Hand-geared scooters may be something of a novelty today. Yet, up until only a few decades ago, Bajaj Chetaks & LML Vespa’s were pretty much the staple choice of transportation for the nation.
Entire generations grew up with dreams of being allocated one. Such was the case that marriage alliances were decided on the basis of the ownership of these scooters. Much of this hand-geared ‘Scooter-Craze’ had fizzled out by the time I grew up though. To my generation, these older scooters were crude, noisy contraptions that every second kid’s father & grandfather rode. For us ‘kids-of-cool’ dreamers, it was the march of the vario-scoots – the stylish Kinetic Honda!
We were the first of the convenience generation. No funnily sprung split-seats, frantic kick-starts and odd bike-tilt routines, every time that we needed to get going. Twist-n-go fun was our fix. The emotional bond that #HamaraBajaj held, had been left behind with the generations before us. Then, one day, life took a sudden turn for the better, when a neighbour brought home a Vespa. The eyes perked up immediately & I soon began to notice the differences over the Bajaj scooters.
The oomph of those curves were a no-brainer. But just about everything else made it a lot better than the Bajaj. The paint finish was a few notches above & the metal felt sturdier; the panel gaps were narrower & the rubber used was better. Even the smaller bits like the meter console & the lamp lenses were of better quality.
Starting up the Vespa only served to reinforce the premium feeling about it in the mind. I don’t quite have the vocabulary to express it, but the improvement in kick-starting over the Bajaj was noticeable. Where the Bajaj scooters had a gruff sounding exhaust note, the Vespa purred softly. The hand-gearshift was a lot more positive, while the switches had this tactile feel about them. The Vespa even rode better than the Bajaj, thanks to the better components in the suspension & braking department. It was however, the thought that went behind the Vespa, the better engineering put into it, that attracted me more towards it over the Bajaj.
The Bajaj scooters were distinguished by the spare tyre mounted at the back. This arrangement was a far more practical one, as it meant easier access in the event of a flat, whilst also serving as a backrest for the pillion. The Vespa on the other hand, placed the spare under the side panel along with the battery, opposite the engine. This served to balance out the weight of the engine well enough and the Vespa rode better than any other Bajaj. This arrangement, also kept the spare tyre safe from the elements & prying eyes, while not detracting from those curvy lines.
The convenience offered by variomatic transmissions soon sounded the death knell for the entire hand-geared scooter market. It was however, the new bunch of motorcycles, with their better riding qualities, that led India to abandon scooters altogether for the longest time. Things have come around full-circle since then, thanks to Honda and their Activa, which put vario-scooters back in the parking spaces of Indians around the country.
Even today though, spotting these ‘Licence Raj’ era scooters purring along, brings a smile to my face.