1980’S Japanese Scooter Era

1980’S Japanese Scooter Era

From 1982 to 1987, Japanese scooters flew out of showrooms across North America, then quite suddenly the fad died. People went back to buying cars and the Japanese manufacturers largely stopped bringing over new models. So why did this craze start and who’s to blame for its end?

In the early 80’s, new USA emission laws (basically outlawing large 2-strokes) meant that Vespa’s current scooters (P125X and P200E) could no longer be imported to the USA after ‘83 (Vespa left Canada after ’86). That left the Vespa/Piaggio dealers in North America without any scooters to sell and thus they quickly closed up shop.

It wasn’t just the absence of Vespa that led to sales success for the 80’s Japanese scooters though. These new Japanese scooters were also darn good. They featured modern 12 volt electrical systems (except the Yamaha CV80), plastic body panels, updated styling, CVT transmissions, electric start and oil injection system. Some of these features could be found on Vespa’s but never all at once and never at such an affordable price. These new Japanese scooters cost roughly half what a Vespa did and their reliability was unheard of.

The early 80’s wasn’t the first time Honda and Yamaha had produced scooters but it was the first time they had significantly deviated from the traditional scooter mould. When I get some more free time, I may write another article on their pre-80’s scooters like the Honda Juno and the Yamaha SC-1.

The modern scooter era really begins with the 1977 model year with the release of the S50 Passol in Japan. The S50 and it’s 1978 replacement, the Passola, were both air cooled, 50cc 2-stroke scooters. What distinguished them from previous scooters was the plastic body panels, updated styling, automatic transmission, electric start and oil injection system. All of these features made the scooters easier to ride and are now found on virtually every modern scooter. What was still lacking though was a stylistic departure from the Italian scooter offerings. The Passol strayed a bit from the traditional formula but it wasn’t the clear break that future models would take.

In 1981, Yamaha continued the stylistic departure from traditional scooters started with the Passol and released the Salient (CA50) and Beluga (CV80) scooters in Japan. Canadians would receive these scooters for the 1982 model year but they wouldn’t arrive state side until 1983, the same year as Honda arrived with their Aero 50 and Aero 80. With the release of these scooters, the modern Japanese scooter era was truly born. Japanese designers were breaking free of the traditional italian inspired scooter styling and were now pursuing more futuristic and sporty designs. Honda’s scooters especially were markedly different than traditional ones. The Honda’s were distinct right from ’83, whereas Yamaha’s scooters made transition to a modern look over a few years. If you compare an ’83 Yamaha CV80 (Beluga / Riva 80) to an ’83 Honda NH80 (Aero 80), it’s easy to see that the Honda is more modern looking.

From ’82 to ’87, customers snapped up these scooters in amazing numbers. The excellent dealer networks of Honda and Yamaha meant that they could sell scooters in numbers never thought possible in the Vespa era. What makes these record sales numbers more impressive is that these scooters weren’t being bought by the traditional scooter market but by a whole new group of people. Current scooter enthusiasts (i.e. Lambretta and Vespa owners) often shunned the Japanese scoots. Here is an excerpt from book that nicely sums up the Vespa enthusiasts perspective on these scoots:

“In 1983 Honda released their Aero models, the Aero 50 and Aero 80. Both were two-cycle models with decent power, automatic transmissions and styling that made enthusiasts gag. The days of manufacturers catering to those types of customers were over. Honda had little interest in clubs or rallies or any of that. Scooters were built in Japan to be cheap and efficient, characteristics that scooters had always possessed but never in such a pure form, so lacking in personality.”
——– Colin Shattuck (Scooters: Red Eyes, White Walls, Blue Smoke)

While many vintage scooter affectionados find these 80’s scooters to be ‘ugly and soul-less’, I personally find their unique style charming. The quirky/retro/geek/futuristic style of these scooters gives them a whole lot of personality in my opinion. Scooters like the Gyro, the Salient and the Elite are like nothing else. For me, the weirder the styling, the better.

So what happened? Did Honda and Yamaha cause the decline in sales by scaling back their marketing efforts? There are several views out there but the most logical explanation is that scooter sales dived simply because the entire motorcycle industry took a huge downturn. Motorcycle sales crashed in the late 80’s as a result of an economic recession and dropping fuel prices. The entire USA motorcycle industry sold 710,000 bikes in 1985 but only 303,000 in 1990. Motorcycle sales remained low (between 270K – 430K) until 1999.

Over the past decade, we have seen motorcycle sales rise dramatically (to well over 1 million bikes). Accordingly, USA scooter sales boomed from around 10,000/yr in the 90’s to about 100,000 the last couple years (~2006). Only time will tell what’s in store, but the current market conditions don’t look too good. Once again we are entering a recession, fuel prices are dropping and after years of 15-30% growth, Canadian motorscooter sales actually dropped 11.6% in 2007. Manufacturers still sold a boat load of scooters, but the trend may once again be tipping the other way.