Retro scooters are for softies. South London's black youth have adopted the modern moped, all curves and chrome, and made it hip, says Howard Byrom
On the continent Euro-brats swear by them, but in Britain we swear at them. Over here, the moped is terminally downmarket - a sensible, economic form of transport favoured by librarians and eccentric city gents. Traditional scooters such as Vespa and Lambretta have recognised cult success, but their modern equivalents have been confined to the depths of fashion hell. Not any more. Mopeds have become as crucial to young black Londoners as box-fresh Nikes and diffusion range Versace everything.

The Piaggio Typhoon, with its small, fat tyres, moody looking headlights, and sporty styling, is the BMW Z3 for London's raggamuffin teenagers. Though it's not so much what you ride, but how you ride it. How else do you distance yourself from your average commuter? With plenty of attitude, of course. First, your helmet - full-face - must be tipped back and perched on the top of your head (completely illegal, naturally). Now, sit as far back on the seat as possible, stretching legs to brace yourself against the front leg shields. Place right hand on throttle and left thumb on horn - use liberally. Avoid brakes, and swerve at will. It's the new style.

Jamal, from Brixton in south London, outlines the phenomenon. "All the massive, you know what I'm saying, all the mans dem a go want a 'ped." His patois lapses back from Kingston to Brixton to underscore the nitty- gritty. "Plus it attracts all the girls - I'm telling you. Girls see you've got a moped - yeah - you're wearing Mosch [ino] - yeah - and an Ericsson. That's it, you're in business. I'm telling you man, 'peds are lick." He balls his Benetton-endorsed charge through Brixton's main drag, scattering jay-walking pedestrians with a staccato blast on his horn.

These twist-and-go rockets, known as "Typhs" or "Bees" at street-level, are gaining converts on all sides. Brendan, a recent drama-school graduate, has laid his Lambretta to rest in favour of a pea-green Peugeot. How does it compare with a bona fide style icon? "Well, character-wise, nothing," he says. "But it starts every morning. I was dead against getting a modern scooter, I wanted another old one - a proper scooter. After this, though, I've definitely changed my opinion." He flips up the seat to reveal a spare helmet contained in the scooter's chubby rear end. "But the best thing is the beefy suspension - you can burn it over speed bumps. I've taken some at 40mph."

Some camps dismiss the mopeds for their less than macho appearance, but David from Clapham (pictured left on his Aprilia) stands his ground. "Some of my friends are going for the other image - the Bikah!" He protracts the diction. "Big, fast bikes. But I was coming back from north London yesterday and there was this guy in a Lotus. I was admiring his car, the lights changed and he was off. I caught him at the next set and went right the way past him. I never saw him again, he was three sets behind." It comes down to that old chestnut, speed versus stealth, and the Bees, it seems, are blessed with both.

Mopeds have gone from a fashion no-no to nonpareil in the space of a summer. Of course, the roots of this trend are, at best, sketchy. Clayton, a 17 year old from Streatham, peers out from under his helmet. "I don't know how it started to tell you the truth. I first saw it on the estates in Brixton. Everywhere you go now there's a little crew who've got mopeds." Eddie Brannan from street-style mag Trace is more clued-in. "A few years ago the drug runners were using them to get around the estates. Young, black males are the most urban in our society, and this is the most urban form of transport. You can't beat 'em - but the downside is they get nicked like crazy."

The Aprilias, Rally and Stealth are currently the hottest models in the showroom. "Basically, it's a prestige vibe for under two grand," Brannan reckons. "Most kids can get their hands on two grand." Metropolis, one of London's biggest dealers, are ignorant of, or possibly eager to dispel, any rumours of a trend. "We sell to everyone. Professional and city workers are the biggest customers. Young kids with motorcycles in this country are still up against prejudice with the new licence rulings and excess charges for compulsory training." Notwithstanding, these ultra-modern, stylish, brightly coloured machines with top speeds of 70 mph plus have caught the kids' imagination.

David weaves through Brixton's hot Saturday afternoon traffic back to Clapham. He hasn't stopped grinning since the day he got his silver R- reg Aprilia - 1 August. "It's beautiful, man, a better feeling - you know. I'm riding with my shirt blowing, it feels cool." But at 29 a decade has passed since his teens. Is he re-living his youth? "No, no, no," he laughs, "Why should they have all the fun, eh? This is my second vehicle, I have a Golf convertible. I say to my young lady, 'You take the car, I'll meet you down there on the scooter.' I'm addicted mate." He lowers his shades. "Now a 16, 17, 18 year old, this is his escape. It allows him to get from east London to north London - yeah - and look flashy. If I was riding this ten years back, and I had a portable phone, and the designer wear on - oh gosh - I'd be in heaven."

All this makes perfect sense in August. The moped is the ideal vehicle for when it's hot in the city, but what happens when winter comes? "It doesn't feel like a summer toy to me," says David. "This is my transport, I'm gonna ride it as long as I can ride it. Like someone said to me yesterday, 'What you gonna do when it rains?' It doesn't really bother me, you know, I'll put on waterproofs and go where I'm going." Retailers should expect to sell an inordinate amount of Hilfiger sailing waterproofs this winter.

While the Brit Poppers, awash with nostalgia, are waxing lyrical over their original Vespas or retro-chic Velociferos in Primrose Hill, David and his peers are redressing the Modernist movement beneath their noses. It's time for the likes of Paul Weller and the Gallaghers to move over. Now we have cans of Nutrament replacing cups of cappuccino and Air Jordans instead of penny loafers. David laughs, "We're taking it back to what it was in the beginning - style, girls and mobility. I'm sure this was actually designed for the city gent with his pinstripe shirt or whatever. But now," he guffaws. "We're gonna ride it. With my shirt open and trainers with no socks on. We've gone funky, it's a funky machine now."