twelve hundred bucks

My regular riding buddies piled on the usual abuse when they saw my bright red Yamaha Zuma 50 for the first time. What was the catch? Did I lose a bet? Was there not a GSXR 1000 in my garage? What in the name blessed acceleration was I thinking? I shrugged my shoulders and buzzed away in a blue cloud of smoke while the stupid grin plastered on my face grew wider. The whole scooter thing was never an outlined goal of my moto career. It just kind of happened.

A couple of friends bought a pair of beat up Yamaha Zuma Sport Scooters as a semi-joke and began mobbing them around town . Then a few more clean examples turned up. Pete, my right hand man at the shop, turned his beloved CRF-250R into a Zuma for transportation to and from his classes at the community college. Soon, there were enough Zumas circulating the streets it almost seemed menacing. We began to sell Bel Ray Si7 injector oil by the case. Gates drive belts and Michelin Bopper semi-slicks were showing up on the order sheets. There was talk of late night speed trials on the local bike paths, impromptu circle track races in empty parking lots, and even the occasional off-road barging session on to local park land.

It caught my attention to say the least.  Not by the havoc causing potential the diminutive cycle presented, mind you.  My days of mayhem for mayhem’s sake are finis.  It was the sheer practicality of the machine that caught my attention. Gas prices were beginning their climb towards $4.00 per gallon and I was pouring a couple hundred bucks a month into the tank of my hoopty pickup to string together the usual local destinations.

It seemed I had no need for a what most folks would consider a proper motorcycle.  After all, my GSXR is all the motorcycle most mere mortals can handle.  Swinging  the speedo needle past 90 miles per hour in first gear is well within its capability. It is uncomfortable and impractical around town and can only be counted on to draw the unwanted attention of local law enforcement. What I really wanted a break from the typical. My unexpected motorcycling paradigm shift was gathering steam and before you could say Mods and Rockers, I was scouring the internet for used Zumas and running a review of my reasoning between ads.

I lucked into feeding my speed addiction by masquerading as a coach for a couple of track day outfits 30 plus times a year for almost 5 years. It was any speed freak’s gasoline soaked dream; all the track time I could stand in exchange for a semi-honest effort at showing newbies the track day ropes. Finally, my knees gave up under the weight of multiple surgeries spanning some three decades. I reluctantly hung up my leathers, intent on giving my dented carcass a bit of a rest.

I avoid two-wheeled travel on Bay Area freeways like a bear trap baited with a Chinese pit bike. Most cyclists in the area with the stones to brave the freeway have the stories. A frightening percentage have the scars to match. I divorced the idea of owning another sport bike.

The idea of succumbing to a nondescript middleweight for jaunts to the taco stand seemed almost too logical.  It is a motorcycle condemned to local transportation purgatory, but there is no rulebook that states emphatically your choice of everyday cycle be as blatantly uninteresting as a slice of Wonder Bread. I hate Wonder Bread.

There was that fitful dream after one too many burritos of questionable origin where a naked retiree, having fashioned a suspender equipped barrel out of a stack of burned up Metzler Marathons, sloshed his lukewarm PBR towards his bright yellow ‘Wing and said a few laps of the lower 48 would make a man of me. I indicated I would rather have a prostate exam on national television. Just before he smothered me with a stuffed bunny sporting Becker goggles, I woke up and immediately crossed touring bikes off the list.

I batted the Adventure Bike genre back and forth for what seemed like an eternity.   Chancing a peak at the KTM website produced nothing more than a sincere case of sticker shock.  I opened the BMW Motoraad homepage and two lint covered dollars on my desk spontaneous combusted. I took it as an omen and quickly put out the fire.

Be it obstinacy or unadulterated apathy, it was clear most manufacturer’s offerings held no promise. Nothing spoke to me. As luck would have it, quite a few more mouse clicks revealed a completely stock 2005 Zuma 50 in San Jose listed at an attractive price.  I recalled the laughs the little Yamahas were currently generating among my friends, so I tracked down my cell phone and dialed the number.

The next afternoon found me taking a cursory putt around the current owner’s neighborhood. I poked and examined and tried my best to feign indifference knowing full well I was not leaving without the Zuma. We haggled a bit and agreed on a selling price. Other than a mild coating of pollen accented with bird droppings, the scooter was absolutely perfect.

It was love at first ride, but after a week or two buzzing from the house to work, the scooter’s stock form was somewhat lethargic. It was fun for sure, but I sensed rivers of undiscovered power potential pulsing under the restrictive factory trappings.  When I found the mountains of aftermarket parts available to me, I set up a reading room on a corner of the shop counter and began making plans for a complete makeover.

I ordered some ready-made parts and cobbled together others. The transformation took a bit of wrenching and a crash course in Continuously Variable Transmission theory (invented by Dutchman Huub Van Doorne in 1956). The little fan cooled two stroke emerged sporting a heavily modified displacement of 74cc with a gain in performance that is nothing short of exuberant. It can rip along at 50 miles per hour in main drag traffic without breaking so much as a sweat.

I can pour 1.3 gallons of 92 octane into the tiny tank and ride worry free for a solid week. Parking is a breeze. Insurance and registration are infinitesimal. The under seat trunk is roomy and adaptable, hurdling an important measuring stick by swallowing a twelve pack of Pacifico bottles with ease. It even sports a convenient cubby on the splash guard to store gloves, sunglasses, or garage door openers. Consequently, everything else I own with wheels and a motor now spends long periods of time dormant.

I’ve spent an uncounted fortune on the best motorcycles that a regular Joe can buy.  I have cherished them, crashed them, cursed them, and cried over them.  But when my last ride is complete, let it be known far and wide a silly little Yamaha scooter that sounds like a kazoo played through a Marshall stack has been the best of them all.  It’s far and away the most motorcycling fun that twelve hundred bucks has ever provided.  All I have to do is rotate the throttle to the stop and yet another stupid grin proves it true.

originally published in City Bike Magazine, December, 2010.

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