Vespa: City-Mobile, Italian Style

You don’t have to get divorced, flee to Italy, and buy and restore a villa to enjoy the kind of freedom and romance Diane Lane discovers in Under the Tuscan Sun. No, for one-one hundredth the price of an Italian villa, you can save your marriage, save your 401K, and enjoy some Italian-style freedom by buying a Vespa.

The scooter — that old-fashioned form of two-wheeled transportation — is back in fashion in the States. And no scooter is more fashionable than the one that started it all, the Vespa.

Ashes of war

“Sembra una vespa!” (“It looks like a wasp!”) exclaimed Piaggio president Enrico Piaggio when he first laid eyes on what would become the most successful scooter of all time. The year was 1946, and the name stuck.

During World War II, Enrico Piaggio’s fighter-plane factory was completely demolished by bombs, along with most of Italy’s roads. As his country struggled to recover from the war’s destruction, Piaggio rebuilt his factory in Tuscany and focused on developing a simple and economical form of urban transportation. He enlisted aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to develop the vehicle. Although D’Ascanio hated motorcycles, within a few weeks he unveiled a sleek and elegant two-wheeled vehicle that could be driven easily by men and women.

The Vespa featured several radical design concepts. D’Ascanio moved the gear shift lever to the handlebar to make riding easier, mounted the engine on the rear wheel, and replaced the typical fork support with an aeronautical-style arm to make tire-changing easier. The scooter didn’t soil the clothes of riders and passengers the way motorcycles did. Moreover, the Vespa’s step-through design made it easy to get on and off, and women could ride it while wearing a dress.

Following its debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, Vespa’s popularity took off. Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the 1960s, the Vespa — originally conceived as a utility vehicle — had come to symbolize freedom and imagination.

When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide, making it the most successful scooter of all time. Other companies vied with Piaggio for market share, but none came close to emulating the success — or romance — of Vespa.

The movie world went wild for the Italian scooter. By 1962, more than 60 movies featured Vespas, the most famous being the 1953 classic, Roman Holiday, in which Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck share a romantic frolic through Rome on a Vespa.

Vespa in the U.S.

During the 1980s, Piaggio was forced to withdraw Vespa from the U.S. because the Italian scooters couldn’t meet the country’s stringent emissions requirements. However, restoration shops helped keep vintage Vespas on the road, and the scootering culture alive. These restoration shops also served as meeting spots where Vespa tifosi — die-hard Vespa fans — could gather to discuss their scooters.

In 2000, Piaggio returned to the U.S. with two new Vespa models: the ET2 and ET4. The two-stroke, 50-cc ET2 has a top speed of 40-plus miles per hour, gets 60 miles per gallon, and stickers for $2999. The four-stroke, 150-cc ET4 goes up to 65 mph, gets about 45 mpg, and sells for $3999. Both models have automatic transmissions and, like the original, feature steel (as opposed to plastic) construction.

According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, U.S. scooter sales have increased five-fold over the past six years, swelling from 12,000 units in 1997 to 69,000 units in 2002. Vespa sales in the U.S. increased 27 percent between 2001 and 2002 (but the company won’t reveal exact figures).

Sales have been brisk at the 65 “Vespa Boutiques” scattered throughout the U.S., where scooterists can buy, service, and customize Vespa scooters, and outfit themselves in everything from Vespa watches and helmets to Vespa jackets, T-shirts, and sunglasses.

And it’s not just the Gen X- and Y-ers who’ve been bit by the scooter bug.

“About half our buyers are between 40 and 65 years old,” says Andy Zolman, general manager of Vespa Cincinnati, noting that about 30 percent of his customers use their Vespas as their daily drivers.

“Vespas are great for suburbanites, but they’re perfect for city dwellers,” Zolman says. “They’re small, maneuverable, and easy to park.”

“We call it ‘rock star’ parking,” says high school teacher and Vespa owner Patrick Adams of San Jose, California. “We can pull right up to a night club and park on the curb if there isn’t any parking, or squeeze eight scooters into one car parking space.”

Speaking of parking, on any given Tuesday night you’ll find 20 or so scooters lined up outside Trials Pub in downtown San Jose. That’s where Adams and his wife, Marylea, join the South Bay Scooter Assocation for its weekly meeting. Across the country in downtown Cincinnati, this scene is replicated on Wednesday nights at The Comet, where Zolman and the Ten Year Lates scooter club meets.

Meetings are unstructured affairs where enthusiasts can mingle, share scooter lore, ogle each other’s bikes, plan outings, and organize rallies. No matter what city you visit in the U.S., chances are there’s a scooter club nearby, with members ranging in occupation from college professors and plumbers to salespeople, corporate executives, and punk rock artists.

The Ten Year Lates recently welcomed Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jim LaBarbara into its ranks. The Cincinnati WGRR radio station disc jockey showed up at The Comet seeking the club’s advice on which new Vespa model to buy, the ET2 or ET4. The group talked him into an ET4.

“It was great advice; the ET4 has more power than the ET2 and can go anywhere,” says LaBarbara, who has put more than 3000 miles on his bright-red Vespa since he bought it in March, riding it 23 miles each way to work, participating in rallies and taking it on solo weekend spins. He’s all but put his BMW Z3 up on blocks.

Buying a Vespa was the realization of a dream for LaBarbara, one he’d harbored since he was a teen and some rock-and-rollers he idolized rode them.

Why not a motorcycle?

“Scooters are safer, and they’re completely different. The scooter is such a friendly vehicle, everyone smiles at me when I ride by,” he says. And some people laugh.

“When I went to the DMV to take my motorcycle test, a bunch of Harley Davidson riders were waiting to take their test, and they were snickering at me. Ironically, I passed the test and some of them flunked,” he says with a chuckle.

Patrick Adams was bitten by the scooter bug when his family rented scooters during a vacation in Florida. “I was a teenager, and back then you didn’t need a license to ride,” he says, “so it gave me this incredible sense of freedom.”

Two decades, two Vespas, and one Lambretta later, Adams admits he’s addicted. “It’s not just a form of transportation; it’s a lifestyle.”

”People get into scootering for different reasons,” he says. “Some get into it for the transportation, some for its connection to the music scene, and others for the social aspects. But for whatever reason you get into scootering, you stay because these little bikes are just so much fun.

“It’s like a virus; once you get infected you’re stuck.”


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