The distinctive "buzz" heard around Salt Lake City this weekend isn't from another swarm of locusts — it's from scooters.

The Amerivespa, the Vespa Club of America's 12th annual national motor scooter rally, started Thursday and continues through Sunday. The club is a nonprofit organization that collects, restores and preserves vintage European motorscooters.

Vespa, a brand of scooter manufactured in Italy, means "wasp" in Italian, a name attributed to the look and sound of the scooter. The rally, one of the biggest scooter rallies in the nation, drew more than 300 participants from around the country.

On Friday, vintage and customized bikes crowded the parking lot of the Italian Center of Utah and Tony Caputo's Market and Deli during the "Meet and Greet." Long trails of scooters buzzed into the lot, blending a diverse crowd of mostly 20- to 30-year-olds sporting vintage and customized bikes.

Scooters vied for attention with tassels, glitter, flames, skulls, stickers — some even painted with the Italian colors. They crowded the parking lot, as proud enthusiasts beamed over their machines. A handful of riders wore outfits — and some of the female riders sported lipstick — to match their scooter colors.

Alex Pelzel of Salt Lake City, chairman for the Amerivespa Salt Lake City planning committee and a "scooterist" for four years, said Salt Lake City has one of the biggest scooter scenes, which has been active since the '60s.

"The scene has been growing in the past couple of years and this year I've seen more scooters of all types," he said. "There's been an explosion."

Vespas were first manufactured in 1946 and the company has produced more than 16 million. This past year, 300,000 Vespas came off assembly lines.

They're extremely popular in Europe. Between 3,000 and 4,000 scooterists attend the Eurovespa rally. Pelzel attributes the recent boom of scooter sales in the United States to rising gas prices.

"When gas is $2 (a gallon) and a Vespa can get 60 to100 miles to a gallon, the gas crunch hits us a lot less than someone filling a Hummer," he said.

Scooters are "friendlier" than motorcycles and sports bikes, Pelzel said, especially for women. Twenty percent of scooterists are women, compared to 3 percent to 5 percent of motorcyclists, he said.

"Scooters are here to stay, especially with cities getting more congested," Pelzel said.

Mike Siebert, a Portland resident and a scooterist for 10 years, owns a scooter he made for $250. His scooter is almost entirely built from free parts he picked up from friends' yards. Siebert, who brought his scooter to Salt Lake City in a truck, said he enjoys the minimalist part of riding a scooter.

Siebert said he pays just $6.50 a month to insure his scooter.

During Friday's activities at the Italian Center of Utah, Dr. Giovanni G. Maschero, Vice Consul of Italy, toasted the scooterists and the success of the rally.

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"I had a Vespa when I was a teenager," Maschero said. "I was the leader of the Vespa clan. They are a big success in Italy and a big success in the United States, too."

Today, a Scoot Expo will be held at the Gallivan Center, 279 S. Main, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. A "Best of Show" competition will start at 10 a.m. on Gallivan Avenue and at 2 p.m., scooterists will compete in an obstacle course and a race. The expo is open free to the public. For more information, visit www.amerivespa.org.


E-mail: astowell@desnews.com