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Scooters: Retro-Fabulous Goings On at the Petersen Automotive Museum

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Vintage Vespas line up to show off (Andreanna Ditton/LAist)
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What’s more iconic of the 1960’s mod era than a sleek little Vespa bearing a stylish couple riding two-up through the heart of Rome or along the beach in Southern California? Or maybe that’s just my own retro fantasy. But more and more, I'm clearly not the only one grooving on that fantasy. Scooters are winding their way through L.A. traffic on a regular basis. It makes perfect sense in the city of easy style: the modern motor scooter allows you to dress for your destination and look good while getting looked at on the way. You may not go fast, but you will go there in style.

In part as a reaction to the growth of scooters in the city, The Petersen Automotive Museum celebrates the contemporary rise and long history of this diminutive ride (and its iconography) with a new exhibit opening June 18th.

“Scooters: Size Doesn’t Always Matter” steers the museum’s traditional focus away from the big, bad automobile onto the ever-practical, and equally fashionable scooter. Covering the beginnings of the transport’s origins (a variant of a kid’s foot-powered scooter), all the way to modern three-wheelers, classic Cushman’s and vintage-inspired Buddys and new Vespas, the exhibit is a comprehensive tour through this very cool niche in automotive technology.

The scooter is not just for Fellini-inspired flights of fancy, however. Scooters were built to be light and portable, to zip around in areas that even motorcycles were too big to traverse. They were made to be accessible, easy to use, easy to afford and ever important in the crowded streets of Europe, China, Vietnam (and L.A.!), easy to park. The basic concept has evolved over the years, but remains at heart two small wheels, a step through platform, and a steering column. They were marketed to everyone from affluent women, city workers, teenagers and at certain points were used by the military, dropped from parachutes to offer a faster way for soldiers to move through the countryside.

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Post-war Europe had an intrinsic need for small, cheap transportation and the scooter fit the bill, with former airplane engine manufacturer Piaggio creating the Vespa, and spawning a whole host of lifestyles. This trend continues today with other manufacturers - Honda, Kymco, The Genuine Scooter Company and Suzuki to name a few- creating scooters for work, play, and getting to both (and occasional use on the highway, although I wouldn’t advise it). While here in the U.S., we’re still figuring out how to incorporate small-displacement engines into our bustling streets, other countries rely on scooters to transport everything (and I mean everything! Google “Bikes of Burden” for some amazing images of scooters and motorcycles in Vietnam carrying pigs, chickens, hula hoops and small villages). Still, I’ve seen more scooters on the streets lately than ever before, undoubtedly aided by their excellent fuel economy, sleek lines, and California’s generous (if terrifying) lane splitting policies.

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The Rumi prototype shines with classic chrome (Andreanna Ditto/LAist)
At the museum, be sure to check out the gorgeous Rumi Formichino from 1958. It’s sculpted from polished aluminum, and covered in chrome plating. There’s a blue and cream 1961 Lambretta with a Watsonian Sidecar that looks like a fever dream of a mod weekend, and a great little Rock-Ola Deluxe from the 1930’s that was made by the jukebox company at the height of pre-war scooter popularity. The exhibit also offers a nice collection of scooter memorabilia, accessories and advertisements that show how riding a scooter makes you more fashionable and more fun. The museum is also hosting a “Supercars and Scooters” Day on July 9th (10a.m. to 2 p.m.) to show the true dichotomy of luxury four-wheels vs. the zippy twos.

Museum hours are 10a.m.-4p.m., Tuesday through Friday and 10-5p.m. on the weekends. The exhibit runs through May 28, 2012.