Small Wonder

Small Wonder

In the 1980s, Honda decided to sell motor scooters in the United States. I remember the commercials, a series of funky fresh ads that featured popular music, slickly edited scenes of exciting urban environments, and snappy lines that drove your urge to purchase via memorable phrases like, “Don’t settle for walking.” The fact that I recall these commercials 40 years later shows they had some impact, I suppose, but I’m not sure if they led to the spike in sales that Honda hoped. Perhaps it’s because I am from the countryside, I don’t know, but with the exception of my time in Hawaii I can’t recall ever seeing one on an American street when I was a young man.

That changed a few years ago. Maybe it’s the price of gas and insurance, maybe it’s the fact that today’s young people have diminished expectations, or maybe it’s because as an older man I now live closer than ever to the urban scenes depicted in those aged advertisements, but I am finally seeing scooters on American streets. I can’t say I see swarms of them at every stoplight like I do when I am in Japan, but I do see them and, as someone who has spent a lot of time on two wheels and who lives a mile or two away from my commuter train, that got me thinking.

A little research showed that my state is one of those places where 50cc “mopeds” do not require motorcycle licenses or, for that matter, any license at all. In fact, people as young as 15 years-old with any form of government-issued ID are allowed to operate them on the street. Additionally, while they are plated and subjected to an annual license tag, 50cc scooters do not incur the county assessed personal property tax that plagues almost all other vehicle ownership in my state nor do they require an annual safety inspection. Parking at the station is free as well.  All that combines to make ownership cheap and appealing so, naturally, I started looking at buying one.

All the big Japanese brands seem to offer scooters in the US. Maybe they always have but I don’t recall them in the showrooms alongside the 900 Ninjas, the GSXR1100s and the CBR900RRs that I once ogled, so maybe it’s a more recent development. A look at the web shows that they are all solid, well-regarded little machines that will, with minimal maintenance, last a lifetime. The buy-in, however, was just a little too high for me, well into used motorcycle territory, so I decided to look into their much cheaper Chinese-made counterparts.

There are several different brands of Chinese-made scooters on the American market, but that may just be branding as it seems to me that they are all are essentially the same. No matter what name graces their bodies, they all feature engines of either 50 or 150ccs (although in my state the 150cc bikes are subject to the regulations and incur all the costs I list their smaller siblings avoiding above) based on a design called the GY6, which is a horizontally mounted, carbureted, four-stroke, overhead cammed knock-off of what is reputed to be an older Japanese design. They are in common use across the poorer parts of East Asia and, while reviews of their quality and performance were mixed, the buy-in was ridiculously cheap. I was immediately tempted!

After learning that you could buy new Chinese scoots on Amazon, I ran through the listings with some excitement and soon fixated on the TaoTao Classic 50 “Huragan” in bright blue. There were other models on offer too, some smaller and sportier looking, but all with the same GY6 50cc mill that guaranteed virtually identical performance. I like sporty, of course, but with no increase in actual performance there was no benefit to going small, so I picked the Classic because it was the only “full size” scooter on offer. The fact it came with room for two and a trunk to mount atop the cargo rack helped to seal the deal. Total cost was around $800 in 2019 money. Today, a similar bike looks to cost about $1000.

Cheap as the TaoTao already was, I thought I would see if I could find even more savings and reached out to the Texas-based importer. In doing so, I learned that I could order my scooter directly from them for a discount. The bad news was that free shipping was not included and, given my distance from their warehouse, shipping drove the cost back up to the level of Amazon Prime. It seemed like a dead end until I realized that there is no sales tax on shipping, so I direct-ordered the bike and kept something like an extra $16 in my pocket. The company was easy to deal with, assured me that I would get the color I wanted and, sure enough, a week or so later my package arrived.

The unboxing was not as dramatic as most YouTube videos would have one believe. The scooter came fully bubble wrapped and nestled in a battered cardboard box stretched over a metal frame. It took an hour or so to get it all unpacked and, despite the obvious care taken in the bubble wrapping process, I noticed the “nose” of the bike been damaged by rubbing against something during shipping. While I wasn’t happy about it, I touched it up with a bit of black paint and haven’t thought about it since. It took another hour or so to attach the front wheel, mount the front fascia, screw on the mirrors and attach a few loose bits of body work. During that process I found that some of the plastic panels didn’t fit as tightly as I might have liked and that the rubber floor mat wasn’t an exact fit, but overall the little TaoTao went together without any real issues.

I added the acid to the battery, ensured there was oil in the engine, added a splash of gas and took my first spin on what looked to be some seriously greasy Chinese tires. I didn’t go far, just around the block, and while I had not expected the bike to have any real performance, I still came back disappointed. Calling this bike a slug would be an insult to gastropods everywhere. It was shockingly weak, unlike the Japanese scooters I had previously ridden but, since tinkering was allowed, I knew it was about to get a whole lot better.

Because state law limits my bike’s performance, I don’t want to be too specific about the kit I used to modify my TaoTao. Smart people will get the gist, however. Changes included a new piston, a new cylinder jug, a new head, higher-lift camshafts and a high flow oil pump. I also removed the large but restrictive airbox, mounted a pod-style air filter, fitted a much larger carb to help feed more fuel to all these mods and slapped on an aftermarket exhaust to better pass the increased volume of burned gasses out the back. Ignition mods included a new chip unit with a more aggressive map, a hotter coil, a better spark plug wire and an NGK plug.  Further down the drive train, new weights in the scoot’s variator and a reworked clutch spring helps ensure that the increased power makes it onto the pavement.  The end results have proven to be rather modest – about a 70% increase in top speed.

I made these changes little more than a week and about a dozen miles into the break-in period with the idea that making changes early-on would allow the new bits to wear-in along with everything else. Today, three years and more than a thousand miles in, that approach seems to have worked as I have experienced no failures. I have changed the oil a couple of times, of course, and I set the valve clearance every spring, but otherwise I have not touched the engine again.

Other minor mods include changing all the fuel and vacuum lines to locally sourced rubber that can better handle the ethanol in American gas and some stainless-steel screws in the body work to ensure that rust doesn’t take hold. Those greasy looking Chinese-made tires seem to do just fine. Beyond that, I have just ridden and enjoyed it.

Although my TaoTao’s raison d’etre are runs to the train station, I did take it the 15 or so miles into the city a time or two when the pandemic encouraged me to exercise other transportation options. The bike did well on the main roads.  Traffic was light in those days, and, although acceleration was just a little slower than I would have liked, I was fully able to keep up with the cars on the down hill run into town.  Coming back up the hill and out of the city, however, was a little scarier. Despite its increased power, the scooter has a tough time maintaining its momentum on all but the slightest of inclines. Hills pull me down to around 35 mph which leaves me running along the fog-line of the rightmost lane while cars rip past me at the posted 45 mph limit. Back on the flat though, I am once again in the thick of it and generally enjoy myself. I’m sure the speed of this thing surprises some people and I love the fat sound when I hold the throttle wide open. I have to remind myself to be careful, however, lest I draw the attention of local law enforcement who may wish to delve into the reasons behind my little 50cc scooter’s unusual speed.

Despite owning a “real” motorcycle now, an entirely separate adventure that I’ll relate another time, I still find riding the scooter a lot of fun. For the most part, drivers in my neck of the woods, despite their horrible reputations, give me a fair amount of distance on the road and I have not felt overly endangered. Also, having done the bike’s mods myself, I have the satisfaction of a job well done and the knowledge that few other bikes in the area, including most Harley-Davidsons whose riders seem most likely to look down on my little scoot, have had as much internal work done.  It gives me a good feeling to know that I have one-upped them.

Today, my larger bike and frequent work-from home has made my commute a non-issue and removed much of the purpose behind my purchase, but I still really enjoy this little scooter and plan on keeping it. Despite being a little on the noisy side due to its free-flowing exhaust, it still puts a smile on people’s faces. I get a lot of waves from little kids, old people, and dog walkers and I enjoy that. Overall, the TaoTao has been a charming addition to my garage and, with just a “little” extra work, the entire project has turned out better than I thought it ever could. Why settle for walking?  Hell, why settle for anything?

As always, my thanks to Jack for continuing to provide this forum and for his continuing willingness to accept the articles I sometimes write. Sorry that this one was so long. I look forward to any comments or questions below.



  1. I’m curious, about how much did it cost to do the upgrades? 20 percent of the sticker cost? More, less?
    And any ideas on how the Japanese 50cc brands perform out of the box? Better or worse than your modified Tao Tao?

    As far as the Chinese bikes, I’ve heard that some of the smaller motored new motorcycles are really good starter bikes.

    1. I got a full kit through that included all the pieces I described, including the muffler, for about $170. There was a good video on YouTube that walked me through the entire process and I had no difficulty doing the work myself with basic hand tools and a torque wrench. I think the only thing I recall fabricating myself was the lower muffler bracket.

      I haven’t ridden one of the new Japanese scooters, although I had some time on some of the older two strokes. I understand that most of the four strokes are direct injected these days which seems like it would put them on another level. Most of these are limited to 35mph at the factory but you can adjust the variator and the drive belts to get around that. I’ve had mine up to an indicated 50+ heading downhill with the wind behind me.

      I think the tricks to these are to change out the hoses, use a better spark plug and make sure you swap the engine oil as soon as you can. Beyond that, it has been reliable. I rebuilt another GY6 branded scooter after I finished this, I might write about that experience later, and while it was horribly neglected once I got it sorted out it has been a terrific runner. If the motorcycles are like this, seems like they would be good starters if a person insisted on buying a new bike over something used.

    2. My father in law bought a new Chinese scooter. Nothing but problems. Gave it away. For more info, watch Laowhy86 on youtube. He is an American who speaks fluent Mandarin, lived in China, has family in China, and rode a motorcycle all over China. HIs comment was, “If you live in China, you buy a Japanese motorcycle, not a Chinese made bike. Chinese bikes are crap.”

      1. I think crap is in the eye of the beholder. Here in the future we’ve forgotten what products used to be like, how American cars before the ’70s required a lot more hands-on attention and how they would be virtually worn out at 100k miles. Today’s cars are appliances. You use them, take minimal care of them and they give you a great return. If they break, however, having them repaired can cost an arm and a leg.

        Chinese-made scooters (and probably other vehicles) are throwbacks. You have to get hands-on with them in a very consistent way or they will go south very quickly. That’s because in the markets in which these scoots are big sellers, manufactured goods are expensive but labor is cheap. Super reliable, super high quality vehicles like we enjoy are out of reach for most consumers. Something made more cheaply, however, something that needs a higher level of attention, keeps the buy-in low. Finding to people to maintain and work on them is much more cost effective.

        I knew that going in and was willing to take on that work myself. I also knew that the biggest issues with these are in the hoses. The rubber they come with deteriorates because of the ethanol in our gasoline. That gums up the works. I changed all that stuff immediately. Also, their electrical stuff can stop working without warning, but that stuff is cheap enough that I have a few different bits around to swap out when I am trouble shooting. Of course it is a pain in the ass, but that is where the fun is.

        I’ll check out the videos, thanks for the tip! I’ve looked at a couple already and the main thing I’ve realized is how young this guy is (or was when he moved to China.) Some of the things he has issues with, like in his video on morality, are not something I would have issues with. He would probably call me a hater, but I would call him ethnocentric. China is a whole other culture and if you want to impose your values on it, it can cause unpleasant feelings. Better to try and not be judgemental.

        The part where he talks about people walking around dead people in the street is a good example. Americans would rush to help, Chinese don’t (and neither would the Japanese) – not because they don’t want to help, but because there aren’t any laws to protect good Samaritans. They aren’t doctors. If they stop to help and do the wrong thing, they are liable. From their perspective, it’s better to mind their own business. And, honestly, what can an untrained person really do anyhow? I think you would find that this attitude is more common in the rest of the world than our own inclination to rush to help is. Most likely our attitude is based in the fact that we are a frontier culture and our ancestors had to rely on those around them. If friends and neighbors didn’t help one another back then, chances were good that there would be no help at all.

  2. You are a brave man. Liquor cycles around here are few and far between. See them in town and with the speeds we creep are perfectly fine. Out in the country with no side to the road or a ditch to a farmers field would be too hairy for me.

  3. Thanks for this piece Thomas. I always enjoyed your writing at TTAC, especially anything to do with Japan. My parents, both gone now, were married there in 1952 and I made my first trip there at 16 in 1977 as part of a national HS band. My wife and I are headed back there this Fall for our eighth trip together.

      1. The “Initial D Was Real” article (“Strange Days…”) was the one that I remember vividly.

        1. Those were fun times. I didn’t do so much street racing in the car, I had a Twin Turbo Supra at the time but it was hamstrung with an automatic transmission and was way too heavy to be throwing around the way those guys were throwing their cars around. More fun to go up there on my bike, but best to stay the hell out of the way.

          Certainly not any sort of social scene. Might have been if I’d known some of the guys in the various clubs, but the people I encountered were a lot like the people who play dress-up at sci-fi conventions. Dedicated and skilled, for sure, and they enjoy it if you ask about their costume but not really interested in (or maybe even capable of) meeting new people and forming friendship. Class A nerds – like just about anyone who takes the time to be really passionate about something.

  4. We pretty much stick to Tokyo, although we have been to Osaka & Kyoto in the past. Our favorite area to stay in Tokyo is Shiodome / Shimbashi. Love being surrounded by glass skyscrapers. On our last trip in 2018 we stayed in Nishi Kasai on the Tozai line to experience a more traditional Japanese suburb. We saw very few tourists like us in that area.

    I’ve been to the Tokyo Auto Show twice during our travels. The last time, probably 2013, I was waiting for the doors to open at Tokyo Big Site. It was all 6’1” of me towering over about 2,000 Japanese waiting to get in for the better part of an hour, give or take a few Ohtani-sized outliers. They didn’t give me a second look and I knew I had nothing to fear from anyone. It was wonderful and the way things should be. I wouldn’t have felt anywhere near so sanguine under the same circumstances in a large American city.

    Really enjoyed your writing about the license and registration process in Japan. They love their rules and regulations don’t they?

    1. My wife is from Kyoto. We met when I went to Japan as an English teacher back in 99. Because of my job I later went back and lived in Osaka for a couple of years, then to Yokohama for a year and then three years in Okinawa. When I took the van, that was a separate three year assignment that had us in Yokohama again. With my total teaching time, I’ve lived there about 11 years or so.

      Every so often someone will find those old articles about taking my van to Japan and ask for my recommendations on whether or not they should do the same thing. Despite what I wrote back then, I always tell them no. Looking back it was a foolish thing to do that added a lot of stress to my transition back to Japan. I would never do it again. The good news is that, even after coming home to the States a few years ago, I still own that van. I told my wife yesterday that as little as we use it, I’ll probably have it until I die.

      Have you ever taken the dinner cruise out of the Yokohama cruise ship pier? That’s a lot of fun and gives you some great views of the city. Yokohama is a nice place to visit as well, I think Nissan’s HQ is there but not sure if they have a museum. Toyota’s museum in Nagoya is a gem, by the way, and Nagoya is also a cool place to go, too.

  5. We met an American English teacher one morning on the subway. By the time we got to our stop, he had shown us photos of the fish he had caught at the Yokohama waterfront and invited us to his house for dinner. I think he was lonely. We thought better of that, but it just goes to show how different us Westerners are than the Japanese. They don’t talk to each other and either sleep on the train or are glued to their phones. They don’t strike me as very happy people.

    We have taken the dinner cruise in Yokohama. Too bad it was raining that night so we couldn’t see much out of the fogged-over windows. We’ve also been to Nissan HQ several times. In fact, we were there on the day in 2018 when Carlos Ghosn was arrested by the Japanese police although we didn’t see it happen. I’m in the camp that understands why he fled the country. He was not and never would have been treated fairly.

    We need to get to Nagoya at some point. In addition to the Toyota museum there is also a train museum that I would love to see.

    1. It is difficult for new foreigners to find other foreigners to talk to. Most of the long timers either have a groups they already hang with – and because people come and go so frequently most of those groups aren’t really interested in including recent arrivals who will only be there a year or two – or they are settled and don’t mix with other foreigners much at all. I was usually one of the latter. In my experience, the foreigners who hang with other foreigners a lot are unhappy sad-sacks who hate Japan and talk a lot of shit about how horrible it is. Despite their hatered, they still remain there, however, because they can’t have that level of success at home. I’ve always felt like hanging with them just drags down my mood.

      The happiness or lack thereof of the Japanese themselves is a matter of debate. They are not a demonstrative or euphoric people for sure, but I don’t believe that makes them unhappy. At home and with their in-groups they are great, but in public the concept of “face” takes over and they are much more reserved. For the most part, in public they just ignore people they don’t know and honestly, I am OK with that.

      It’s not a perfect place to live, but it becomes easier if you accept it on its own terms. I realized a long time ago that I would always be an outsider there but I’ve probably always been a it of an outsider in the USA too. At least I understand why that’s the case in Japan, I don’t think I’ll ever get why that’s the case here.

  6. I was talking about this vid to my brother the other day. He told me about a friend who bought a 150cc scooter, but the dealer put 50cc tags on it for him (dealer was a friend) so no one knew what he was actually riding and he could avoid all the taxes, regs, and other stuff.
    It’s not like the police can tell the difference by looking at it.

    1. That sounds like it would be fun. I wonder what one that big would be like with an even bigger jug in it…

  7. This was fun, Tom, thanks for writing it up. Would you do it again with a Japanese scooter, at the higher buy-in? Or you like the idea that, as you noted, the electronics can stop working at any time? That’s the rush of mountain biking: risk taking!

    I can’t imagine the sound of a, uh, “free flowing” exhaust on a scooter. Scooter + fart pipe? Hilarious. At least you don’t have the goofy orange flag that graciously informs everyone “Yes, I lost my license to a DUI.” (I saw those frequently when working in Southern Indiana, but don’t think I’ve seen it in Boise, Idaho, yet.)

    1. Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it.

      I’m not sure I would do the same with a Japanese scooter. While I haven’t taken the bodywork off of one, they seem like they would require a level of skill that is beyond mine. Also, given their cost I would have real concerns about taking a wrench to one that was working just fine out of the box.

      As for the electronics on the TaoTao, I have never had an issue. I have another GY6 scoot that I bought to flip (and then never sold) that had a lot of issues though. I have pushed that one home a couple of miles a time or two. (Once because of a fuel issue and once because I fried a drive belt) Usually when the electronics have an issue it’s right out of the box. If they work when you put them on, they’ve always been good to go – so far…

      The free flowing can sounds like one long fart, for sure, especially when you crack the throttle wide open. At speed, it’s sort of like a two stroke where you can close down quite a bit and still whiz along without making much noise at all. That’s how I modulate it in the neighborhood. Unless I am going up a hill, it’s fairly quiet.

      I hadn’t thought of them as transportation for drunks. I had a good laugh when Adam-12 called them “liquorcycles” above. Once I saw it, I knew immediately it was true. I sort of thought of them more as a toy or something for a kid to ride around. At 15, I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven if I could have had something like this to ride around. Instead, it was my ass on a 10 speed all the time. It was 10 miles or so to town – downhill all the way in and up hill all the way out. Coming home really sucked.

      1. Yeah, well, the kids these days are flying around on electric scooters that approach your moto-scooter’s speeds. 😱 They’d never be interested in your TaoTao because it can’t terrorize people on sidewalks–I mean drive in confined spaces.

        1. I just wonder how many injuries or deaths it will take before someone steps in and decides to regulate those. I see people blasting down the streets without helmets and blowing through red lights all the time.

  8. Unfortunately in Columbus Ohio if you were an adult riding one people knew why you were riding it. OMVI or DUI. Worse in eastern North Carolina due to no public transport.
    Fortunately although I wanted a scooter for my paper route, my parents convinced me to save money for my first car. A 1978 Oldsmobile, Regency four-door Brougham. Green with the fabric top.
    Hence the fascination with your posts.

    Thank you and keep it up.

    1. Your parents gave you a good steer. I can’t imagine trying to use a scooter in all the various weather conditions a young person would have to endure to deliver papers.

      The scooter I restored came from someone who had a DWI and just abused it mercilessly. I picked it up from under the eaves of a homeless shelter. Suspect it was pretty hashed when he bought it, but I got it going again. My son uses it from time to time or we just meander around the neighborhood waving at people. Too bad one of them isn’t red, I’d dress up as Santa and hand out candy canes.

  9. Dressing up as Santa would be awesome. Rudolph the Red Nosed Scooter!

    Yes would have been only for summer but once you get a girlfriend their parents are not happy you have a car with a back seat like that.

    Well, everybody made fun of my cruiser guess which car we took for lunch because everybody fit!

  10. The car I learned to drive in was an 1971 Delta 88 sedan. It was a good looking sedan for its day and the two-door hard top versions are simply stunning. I look at them on Hemmings once in a while and think about what I might do if I won the lottery…

    I really miss Oldsmobile. I’m in my mid-50s now and I feel like I have earned my Olds. Not being able to get one is something that I take personally.

  11. You have earned it.
    I am a little older at 52 and my son doesn’t get it. Still in the sports car phase. Looking to take him for a ride in one. At Cars And Coffee, a gentleman with a Lincoln Continental with the flip up headlight covers, did let him sit in the seat just to get a feel for it. I think I can convert them to our way of thinking!

  12. Cool project, Thomas. Your line of thinking mirrors my own on the subject, except we seem to have a lot more choices in the category these days. Do you think you still would have bought a Chinese scooter if the Honda Navi existed in the US at the time?

    1. Thanks, Daniel! I did not know about the Honda Navi but even though it undersells most other small Honda products, it’s almost twice the price of a Chinese-made scooter. It’s still more than I would have wanted to pay. It’s price is pretty close to some of the used bikes in my area and I think, at that point, I’d probably have just tried to bide my time and look for a Ninja 250 or some other more reasonably priced motorcycle.

  13. Not sure if Honda sold big numbers of 1980s scooters in urban environments, but I recall a line of them at every west coast high school parking lot I visited in the later part of the decade. Somehow the legally mandated 35mph (wink) top speed of the 50cc scooters enabled many teenagers to convince their parents that these were totally safe like a 10 speed and not anything like a motorcycle death machine. Sadly my parents were not so easily convinced.

    1. I’d imagine a lot of those kids’ parents were part of the generation that “met the nicest people on a Honda” back in the day.

  14. I am sorely tempted by the scooters and the money is not a problem, but I’m 6’7″ (200cm exactly) and I weigh well north of 100kg. I’d need to hug my knees when I reach for handlebars. So I’m reduced to collecting photos of scooters in town. I see a small number of them.

    1. Our metric bathroom scale has me at between 110 and 120 kilos most of the time. My weight might affect the performance of my scoots, most likely adding a few seconds to an acceleration run and a few MPH off the top speed, but not enough to really notice. I doubt weight would be an issue.

      I’m nowhere near as tall as you are though. You have a good 7 inches on me. I have two scooters, a normal “smaller one” and this TaoTao that is a “full size” scooter. I can get a bit further back on the seat without any issues and could go even further if I needed to. That might be the right size if you wanted to try one. Also, my father-in-law has a 250cc Suzuki Bergman, and they make those all the way up to 650ccs, that feels quite large. I always feel a bit odd when I ride it, like I am sitting on a big sofa with my feet way out in front. That may be an option, too, but no matter what you do you are going to look like a gorilla riding a minibike at the circus. That’s half the fun!

      If you live somewhere near a tourist spot, you can probably rent a scooter for a day for a pittance. That’d probably scratch your scooter itch, too. Just a thought.

      1. Thanks, I’ll give it a thought. Previously I considering giving the BMW scooter a try, but procrastinated long enough that they are discontinuing those.

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