This is an excerpt—Chapter 6 with a few minor omissions—from “Scootering: A Penguin Handbook” by Jon Stevens, published in the U.K. by Penguin in 1962. It’s an enlightening read about the history and tradition of scooter clubs, and it’s fun to note that 60 years later, things haven’t changed much…
Scooterists display a very keen club spirit. They form local, national, and international clubs. They run every kind or scooter event from rallies which are purely social gatherings to twenty-four-hour timed runs over the T.T. course in the Isle of Man. A small rally may draw a hundred scooters. The big ones attract anything up to 2,000 machines, and more than twice that number of people.
The two major clubs are Vespa and Lambretta. The Vespa Club of Europe has branches in fourteen countries and a total membership of over 100,000 spread among more than 1,000 separate clubs. The Lambretta Club of Italy alone has over 120 local clubs with the total membership in Italy of over 40,000.
Club life and organization differ widely from country to country. In Italy the clubs are primarily social affairs and a typical club rally there will consist of a reception, a procession through the town, a dinner, and perhaps a dance. There may be gymkhana events, but these are strictly optional. However, the biggest scooter race, the Three Seas, takes place in Italy, and during its five days competitors cover over 1,800 km. It is limited to Vespa machines and is usually won by an Italian. It is a most exciting event, taking in most of Italy south of Naples where winding roads and great heat make the test severe; it also extends to Sicily from Messina to Palermo.
In France the social life is again dominant and French club rallies are notable decorative affairs. Attempts have been made to organize scooter-racing in France, either on a club or an individual basis. An equivalent of the cyclist’s Tour de France was begun, but failed through lack of support. The classic French event is the Bol d’Or, run on the Montihéry race-track, and non-standard scooters compete in this event regularly, since the tuning of standard machines has been brought to a fine art in France and conversion kits for scooters are as easily obtained as they are for motor-cars in this country.
In Britain there has developed a well-organized club life with its own distinctive features. Clubs total over 300, and while many are small some have over 200 members and one or two clubs have become so large that they have temporarily suspended further recruitment. There are weekly social meetings, whether at the club’s own premises or in a hired room, and a run each week-end is normal, though some clubs cut down on them during the winter months. These runs are planned well in advance. One club has a programme arranged for the following six months with starting times and destinations worked out for each week-end run. More and more clubs organize local rallies. Occasionally these are social affairs, but there is almost always a road trial, a treasure hunt, or a series of gymkhana events. Increasingly popular are hill-climbs and races away from public roads.
Vespa clubs have a strongly individualistic character. Only Vespa owners can be members, a point on which they differ from almost every other club [Please note that VCOA-Chicago welcomes all scooters and scooterists! —Ed.]. The original conception springs from Dr. Enrico Piaggio’s interest in social affairs, an interest which accounts for the well-run community life at Pontedera. Vespa Clubs are directly financed by the national Vespa concerns – in Britain from the Douglas firm at Bristol – in such matters as rallies, equipment, and subsidized tours, although generally the clubs pay affiliation fees to the central committee. The Vespa Club of Britain (VCB) was started by Mr W. M. Bond who, on the point of retirement, suggested the idea to Bristol. It was taken up with enthusiasm and soon he became known throughout Vespa circles as Bill Bond, becoming successively secretary and president of the VCB and (at the same time) a vice-president of the Vespa Club of Europe.
The Vespa one-make-only policy was followed strictly. When the National Scooter Association was formed Vespa decided to remain outside it, preferring to be completely self-governing, and membership is based on local residence. Occasionally this will have amusing results. In one town two separate scooter clubs were organized, each unknown to the other. By an extraordinary coincidence they met in the same building. By an even stranger chance they met within an hour of each other. The custom grew up of one club poaching the other club’s members (a two-way process) which raised problems only solved by the amicable amalgamation of the two clubs. It has not been unknown for a town to contain two clubs which ran side by side for a long period without conflict, but usually outside London each town has one scooter club only, though there may be Vespa, Lambretta, Prima, Puch, and Iso clubs also in the same town. A recent development is the formation of joint committees of several clubs in the same district to arrange social events, and it seems likely that this process will spread.
The organization of a scooter club differs very little from that of any other club, though the way in which clubs express themselves may vary. A small club may centre round a nucleus of twenty or thirty members, with fifteen turning out for a run each Sunday. Sometimes the club seems to be two different units: one part goes on runs while the other concentrates on social activities during the week. A club with two hundred members will have many sub-committees: for runs, social activities, publicity, and sporting events. The latter raise a difficult problem, for those interested in scooter sport will spend most week-ends racing or repairing their machines and may take little part in the remainder of club life. Because scooterists marry, move to another town, or sell their scooter, the younger side of club membership changes rapidly. Occasionally the club officials crystallize into a small group who alone are willing to bind themselves to the routine of organization. Some clubs solve this by the compulsory retirement of officials. Occasionally a small club will devote disproportionate time and effort to organizing its own local rally, holiday pro-gramme, dance, or other events. When support is not forthcoming the organizers feel out of touch, or feel that members are ungrateful or lazy. There may then follow from the club chairman a protest such as this:
- “Your social secretary has taken great trouble in arranging visits to interesting places — factories, offices, etc. — but these visits have been very poorly supported, with not more than about three members attending. So, frankly, I ask you, Do you wish to have more visits of this type arranged or are you more interested in cinema and theatre shows?”
This problem is common to other clubs, but the scooter club movement feels it with particular keenness; firstly, because the movement is young and is spreading so rapidly; secondly, because it is attracting many people who would otherwise be outside the scope of club life; thirdly, because membership of a scooter club is with many a passing phase, lasting perhaps two years, after which other interests call. With some clubs the rapid changes in membership mean that new faces are in the majority. It is thus impossible to observe one of the ideals of club life – that every member should know, or at least know by sight, every other member. The bigger a club becomes the farther away is this ideal, and many scooter clubs have had to decide whether to limit the number of members and start a waiting list. The moment this suggestion is made there is another proposal – that some present (but apathetic) members should be replaced by those keen types on the waiting list. At least one club met the problem by splitting itself into two separate clubs.
The financial position of scooter clubs is often precarious. True, some of the bigger clubs are now property owners, even landlords. A South African scooter club built its own clubrooms, furnished them, fitted up a hard-drinks bar, and runs a dance band which accepts outside engagements. But many clubs, some of them the happiest and most active, just about make ends meet. They organize rallies and lose money on them. Receipts from selling dance tickets may be £50 and their expenses £1 more than that. The situation is saved, perhaps, by a Tombola where the prizes are given free by manufacturers and the net profit is £20.
The major expense for one club may be rent of clubroom and garage totaling £23 per year, their total expenditure (and losses) on other items being less than this. With another club the production of a club magazine may account for two-thirds of their annual expenditure. In one sense a club defines itself by the nature of its major expenses. As one club member said:
“Has the club ever stated that it meant to make money out of its rally? Has any member ever stood up at a meeting and said so? If so, to what use would the money be put? There does not appear to be any policy for encouraging the younger – and less well paid – trials or rally rider; no plan to set out and get club premises of our own; in fact, no venture in the offing that requires cash. So why the Midas act?”
There are clubs where the young trials enthusiast would feel very much at home, clubs which own their own trials machines. These clubs devote most of their time and energy — and cash — to preparing scooters for hill-climbs and road trials. Their members are more interested in engines than in the theatre. They do their own maintenance and in many cases have a second machine for everyday use. One or two other clubs organize a display team — highly skilled scooterists who put on a first-class show of trick-riding at rallies all over the country. There is simply no end to the variety of clubs, and the scooterist who finds the right kind of club will get added pleasure from scootering.
A difficulty shared by most scooter clubs is connected with the pillion passenger. The scooter owner may be a member, the pillionist not, but both may wish to go on club outings and to join in the various club social events. One solution is to have an associate membership for pillionists at half the standard rate, which is taken out by the pillionist. Alternatively, the scooter owner may have a kind of floating associate membership which will cover the pillionist, even though the latter’s name may vary from one time to another. As a result, such clubs will contain an element with comparatively little interest in scooters, membership being fortuitous. The question will naturally arise whether such associate members should have voting power. The scooter-club movement is young enough to absorb such points of detail but there are potential difficulties. A similar problem arises when a member of a one-make club buys a scooter of a different make – or perhaps buys a car. In both cases there is the prospect that one member in three throughout the club may have no direct interest in scooters. In the case of clubs ostensibly devoted to golf, motoring, hockey, and other sports there is no such problem. Not all members of golf clubs play golf regularly; not all members of climbing clubs do a climb even once a month, but with a scooter club it is usual for all members to own or ride on scooters. Within the Vespa club movement membership has always been confined to Vespa machines alone, but when many keen Vespa enthusiasts moved on to car ownership but retained their interest in the club, a special branch, Friends of the Vespa, was formed. The necessity for such a club highlights one of the peculiar difficulties of scooter clubs generally.
The number of members varies, depending on the district and also on the method of selection. If membership is open to all makes of scooters the club will usually grow rapidly and will have an element of stability sometimes absent from the one-make clubs. A small club may centre round a nucleus of twenty or thirty members, with fifteen turning out regularly for Sunday runs. Such club runs are a common feature of most Cities — the scooters being driven in a group but under strict road discipline as regards speed and positioning on the road, for most clubs have sets of rules drawn up for these runs, insisting on riders maintaining the same relative position, Wearing crash helmets, making as little noise as possible, parking neatly, etc.
Most scooter clubs have nicknames: The Hedgehogs, The Demdikes, The Bats, The Potters, and members often wear the Club badge on their scooters, along with a collection of plaques and transfers gathered on runs home or abroad. Some clubs have gay sashes in three or four colours, which are draped across the front of the machine. The average club showing these signs of membership gives a most attractive picture of scootering when it is out on a club run. In some countries the signs of membership are carried even farther to the point of special uniforms. This is so in South Africa where, oddly enough, crash helmets often cannot be worn because of extreme heat.
As with most groups, there are solid practical advantages attached to club membership: discounts on spares or repair bills at specified dealers or service stations; or the club secretary may negotiate special terms for group holidays, whether in this country or abroad. Many scooter clubs have been started, and are still supported, by scooter dealers. Facilities have been given for the weekly club meeting to be held in the dealer’s premises, which overcame one of the major obstacles.
This is often of advantage to both sides. The dealer may not only have provided a clubroom, but also a notice board in his showroom to give valuable free publicity to the club’s future events; even more valuable, he may have offered the free use of special tools so that members can do their own engine repairs on his premises. These are very considerable advantages given free of charge. The dealer hopes that new machines (when needed) will be bought through him, but in the meantime the club members have all these facilities available and many clubs owe their continued existence to such help given in their early days. Particularly is such help valuable to the club which has no national organization to call on and which must finance its activities out of the members’ own pockets. With Vespa and Lambretta the national organization is efficient and highly developed, but owners of other machines who wish to start an all-makes club will consider themselves fortunate if they can get a local dealer interested to this extent in their scheme.
Curiously, many scooter clubs meet in public houses, where a room is at their disposal for one night a week, or every alternate week. There may be no charge for the room and no pressure on the sale of drinks, but many clubs which began in such premises find it more convenient at some later stage to use one of the growing number of community centres where ready-made clubrooms are included.
Without a meeting place, a club can hardly be said to exist and the possibilities are often limited, as other would-be club organizers have found, to public houses and political clubs of one complexion or another. The possibilities of meeting in the home of one of the members are soon exhausted, though that is exactly how several clubs began and grew to strength.
An unusual feature of scooter clubs is the enormous number of club magazines. They vary from a four-page affair run off on the office duplicator in someone’s lunch hour to the almost-professional magazine complete with paid advertisements. In their pages are to be found much humour, much enthusiasm, and occasionally a gem of good writing. The authors have been given their head and they write with a candour and a directness which compels several emotions, including admiration. The sins of dealers, motorists, and dogs; the shortcomings of the manufacturers; the sloth and ingratitude of other members – and of other clubs; the feeble organization of this or that event; there is little beyond the reach of writers in club magazines and they faithfully reflect the keenness, the impatience, the energy of the majority of scooterists. The annual balance sheet of one club showed that over 60 per cent of its income was spent on the club magazine.
Scooter sport has made little progress, chiefly because of legal restrictions. Apart from BLOA events such as Pirbright and Snetterton and a few motor-cycle rallies (Exeter and Rossendale, for instance) in which scooters can enter there are only two major sporting events:
The Esso Scoot to Scotland. This is organized by the Motor Cycle Club and is run from various towns in Britain to finish just outside Edinburgh. It involves twenty-four hours of continuous riding at the Whitsun weekend and the course lies through some of the grandest scenery in the country. This attracts more entries than any other event – over 300 machines usually, most machines carrying a passenger. It is a timed run, not a race. Awards are made according to penalty points lost.
The Isle of Man Scooter Rally. This has expanded into a complete week of events, including a 24-hour non-stop run over the T.T. course, various gymkhana events, and a final eliminating course. This last event is not open to all, the starters being nominated on the basis of results of other events. It is perhaps the most severe scooter run of any length organized in Britain, the course including some unsurfaced roads and the set times calling for a high average speed.
In 1959 almost every scooter maker or importer – as well as tyre, petrol, and oil companies – gave this rally lavish support (one importer is said to have spent over €10,000 on it) and many of the machines entered were practically works entries. The rivalry between two particular makes led to unhappy incidents and to protests which created a strained atmosphere.
In the following year the rally date left a clear week vacant after the T.T. races, a catastrophe for firms with a full sporting calendar. As a result of this and other factors almost no official support was given to the 1960 rally. The events were modified – Harold Rowell organized a slalom race and, for the 1962 rally, the 24-hour race was abandoned and the 12-hour race was replaced by a new course of 400 miles, the Manx 400. The 1962 events clashed with the more-popular Esso Scoot, though unsuccessful efforts were made to combine the results of the two events.
The Isle of Man Rally is the biggest and most ambitious event of the year. Experience has shown that such a rally cannot flourish without weighty support from makers, importers, and other interested firms but it has proved increasingly difficult to reconcile their interests with those of the Manx tourist authorities. In Italy the Three Seas Race is a thrilling event, and is entirely Vespa, while in Britain Vespa gives little support to sporting events. Lambretta has sponsored races at Snetterton (a time test) and Pirbright (hill climb), etc., and developed a special machine, the Rally-master, for this kind of scootering.