Rediscovering your first love can involve a lot of drama. Although a scooter guy at heart, I grew up riding mopeds in Central Florida and they’ve never really left my bloodstream. A couple of years ago, I ran into a well-loved Puch that was just like my old ride back in the day. I grabbed it and enjoyed the old-school running around the neighborhood that a moped provides. It had some mods from the previous owner, but I never got it running for more than a week or two at a time and it never really got the mods broken in.
There is something completely different about riding a moped. To start, It’s neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a motorcycle, nor a scooter, nor even a “groovy little motor bike”. It’s essentially a very poorly designed bicycle with the benefit of an added small, (usually two-stroke) gasoline engine. It’s awkward looking and seems to be built for someone with a smaller stature, no matter what size you happen to be. It’s also awesome in the coolest way possible. With a stock moped, you gain the benefit of a relatively light, simple machine that is a much faster way to navigate small city streets than even a bicycle.
A stock moped (motor and pedal) is restricted to 30 miles per hour, enjoys somewhat relaxed parking enforcement (between a bicycle and a scooter) and does not require a motorcycle license to operate. In Michigan, it does require a car driver’s license, and a helmet must be worn if the rider is 15 years old. Some people don’t like the look of riding a moped, and some people don’t like the looks that you get when you ride a moped. Thankfully, some people love riding a moped and don’t care what others think.
Now, just like any other motorized device, a moped can be tuned for performance. Of course this is mostly illegal in Michigan as there is a displacement limit (100ccs), there can be no operator selectable gears (must be "twist and go" or automatic), and a limited top speed of 30 miles per hour or less. The one thing that the statute doesn’t specify is how quickly a moped gets to that 30 MPH. Even minor tuning of a moped can result in a dramatic increase in performance, and that of course, makes the ride much safer in traffic and also more exciting to ride. Mopeds have a wheel size approaching a motorcycle (often 16 or 17 inches), and that makes them much more sure-footed than a 10 or 12 inch scooter wheel. A moped's light weight make them very responsive to a minor change such as a larger carburetor and less restrictive exhaust pipe. Of course, wrenching on a moped is not for everyone, but there is currently a lot of interest in riding, customizing and the culture of mopeds. In case you are wondering about moped culture - it’s somewhere between punk and tattoos on one side and hipster on the other. And probably everything in between.
And that is where your local club comes in. There are moped clubs in almost every metropolitan area and quite a few scattered in rural areas. There is the “Moped Army” scattered across the United States and the “No-Nos” in Ypsilanti, but one of our very own (and very active clubs) right here in the Detroit is called the Motor City Riot. They have their own clubhouse on Fort Street and ride everywhere in the D.
Through a connection on Facebook, I was invited to their annual “Get Your Stuff Running” weekend (they don’t say “stuff”) and I lifted the Puch into the van for a quick trip down for some diagnosis and hopefully, some friendly wrenching.
It’s hard to miss their clubhouse on Fort Street, (a former grocery/liquor store) as it is painted with large murals depicting their name and various mopeds, spark plugs and whatnot in bright beautiful colors facing the street and around the side.
I arrived at what I thought was a decent hour (10:30 on a Saturday) and tentatively gave a light knock on the heavy metal door. Nothing. I gave a heartier knock. Nothing, despite the evidence of several large vans parked around the back. I finally noticed a small wire that led out of the wall and up and over the ceiling and then through the front wall leading to the doorbell. I gave it a quick prod and a bell went off somewhere deep in the building. In a moment, a smiling Andy Scouten opened the door with a very dark room behind him and greeted me with a “hi” and the half-smile that many mopeders have when greeting someone with a shared interest. Megan Miller, Andy’s friend and another moped fan, also said “hey” and they both asked if I was there for the GYSR weekend. I said that I was, and I stepped into the dark and carefully walked between what appeared to be large piles of rags spread out on the floor. In the middle of the large room, I stopped in the middle as Andy quietly explained the clubhouse. Spinning around, I looked around at probably 30 mopeds in various states of assembly, scattered around the shop. “You have to see the basement” said Andy, and we went down the darkest wooden stairs ever to enter a brightly lit brick-walled shop with individual stalls with even more mopeds, some finished and beautiful, others missing wheels, seats, gas tanks, engines, and some were just bare frames. Everything was waiting for activity, and Andy simply said, “What do you have? Let’s go get it” and we went up the darkest stairs ever and stepped over the piles (which as it turns out were sleeping people). I remarked that I was probably past sleeping on a shop floor to which Andy replied that since the “GYSW” started on Friday, there was an almost all night party, and that yeah, he too was past sleeping on a floor, instead opting for his van parked out back.
We grabbed my moped, wheeled it in and took it downstairs into the basement on a homemade elevator platform. We lifted it up onto a bench and I filled him in on what I was running. Within 10 minutes, one plug change (thanks Megan!) and a carb adjustment the engine was running and Andy said my problem was carburation. He actually said “the problem is this carb - someone has done something to it and it needs to go in the garbage. I’ll show you what you need to get once we get it running.” Then it was back up the lift and outside where I kicked it to life and rode around the block. It was running! But it was not running fast. Andy took it down Fort Street and came back 15 seconds later to state “it’s not ‘on’ the pipe. You need a sprocket.” So it was back inside, wheeling between the now slowly awakening people, back downstairs and up on the bench.
Andy got on the phone and asked the if person on the other end would give up a larger front sprocket for me. The answer was apparently affirmative as he quickly grabbed one from a nearby bench and within seconds had the chain off, the old tiny sprocket off and the new bigger one on. As he fitted the chain back on, he told me that my “swing arm was bent, but I can probably make it work.” as he put the chain back on and tightened up the rear wheel.
Then it was back up and out and he jumped on, kicked it over and away he went, down Fort Street and then, much faster, back up the street. He pulled over and handed it over to me with a smile. “Check that out!” he said. I jumped on and nailed the throttle (it was dying at low revs) and the thing was transformed. It was faster than normal up to the legal speed and then - whammo - took off like crazy when it hit about 25. The specs of the old mods had finally lived up to the promise. I came back down the street and asked when we were going to ride! It wasn’t today, but I promised that I would be back after a new carb, intake and some more break-in miles.
Andy and the now awake group seemed pleased and people were now coming and going, wrenching and kicking their mopeds to life. I tried to pay them, but was just left with putting some cash in the party fund, as Andy would not take any money. As I left, I could see the group forming up for the ride. I was happy to see helmets and riding gear on a few of them, and thick coveralls and beanie caps on others. I knew that on that first cold ride of 2014 they would be having fun, perhaps going a little faster than the moped manufacturers originally intended.
So, mopeds are cool again. What I knew as a kid riding through the orange groves of Maitland, Florida, I had rediscovered on the gritty streets of Detroit. Get one while you can, and join a club too. Whether it’s shopping for a “super-rare” old moped on Craigslist, buying a new Tomos (a local dealer is Blackbeard Powersports), or stopping by Detroit's very own vintage moped sales and service shop, get your stuff running. It’s going to be a great summer of riding in Michigan.
What’s next: Spring pre-ride check-up