Sports Mopeds: a 70s phenomenon
The sports moped is part of a motorcycle culture that has now largely disappeared – yet is responsible for introducing more young people to motorcycling than anything before or since
The phenomenon of the sports moped was launched on December 15 1971, when a law was passed by Ted Heath’s government to limit 16-year-olds to bikes with just a 50cc engine and pedals. That day launched the biking life of thousands of British teenagers – sparking more tales of daring, performance and dicing with danger than probably any other period in the history of British motorcycling.
Before that crucial date in 1971, learner riders could ride bikes up to 250cc. Mopeds (an amalgamation of ‘motorcycle’ and ‘pedal’) at that time were low- speed utilitarian vehicles, with pedals which could be used to drive the machine like a bicycle. In fact, designs of the time were often based on a self-contained motor connected to one of the wheels of a bicycle frame, like the Velosolex or Cyclemaster.
The ‘sixteener law’ was introduced in the interests of road safety and was intended to put all 16-year-olds onto machines of this type (or take them off the road altogether). At least up to their 17th birthday, at which point they could move to a larger 250cc motorcycle.
What the government hadn’t bargained on was the response of the motorcycle manufacturers. Faced with one income stream cut off and a potential new market opening up, manufacturers quickly came up with ‘sixteener specials’ – effectively miniature versions of motorcycles with 50cc engines and ‘pedals’ to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.
Obviously, these new bikes were a far cry from the anaemic performance of the step-through mopeds – the Puch Maxi, NSU Quickly and Norman Nippy – that the government had in mind. They were much faster than the government had intended, but struck a chord with any youth approaching their 16th birthday. Sports mopeds represented freedom and independence from parents like no British teenager had experienced before.
Talkin’ ‘bout my generation
A generation of teenagers were linked by their shared ownership experience, racing each other around the streets of Britain. Yet the new generation of bikes largely achieved what they were intended to do – reduce teenage motorcycle deaths.
Sports mopeds were able to keep up with most traffic, yet with modern (at least for the 1970s) handling and braking, while opening up unprecedented teen mobility in what was the era of Barry Sheene, glam rock and 8% inflation.
The raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1972 introduced a generation of kids to their 16-year-old peers turning up to school on bikes. Sports moped sales rose dramatically and many thousands of young people were encouraged to take to powered two-wheelers – an attraction that kept many hooked on motorcycling for decades to come. This revitalised the 1970s motorcycle industry – ironically, just at the time when British bike manufacturing was reaching the end of the line.
Soon, a wide range of new mopeds was appearing on the streets. In early ’70s Europe, where teenagers could ride mopeds from the age of 14, a range of sporty 50cc bikes were already in existence and these swiftly made their way into the market. Puch was an early player in 1972 with the VS50, featuring twistgrip gear change and swinging-arm suspension. The Puch was quickly overshadowed by Italian manufacturer Garelli with the Rekord and Tiger Cross – proper miniature motorcycles with foot-change gears and top speeds of more than 50mph. Close on the heels of Garelli came other European manufacturers, including Gilera and the amazing (to teenagers of the time) Fantic Chopper. Meanwhile, the main Japanese manufacturers moved quickly to take advantage of the new gap in the market.
Undoubtedly the most popular machine from this period, now with iconic status, is the Yamaha FS1-E – or ‘fizzy’. Introduced in January 1973, the SS version of the FS1-E (the ‘E’ is for ‘England’ and the ‘SS’ is for ‘Sixteener Special’) immediately drew the nation’s teenagers like a moth to a flame and became an instant sales hit. Powered by an almost unburstable 50cc two-stroke engine and available initially only in candy gold (later expanded to a range of funky ’70s colour schemes), the FS1E became the iconic ‘ped’ of the era.
The streets quickly became the playground of 16-year-olds seeking to maximise the performance of their bikes. Stories abounded of 60mph being achieved with a downhill run and a back wind; Redex additive was popular to give a plume of blue smoke and thousands of baffles were removed and exhausts modified to increase the sound levels – so important for the teenage ear.
Beginning of the end
By 1974, the increased performance – particularly from Italian manufacturers with a history of 50cc racing – had pushed the speed of sports mopeds well over 50mph. Many more mopeds were on the road and accident statistics and deaths among 16-year-olds were rising. A wave of anti-motorcycling sentiment was also taking hold in British media at the time, with wildly exaggerated reports of sports moped performance and lurid tales of death and dismemberment.
On August 1 1977, sports mopeds became outlawed and all machines aimed at 16-year-old riders had to conform to a 35mph top speed. Sales dropped dramatically. By the early ’80s, supplies of decent used sports mopeds were starting to dry up.
The era of the sports moped was at an end, but its legacy was far from over. A generation of motorcyclists was born from the sports moped boom, and many of them now look back nostalgically to those days and seek to recreate them through ownership of one of these classic machines.
Today, nostalgia has driven prices of sports mopeds to levels unimaginable to a kid in the early ’70s. Price depends on condition, model and rarity but £4-5,000 for an FS1-E is not unusual. Many restored examples lead a pampered existence – a far cry from the years of abuse they suffered at the hands of teenagers 45 years ago. A number of owners’ clubs have sprung up, offering owners’ meetings and help with restoration and spare parts, including the Sports Moped Owners Club, the FS1-E Owners Club and the Sixteener Special Sports Moped website.
The sports moped is dead, but its legend and legacy continues to live on in thousands of motorcyclists today.
Stars of the sports moped era
The most popular sports moped of all time – more than 200,000 were produced – and remains so today. Performance is around the 50mph mark with a reliable engine capable of standing much abuse. Early models with drum brakes are the most desirable; later models featured disc brakes and autolube. Prices have now reached £5-7,000 for restored or original examples.
Launched later than its Yamaha FS1-E rival but looking more like a proper motorcycle and with five speed gearbox and autolube to boot – as well as a higher top speed – the AP50 was an instant success. Also, Suzukis were cool thanks to Barry Sheene, which helped sales.
Garelli Tiger Cross
With a (usually) genuine 50mph-plus top speed and off-road styling, the Garelli was a star turn in the sports moped world. Reliability and braking didn’t match the Japanese rivals, but these were small considerations for many 16-year-olds of the time.
Tough and reliable with a four-stroke motor and Honda build quality as well as a widespread dealer network, the SS50 was nevertheless seen as the sensible option when it launched in 1975. Lower top speed and acceleration reduced the appeal to teens but undoubtedly helped if dad was purchasing the bike for a first time rider.
With radical Easy Rider styling including peanut tank and extended forks, the Fantic Chopper was semi-legendary. Every 16-year-old was aware of it – many had posters of it on their bedroom walls – yet few owned, or had even seen, one. Significantly more expensive than the competition, that price premium carries through to the present day along with an active owners’ club.
You can join the BMF and help us protect the rights of motorcyclists for just £28 a year. Find out more here.
Top image: By Mick from Northamptonshire, England (Yamaha FS1E 49cc 1975) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons