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Dating, traffic, and other hazards of a three-year fling with scooters

Published in blog.hemmings.com

“Toot-Scoot” (left), my first “motorcycle,” cost $35. The U.S. Post Office “mailster” was fun to drive, too, dates sitting next to me on that yellow, hand-made seat. Its rear wheel crushed a young lady’s purse. Photos by the author, except where noted.

As I watched the salesman slam his foot on the kick starter, I wondered if the 3-horsepower, 1950 Sears Allstate motor scooter would come to life. Twenty kicks and numerous cuss words later, the engine made a loud popping sound, belched black smoke, and roared like a lion.

“Will you take $25?” I asked.

“It’s old and beat up, but it’s worth at least $50,” the salesman said. “But seeing you’re a college kid, I’ll give it to you for $40.”

“How ’bout $35… That’s all I have in my wallet?” I pleaded. He grabbed my money, we signed papers, and off I drove, hugging the curb and hoping not to be crushed, in rush-hour traffic from Miami to my new Coral Gables apartment.

It was fall 1963 and I was starting my sophomore year at The University of Miami. I had never driven a motor scooter and felt vulnerable as cars and trucks whizzed past. Even a young boy on a bicycle easily outpaced me, which was humiliating… especially since the one-cylinder engine was operating at full throttle.

It’s a good thing I stopped and checked the fuel tank. I was riding on fumes and wouldn’t have made it home without gassing up. Fortunately, I had a quarter in my pocket.

Toot-Scoot is what I named the little machine. All it took was a new sparkplug, magneto wire, and oil change, as well as properly inflated tires, to dramatically enhance its top speed, acceleration, and handling. The front wheel mysteriously fell off on the way to class one day, sending me flying over the handlebar and into bushes. But I landed softly, retrieved the wheel, and someone gave Toot-Scoot and me a ride to a nearby bicycle repair shop. A new front axle was installed in 15 minutes… and cost only $5.

It didn’t take long to realize I needed a larger, faster motorcycle that could keep up with—and avoid—other vehicles. Renting an electric spray painter from a hardware store, I gave Toot-Scoot a coat of turquoise. She was sold in a day, and I was $100 richer. (Today, collectors pounce on restored versions of that scooter and pay thousands of dollars.)

Moving up to a trail bike
The Honda Company was just showing up on the U.S. motorcycle scene in 1963. Competing with older, well-known brands such as Harley-Davidson and Triumph, the company offered an inexpensive trail bike with a 50-cubic-centemeter (the piston was the size of a thimble) overhead-valve engine, knobby tires, and low gears designed for dirt roads and hills.

The Honda trail bike was a big improvement over my previous scooter. Honda was just breaking into the motorcycle market in 1963. Notice the handmade wood storage boxes.

Clutch-less shifting of its foot-controlled three-speed gearbox was easy. It was a blast to drive and could cruise all day at 50 mph. I built waterproof boxes and mounted them on either side of the rear wheel. Now I could ride without carrying books and groceries in my arms… a definite safety improvement. The exhaust note, which emanated from a chrome pipe about the size of a flute, was loud and raspy, making the little engine sound like a World War-II Japanese Zero fighter. I’m sure neighbors didn’t approve.

But I soon lusted after something larger. A Cushman Eagle replaced the Honda. The Cushman, sporting a 9-horsepower, one-cylinder engine and two-speed transmission, was more powerful and had a softer ride. It also could handle a larger storage box mounted above the rear fender. I discovered the Cushman had a fatal flaw, however. The engine’s magneto—there was no battery—often conked out during rainstorms or when riding through puddles. Not good in an environment prone to hurricanes, squalls, and flooding.

I really liked the Cushman Eagle, but its engine often conked out when inundated by Miami rain storms. It had fat tires and a two-speed transmission. Photo courtesy Greg Gjerdingen.

U.S. Post Office to the rescue
Three-wheeled “mailsters” were everywhere in the Miami area. The little boxes on wheels fascinated me. Not only were they different looking, but they could carry an enormous load in their rear trunks. To protect mail-persons, they had a roof, split-glass front windshield, and canvas apron across the bow to keep out water.

Talking with my mailman, I learned the U.S. Post Office planned to sell used mailsters at an auction. The one I bid on and purchased for $100 was a 1954 model with Cushman single-cylinder, flathead engine (8 horsepower), and three-speed floor shift. Unlike the Cushman scooter, its engine was enclosed and protected from water.

I really liked the vehicle from the moment I first drove it to campus. It was unique… and fun to drive with its wide handlebar and three-wheeled stance. At first, I kept the original Post Office paint job, so drivers gave me a wide berth thinking I was their “mailman.” Throwing out the single seat, I built a 36-inch-long wood platform with lots of padding and yellow plastic upholstery. This, I thought, would help me lure girls who wanted adventure on dates.

“What’s that?” the girl’s anxious father asked as he looked scornfully at my three-wheeler. “Does it have brakes?” His daughter, who had never seen my vehicle, righteously defended me.

“It’s all right, Daddy. That’s Jim’s motorcycle.” “Daddy” reluctantly bid his daughter farewell and stood at the curb, a nervous scowl on his face, as we drove off. I’m sure he was ready to call the police.

About 15 minutes later his daughter was ready to do the same. The drive to the movie theater went well until my wheels hit a large bump, propelling us vertically about 6 inches and forcing my date’s pocketbook to fly off her lap and fall to the pavement. The right rear wheel crushed its contents and left permanent tread marks on its white leather. She demanded to go home… and never dated me again. Daddy was grateful, I’m sure.

Al fresco Vespa
As appealing as it was, the mailster’s tendency to be blown all over the highway—and reaching a top speed of only 35 mph—made it a poor choice for trips of more than 5 miles. A more powerful motorcycle was needed, I thought, and big Harleys suddenly caught my fancy.

“How much is the cheapest motorcycle on the lot?” I asked the Harley salesman.

“I’ve got a ’53 ‘Panhead’ somewhere,” he told me. I had no idea what a “Panhead” was, but it sounded intriguing. The old Harley desperately needed everything. It was a recent trade-in and hadn’t been cleaned, its tires were deflated, and the torn leather saddle was sun-blistered.

Marlon Brando’s 1969 Harley “Panhead” looked a lot like the ’53 model I wanted to buy (for $250) but couldn’t afford in 1965. Today, even unrestored Panheads go for $20,000 and more. Photo courtesy Julien’s Auctions.

I liked the engine’s deep roar and the way it shifted, which required thought and coordination. A long shift lever on the left side of the gas tank meant only your right hand did the steering, a dangerous proposition if your front tire hit a pothole or you had to veer quickly around something.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

“About $350,” he told me. We haggled and the price came down to $275, still way above my budget. He wouldn’t take $250… even from a “starving” college student. I walked. It was a mistake, of course. Today, an unrestored ’53 Harley Panhead is worth $20,000, a biker told me a few years ago.

Undaunted, I continued my search. Noticing lots of college kids on Vespas, a small Italian scooter, I visited a dealer and tested one. Its two-stroke, single-cylinder engine with four-speed transmission made it peppy. It could cruise easily at 55 miles-per-hour… and achieve 100 miles-per-gallon. The used, blue model I bought cost $200.

It was by far the best two-wheel vehicle I had driven. Trouble-free performance and easy maintenance were its trademarks. The clutch cable broke one day, and I was still able to shift gears without a problem. Even the heaviest Miami rains had no effect on the enclosed engine.

A four-speed 1959 Vespa like this one took Grace and me on many Miami journeys before we were married. It was utterly dependable, got 100 mpg and could cruise easily at 55 mph. Photo via Hemmings Find of the Day.

My world opened as “Vespy,” as I called her, and I explored every nook and cranny between Ft. Lauderdale and Homestead. Each weekend we crossed Miami’s long Rickenbacker Causeway, fierce winds pummeling my body, to Key Biscayne for visits to Crandon Park and the old lighthouse at Cape Florida. Matheson Hammock’s pristine beaches were also a frequent destination. Saturday night trips took me across the MacArthur Causeway into Miami and Collins Avenue, where I enjoyed bathing and sometimes visited the burlesque house made famous by stripper Tempest Storm.

Key Biscayne was one of my favorite destinations. I’d ride Vespy to a deserted beach, set up an easel and paint seascapes most of the day. Or I’d take along a portable typewriter and write while sitting under palm trees. Although I enjoyed both activities, my real purpose was to meet and talk with people, who would provide critiques of my water colors, poems, and stories.

Vespy and I got into an accident, too. When driving to my reporter’s job at the Coral Gables Times-Guide newspaper, I was forced to pass a double-parked car. Suddenly, a young boy pushed open the passenger door and it struck my rear wheel. Down I went, hitting the pavement with a thud. Fortunately, my right foot caught in the handlebar-mounted brake lever, which stopped me from rolling into traffic. I was taken to a hospital and treated for road rash and a sprained collar bone. The child’s mother was cited for illegal parking.

Grace took time off from teaching kindergarten in New Jersey during spring break to visit me in 1965. Before she arrived, I built and installed a passenger seat and bought her a motorcycle helmet. Off we went, carefree and ready for adventure, to explore Miami and its coastline. That ride on Vespy was the first—and last—time we rode a scooter together.

My “motorcycle love affair” came to end when I graduated from college in June 1966. It had been a wonderful three-year experience that included many unforgettable adventures, adversity, danger, and fun.