Saturday, August 2, 2003

Vespa keeps scooting along

Nostalgia, image contribute to scooter's continued appeal

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor


WGRR DJ Jim LaBarbara rides his Vespa ET4 to work every day. LaBarbara recently became a member of a local group, the Ten Year Lates.


In the 1953 film classic Holiday, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck share a romantic ride through Rome on a Vespa.

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Cincinnatian Adam Biddle has two wasps tattooed on his chest. To the average person, these tattoos are just wasps. But to a scooterist, these adornments represent "Vespa," the Italian word for "wasp" and the name of the legendary motor scooter.

It's no coincidence that Biddle owns two vintage Vespa scooters and is a founding member of Cincinnati's lone scooter club. But I get ahead of myself.

From the ashes of war

"Sembra una vespa!" ("It looks like a wasp!") are the words Piaggio president Enrico Piaggio uttered in 1946 when he first laid eyes on what would become the most successful scooter of all time. The name stuck.

In the early 1940s, Enrico Piaggio owned a fighter plane factory in Italy. During World War II, the plant was demolished by bombs, along with more than a few 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 gearshift 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, too. 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 ride through Rome on a Vespa.

Vespa in the U.S.

During the 1980s, Piaggio was forced to withdraw Vespa from the United States 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" - diehard 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 50cc ET2 has a top speed of 40-plus mph, gets 60 miles per gallon, and stickers for $2,999. The four-stroke 150cc ET4 goes up to 65 mph, gets about 45 mpg, and sells for $3,999. 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.

Sales have been brisk at Vespa Cincinnati since it opened on Kenwood Road. The store, which celebrated its grand opening last weekend, is one of only 65 "Vespa Boutiques" in the U.S. Here, customers can buy, service and customize Vespa scooters, as well as outfit themselves in everything from Vespa watches and helmets to Vespa jackets, T-shirts and sunglasses.

"About half our buyers are between 40 and 65 years old," says Andy Zolman, Vespa Cincinnati general manager, noting that about 30 percent of his customers ride their Vespas daily. "Vespas are great for suburbanites and they're perfect for city dwellers. They're simple, economical, easy to maneuver and easy to park."

The club scene

Speaking of parking, every Wednesday night you'll find 20-30 scooters - Vespas, Lambrettas, Hienkle Tourists and Honda Elites - parked in front of the Comet club on Hamilton Avenue in Northside. That's where the "Ten Year Lates" scooter club gathers for its weekly meeting.

Founded in 2000 by four scooterists who met on the Internet, the Ten Year Lates ("XYL") is 30 members strong and has its own Web site: The motley group includes sales reps, carpenters, store owners, a Web designer, a graphic artist, a university professor, a blue-haired punk rocker, and a radio DJ. In addition to weekly gatherings at the Comet, the group meets one Sunday a month for breakfast at a member's house, followed by a 50- to 80-mile ride.

The XYL also organizes an annual rally in March. This year's event, dubbed the WKRP Rally, attracted about 200 visitors and 80 scooterists to Cincinnati. The group rode in a mellow pack through downtown Cincinnati, then set off on a trek that ended at a bar in Milford.

Tale of two riders

When Biddle bought his first Vespa - a 1979 P200 - in 1999, he didn't know how to ride a scooter, let alone repair one. But he quickly mastered both skills. Today the graphic artist pops wheelies on his Vespa and always has a scooter in some stage of restoration in his basement.

"One thing about old scooters is . . . they break," he says. Consequently, Biddle makes frequent runs to Columbus, home of Supersonic Scooters, the nearest shop for vintage parts.

Last year, Biddle bought a '65 Allstate, which is a Vespa that Sears rebadged and sold until the mid-'60s. Biddle rides one of his Vespas to work every day and goes on weekly rides, either traveling to rallies (he rode in nine last year) or cruising with members of the club he helped found.

That club recently welcomed Jim "The Music Professor" LaBarbara into its ranks. The WGRR-FM (103.5) DJ showed up at the Comet seeking XYL's advice on which new Vespa 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 bought his Vespa and got his motorcycle license just in time to attend the WKRP Rally in March.

"When I went to the BMV to take my motorcycle test, a bunch of Harley-Davidson guys were there snickering at me. Ironically, I passed the test and some of them flunked," LaBarbara says with a laugh.

"A lot of scooter guys are into tinkering with their scooters; not me. I just want to ride," he says.

Since March, LaBarbara has put 2,100 miles on his bright-red Vespa, riding it 23 miles each way to work, participating in XYL rides and taking it for solo weekend spins. He also rides his Vespa to Reds games "so I can park right up front," he says.

"This scooter is such a friendly vehicle. Everyone smiles at me when I ride by," says LaBarbara, who had harbored dreams of owning a Vespa since he was a teen.

"When the Vespa store opened in my neighborhood, I finally knew it was time," he says.

Why Vespa in particular?

"Oh, Vespa is the scooter to buy," he says. "It's a classic, and it's got all that Italian heritage and Audrey Hepburn romance wrapped up with it."

Since he bought his $4,000 Vespa, LaBarbara has all but put his $31,000 BMW Z3 in mothballs. He'd rather ride his scooter.

"I love riding this scooter. It makes me smile. I don't know what I'm going to do in the winter."


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