The inventor of the Vespa scooter, aeronautical engineer Corradino D'Ascanio, didn't like motorcycles; that's why he got the job. Enrico Piaggio, stuck at the end of the Second World War with an aircraft factory at Pontedera and no orders for aeroplanes, needed a mass-transit product that didn't compete with Italy's established motorcycle industry.
What he got became an icon - but not one without flaws.
Not being a rider, D'Ascanio missed the point that the gyroscopic effect of the wheels is what keeps any two-wheeled vehicle upright. He used tiny 8” (later 10”) rims on the original Vespa, making it twitchy and over-sensitive, as are many of today's scooters for the same reason.
But not all; there's a growing trend towards taller, slimmer scooters with 16” or even 17” rims, started by the Aprilia Scarabeo of the mid-1990's, with more bike-like handling, especially at higher speeds.
This one, the 124.6cc Symphony from leading Taiwanese scootermaker SanYang Motorcycles (SYM), is very much in the Scarabeo mould with fully exposed 16” cast-alloy rims making the most of its “real bike” pretensions.
And it lives up to them too, with accurate steering, nicely weighted (albeit a little twitchy at walking pace), and predictable handling with no scrapes, wobbles or wallows, even flat out downhill.
The front suspension is firm (which helps), the rear a little undermuscled for my 106kg - although it coped OK with carrying two adults at a gentle pace around the Killarney paddock on race day.
The brakes have also been given a dose of “Think Bike” - unusually for a scooter, the 226mm front disc is sharp, powerful and well-modulated, while the 130mm rear drum lacks bite and power, not really suited for anything more than hill-starts and as a stabilising influence on wet roads.
The chassis is rangy by scooter standards, big enough for an adult thanks to a 1330mm wheelbase, a deep body and a roomy footwell. The rider's shoulders are a little further back from the handlebars than is usual on single-speeders, for a relaxed and very comfortable seating position.
The styling is restrained, even a little conservative in black and metallic grey with remarkably understated graphics and badging. There's a strong impression that SanYang has consciously tried to “think Western” in its quest to become a world player in the scooter market.
Fit and finish everywhere is good, with the glaring exception of a very badly fitting front compartment lid. The space behind it is split in two by the steering column but is nonetheless neatly lined and very usable for the keys, garage-door remotes and suchlike gizmos that clutter our lives (and pockets).
The instrument panel is also conservative, with a neatly-enclosed mechanical speedometer and fuel gauge, three warning lights and not a liquid crystal or LED in sight There's no tripmeter or clock but it's easy to read at a glance in any light and feels immediately familiar. Turn the key to the left to unlock the seat, revealing the fuel filler cap and a storage space big enough for a full-face helmet.
The 109kg Symphony is well-balanced and pops up easily on to its mainstand - which is just as well because the sidestand is a disaster. As soon as you lift the scooter's weight off the stand it springs back by itself - which means the slightest nudge from the behind will bring the Symphony crunching down on its side. I thought suicide stands had gone out in the 1980's; I was wrong.
Motivation is supplied by an unsophisticated but torquey 124.6cc single that starts willingly every time, even from cold, thanks to an automatic choke; the centrifugal clutch goes home early and the bike uses that torque to pull itself up by its bootstraps rather than rev like crazy and wait for the rest of the drivetrain to catch up, as most scooters do.
Acceleration is thus smooth, unfrenzied and unexpectedly muscular up to about 80km/h; the Symphony cruises easily at an indicated 95. True top speed, on a cool, wind-still, pre-dawn run to work was 101km/h, with 105 on the clock. Fuel consumption, after a week of commuting and a morning's hooning around our ride and handling test route, worked out to 3.8 litres/100km.
REALITY CHECK: I live 13km from the office. To go to work on the train costs me R11 a day and takes more than an hour each way. As I write, unleaded is about to hit R9.87 a litre, which means the Symphony will take me to work in about 20 minutes for R4.88, a saving of R1.24 a day or R27 a month.
Not a big saving in terms of cost, but the advantages in terms of time, comfort and convenience are huge. And that's really what the SYM Symphony 125 is all about. For less than R12 000 it's a civilised and very comfortable way to commute, cheaper than public transport and, arguably, with a smaller carbon footprint.
Price: R11 900.
Test scooter from: Suzuki South, Cape Town.
Engine: 124.6cc fan-cooled four-stroke single.
Compression ratio: 10.5:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with two overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 6.25kW at 7500rpm.
Torque: 8.33Nm at 6500rpm.
Induction: Slide carburettor with automatic choke.
Ignition: Digital electronic.
Starting: Electric and kick.
Clutch: Automatic centrifugal clutch.
Transmission: Constantly variable transmission with final drive by belt.
Front Suspension: Conventional cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Single hydraulic shock absorber adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: 226mm disc with twin-piston floating calliper.
Rear brake: 130mm single-leading shoe drum brake.
Front tyre: 90/80 - 16 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 90/80 - 16 tubeless.
Kerb weight: 175kg.
Fuel tank: 4.8 litres.
Fuel Consumption: 3.8litres/100km (measured).