Start Seeing Vespas!

First the rumbles raged in England between the Rockers and the Mods. Slick leather-clad Elvis wannabes dropped a few shillings in the jukebox, hopped on their BSA Goldstars, ran some scooters off the road, and popped back for a pint before the rockabilly faded. Rockers mocked the Mods’ more stylish—but less powerful—scooters calling them “Italian hairdryers.” The Mods sought their revenge on the beaches of Brighton—as immortalized in The Who’s Quadrophenia—and casually brushed the blood off their sharkskin suits.

Inevitably, the Mods couldn’t stay united. A schism developed, dividing them into two sects: the aficionados of the slightly less expensive, but more famous Vespa versus fans of the longer, more stable and stylish Lambretta. Some decked out their scooters with every mirror and light imaginable, while others souped up the engines and stripped off every unnecessary body part. By 1972 the Vespa won the popularity contest, and Lambretta’s factory in Milan was quietly decommissioned.

Now, the balkanization continues. Loyal Vespisti have drawn the battle lines once again, this time between the old and the new. The Vespa first came to this country in the 1950s. It arrived in force, too, via Sears department stores, where they were sold alongside the lawn mowers and washing machines. When Sears gave up the enterprise, a little scooter shop on University Avenue called Vesparado kept the spirit alive locally until about 1984, when the Vespa couldn’t meet tougher U.S. emission standards. The remaining scooters were nursed along by devoted mechanics and hobbyists working to keep these Italian marvels alive.

Vespas are now back in the U.S. with a sleek new design. The basic shape remains the same. (As original Vespa designer Corradino d’Ascanio said back in the 1950s, “The Vespa will always look like it does. Even when it is atomic-powered and riding on the moon.”) Already a phenomenon, the new Vespa has appeared in numerous TV ads, and was even featured on Good Morning America—although Diane Sawyer didn’t do much for scooterists’ inferiority complex when she hopped on a Vespa exclaiming, “We’re not Hell’s Angels, we’re Hell’s Dorks!” Even so, big stars such as Jay Leno, Sandra Bullock, and Robert DeNiro all have popped for a new Vespa.

The new scooters are sleek, modern versions of the classic without all the vibrations and front-brake dipping which made the original Vespa infamous. They tote an ultra-modern price tag, too—$2980 for a 50cc version and $3980 for the 150cc which is capable of pushing the needle past 60 mph.

“If you don’t care about quality or image, buy a plastic Yahama scooter. If you want to buy into the Vespa lifestyle, we’re the place,” said Jim D’Aquila, the co-owner of the new Vespa Boutique in downtown Minneapolis.

What’s that? Who said “boutique?” The unfortunate moniker does little to dispel the “Italian hairdryer” myth, but it does fit the new digs. Where else can you find Vespa watches, Vespa silver cufflinks, Vespa perfume, Vespa bath foams, Vespa herbal cream, Vespa bath oil, Vespa bath salts (in strawberry, mint, musk, and rose scents)?

Enrico Piaggio, the original head of the company that builds Vespas, told Time magazine in 1952, “The best way to fight Communism in this country is to give each worker a scooter, so he will have his own transportation, have something valuable of his own, and has a stake in the principle of private property.” Piaggio—clever capitalist! — wasn’t kidding. To open a new Vespa store, entrepreneurs reportedly need to plunk down a hefty chunk of change: $350,000.

Hardcore scooter enthusiasts, on the other hand, are still willing to get a little grease under their fingernails. Jeremy Liebig persists in repairing and refurbishing vintage Vespas at his Scooter Lab garage, and refused an offer to work for the new store. Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly’s scooter columnist Jeremy Wilker impugned the new Vespa campaign when he referred to it as “the Gap approach.” Fifty-one of these boutiques are to be opened around the country. Meanwhile, Minneapolis will get a second scooter shop in June. “Scooterville” will occupy an old warehouse near Dinkytown and it will specialize in Indian-made Vespas, called “Bajaj.” These scooters sport the older, classic style for the relatively retro price of $2000.

It may well be the summer of scooters in the Twin Cities. The Vespa Boutique owners are confident the new scooters will be a hit, but when I asked co-owner Garry Kieves for some details about the new Vespas, he demurred. “I can answer any questions you have on Ducatis and other Italian motorcycles,” he offered. How’s that? Have the Rockers won after all?