The Beginning is a Good Place to Start: Scooter Build, Pt. 1

Hey you know what’s super frustrating about being a designer? Going to design school and mastering a whole bunch of amazing processes and methods only to discover that the real world is filled with designers who have zero connection to ACTUALLY MAKING STUFF on a day to day basis. It’s been years but I will always remember those halcyon days of dirty hands.

I have been fortunate enough to be able to invest in a shop in my basement and a suite of cheap but powerful rapid prototyping tools that enable me to make most things. However, I have zero competency when it comes to metal fab other than that brief period of time when I worked for a nearly-illegal signmaker in Boston whose fabricators thought it was super funny to make all the FNGs who didn’t know any better weld galvanized steel with no ventilation or warning. Side note: For those who aren't aware, welding galvanized steel results in terrifically poisonous fumes and throws monstrous globs of molten metal every which way, especially when the welder is purposefully set incorrectly. No bueno. I therefore suppose that I’ve retained my connection to making well-ish but it’s been a while since I learned a truly new skill.

So, that’s a long way of saying:

I enrolled in a catch-all textbook welding and fabrication class at the Steel Yard in the ever-beautiful City of Providence. Classes meet once a week on Wednesday nights and the first class just happened. Class #2, like the first class, will be a basic introduction to all the tools of the shop. After that we are granted the opportunity to make anything we want out of steel for the remainder of the course with the implicit benefit of being able to come back for open studio time at any point for life. Granted, I’ve spent limited time there but the number of dogs on staff as well as the number of hyper-intelligent fabricators and craftspeople on site make me feel that this is the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship.

I’m a big believer in fly-or-die autodidactism. My general theory on making has been to surround myself with as good of a support structure as possible and then dream bigger than normally permissible. When I was younger, this strategy often failed as I didn’t understand the general theories behind the making of things. As my skill set has improved dramatically over time, I’m now a downright decent (and sometimes even capable!) creator of stuff. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my younger self for both being too stubborn to stop and too anxious to reveal that it didn’t know what was going on. Yes, that’s a positive spin. Okay. Thank you therapy.

So, that’s an even longer way of saying:

It’s high time to fly-or-die. And really, it’s more like fly-or-fly-slightly-lower because I’m going to learn to weld either way. I have yet to reveal this to my wife but I think she knows it’s coming; I will be building a road legal 50cc scooter.

Throughout this process, I will be documenting the trials and tribulations of the design and construction thereof. The final post in this series will be the one in which I recount the almost-certainly arduous process of getting the scooter inspected and rendered road legal by the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles.

Now for the technical bits:

Other than enrolling in the class, I’ve completed the first step of the process which is to call the Rhode Island DMV and determine if this is actually feasible. Good news! It is. After bouncing around between the Department of Safety and Emissions and the Department of Enforcement, I’ve learned the following things:

  1. Rhode Island classifies any vehicle that has been heavily modified as a kit or custom vehicle. The definition of “heavily modified” is apparently up to the discretion of the folks over at Enforcement. After speaking to a particularly helpful employee at Enforcement (shout out to Rich!) it’s clear that anything that radically modifies the appearance or function of an existing vehicle pushes it into the kit/custom category. Needless to say, builds that start from scratch are also of the same ilk.
  2. Rhode Island does not require the operator of a scooter to have a motorcycle license. In return scooters are limited to 50cc or 4.9hp equivalent, a top speed of 30 mph on surface roads only, and the vehicle must be insured.
  3. The scooter must comply with all existing safety regulations by which a stock scooter would be bound. Basically, that means running lights, turn signals, a horn, mirrors, and brakes.
  4. In Rhode Island, a moped is a two wheeled vehicle that can also be pedaled that meets the afore-mentioned engine and speed requirements. A scooter is identical to a moped but has no pedals and can have up to three wheels. As far as registration, titling, and insurance are concerned, there is no distinction between the two.

The insurance company that my wife and I currently use for our auto policy will not cover custom vehicles of any kind because it is a very buttoned-up and respectable operation. However, the mad geniuses over at Progressive that brought us the massively successful marketing ploys known as Flo and the Name Your Price Tool are more than happy to insure anything that I build so long as it isn’t a death trap. They just want to see a picture. Just one. More specifically, they will provide liability insurance but will not insure the bike itself which is A-OKAY with me. Guess how much they tentatively would charge for such a service. What’s that? You think $500/year would be reasonable?

No. They want $75 for the whole damn year. That’s it.

Okay. From a legal perspective, this seems doable however annoying. But it will be worth it when I’m cruising the streets of Providence at a top speed of 30 whole miles an hour.

That’s enough for now. The next post will cover the designerly side of this conception and the early mechanical considerations that I’m grappling with at the moment.

Marco Cross is a wandering yeti hunter and industrial designer/design strategist for hire. His website is www.marcocross.com.