you can ride a bicycle you can ride one of these."

"It looks like a scooter should look, and it's got power," he said. "I get it up to 75 m.p.h. on the Atlantic City Expressway. Easy. It runs like a top."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or at samwood@phillynews.com.

Needed to ride

In Pennsylvania you don't need a motorcycle license to ride a scooter if its engine is under 50cc. You have to be legally able to drive an automobile. If you are older than 25 and have had a motorcycle license for two years or more, you don't need to wear a helmet.

In New Jersey, you need a motorcycle license to ride a scooter. Helmets are required for all riders.

Source: Sean Theobald of Philadelphia Scooters in South Phila.