I bought my first Vespa motor scooter in the spring of 1983, and, hooked by the Vespa's captivating qualities, I've owned one ever since. It was my first taste of freedom--real freedom--where I'd finally thrown off the shackles of boyhood and embraced life's possibilities. I imagine youth is a lot like that for everyone, but for me the Vespa played an integral part. It was stylish, it was fun, and it was part of a burgeoning subculture.
At that time, there were four Vespa dealers in the Vancouver area, but that changed when Vespa pulled out of North America in 1985 due to U.S. auto-emissions laws. Few thought that the peppy little scooter would ever make a comeback, but it has. For the first time in 20 years, brand-new Vespas are being sold in Vancouver.
And how is the new Vespa? Well, it's new, that's for sure, with a new design, a four-stroke automatic engine, electric start, disc brakes, and electronic ignition. Those are all good things, I suppose, but part of my attraction to the Vespa was its neediness and the constant tinkering. Gone are the days of premixing oil, filing your points with an emery board, trying to get the engine idling properly, or having the kickstart snap back and just about break your ankle. Troublesome qualities, to be sure, but not without their charm. And not without their lessons in responsibility, mechanical aptitude, and pride in well-done work.
A motorcycle it ain't. So said Vespa advertising in the '60s. There was no chain to spray oil over your legs, no deafening engine sound, and no dirty looks from the neighbours. With everything enclosed under a generous amount of sheet metal, the Vespa represents almost equal elements of bike and car.
Although it was named after an insect (vespa is Italian for "wasp") when it first went on sale in Rome in 1946, the Vespa's curves tend to suggest something more feminine. With its front fender and leg shield narrowing before curving out to a voluptuous rear, the Vespa is Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida (and even a bit of Jayne Mansfield) carved out of Genoa steel. It's lush, plush, and decidedly sexy.
THE VESPA, MORE than just transportation, has become an icon. A hobby for some and a fashion accessory for others, the Vespa has a devoted following, one that has grown and evolved over decades. Vespa culture really got started in the early 1960s with the Mods in Britain: a rebellious youth culture based on fashion and music that embraced the Vespa and its clean lines. The scooter, to them, was the embodiment of continental style and a way to escape the working-class row houses of their upbringing.
With the Mods came custom scooters, painted in two-tone and candyflake and overaccessorized with luggage racks, crash bars, and scores of mirrors and fog lights. Carnaby Street was alive with dandies on Vespas, their bikes as dolled-up as themselves. This cooled with the advent of the Sixties and its generation of youth questioning the values of their parents, with little time for fashion (and scooter) obsessions. The Mods withered, and many Vespas found their way to storage in garages across Britain.
The Mod movement revived in England in 1979 with the release of the movie Quadrophenia, based on The Who's rock opera about the Mod years. The rebellious nature of the resurgent Mod aesthetic also happened to harmonize with the punk revolution at the time, and by the mid-'80s there were scooter rallies attracting thousands of people. This spread to North America, where, although on a much smaller scale, scooter culture began to flourish. I became enamoured of Vespas, the Mod scene, and scooter culture at this point, inspired by an expat-Brit classmate at my high school.
Vancouver was a hotbed of Vespa enthusiasm in the early 1980s, with clubs such as the Mainland Scooter Club, the Absolute Beginners, the Royal Westminster Scooter Club, the Saints, and the Upstreet Racers. The clubs organized rallies, published fanzines, helped forge lifelong friendships, and established a real sense of community. It may have come on the heels of the Mod revival in Britain, but it felt every bit as real and vibrant. This was, in large part, a result of the Vespa and the stylish form of freedom it represented.
About this time, Vespa imports to North America stopped. The new U.S. laws aimed at curbing pollution banned the import and sale of vehicles with two-stroke engines. Vespa quit North America to concentrate its efforts on Europe and the Far East. The late 1980s were a tough time for North American scooterists. Vancouver's last Vespa dealer, Pacific Cycle, closed its doors in 1986. However, many Vancouverites continued to maintain a healthy enthusiasm for the Vespa. Local Mod-revivalist scooter clubs eventually coalesced into the Vespa Club of Canada, which recruited new members. They weren't necessarily Mods anymore, just people who loved the Vespa and loved riding.
In the mid- to late 1990s, when the Internet exploded, the most amazing thing happened: scooterists reconnected, and it became clear that although Vespa culture had gone underground in North America, it was alive and well. Pockets of riders in various cities realized they weren't the only ones. Scooter shops began popping up across North America, with plenty of parts and accessories brought in from Europe. In 1998, a full-time, full-service scooter shop, Scooter MD, opened in Vancouver to fill the growing needs of local Vespa riders.
Piaggio SpA, the parent company that produces Vespas, realized something was going on. With the success of the new VW Beetle and the imminent return of the Mini and the T-Bird, it was obvious that North Americans were longing for the icons of their youth. Piaggio decided the time was right for Vespa's triumphant return, and in 2000, they began to export new models to the U.S.: EPA-compliant, with all-new engineering but the lines and the look and the pedigree that Vespa was famous for. And now Vespa has returned to Vancouver with the opening of Vespa of Vancouver, a local scooter shop selling the first brand-new Vespas this city has seen in almost two decades.
We'll see if the new generation of Vespas will be embraced as loyally as the vintage models. As far as scooterists are concerned, many are reluctant to accept what they see as an overpriced yuppie fashion accessory that's better used cruising the boutiques of Yaletown than the espresso bars of Commercial Drive. As more of the new Vespas hit the road, however, vintage enthusiasts may warm up to them.
In the meantime, all we need is the wind in our hair, the buzz of the engine in our ears, and a reminder to keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down.