History Of Mopeds In The US
Though common place throughout many parts of the world during the second half of the 1900’s, it wasn’t until the energy crisis’ and Mideast conflicts of the 1970’s that mopeds gained in popularity in the United States due primarily to high gas prices but also a bit of happenstance.
As Europe struggled to financially right itself after WWII, desperately needed affordable transportation was very difficult to come by. Most people could not afford a cheap motorcycle let alone a car. Like all great ideas, someone probably found that you could crudely attach a small spare engine over the top of a bicycle wheel and create your own motor bike. A few companies like Solex began producing cheap small 2-stoke engine kits specifically designed to mount to bicycles. Those popular kits inspired manufacturers to develop fully integrated and ready to ride mo-peds using small lightweight engines. The original mopeds being produced remained simple in design and free of most accessories and options to keep the cost to the consumer at a minimum. The mopeds evolved as many, many companies in Europe began to produce their own versions of the very popular bikes.
Between the late 50’s and 60’s, most mopeds that were available in the US were ones that were being sold through large department and mail order stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward. These stores were selling re-branded and cosmetically altered European made mopeds like Puch, Benelli and Motobecane. Sales were minimal at best and really were only being offered by the retailer as a way to be a full service product provider for their customers.
The demographics of those who were buying mopeds at this time varied as much as the different regulations each state imposed. This made it tough for the whole moped industry to take hold. Many of the early mopeds sold through the retailer were purchased by folks of all ages in rural communities who used the bikes to travel between farms and into town for quick errands. Though the sales were predictable, both retailers quit selling mopeds by 1970 for lack of sales.
In 1975, lobbyists for the industry and manufacturers were sent to the US and began to lay out to Congress the important benefits of these low-cost and highly fuel-efficient vehicles with the hopes of creating or expanding on a market that was barely in existence. The timing could not have been better because the US was still reeling in the effects of the 1973 oil embargo against it and how inefficient vehicles greatly contributed to the crisis. The government was in the mist of creating new fuel consumption regulation within the automobile industry and was receptive to new ideas on transportation energy savings. As lobbyists laid out their cause, most states in the US were agreeing to come up with specific classifications and regulations for mopeds which would allow manufacturers to produce new mopeds custom tailored to meet the needs of the US market.
Several moped manufacturers even began to set-up small networks of dealerships for their machines with the expectation that moped sales in the US would be jump started with the lobbying effort going on. Sales of mopeds from Puch and Solex were very meager between 1975 and 1976 and only a few thousand combined were sold.
By 1977, the moped industry hit a perfect storm of good luck. The federal government began deregulating what gas suppliers could charge which drove the price of gas up at the pump. The economy was ailing, there was high unemployment and inflation was on the move. It didn’t take a lot to get people to understand that the newly imported vehicles called mopeds were not only inexpensive to buy but to operate as well. Low maintenance, high gas mileage, mild regulation and overall fun made them very popular, very quickly. Young and old alike were enjoying the thrill of traveling by moped which required no special endorsement like motorcycles.
With moped sales taking off and expected only to increase, Montgomery Ward and Sears got back into the action and began selling mopeds again. Even JC Penney wanted a slice of the market and began to sell mopeds. There were many reputable European moped manufacturers exporting mopeds to the United States like Motobecane, Puch, Tomos, Peugeot, Garelli, Batavus, and Derbi. The Japanese motorcycle company Honda also jumped on the bandwagon and began exporting new models of mopeds to get their share of the exploding US market. Even the North American company AMF starting producing a rear engine moped. AMF was the only US company to fully manufacture a moped within the country.
By 1980, just a few years after mopeds hit the US with amazing acceptance and an excellent outlook, the demand for mopeds suddenly dwindled as fast as they became popular. The reason for their demise varies as vastly as their rise. Just as mopeds were peaking in sales, automobile manufactures starting selling low-cost economy cars that were getting good mileage and at the same time, gas prices were declining. These weren’t the only factors but certainly they were major contributors.
Recently, the old mopeds from that era have been reappearing in a whole new renaissance. Once again young and old are enjoying the thrill of owning and riding a vintage moped from decades ago. The facts of how well-built most were compared to the cheaply made and unreliable Chinese scooters of today gives credence to everyone discovering them for the first time or those that just want to relive a bit of their past.