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Friday, October 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

These cats are crazy for all things Vespa

By Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter

Marty "El Dorko" Chavez, a member of Los Gatos Gordos ("The Fat Cats"), a mostly Vespa club, has a custom-painted helmet with a sacred heart design.
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Lust for mopeds revs their little engines
Fresh off his 1974 Vespa scooter, Brandon Ortiz steps into the Honey Hole, a Capitol Hill lounge, and casts a suspicious eye at his comrade's dinner choice.

"Soup and salad, dude," Paul Felix explains. "I'm trying not to be such a fat cat."

Los Gatos Gordos — or "The Fat Cats" — no es your typical Vespa club. Started by Ortiz ("Hefe," or "The Boss") and fellow rider Marty "El Dorko" Chavez, it's vintage scooters with Latin flava and an annual ride inspired by Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration.

Los Gatos Gordos (LGG) has 17 members split between here and Portland, with club members who go by names like Diablo, Loco and Trainwreck.

The Gatos are one of a half-dozen smaller, special-interest troupes swirling around the mother ship Vespa Club of Seattle (VCOS), including the mostly female Belladonnas, the tattooed Wussys and the Emerald City Flying Monkeys.

Vespa scooters — the brand, manufactured by Italy-based Piaggio, which also produces mopeds — have gone trendy in the last decade, and their increased visibility and availability has undoubtedly fueled VCOS's record membership, now at 78. "You can't open a magazine without seeing one in an ad," Felix says. "We've been riding for years, but you see people [for whom] it's, like, a fashion accessory."


Where to buy: There are only two authorized Vespa dealers in town, Vespa of Seattle and Big People Scooters.

Cost: New Vespa scooters retail for between $3,000 and $5,000. Vintage models, says Los Gatos Gordos' Brandon Ortiz, range from $2,000 or more for running machines to a few hundred dollars for boxes of parts.

Repair it: Big People Scooters is the only authorized Vespa repair shop around, but most motorbike mechanics can handle basic problems. Otherwise, riders often spend weekends at other club members' garages, tinkering as a group.

Riding with mopeds: Ortiz says the biggest difference between scooters and mopeds is "mostly a complete lack of speed." That creates a sort of big brother/little brother dynamic: During one big ride, organizers had to make two sets of maps — one for scooters and one for mopeds, which couldn't climb big hills along the route. As they descended the other side, Ortiz says, "there'd be a bunch of mopeds just sitting there, waiting for us. Then pedaling furiously, to get up to speed."

While not required, Latino blood is a plus for LGG members, which is why some riders want in. "I'm not saying it's a big deal to be a minority in the scooter scene," says Felix, a 37-year-old Filipino who goes by "Pinoy." "But everybody notices it when you walk into a room."

Members get bandannas, "La Familia" T-shirts and the chance to buy brown jackets featuring the LGG logo, a porkpie-topped, shades-wearing feline.

"If you have an old scooter and we like ya, then you kinda get in," says Ortiz, who works at Big People Scooters, one of just two local authorized Vespa dealers. Vintage bikes in need of work either end up there or at Ortiz's house, where his basement shop holds, let's see, "nine, 10, 11, 12 — wait, including mopeds, 13, 14 ... uh, 18 bikes. Six are mine."

To understand why so-called scooterists often keep more than one bike, you have to think of them as childhood toys, each with its own nostalgia. Listen to Felix, who has four, only one of which runs: "I have a 1962 VBB, my first bike, that I blew up the engine to at Brandon's house. I have a 1980 Vespa P200, the last of the line; that's my daily ride.

"I have a 1967 Sprint, which is in a box; it's the same age as me, that's why I love it. And I have a 1962 Lambretta. All the bikes have a story behind them. That's the problem."

A few members of Los Gatos Gordos strut their rides in front of the Honey Hole lounge on Capitol Hill. From left, Brandon "Hefe" Ortiz, on his 1960 125 Lambretta Series 2, Dante "Diablo" Guillen, C.M.C., Mike "Colorado" Duran, David Bowen and Paul "Pinoy" Felix, on his 1979 P-200 Vespa.
Any Vespa more than 20 years old qualifies as vintage, Ortiz says. But going vintage has its shortcomings, prompting no-shows at meetings — "Mike says he's not coming; his bike's broke," Ortiz reports one night — and foiling long rides. For a while, members had only one running bike between them.

The Gatos' ethnic cooking skills — other clubs sometimes call them "Los Gatos Gourmet" — are often called upon for scooter-community rallies, including this year's Oktoberscoot, a three-day ride and brew-pub tour fest. "They always call us to make Mexican food," Ortiz says.

To honor their Latino origins, the Gatos dubbed their inaugural club ride El Paseo con los Muertos, or Ride with the Dead — a now-annual event that mirrors Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration, around Halloween.

The first Paseo coincided with a Day of the Dead festival at the Seattle Art Museum, which was made a featured stop on the route, except that while half the group went to SAM, the other half opted for the Lusty Lady across the street.

Meanwhile, last year's route, which Felix planned out, was essentially a Seattle death tour, including Bruce Lee's grave, Kurt Cobain's house, the crisis center that once employed serial killer Ted Bundy and the site of Chinatown's Wah Mee massacre.

"Seattle's a great death town," says Felix, a postal worker. "It's weird; when you research the history, it's like someone died on every corner."

In recent weeks, members have been busy mapping out the third annual Paseo — set for Oct. 29-31 — and trying to score cheap marigolds, a traditional Day of the Dead ornament, for their scooters so they won't have to scrape by with pipe-cleaner fakes.

Felix says LGG is a group "we can all relate to a lot better ... . In other clubs, my whole experience is different from other people's."

"That's why I joined," agrees student Frank "Paco" Cardoza, 28. "To be part of a family."

Marc Ramirez:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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