Before Aphrodite and the Frankenstella burst into my life, I had a series of Hondas.
My first scooter on the East Coast was a new 1998 Honda Elite 80. It was very cute, and white, and according to the manual could handle 2-up riding. The bench-style seat was surely comfortable enough for two, and it even had fold-out passenger foot rests. The only problem was that it was only 80cc, and I lived in Somerville, atop a series of exceedingly steep hills. A few of those required my passenger to dismount halfway and meet me at the top. In retrospect, my friends probably benefitted from the exercise.
While my little Elite 80 was not a visual masterpiece or stunning feat of Italian engineering, it got the job done. I put a quick 12,000 miles on it without a hitch. The scooter couldn’t help that its styling was straight out of Back to the Future.
The Elite 80 was light, which made it easy to ride, park and carry downstairs to my basement for winter storage. Its slight frame also made it easy to carry off. It was vandalized and “relocated” several times, and stolen twice. The second kidnapping ended with the scooter taking a fatal swan dive off the Mass. Ave. Bridge into the Charles River.
The Elite had been carried to its going-away party; the Kryptonite lock was still on the wheel when the police recovered the scooter downstream.
So when I moved to Seattle and decided to get another scooter, I knew I needed more get-up-and-go than 80cc’s offered. Carrying a passenger up Denny requires considerable chutzpah. A heavier scooter could also potentially slow down anyone plotting to launch it off the Fremont Bridge.
Hondas last forever. If you give them proper maintenance (or even if you don’t) they will just keep running. There are quite a few 1980’s Elites still on the road in Seattle. I pass a couple each day on my way to work. Most of them have severe body damage and missing panels, but removing the plastic spaceship parts can only improve the aesthetics, if you ask me. You, too, can transform your Elite into a scooterpunk rat bike using just a milk crate and a rattle can of primer!
My funding was limited and my transportation essential so I was looking for a cheap, reliable scooter. I knew these criteria would drive down the “pretty” quotient, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over my scooter getting hit while parked on the street in Capitol Hill. My online research unearthed the specs for the Elite 250cc, which I didn’t know existed. My fingers tingled as I fantasized about having that much power at my disposal. Muahahahaha! The whole city would be mine!
When I discovered a 1985 Elite 250 on craigslist in perfect condition for a thousand bucks, I hopped on the ferry to Bainbridge with cash in hand.
Not only was the scooter in perfect condition, but the gentleman who owned it had put a lot of work into it recently and had service records going back years – totally unheard of. The only flaw of the bike was the gaping tears in the vinyl seat, which I’d seen on countless elderly scooters. The new seat he ordered hadn’t yet arrived, and if I wanted it I’d have to pay extra. “Never mind,” I told him. “I’ve got a roll of duct tape at home.”
The seller was a firefighter, a fatherly type, and emphasized repeatedly that this scooter was not an Elite 80. “This bike is very different than anything you’ve ridden before,” he warned me. Yeah, yeah. Just load it into the truck and let’s get going.
I didn’t want to ride the scooter home, being totally unfamiliar with it, and I also wanted to have Niko at University Honda (just blocks from my apartment!) give it a safety inspection. So I chauffeured it home via minivan and dropped it off at the shop for a physical.
The scooter was in fabulous shape for a twenty-year-old bike. It needed new brakes and an oil change, and it was good to go. Aside from garden-variety maintenance, I never put another penny into it. For a total of $1250, I had the most reliable scooter I’ve owned yet – even more so than my factory-fresh Vespa GTS. Privately, I referred to the Elite as the Überskoot, but it was known publicly as The Beast.
Because Elites have been in production for 20 years it’s relatively easy to find parts for them. On eBay I found a store that sold replacement seat covers. Since I parked outside, the rain would seep through the cracks in the vinyl and saturate the foam core. When I sat down, the water would gush out and soak my rear. I made a classy entrance at work that winter.
It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to install the new seat cover once it arrived, but I had a difficult time affixing it. The attachment required an industrial strength stapler and more brawn than I could muster.
Eventually I got the seat cover mostly on, and my days of sporting a wet butt fortunately drew to a close.
The Beast had fold-out passenger foot rests (brilliant!) and more oomph than I could keep up with many mornings. It came decked out in what I affectionately referred to as the “riot shield” – an ultra-tall windscreen that blocked all manner of weather in the winter, making 60 mph. on Aurora quite comfortable. When compared with riding the bus, it was downright luxurious. Eventually I picked up the one fashion accessory no Elite should be without: the ubiquitous milk crate, attached to the rear rack with zip ties.
The Beast came in a blinding Safety Yellow, which was all the rage in 1985 but irked me in ways I can’t really explain. It had been a perfectly respectable burgundy at one point, according to the title document. Why Technicolor yellow? WHY?!
There was no getting around the fact that the Beast was a total eyesore. Seeing beautiful new Vespas on the road made me cringe. And when Genuine started churning out Stellas, I ached for one day and night. They were so pretty! They came in candy colors! They made a growly put-put sound! They could wear lots of chrome!
With a fully-functioning and paid-for scooter, I couldn’t rationalize the purchase of a Stella. Not at first, anyway. The shiny new Stellas were everywhere, and I passed the dealership daily, where they were parked out on the sidewalk in a sparkly row. Mine would be mint green, I daydreamed. I often stopped to ache quietly among them. Adding insult to injury, someone started parking their new toy – mint green, of course – alongside the Beast in my parking lot.
To comfort myself, I decided to give the Beast a new paint job. I settled on periwinkle blue and the hardware department at Fred Meyer supplied me with the spray paint. I can hear you groaning as you read this. I am, too.
Kids – please don’t try this at home.
Hasty and impatient, I sprayed the Beast in a parking lot in August, in full sun, with wind whipping all over the place. It wasn’t dry when I applied the second coat 20 minutes later, and then it was time for dinner so I rode it home wet. Surveying my truly awesome paint job the next day, I maintained a sense of humor about it, finishing the bike fender-to-milk-crate in spray glitter. At least it was original.
The Elite was a formidable ride, and I don’t have a single complaint about its reliability. It always started right away, even after sitting in the freezing rain (or snow) for a few days.
It handled like a dream and was comfortable on long rides. It felt like riding my granddaddy’s Caddy. It had a low center of gravity and brilliant suspension; I could nearly forget I was carrying a passenger.
Then I upgraded my employment, and I became like a bachelor in a mid-life crisis on the hunt for a teenaged girlfriend. And I found one in Celeste. She was a real beauty. That 2003 Stella hit all my buttons. Twice. She had two-tone paint in my favorite color, and custom bling down to the star-shaped hubcaps. I held out for months, visiting with her on the sly during lunch breaks.
When it finally came time to part with the Beast, I posted it for sale with a mix of sadness and relief. It went to a good home – a young couple looking to economize their commute. I felt good selling it to them, and they were thrilled with it.
For awhile I wondered what had become of the Beast. Were they still happy with it? Was it still treating them well? And then during the Sustainable West Seattle Festival last month, I spotted the Beast parked on California Ave.
There was no mistaking it – rainbow glitter and periwinkle blue with overspray on the yellow hubs, crooked vinyl seat cover, black milk crate still firmly affixed. Seeing it there made me grin ear to ear. My smile got even bigger when I saw the couple who bought it from me. They were walking along the row of scooters the Westenders had on display as part of our “greener commute” booth.
I ran up to them excitedly. “Hey! You guys bought my scooter!” They recognized me and it was a joyful reunion. The Beast was still tried and true, though it needed some work that they hadn’t gotten around to yet. They told me sadly that it had been blown over during a terrible wind storm in West Seattle, cracking one of the body panels. That must have been one hell of a gust – the scooter weighs nearly 300 pounds and sits on a center stand.
Then I got a stroke of genius. “You can take care of that damage and increase your street cred,” I told them. I suggested they give the Beast its due treatment: a scooterpunk makeover. “Rip off that silly panel, ditch the riot shield, and paint the whole thing flat black!”
I’ll bet they stuck with the blue glitter.