Few other popular creations - maybe a piping hot Neapolitan pizza - convey the life-loving verve of the Italian people than a Vespa. As our city planners and legislators grapple more with the effects of traffic congestion and dwindling resources, it wouldn't surprise me some 20 years down the line to find that the Vespa has become as common in the USA as the drive-through window in neighborhood burger joints. In cinematic terms, the "wasp" is already an American icon. Hollywood studios churned out 60 movies that featured the peppy import in 1962 alone, and leading lights John Steinbeck, William Holden, George Lucas, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn all enjoyed the Vespa ride. You can always pop in a copy of Roman Holiday when you need a vicarious reminder of what it's like.
The Wasp Begins to Buzz
Rinaldo Piaggio was 20-years-old when he branched off from his father's timber concern and founded a ship outfitting company in 1884. Based in Genoa, he expanded to smaller marine craft, and later to land-based transportation, railway and automotive. In the early 1940's, he also invested in aeronautics.
And just as Henry Ford created a vehicle for the masses in his Model T, Enrico Piaggio, a son of the company founder, devised a postwar counterpart for Italians in 1946, the Vespa motor scooter.
Piaggio quickly rebuilt his bombed-out factory in the Tuscany town of Pontedera, and the Vespa rose from the ashes to become one of the first positive symbols of Italy reborn. Since then, the little Vespa has exemplified the country's beauty and its sunny, resilient, vital nature.
Piaggio enlisted the ingenuity of Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer who built the first modern helicopter, to create a simple, affordable vehicle, and tasked him with the goal of designing one that could be driven easily by men and women of any age. D'Ascanio came up with a 98cc scooter incorporating a radical design concept. The elegant body style protected the driver from road dirt and the elements. D'Ascanio moved the gearshift lever to the handlebar, positioned the engine back to the rear wheel, and he developed an aeronautical-style arm, similar to an aircraft carriage, to make tire changes easier. Combining the best elements of automotive, aeronautical and motorcycle design, the Vespa instantly became a model of design and economy. Upon seeing the original prototype, Piaggio's president remarked, "It looks like a wasp!" Thus the name Vespa.
An Icon Is Born
After its debut at the elegant Rome Golf Club and the 1946 Milan Fair, the Vespa spread around the globe. The scooter became synonymous with freedom after the war. By 1951, Piaggio had sold 100,000 Vespas. Vespa club membership surpassed 50,000, and enthusiasts began customizing their scooters, even adding sidecars. Decades before computer giant Macintosh co-opted the apple for their logo, Piaggio had created a revolutionary advertising campaign featuring an apple with a bite missing, and the tagline "Chi Vespa magia le mele" or "He who Vespas eats the apple," which seemed to imbue the scooter with an impish hint of indiscretion and desire.
In the coming years, product placement of the Vespa brand made its way into a number of popular films, reaching heights in the classic romance Roman Holiday (1953) and the off-beat Quadrophenia (1979), a "coming of age" movie featuring riotous brawls between Brit Mods and Rockers, an early sighting of Sting and a soundtrack by The Who. Scooter fans and their subculture finally had their own cult movie.
Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996. By then the company had sold 15 million scooters worldwide. But during the 1980s, the United States prohibited the import of the Italian beauty for environmental concerns, and many US owners were probably thankful in those days for the two dozen repair shops that kept their vintage Vespas alive.
On November 15, 2000, after a 15-year absence the "Tifosi" returned. First they launched the 50cc Vespa ET2 and the 150cc Vespa ET4. These models are available with an automatic gearbox and an electric starter. In a way, Piaggio, the company that began as an outfitter for luxury liners, came full circle in 2004 when the new flagship of the brand, the Vespa 200 GT, rolled ashore in the US.
The Excitement, the Ride, the Experience
It's a Friday afternoon when I enter the doors to the Vespa store in Kansas City. I'm not sure what to expect since it's been 25 years between rides on a Vespa. Sam, a slim young fellow, presents the brand new Vespa 200 GT. After explaining the operational niceties of the mint green Italian beauty, he wishes me the best and disappears into the crowd jamming the stylish shop. As much as anything else, the recent rises in gas prices probably explain the size of this turnout. Posters of Anthony Quinn and American Graffiti decorate the white walls. Useful Vespa accessories line the shelves and the curious customers mill around the 18 scooters on the showroom floor.
I push the GT out of the store to my waiting family sitting aboard the competition: Aprilia's Scarabeo and Atlantic have shown up for another test ride, and another Piaggio, the BV 200 is with us, too.
Kansas City is a great place to test the Vespa and the area around The Plaza put me in the right mood. There the buildings resemble those in Spain or Italy, and suddenly I feel like I'm on vacation. Excitement takes over when I spur the scooter through the corners and a certain sense of pride develops when I notice all the heads turning my way from cars and along the sidewalks. The traffic lights are green, as if they were synchronized only to clear the route for the Vespa and the scooter armada following.
The Granturismo or GT is not the largest scooter manufactured by Piaggio, but it is the most powerful Vespa ever built. When I open the throttle, the 20 horses accelerate quickly. And although 75mph is the top speed, this Vespa is fast enough to keep up the pace on major highways and Interstates. Fully aware it's not a race bike, I treat the scooter with a smooth throttle hand and enjoy the cruise. The liquid-cooled single cylinder delivers power smoothly to the larger 12-inch rear wheel. Bigger is better with the engine and the tires, which maneuver to great advantage on the sometimes bumpy roads. This larger Vespa still steers scooter-quickly.
And though larger, the GT didn't lose any of its agility or classic design. It has lost a bit of its traditional marque. The dashboard and taillight are a bit too fancy, but they still look good. The ET4 is a lot more traditional but I'll leave it to the purists to decide the issue.
In The Plaza, the smells of fresh-brewed coffee prompt a quick time-out. I pull in to park with almost too much speed, and a hard-braking maneuver saves me from blasting over the sidewalk into the patio. The dual-disc braking system worked perfectly.
I'm in for a big surprise when I try to store my helmet. The storage space beneath the seat is a joke. My half-shell Nolan helmet doesn't fit. Vespa designers certainly failed to earn a passing grade in this category. Or perhaps it's a marketing issue. For $ 350, you can have a color-matching top case, and all your helmet-storing worries will disappear. Otherwise, you'll appreciate the comfortable seat, up front and on the pillion where the passenger gets to use a pair of flash flip-out foot pegs.
Riding for four days on scooters clearly shows that not everything has to be big, fast or expensive for us to experience the joys of two-wheeled freedom. It can be found and powered by a single cylinder on a Vespa. This Italian icon proved to be a great companion, and I enjoyed the ride in the city and on our Rhineland tour in the hills along the Missouri River. My wife and the boys felt the same on their scooters, we all had fun, which tells me age isn't a consideration when you swing aboard. Scooter riding is a matter of pure lifestyle no matter whether you're riding to the ice-cream shop, to the beach, or even on tour. Ancient in some eyes, the Vespa is 58 years old, but it's still forever young. Try it - you'll love it.
Retail Price $ 4,899
Warrenty 1 year unlimited milage
Maintenance Schedule 600 / every 3,750 miles 1000 / every 6000 km
Importer/distributor Vespa Piaggio USA, Inc.
L.E.A.D.E.R. 4 stroke, S.O.H.C., 4 valve; with two-way catalytic converter and secondary air system
Fuel tank 9.7l (2.5gal.)
Fuel consumption 4.7l/100km (49.6mpg)
Theoretical fuel range 202km (124mls)
Bore and stroke 72mm x 48.6mm
Max. power 20hp at 8500rpm
Starter electrical with automatic choke
Lubrication wet sump, capacity 0.264 gallons/1 liter
automatic "Twist and Go" with continuously variable transmission (C.V.T.)
pressed steel monocoque
Front suspension single-sided trailing link with hydraulic shock absorber
Rear suspension twin shock absorbers with adjustable pre-load
Wheels & Tires
Front tire tubeless 120/70-12
Rear tire tubeless 130/70-12
Front brake 220mm disc
Rear brake 220mm disc
Dimensions & Capacities
Length 1,940mm (76.4in.)
Width 755mm (29.7in.)
Seat height 790mm (31.5in.)
Wheel base 1,395mm (54.9in.)
Running weight 146kg (321.9lbs.)