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Stella Scooters BORN in the USA
Posted on 2012-03-13

Those of you who invested ten bucks in Tom Hanks' last film, Larry Crowne, may have come away less than enthused by the mawkish tale of modern unemployment. Onscreen chemistry between Hanks and Julia Roberts was less than fissionable, and the story itself was too touchy-feely and predictable to garner any praise from critics, who panned the perennial nice guy's writing and directing effort. Enough said. It took a drubbing at the box-office.

One of the few bright spots in the film was the appearance of a fleet of super-sleek, retro-looking motor scooters, which I later learned were provided to the film by an heroic American company: Genuine Scooters of Chicago, Illinois. When gas prices spiked some years ago, the market was flooded with cheap, Chinese-made scooters at what looked like quite reasonable prices. But buyers had to be particularly wary — often the quality was commensurate with the tariff. One was lucky to still be riding the same scooter a year later.

Enter one Phil McCaleb — Genuine's founder — a swashbuckling Midwestern gent who showed an entrepreneurial bent as early as the age of twelve, when he had the gumption to approach big-shots like P.K. Wrigley — yes, that very same, chewing gum titan of industry — while raising money for the Boy Scouts. Not long thereafter, he plied his trade as an adolescent Fuller Brush dude, and charmed his way into the Pritzker family mansion, where the doyenne of the Hyatt Hotel clan bought everything in the catalog and even invited young Phil back the following month to repeat the same order! Charm and enthusiasm go a long way — qualities they can't teach you in business school.

I met the very same Mr. McCaleb recently in Los Angeles and immediately understood how this 55-year-old Midas had turned his passion for old-school Italian scooters (Vespas and Piaggios) into an American success story, using the same factories in India that company had employed to build a smoother-running mousetrap. He even survived a three-year battle with the Italian company over copyrights and such, but eventually prevailed, becoming this country's most successful purveyor of the two-wheeled dream machines. P.S., Genuine's scooters get great reviews from the trade press, and cost $1K less than their Italian forebears. File that under no-brainers.

Phil McCaleb — though his hard-won humility would prevent him from admitting it — is nothing less than a visionary. While representing a major manufacturer in Greece in the late '80s, he rebuilt an old Vespa with hard-to-find parts and used it to get to and fro through the fractious Athens traffic every day. Upon his stateside return, he founded Scooterworks USA, a mail-order business for scooter parts and accessories that eventually grew into a distribution outfit for the bikes themselves in 2002. He recently took on a partner in the hopes of expanding Genuine's market-share in a field dominated by Japanese mega-corporations like Honda and Yamaha. He is off to a rollicking start.

We are voting for the all-American good guys at Genuine. Not only are their scooters prized by experts and aficionados, they are so well-made that they come with a one- or two-year warranty that even includes unlimited roadside assistance. And their flagship model — the Stella (I can't write that without hearing Brando screaming for his spouse in Streetcar) — gets well over 100 mpg and will set you back a mere $3500. A list of authorized dealers is available at Genuine's website. Sick of guzzling gas and supporting those foreign oil potentates? Go Genuine— let the wind blow through your hair, be the envy of your style-conscious friends and inject a little capital-F fun back in your life!