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Sales of Vespa scooters rise with gas prices

When Bill Schwab comes to a stop at a traffic light on his Vespa, car drivers chuckle and motorcycle riders snicker. But Schwab, 46, always has the last laugh. "I get 70 miles per gallon," Schwab said.

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," the Peco Energy Co. lineman said 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."

But Schwab, 46, always has the last laugh.

"I get 70 miles per gallon," Schwab said. "I tell them 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 above $4 - have been very, very good to scooter manufacturers, with the Italian-made 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 above $100 a barrel. Americans bought 1,300 Vespas in May 2007. Last month, sales 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, a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Vespa, regarded as the top-of-the-line brand with models ranging from $3,300 to $6,000, leads the pack. But dozens of other scooter manufactures also have had a huge bump in sales, Van Hooydonk said.

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

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

Vespas 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 Seinfeld have two apiece; and Jay Leno has at least three. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow are all said to be Vespa riders.

The two-wheeler has had more than its 15 minutes of fame on the silver screen. It played a starring role in The Who's Quadrophenia, and is set to make a comeback next week in Get Smart with Steve Carell and Anne 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 motorcycle but wanted something that would burn less gas.

She had her eye on a Prius.

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

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

"I got the smallest one, with 50ccs, and I love it," Cimone said. "They're contagious as the chicken pox, 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 subculture thing," said Knight, whose adoration of the scooter led her to 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 as a second vehicle. Others are selling their cars, buying a scooter, and getting a membership to PhillyCarShare."

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," Przybycin said. "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 Pines 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," he 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."