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.