When I lived in London in the late sixties, the usual social divisions were fully in effect: The aristocracy, the middle class, and the plebs. Often middle class folks were richer than the estate-poor aristos, but having a well-decorated family tree still mattered. On the streets of the city, however, there were two notable tribes: The Mods and the Rockers. The Mods wore tight suits and the Rockers wore leather jackets and jeans. The main distinctions between them, however, were their ways of getting around: Rockers rode motorcycles, mostly Triumphs and BSAs (called, at the time, café racers, since they tended to speed from one café to the next); and Mods rode scooters, mostly Vespas and Lambrettas. Like motorized Montagues and Capulets, each group thought itself clearly superior to the other. When a reporter asked John Lennon whether he was a Mod or a Rocker, he solved the diplomatic problem with his usual linguistic dexterity: “I’m a Mocker.”
As a long time motorcycle rider, I tended to side, stylistically, with the Rockers, though the miniskirted Mod maidens exerted a powerful allure. Years after my London sojourn, I still ride sport bikes, and so remain allied to the long-vanished Rocker tribe. But recently, thanks to some friends in the two-wheeled world, I spent a month as a Mocker. In sequence, I was given a new Suzuki GSX750R, the latest incarnation of the four-cylinder Japanese machine that revolutionized road and racing motorcycles in the eighties, and a Honda Silver Wing, a super scooter with a 582 cubic centimeter, four-stroke twin engine — definitely not a scooter for a mild Mod.
I was instantly at home on the Suzuki, since it’s out of the same gene pool as the Kawasaki ZX10 that I use on the track, with the down-and-forward racing position that melds the rider’s body with the bike. It is this “at one with the motorcycle” connection that is one of the great appeals of sport riding. (Not for nothing do the Italians call riders and racers centauri.) The 750cc motor of the GSXR (aka Gixxer) is smaller than either the Kawasaki or the Ducati that I ride, but it winds up fast through its six gears, and thrives on rpms up to around 14,000, so I felt no loss of power. And the bike, which weighs in at 419 pounds, has a light, quick handling that more than makes up for any slight loss of straight ahead grunt. For many seasons, back when 750cc was the upper limit for four cylinder racing motorbikes, the Suzuki was the reigning champion of the American competitive circuit. Since the size limit went up to 1000cc, Suzuki is the only manufacturer that has continued to evolve a 750, and the bike is more sophisticated, agile and faster than ever, a near-perfect machine for both road and track. After my two weeks on the Gixxer, taking on the twisties of Northern California, I was one grateful old Rocker. They just about had to pry the bike out of my hot, gloved hands.
The switch to the Silver Wing scooter was a shock to my long-cherished man-and-motorcycle swagger. The rare times when I ride scooters is on Greek island vacations. For me, they are a practical way of getting around, but not vehicles that do anything for my ego, or my pursuit of fast fun. But a scooter with a motor the size of a mid-size sport bike is another creature entirely. Riding any scooter is a much less tactile experience than riding a motorcycle — you don’t, for instance, hang off to the inside of turns to steer the bike by shifting body weight; the rider’s feet are sedately placed front and center, with all the physical dash of sitting on a chair. But after a few rides, I reluctantly gave in to the novel idea of actual comfort. Perhaps my biggest mistake was to give my wife a ride on the commodious back seat. She was thrilled, and promptly announced that she was not about to get back behind me on my trusty Triumph new Bonneville. Much to my surprise, the scooter was nimble at speed and didn’t feel nearly as stodgy as I suspect it (and I) looked.
Given the fact that the Silver Wing has real, motorcycle-like acceleration, no gears to shift, and a top speed that makes it fine on freeways, I quickly realized that this is a machine that one could ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles with no difficulty. (I’ve done that ride on a sport bike, and it was… how shall I put it?... taxing.) While I will admit that buzzing around on a scooter, even the muscular Silver Wing, felt a bit testosterone-depleted, I liked the simplicity of operation, and the phenomenal gas mileage. I didn’t do an exact calculation, but in the two weeks I had the scooter — including some rainy days when I didn’t roll it out of the garage — I never needed to fill the tank. The only difficulty I had with the transition from motorcycle to scooter was curbing my habit of mistaking the left-hand brake lever for the clutch (as is the case on a motorbike). The Silver Wing brakes are formidably effect, so after a couple of unexpected, adrenalin-infused full-on stops, I became aware that there is no clutch, but a smooth transmission that does all the shifting for you.
After two weeks on the scooter, I have not switched tribes; I am still a Rocker. I’d have loved more time on the Suzuki GSXR. But I am man enough to admit that riding the Honda scooter was a far more satisfying experience than I’d expected. Who knows? It may be what awaits me down the road.