Freedom Moped: How We Went From This To That On 100 Miles To The Gallon

Story by Drew Hudson   Photography by Alex Gvojic

It has been nearly thirty years since the era of moped decadence, and yet at the roots, there is a renewed interest. Though you might not know it yet, a moped-inspired sub-culture is taking form all across the country. Though these contemporary enthusiasts differ greatly from their 1970s mopeding predecessors, many of the socioeconomic and political issues that spurred on the popularity of '70s mopeds are in question again today. What is most remarkable about the contemporary moped phenomenon is the lack of industry and marketing support for this quickly-developing trend. Whereas in 1975 there were nearly 125 different makes on the market, today there are basically only three major manufactures - Tomos, Kinetic, and Sachs - which produce new mopeds and then import them to America. This new breed of moped enthusiast represents a reflection of the times, and in many ways, an American desire to be free. Across America alternative youth are building fringe communities surrounding their common interest in a gas-powered vehicle that glides along at a whopping 30mph. The moped is a modest mode of transportation with a two-stroke engine and bicycle peddles that are used to engage the ignition. Over the last year, I have been engulfed by the raw energy I feel when exposed to moped culture. So as another season begins to take shape, I have to ask myself, why now? What is happening in America that would inspire kids in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Austin, and Chicago to dig up a vintage pass time and breathe new life into something that died before many of them were born? There is no clear answer, but as I try to connect the dots, there are some clear parallels between a 1970s America that embraced mopeds and the country in which we live today.

On the evening of February 1, 2006, president George W. Bush stood boldly before the American people and proceeded to address our nation in his most recent State Of The Union speech. During the program I lingered on our President's every word, waiting perhaps to acquire some tangible information concerning the well-being of our country. Instead, I found myself exposed to the familiar barrage of vague promises and hypocritical statements the American public has learned to accept. But long after I had turned off the television, there was one seriously significant aspect of Bush's speech I simply couldn't seem to over look regardless of how hard I tried. "America is addicted to foreign oil," our President proclaimed with great sincerity. Perplexed by what Bush truly meant, I pondered the reality of this breakthrough analysis. Those Americans who own an automobile know first hand how the price at the pump has jumped up by a nickel to a dime, and from a dime to a quarter, and from a quarter to fifty cents. Gasoline prices have continued to skyrocket over the last several years while oil companies pull in record profits (though that's another conversation entirely). I don't think there is any car owner, liberal or conservative, who doesn't know first hand the extent of our "addiction to foreign oil." However, in the wake of our President's slightly obvious (to put it nicely) epiphany, the Bush administration now looks towards the distant future, devising the "Advanced Energy Initiative," which calls for a $289 million budget (ExxonMobil revenues exceed over four times that much every day) to further the development of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars. In truth, I don't have any idea what that really means, but in my head I imagine the creation of a vehicle similar to the Delorean from Back To The Future. At the end of the day, all I can really do is shake my head and think that somewhere along the way, we as Americans tripped and fell. Only this isn't the first time we've been in this position. Before Bush there was Reagan, and before Reagan there was Nixon.

In the early 1970s, America discovered a number of unusual things about itself. In academia, liberal arts scholars began to develop the concept of post-modernity. In pop-culture, artists like Iggy Pop and George Clinton acted as predecessors to the invention of both hip-hop and punk-rock, while in politics OPEC's rationing of crude oil lead to America's first true awareness of our dependency on foreign oil. I myself hadn't even been conceived. In fact, my birth was still a half-decade away, but regardless, photos of cars lined up at refueling stations across the country are a constant reminder of the significance of the "'73 gas crisis." But the 1970s also saw a landmark seldom remembered - the height of moped manufacturing. It was under the leadership of President Richard Nixon and during the turbulent 70s that revolutionary activists like Abbey Hoffman, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis took up arms and demanded change. Amazingly, change didn't always come at the end of a gun. A different type of change taking place within the American subconscious set into motion a different way of thinking about the world. This change was inspired perhaps by our withdrawal from Saigon, or perhaps by the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., followed shortly thereafter by the painful assassination of Robert Kennedy. The distinct high Americans had felt following WWII had been shattered by the progress of the '60s, leaving the 1970s wide open. America was in a recession and the introduction of smaller economy class cars imported from Japan and Germany brought with them another modest vehicle - the moped.

In the land of big houses with big yards and big cars, the thought that a two-stroke peddle start engine fastened to a glorified bicycle as a means of serious transportation was something best left to Europeans. My first thought of a moped enthusiast (before I rode one myself), was a slender man with a pencil thin mustache, a tight-fitting white and black striped shirt and a red beret. But through the grace of 1970s creative advertising and the economic implications of the time, mopeds, which easily boast up to 100 miles to the gallon, sparked the imagination of mainstream America. Gliding through traffic, avoiding vehicle registration and insurance and the convenience of side walk parking, made mopeds ideal for many commuting relatively short distances. In large cities and in rural towns, the mid to late 1970s saw the true arrival of a pass time that had been steadily progressing since the 1950s.

The success of the craze was short lived however, and by the early 1980s Americans were finding new ways of identifying themselves (like making tons of money in the stock market and blowing white powder up their nose). The trend of mainstream moped recognition had been reduced to a fad that by 1983 was very much out of style. The 1980s ushered in an era of in which America regained a defined sense of self, and with it came drastically different habits in consumerism. But it was this fall from grace that has largely affected those individuals who today are responsible for resurrecting moped interest. Mopeds of the 1970s were so fully integrated into the basic fabric of the time that a culture derived specifically from the vehicle was almost non-existent. Today, the underground moped movement, powered largely through advances in technology (i.e. the Internet), has blossomed into what can easily be described as a "scene." The scene or sub-culture is defined by jargon, fashion, and shared pop-culture references. Like all sub-cultures, modern mopeders embrace the general ethos of the dominant society, but actively differentiate themselves by rebelling from popular norms.

Certainly, neither the price of gas alone nor the deadening haze of the political media frenzy has pushed Chicago's most revered branch of moped riders, cleverly named Peddy Cash, into their beloved lifestyle. Instead, it was a shared sense of individualism and rebellion that brought this eclectic bunch of young urbanites together. Peddy Cash, for the most part, occupy the Chicago neighborhoods of Ukraine Village, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. These developing communities create the perfect backdrop for the against-the-grain ethos of moped culture. There is a plebeian quality to mopeds that requires the rider be an integral part of the constant repair process. Unlike scooters, which are incased in sheet metal and are equipped with 10" wheels, mopeds have a 17" standard and an engine fully exposed to the outside world. The concept of taking your broken moped to a dealership or repair shop is out of the question. They simply don't exist, and thus the owner of a moped is forced by necessity to stick his or her hands in the grease and get a little (or a lot) dirty. Therefore, being involved with mopeds requires some mechanical knowledge, commitment and patience, which is enough to deter most mainstream consumers from mopeds entirely. However, the unwavering charm of a sunny afternoon enjoyed on a "ped" continues to entice anyone exposed.

The fifteen immediate members of Peddy Cash are considered to be part of the elite riders in the city, however they only make up a handful of the 30-40 serious moped riders springing up across Chicagoland. Peddy Cash is one of sixteen official branches recognized by a national organization called the Moped Army. The Moped Army, which was founded in 1997 in Kalamazoo, MI, is a resource for moped enthusiasts and has 10,000 registered users on its website. 291 of those members are directly connected to registered branches that range from major metropolises like the moped gang Mission 23 in New York City, to smaller areas of America like the branch Motion Left from Elkhart, Indiana. Members of the Moped Army live by an official motto - "swarm and destroy" - which allows them to carve there own way, both in life and on the road. Each branch has its own distinct flavor, which is shared throughout the season at national moped rallies. The largest of these rallies is held in Kalalmazoo, and is a time when all branches from across the country to converge.

Politics may or may not be the topic of discussion at these events, but the lasting impression of our political landscape affects all aspects of our lives. There is something about moped riding that coincides with the idea of beating the system. Whether its cutting through gridlocked traffic like a militant activist cutting through bureaucracy, or managing to ride all week on a tank of gas that costs less than five bucks, Mopeds are the anti-vehicle of choice when it comes to riding towards revolution. Perhaps if mopeds hadn't turned cold in the 80s we wouldn't have the vibrant scene that is developing today, but as a country, we certainly would have had a better chance at outgrowing our "addiction to foreign oil". So as Bush pushes forward with plausible yet highly-underfunded ideas of how to rid America of its dependency on foreign oil, the youth of this country are finding inspiration from the past to help them on our shared journey to prolong America today.

Freedom Moped: How We Went From This To That On 100 Miles To The Gallon