The Passion Of Mark Jurus

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks

It was simply love at first sight: the sensuous curves of the Italian beauty immediately captivated the recent college graduate with a degree in visual communication and graphic design. The year was 1992, the place was Boulder, Colorado, and Mark Jurus fell head-over-heels for Italian motor scooters. The design elements of these diminutive machines ignited a passion in him that still burns brightly today.

A Hobby Turns into a Business
Until a few years ago, there were few dealers in the U.S. offering new scooters for sale. Most riders acquired their machines used and then sought out specialists to help restore and maintain them. It was exactly this market that Mark Jurus tapped into in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1993, when he began offering scooter servicing and repair out of his garage. Over the next several years, he built a network of local specialists to provide machining, sandblasting, painting, upholstery and re-chroming services, and soon he had completed an impressive number of classic scooter restorations. The Vespa, with its sensuous curves, has remained his scooter of choice, particularly for restorations.

In 1996 Mark made a full-time commitment to creating a power-sport business built around motor scooters. Reflecting his Italian passions, the business was originally known as Baltimore Vespa and Lambretta. Business boomed and before long more space was needed to accommodate a growing scooter clientele seeking not only service and restoration work, but also the purchase of new machines now more available in the U.S. market. Mark moved his expanding business into its current location in Cockeysville, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, in 1999, and changed the name of his business to Moto Strada, conjuring visions of scooters racing along curvy, sun-splashed country roads in Tuscany. The name change also signaled a more diverse array of power-sport product offerings, including Bajaj, Aprilia and Kymco motor scooters, plus ATVs and Aprilia motorcycles.

Ironically, new Vespa motor scooters, the brand that originally stirred Mark's scooter passions, are not sold at Moto Strada. He explained to me that a new marketing direction at Piaggio USA, initiated several years ago, requires their dealers to have an upscale, stand-alone showroom dedicated exclusively to the Vespa and Piaggio brands. Although Mark expanded to a more diversified product base for his growing power-sport business, he still offers maintenance and restoration services for the beloved Vespas.

Mark noted that the cost of a restored vintage motor scooter can cost as much, if not more, than a new bike. In addition to the cost of acquiring a vintage scooter, Moto Strada usually charges customers around $ 4,000 for paint, parts, labor and other miscellaneous items required to complete a "stock" restoration. For the scooter enthusiast with deeper pockets, charges for a one-of-a-kind, heavily customized scooter masterpiece can run as high as $ 10,000.

A Brief History of Scooters
Motor scooters were originally invented to provide post-World War II riders with efficient and elegant personal mobility. Corradino D'Ascanio, an ingenious aeronautical engineer working for Enrico Paggio, dreamed up an entirely new vehicle. It was built on a "monocoque" or unibody steel chassis, with a front fork similar to an airplane's landing gear, allowing for easy wheel changes. The frame's shape protected riders from dirt and debris on the road and the aeronautical design elements exuded sophistication and elegance. On first seeing the vehicle, Enrico Piaggo is said to have exclaimed, "Sembra una Vespa!" ("It looks like a wasp!")

Sales of the little Vespas soon skyrocketed in Italy and around the world. By the mid-fifties, production facilities were operating in a number of European countries and the machines were further glamorized by movie stars buzzing around on their Vespas, both on and off screen. Today, more than 50 years later, it is estimated that over 16 million Vespas have been produced, making it an icon of Italian style and elegance. Of course, the commercial success of Piaggio's Vespas did not go unnoticed, as other scooter manufacturers were soon competing with them in a worldwide market of people on the move and in need of inexpensive personal transportation.

Who are these Scooter Enthusiasts?
Mark says the stylish image of scooters is virtually inseparable from the self-image of the people who ride them. Although some use scooters to acquire fundamental two-wheeled riding skills before selling them and moving on to motorcycles, most either stay lifelong scooter riders or they keep a scooter or two along with their motorcycles. A common thread among many scooter riders seems to be an involvement in, or at least an appreciation of, the arts. They just love the way their machines look, he said, and the freewheeling, gregarious lifestyle that seems to go with them.

Interestingly, much of today's motor scooter mystique was born outside Italy's borders: Great Britain in the early sixties. At that time, much of British youth were split into two competing factions known as the Mods and Rockers, each dressing in their own distinctive style. Mods were a fashion-conscious group who dressed smartly and rode Vespa and Lambretta scooters to nightclubs where they danced to soul music. Rockers, as their name implies, enjoyed rock and roll, wore tight jeans and black leather jackets with polished metal studs, and they rode British café racer style motorcycles. This scruffy, British version of America's Hells Angels didn't mind getting a little grease under their fingernails or on their hair. They also didn't mind mixing it up physically with the Mods at every opportunity.

A lot of British rock and roll music made it "across the pond" to America in the '60s, but the scooter and motorcycle rivalries didn't, possibly because, until recently, the motor scooter population in this country has been miniscule. With wide-open spaces, a hunger for powerful machines and cheap gasoline, relatively few Americans felt the need for a stylish little vehicle that gets 70 miles or more from one gallon of gas.

The attraction of scooters to people with a sense of style has endured, however, in scooter clubs across America. In the early '90s Mark bonded with other like-minded scooter enthusiasts and formed the Baltimore Bombers Scooter Club. This group comes together to share stories, organize rides, and talk shop. Many of its members have a particular fondness for the classic style and grace of vintage scooters. Each year, before the beachgoers arrive, the Club rides from Baltimore to Ocean City, Maryland, for a weekend of fun and frolic.

The Baltimore Bombshells Scooter Club was founded more recently by Mark's girlfriend Teresa for female scooter aficionados in and around Baltimore to meet, ride, and share information. They are a group self-described as free-spirited, fun-loving, uninhibited scooter fashionistas who created their own club where they can just be girls if they so choose. Women are a growing segment of the scooter market and, according to Mark, often the real decision makers when families consider a scooter purchase.

Not Your Father's Moped
When scooters were booming in Europe in the '60s, many people in America considered them to be synonymous with the lowly moped, which resides at the bottom of the motorized, two-wheeled food chain. But, as Bob Dylan used to sing in the turbulent '60s, "the times they are a changin." Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported, "...scooter ownership has taken off. Annual sales in 2003 were more than five times the total for 1998, reaching about 84,000 units." Eager to capture this market, scooter makers are expanding their lines by offering retro styling and larger engines.

Mark confirms the rapid growth of new scooter sales, noting that the fastest-growing market segment is the "maxi" or "twist-and-go" bike. These scooters have motors with displacements of 250cc up to 650cc and often weigh as much as a medium-sized motorcycle, but they don't require riders to learn the fine art of shifting gears. With top speeds of 70mph to over 100mph, ample wind protection, and hard-luggage options, enthusiasts are now going on tour with their scooters.

The demographics of the scooter rider market also seem to be changing. Scooters used to be identified primarily with hip, twenty-something, urban dwellers relying on their scooters as their primary, low-cost mode of personal transportation. Mark adds that his typical customer today ranges in age from a teen to a senior citizen, lives in suburbia and uses his or her scooter predominantly for recreational riding. For scooters sales to really boom as a primary mode of transportation for a significant number of commuters, he believes that gasoline prices would have to move north of $ 3 per gallon and remain there for some time.

The Future of Scooters and Moto Strada
It's no secret that traffic congestion and pollution are growing concerns in America. A recent article in AutoWeek helped put this in perspective when it reported, "...that in Southern California alone there are 400 million miles of trips each day, with 1.6 million hours of delay. That 1.6 million figure will go up to 3.6 million hours by 2030." The article also notes that scooters could be part of the solution by providing fuel-efficient transport to a light rail station where many more scooters could be parked than cars in a given area.

Will America's streets of the future be filled with stylish scooters zipping their riders to and fro? That would be quite all right with Mark Jurus, but he doesn't think it's likely to happen overnight and he isn't betting his business on it. Mark plans to continue expanding and diversifying his power-sport products at Moto Strada as a sound business strategy, but with a twinkle in his eye, he also says that his passion always will remain with the scooters.