Catching Vespa fever

Taking a spin on the scooter that stings

Helen Bond
June 29, 2006

With a history that spans 60 years, the Vespa has come to represent liberty and free--dom to more than one generation. Helen Bond celebrates the Vespas birthday with a look into why the motor scooter is as inspirational and vibrant now as it was back in 1946.My first trip to Italy was in 1994, when I was 18. It was my first holiday without my family.  Just me and my friends. The trip was an escape, and Italy was the perfect place to come for a taste of life, to learn that your time is to be savoured, enjoyed, sometimes risked and at all costs, lived. And the thing that summed this up, that enchanted and romanticised my 18 year old eyes and ears wasnt the talk of gladiators in the Coliseum, or the awed silence surrounding the David; it wasnt the charm of the Italian men, or the beauty of the sunset over the Ponte Vecchio.  The thing that made me want to strike out on my own two feet, that which captured the essence of Italy and spurred my teenage yearning for independence with a buzzing, energetic stingwas the Vespa. This dazzling demonstration of Italian design has come to epitomise so many things, to so many generations over the last 60 years, that its difficult to know where to begin. When I mentioned my plan to write about Vespas to my godmother, she immediately exclaimed with whimsi-cal enthusiasm how much she loved her two-wheeled friend in the 60s. (This stunned me, as its always hard to imagine your parents gen-eration as lively and energetic as your own.)  When I asked her what the Vespa meant to her, her reply was the same as all those who Id asked before:  freedom.  Freedom to go where she wanted, freedom from the home, freedom to visit the coast or the city, to meet whom she wanted when she wanted.Back when it was launched in 1946, the Vespa became synonymous with a host of other freedoms too. Vespa meant a glimpse of potential economic freedom in a post war era, a release from a life of farm labor for those who came to be employed at the Piaggio factory in Pontedera.  For many Italian women, the right to vote (first granted in Italy in 1948) coincided with the introduction of this tidy little two-wheeler, who virtually untied their hands from the kitchen sink. And through the introduction of part payments, Enrico Piaggio ensured that the Vespa reached as far into society as it could.  Here was a relatively low cost, economical, practical vehicle which would get you to work (without oil stains on your beautifully pressed pantaloni) and much further, should you wish. After the economic and political destruction of World War II, the Vespa offered Italy a bright, beautifully-designed and -engineered buzz of optimism. Move from the 40s to the 50s and you find the Vespa freeing Hepburns incognito princess to fall in love with Gregory Peck. You glimpse Charlton Heston on his Vespa during time out from filming Ben Hur, not to mention a role for the little wasp in a host of Italian films, including La Notte Brava and Bellissima.   In the 1960s, the Vespa represented the search for liberty and the aspirations of a generation seeking release from the stifling hardships of eve-ryday life.  Gilberto Filippettis advertising slogan Chi Vespa mangia le mele (or He who Vespas eats apples) grabbed the imagina-tion of those under 30, enticing Italian youth to Vespa with all its connotations of forbidden fruits, golden apples, the Big Apple of Amer-ica. On into the 70s and the Piaggio production line suffered as much as the next from the oil crisis.  But still the Vespa held on to its roots as it became linked to womens liberation, opening up opportunities for freedom of expression, creativity and most importantly female independ-ence. In 1980, a record 815,000 two-wheelers were sold, but just three years later this number had halved, and it wasnt until the 1990s that sales began to recover, reaching 300,000 in 1999. Finally, the year 2000 saw the opening of the Giovanni Alberto Agnelli Piaggio Museum in Pontedera. When a scooter gets a museum you know you have an undisputed classic on your hands. For information visit www.museopiaggio.com. Now, in 2006, my Vespa experience is limited to that of a pillion passenger, weaving in and out of traffic with that Italian grace in impatience that I would never be able to muster myself with my clumsy Anglo-Saxon irritability. But even as a passenger a vibrancy is present, a thrill and energy coursing through the veins like mornings first shot of espresso.  Back in 1994 Italy captured my 18-year-old heart and showed me what there was fun to be had and how life was to be lived. And today I envy the Italian youth, because what better way is there to navigate life than accompanied by the buzz of the Vespa?

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