Originally published on

How awesome would it be today to walk into a big-box store and ride out on an Italian sport bike? Fifty years ago, at your neighborhood Wards and Sears, you could do just that.

Decades before Ford mass-produced the Model T, and a century before made every book, bouquet and baby blanket just a mouse click away, Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears revolutionized retail with massive printed catalogs. Offering everything from shotguns to guitars, cameras to baseball mitts, they put all the finer things in life within reach of everyone, no matter where you lived. Even if you called Teakettle Junction home, ordering up a player piano was just a mail-in form and fountain pen away. Genius.

While Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. were highly selective in the products they offered — Wards launched the term “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” — they were by no means exclusionary. In fact, as the rajahs of retail, they’d sell you just about anything. The firms were deep pocketed, and so they didn’t mind exploring promising new opportunities, even if they didn’t always work out. Notable wins included Sears’ Allstate insurance and Kenmore appliances, but flops included the 1952–53 Allstate car, based on the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J.

And so, for a 20-year period from about 1950 to 1970, these catalog giants also offered my most favorite mechanical invention: motorcycles. Resellers rather than manufacturers, Sears connected with American company Cushman to create Allstate scooters and then Italian company Piaggio to rebadge Vespa scooters, along with Italy’s Gilera and Austrian company Puch for small-displacement motorcycles. For its part, Wards also tapped Puch, along with Motobecane from France and Italy’s Benelli, Lambretta and Bianchi to rebadge existing European small-displacement scooters and motorcycles. There was even a brief dalliance with Mitsubishi of Japan.

By dating everyone in their proverbial little black books, Sears and Wards were ideally poised for the post-war U.S. bike boom, with literally dozens of models available. But without the ability to steer product development, in reality Wards and Sears had more sizzle than steak to sell. They did this, in part, with inventive names such as the Wards Riverside model range, which evoked an exciting kinship with the West Coast racetrack.

Read more