Do you want to travel to and from work in a 100-mpg vehicle? Europeans have been doing it for years. Nope, we're not talking about a public rail system or a fancy new hybrid car. We're talking about scooters. Philip McCaleb, 54, spent a few years in Athens and Brussels and loved getting around on his Vespa scooter. After returning home to Chicago in 1989, he noticed a lack of fanaticism for the nimble, and sometimes loud and colorful, scooters the same way the rest of the world did. McCaleb quickly organized a scooter club and mailing list, which morphed into a scooter catalog business: Scooterworks USA. He also began restoring vintage scooters and became an importer of Piaggio Vespa ( PIAGF). The cult for scooters grew, and McCaleb launched Genuine Scooter Co. in 2001. Note that, unlike some car-company peers, he doesn't need to ask the U.S. government for a bailout check. "With a faltering economy and gas prices fluctuating in a downward trend, we're still very confident in our '09 outlook," says McCaleb. Genuine Scooter's sales have grown 46% a year between 2002, when its first scooter, Stella, went on the market, and 2007. Genuine Scooter, whose Web site says it's "America's Smallest Scooter Company," has since unveiled three other models: Buddy, Roughhouse and Rattler. McCaleb says Genuine Scooter is now shipping over 10,000 bikes a year and expects growth of about 135% this year. "Scooters have found an accepted niche as practical alternative transportation," says McCaleb. "They're economical, they're gaining in acceptance by other four-wheel operators, and they've proven to save the average American tremendous amounts of money on gas, insurance and space. Americans are finally getting to understand why they're so popular in Europe."
McCaleb says Genuine Scooter is really a marketing company. His scooters are made under private label in Taiwan and India and are being licensed and sold throughout the world. Genuine Scooters are currently available at about 170 dealers, and McCaleb projects to sell them in 60 more dealerships in 2009. McCaleb highlights that among new dealers, some Harley-Davidson dealerships will begin stocking Genuine Scooters. So if the economy has your wallet strapped and you can't afford a new HOG, you can grab a $2,000 Buddy. The turn for acceptance of scooters in the U.S. began long before gas prices spiked and the market crashed. It happened when McCaleb and others began creating a fan base and lifestyle culture around scooters, partly through Web sites like ModernBuddy.com and StellaSpeed.com, message boards for Buddy and Stella scooters, respectively. It's something McCaleb says the major two-wheel motor companies have failed at. They sought to attract customers, not fans, he says. McCaleb says he and his team have worked hard to translate their passion into their products. "We want to sell great products, and we want to sell them in a kinder and gentler way," says McCaleb. "I don't know if that sounds hokey, but it's not meant to be. I love this company and I love this business. Our whole marketing campaign for 2009 is 'Feel the love. It's Genuine.' "