Hands up, who started their scooter riding journey on a 50cc scooter? Maybe it was a Vespa 50 Special, PK 50, or perhaps if you’re a bit younger, an auto like the Italjet Dragster, Peugeot Speedfight or Piaggio Zip. For me it was the aforementioned 50 Special. I’d saved up my wages from a weekend job I started at 14, bought the scooter for £225 three months before my 16th Birthday, insured it for £49 third party and despite my sixteenth being in December I couldn’t wait until I could legally ride it. Along with about a dozen other mates from school. Freedom and independence at long last, this was what we’d all dreamt of.
Sadly youngsters aren’t taking to two wheels at 16 like they did. Sales of mopeds are receding faster than my 16-year-old flat top. Is it a generation thing? Maybe youngsters would rather stay in playing on an X-Box and Facetiming friends instead of blasting around on a 28mph four stroke scooter/bike in all weathers. Has the excitement been taken away from what should be the best year of your young life? Pete Henshaw investigates…
Are mopeds dead? Well if they’re not quite as deceased as Michael Palin’s parrot, then they’re well on the way. If you don’t like statistics look away now, but the figures are pretty compelling. Back in 1975, over 90,000 mopeds were sold in Britain, making up almost half the entire market of powered two-wheelers, but it’s really been downhill ever since. The early 1980s were a torrid time for the UK economy (ask anyone over 50) and by 1985 moped sales had almost halved to 47,000, more than halving again by 1990.
A distant Echo
In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, all two-wheeler sales suffered, but while motorcycles (and bigger scooters, especially 125s) have recovered since, 50cc sales have continued to slide, dipping to less than 8000 last year – just to underline the point, that’s less than one tenth of sales in 1980. And they haven’t finished yet, down another 20% in the first five months of 2018. The biggest fish in this shrinking pond is the Lexmoto Echo, fastest selling 50 for two years running, and Lexmoto’s cheapest scooter – over 600 were sold last year, a healthy increase on 2016.
We’re not alone, as just about all European (not just EU) countries have seen moped sales take a dive in the last several years. Back in 2010 over half a million 50s were sold across Europe, with traditional markets like Italy, France and Holland leading the way. Then they nosedived, and Italy, spiritual home of the scooter, suffered most – there, sales dropped from over 90,000 a year to just over 24,000. So that’s all right then, this is a European trend, not just a British one. The difference is that almost every European country saw a recovery in 50cc sales last year, while ours continued to slide. However you look at it, it’s not a happy story.
Some of our youngsters are bucking the trend by taking to two wheels, often on classic or retro scooters. We shot the video above when we first started SLUK. It shows the 16-year-old son of Sticky, Sam, riding what must be the coolest ped at his school. A Lambretta Lui complete with its own rocket launchers to ward off troublesome drivers. The explosives used in this video were no computer generated special effects…
Why are Sales Falling?
The reasons are many and varied, not least of which is that most 16-year-olds seem to have completely lost interest in buying a scooter as their first powered vehicle. “We believe the main cause for the decline is due to the loss of interest from 16 year-olds,” says Tony Campbell, boss of the industry body MCIA. “That’s combined with the massive rise in Smart devices/social media and the ability to openly communicate without the need of travel.” So sixteeners would rather text or facetime their mate than scream round to see them on a 50.
The figures back that up. Over 57,000 people took their Module 1 test in the year to March 2018, and just 210 of them (less than 1%) were 16-17-year-olds – the figures lump them together. That’s down from 353 (still a tiny percentage) in 2013/14, but the real shock is going back another year to 2012/13. Well over 3000 17-year-olds (sixteeners aren’t listed) took their CBT that year, which highlights the effect of the new licencing regime, which made getting onto two wheels for the first time far more difficult. Back in the present day, just over 2000 19-year-olds took Module 1 in the year to March 2018, so young people in general aren’t abandoning two wheels completely, but 16s/17s are.
The cost of getting on the road
Money plays a big part. When I were a lad, many of us couldn’t wait to get that provisional licence at sixteen and our first powered two-wheeler, but it was still a relatively cheap thing to do. You could pick up a decent secondhand 50 for £50 or less, and basic insurance cost less than that.
Adrian Watkins sells Peugeot scooters at Three Cross Motorcycles and reckons insurance costs have all but killed the sixteener market.
50s used to be a big part of our business,” he told me, “but youngsters are getting insurance quotes of £1000 for a new scooter, and on top of the cost of the bike itself, that’s a huge amount of money. The other thing that puts them off is the performance – they all want to know how fast it goes, and when I say 28mph, they lose interest.”
Ah yes, a maximum of 28mph – not exactly enough to get the pulse racing is it? Mopeds got restricted to 30mph back in 1977 (then 28mph in 2003), which seemed bad enough, but since then the roads have got busier and faster than ever before (again, ask anyone over 50).
There were just over 20 million cars on UK roads back in 1994 – now there are over 30 million, and people are driving more than ever. And that’s not all, most of those drivers seem to see the 30-limit as a minimum rather than a maximum. If you’re on a 125 which can happily keep up 35-40 mph, that’s not a problem, but a 28 mph moped gets carved up and bullied into the gutter – if you’ve been on the receiving end of that, you’ll know it’s not a lot of fun.
Pre Feb 2001 car driver?
“I do sell a few mopeds to commuters,” says Adrian Watkins, “but often after a few months they’re back, just fed up with the experience of riding a 50 in heavy traffic.” He could add that for commuters who got their full car licence after January 2001 (ie most people under 40) have to take the theory test and CBT before riding a moped without L-Plates – those with pre-2001 licences can hop straight onto a moped with no L-plates or CBT, so there’s another disincentive. In fact, Adrian’s biggest buyers now – for 125s as well as 50s – are to motorhome owners who want a scooter to buzz around on in the sunny climes they visit. Commuters, they’re not.
If you keep half an eye on the motorcycle market, you’ll know that each new bike bristles with new features – riding modes, traction control, electronically adjustable suspension, semi-auto transmission…the list goes on. Mopeds, built down to a price, don’t have the dazzling array of gadgets to tempt buyers.
Tony Campbell sums it up:
Mopeds have remained unchanged in real terms for the last 20+ years in a tech driven world and therefore the customers’ expectations and demands are no longer met with product innovation, maintaining the connection with market trends.”
One or two of the electric mopeds do have connectivity, which is a start, and a must for the next generation – why shouldn’t your 50 be as smart as your phone?
Then there’s the ever growing number of alternative transport modes. “You will see the stark rise in micro mobility across Europe,” says Tony Campbell. “E-scooters, e-monowheels, pedelecs, speed pedelecs, e-skateboards etc. appear to not just engage the young people but also the new generation of young professionals working in large cities looking to avoid public transport or pure cycling.”
I can’t say I’ve seen a rash of e-monowheels in my local high street, but pedelecs – electric-assist bicycles – are something else. Sales of these have increased rapidly in the last few years, as they’ve got lighter, more sophisticated and easier to use. Sure, you have to pedal, but legally it’s a pushbike, so no licence, insurance, MOT, tax or a compulsory helmet. These have surely made inroads into the traditional moped market with older riders, and over 60,000 were sold in Britain last year. ‘Speed pedelecs’ can top 28mph, just like a moped, but they’re also classed as such so need to clear the same legal hurdles – sales of those have been tiny so far.
Electric mopeds have also sold in small numbers to date, with just 194 Brits buying them last year, though they have proved a hit on mainland Europe, especially in the traditional moped market, and are helping drive the 50cc sales revival over there. While we’re talking about alternatives, it’s worth mentioning that 125s, even after the inevitable price increases following Euro 4, cost little more than the average moped. Lexmoto’s cheapest 125, the Matador, costs just £300 more than a 50cc Echo, which buys you a lot more performance and usability. The Chinese gave us the cheap 125cc scooter, and they still are.
Ironically, as sales of new mopeds continue to fall, interest in sports mopeds of the 1970s is reaching fever pitch, with crazy prices now asked for Yamaha FS1/Es and Suzuki AP50s – I saw a restored Fizzy at a classic show recently, yours for £4,695. There’s even interest in the more mundane mopeds like Puch’s Maxi, and the answer isn’t hard to find. The demand comes from 40, 50 and 60-somethings who had a ‘ped in their youth which they are now (of course) attempting to relive. And I’m not immune, I saw an old Maxi on offer recently, and…yes, I was tempted.
What does the most recognisable brand in scootering think of the moped decline? Simon Greenacre, Piaggio’s Marketing Communications Co-ordinator, summed it up.
“The market back in 2012 was strong with Typhoon, NRG, Peugeot Speedfight etc, but now the bulk of it is low cost and as you can imagine we are not on the radar of buyers looking for a cheap 50cc scooter. Almost half the market is made up of cheap Chinese mopeds, then Piaggio and Peugeot make up another third. Our market share has been hampered by lack of product due to Euro 2 phase out. I expect us to see a gradual recovery when the Euro 4 phase in is complete in August.”
“There are other factors at play too – the perception of scooters in light of the crime problem in some cities is certainly not helping the scooter market as a whole. That problem pushes up the cost of insurance, and for a teenager, that can be a hugely prohibiting factor that gives weight to any pressure from parents to hold on for another year until it’s possible to start driving a car. Teenagers have less appetite for mopeds compared to 10-15 years ago – whether that’s because they’re using other means of getting from A to B or because they’re digitally more connected and aren’t interacting in person quite as much remains to be seen”.
“After talking to some of the our dealers, I can tell you that many of our 50cc customers are commuters in cities – some of whom are being affected by the current problem of theft and high insurance.”
So is there any hope at all for the future of the humble 50? “The Government should be helping us, not hindering,” says Adrian Watkins. “Look at a four-stroke moped, it has a tiny environmental footprint compared to any car, but you still have to pay road tax – we need an incentive.”
Can you see that happening? I can’t. Cities all over the world are moving away from petrol and diesel engines, and that includes mopeds. I think electrics will come into their own eventually, but the market for 125s appears to be strong and hopefully will be for a long time yet. Maybe in 30 years time today’s under-20s will be getting nostalgic about their first ‘ped, just as the oldies are now. But one thing is for sure – there won’t be so many of them.
Words and photos: Pete Henshaw
Are you a youngster bucking the trend?
If you’re a teenager on two wheels, or if you’re the parent of one let us know about your/their experience and what could be done to broaden the appeal of taking to two wheels at 16. You can comment on this feature.
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