Moped Madness

Mopeds are the near-beer of the motorcycle world. They are more than bicycles but less—far less—than the roaring machines straddled by Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider; no self-respecting Hell’s Angel would be caught dead on one. Yet mopeds (from motorized-bicycle-plus-pedals) are coming on like Scotch after Repeal.

Lenient state laws are being passed favoring mopeds, instead of treating them like bigger motorcycles or cars. A quarter of a million mopeds could be sold this year, about four times the volume of 1976; one Department of Transportation study estimates that three million mopeds could be buzzing over U.S. roads by 1980. Sears, Roebuck, which briefly sold an Austrian-made moped in the early 1960s, then dropped it because of poor sales,* may return to the moped business.

The moped’s chief appeal is economy in an energy-and inflation-conscious age. With small engines (no more than 2 h.p., usually 1), most models get about 150 m.p.g. The French-made Solex gets more than 200 m.p.g; it is one of the few mopeds whose engine drives the front wheel. Prices range from $300 on up to $550 for models with cast-alloy wheels, special suspensions and cushy seats. Pedals are used to start the machines and assist them on hills.

No fewer than 30 moped manufacturers have jumped into the U.S. market. Only one, Columbia of Westfield, Mass., is American-headquartered; all the rest are based in Europe, where mopeds have been popular for decades. The biggest makers are France’s Motobecane, which has 5 million of its Mobylettes on foreign roads (including Bermuda, as legions of U.S. tourists have discovered); Austria’s Steyr Daimler Puch; and Holland’s Batavus. All have set up U.S. subsidiaries and are racing to open moped dealerships. Honda, the big Japanese maker of motorcycles and cars, as yet has no bona fide moped on U.S. roads, but it and other Japanese motorcycle makers are reportedly gearing up for American sales.

Easy Laws. Honda led an earlier attempt to put the U.S. on two wheels. In the mid-’60s it sold lightweight, brightly colored machines that helped strip motorcycling of its greasy, violent image. But sales fell off, largely because state laws turned ownership of the little bikes into a hassle. The current moped madness was touched off by new laws in 31 states that class the machines as bicycles or “motorized bicycles” instead of motorcycles. Result: moped owners in about half of those states do not have to register their bikes. In many states they do not even need drivers’ licenses. In most states, the minimum age to drive a moped is 15 or 16; Indiana, Ohio and South Carolina impose no minimum at all. No state’s moped law requires crash helmets, or calls for liability insurance —recognition that mopeds are only slightly more hazardous than ordinary bicycles. The biggest danger comes from the fact that American car drivers, unlike their counterparts in Europe, are not accustomed to sharing the road with mopeds.

Some confusion remains, but it could be clarified by a court decision in New York three weeks ago. The ruling: a moped is a moped if it goes 17 m.p.h. or less; above that, it is a motorcycle. Meanwhile, moped owners are pressing for a uniform moped law in all states, and in the past two years have grown numerous enough to form their own lobby: the Motorized Bicycle Association.

*Sears still stocks parts for the 15-year-old machines, which were sold under the Allstate name.


Time Magazine

Monday, Jul. 04, 1977