Written By: Bill Syken
The most popular kind of scooter these days may be the standing electric scooter, which is seeing a boost in popularity because it provides the solution to a host of modern problems. Those standing scooters are an efficient way to make short trips around town without having to worry about either the environmental effects or the costs of gas usage, or the COVID concerns of riding public transportation. Scooters also aren’t a parking problem, especially if you live in one of the many cities with a scooter-sharing program.
The days after World War II saw the rise of a different kind of scooter—the kind that is more closely related to the motorcycle. (If you wish people would stop calling so many different two-wheeled modes of transportation “scooters” you are not alone). The scooters that took off in the post-war years have this in common with e-scooters: their burst in popularity was tied to the societal shifts of its day.
In Italy after World War II, the Vespa turned out to be the perfect vehicle for a war-torn country with bumpy roads and a bumpier economy. The Vespas were also fun and fashionable: in the great 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn had their day to remember as they scooted around town on a Vespa.
In the United States people also showed an affinity for this young form of two-wheeled travel, owing to a surplus of motorbikes being decommissioned by the army after the war, and also the former troops who rode in groups to reclaim some of the camaraderie of their service days.
LIFE photographers captured the rise of scooter culture on both sides on the Atlantic. In 1945 as the war was nearing its end, Wallace Kirkland documented the Cushman Motor Works in Nebraska, showing both the plant where scooters were made and also the locals enjoying their products. In Italy in 1948 Dmitri Kessel photographed people on Vespas for an essay on Europe coming back to life after the war.
Those motor scooters have been on the decline in popularity in recent years as electric sales surge. But when they had their moment, it sure looked fun.