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A Beloved Italian's Back, With an American Accent

The Vespa scooter has returned with a sleek, eco-friendly update eschewed by purists.

March 14, 2001|JASON DIETRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask anyone who's ever ridden one and they'll tell you it's all about the feeling of wind on your face, the hair-dryer whine of the engine and the road whizzing by under wheelbarrow-size tires.

After a generation removed from the American market, the Vespa scooter, retooled and in eight candy-store colors from bright red to pastel green, is back.

Italian manufacturer Piaggio pulled the line from North America in 1983, citing its inability to meet California's stringent air-quality regulations. The new eco-friendlier and easier-to-ride models have the familiar Vespa badge on the leg shield but otherwise bear little resemblance to the mod-rods of the '60s: They take their styling cues more from the Jetsons than the jet set.

That's turning out to be exactly what some folks want, but what some Vespa purists decry as a sellout. Just as Volkswagen's new Beetle bears little resemblance to its utilitarian ancestor, the new Vespa isn't the old Vespa.

In the meantime, VespaUSA is busy transforming the 11,000 requests for information it has fielded during the last year into sales. It plans to open 22 Vespa boutiques, mini showrooms selling the Vespa-brand clothing and accessory line alongside the scooters, around the country by June. So far, business has been buzzing at the flagship Los Angeles dealership on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, which opened last November. A second dealership opened in San Francisco last month.

The company hopes to attract a new generation of buyers who see the scooters as a viable alternative to getting around a traffic-clogged megopolis. As many as half of buyers are women--a much higher rate than with other types of motorcycles. "The Vespa scooter is one of the most recognized vehicles in the world. And with traffic, parking and pollution only getting worse, we want to get more people on scooters for a trip to the beach or riding to the store for a container of milk," said Peter Laitmon, director of sales and marketing for VespaUSA.

Of course, Vespa wouldn't mind selling new bikes to owners of the vintage models. But the charms of Vespa's new models--and even its retro-chic showroom--may be lost on the subculture of vintage scooterists who take pride in being decades behind the curve when it comes to road-going technology.

They were drawn to the original Vespa by its classic lines and kitschy charm. (The word Vespa translates to "the wasp" in Italian, because of its pinched waist, bulbous behind and the insect-like drone that came from the innovative direct-drive, rotary-valve engine.)

That Vespa won the hearts of scooterists the world over with the help of slick product placement and the tacit endorsement of stars such as Audrey Hepburn, who took a quick Vespa-driven Roman holiday with Gregory Peck in the 1953 film of the same name. The scooter came to symbolize the chic style of postwar Italy, making Vespa a pop-cultural icon.

Continuing its affair with the movies, the new Vespa shows up in Disney's "102 Dalmatians," "Road Trip" and "The Wedding Planner." Christina Aguilera posed on the back of one for the cover of Seventeen magazine--and vintage versions continue to grace the pages of all manner of magazines and catalogs.

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The latest version of the Vespa comes in two visually identical models: The ET2 with a 50-cc, two-stroke engine, which revs up to 45 mph ($3,633 out the door); and the ET4, which has a 150-cc four-stroke engine, can scoot up to 70 mph and comes with microchip-embedded security keys and adjustable rear shocks ($4,726 by the time it's on the road). And although the ET4 is big enough to be freeway legal, Piaggio doesn't recommend going there. As for gas mileage, the bigger bike gets about 45 mpg and the smaller one about 60 mpg. Automatic transmissions are standard all around on the new models--a feature not available on the originals.

Prices on vintage bikes start around $1,200 for a well-running scooter, climbing to $5,000 and beyond for concourse-class restoration. Those prices are nearly double what they were just a few years ago.

But you can't put a price on love, and most vintage Vespa owners regard their machines as a part of their identity and a flag of individuality. The attraction stems from the scooter's functional elegance and its association with the cutting edge of European youth culture--the Mod, Punk and Ska subcultures all embraced the scooters as economical and stylish transportation.

"It's a bit of a different kind of person that rides a Vespa. They're not likely to be doing the same old thing the same old way," said Wayne Gunther, 50, who sells vintage Vespas out of his boutique, Surfingcowboys.com on Venice's Abbott Kinney Boulevard. He's been riding Vespas since he was a teenager in his native England and remembers the scooter's heyday in the '60s and '70s, when neatly dressed British youth zipped through the streets of London on the way to the hottest record store or the happeningest cafe.

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