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RUMBLE SEAT

Brave old world

Bold. Sexy. Able to cheat traffic. What more could an L.A. commuter want?

March 31, 2004|DAN NEIL

Riding a motor scooter in Los Angeles is a religious experience. And that religion is Calvinism.

You need a broadly fatalistic streak to ride a motorcycle in this city, where every day is like rush hour in Pamplona. Motor scooters -- the chic, Euro-style mini-motorcycles with the engine beneath the saddle and the step-through design -- are especially chancy. Being smaller and lower than motorcycles, scooters have less of a silhouette and are harder for drivers to see. Unlike Harleys and other heavy-metal cruisers, scooters -- the new ones, at least -- are whisper quiet. Loud pipes save lives.

And, unlike sport bikes, with their explosive acceleration and race-bred brakes, scooters lack the maneuverability that, in an emergency, can mean the difference between a close call and a Candygram from God.

For Angelenos, perhaps the biggest drawback is that scooters, with their limited top speeds, have not been fit for the freeways that make the sprawling metropolis navigable.

But all that is changing. In fact, the smallest vehicles on the road have never been bigger.

This spring, the Italian manufacturers Vespa and Aprilia have both introduced what you might call commuter scooters: The Vespa Granturismo takes the company's iconic design and scales it up to accommodate a 200cc, low-emission engine made by parent-company Piaggio. The same engine is used in Aprilia's Atlantic 200, a supersport-style scooter that makes up in sleek futurism what it lacks in retro cachet.

These two scooters -- one the very essence of la dolce vita, the other the iPod of personal transport -- are big, handy and powerful, effortless to ride yet capable of speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour, plenty fast to make them viable as commuting machines in Southern California.

With gas prices reaching record highs and the city's circuits fused by traffic overload, the second coming of scooters can't come too soon.

Birth of the 'wasp'

A little history: The motor scooter was invented in 1946 by an Italian aeronautical engineer, Corradino D'Ascanio, who had been recruited by the Piaggio company in Pontedera, in Tuscany, to design simple and affordable transportation for the war-weary nation.

D'Ascanio's template remains more or less intact to this day: an L-shaped monocoque with an open frame so riders sit naturally, with their feet on the floorboards, as opposed to being astride a motorcycle. A broad front fairing protects the rider and passenger from dirt and spray. The motor is located low and just ahead of the rear wheel for greater stability; the smaller wheels and short wheelbase allow scooters to wriggle through congested traffic.

As the legend goes, when company president Enrico Piaggio saw D'Ascanio's prototype he remarked that it looked like a vespa, or "wasp" in Italian. A brand was born.

Vespa went on to be one of the most successful brands of the 20th century. In 1996, its 50th anniversary, company sales passed 15 million. The company's designs were licensed to manufacturers all over the world. In the United States, Vespas were sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. and later by the Cushman company, a domestic manufacturer of its own well-loved, tube-frame scooters. A quarter-million Vespas were sold in the United States between 1951 and 1985, when U.S. emissions regulations chased off the smoky, two-stroke machines.

Along the way, Vespa became an incidental master of product placement. The scooters kept showing up in strange and wonderful films from the Italian and French New Wave, in which fatalistic youths smoking Gitanes, wearing awful hats and sweaters knotted around their shoulders chased each other around the Riviera and Greek islands. Si, si, que sera, sera.

William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday" with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn did for Vespa what "Goldfinger" did for Aston Martin. Anita Ekberg's flight from the paparazzi in Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita" is a similarly durable image. By the mid-1950s, according to the company, Vespas had turned up in more than 60 films. If Puccini had written "La Boheme" a century later, Rodolfo would have ridden a Vespa.

Rock connoisseurs may wonder about the scooter-centric "Quadrophenia," the 1979 film adaptation of the Who's album. Mod leader Ace (played with a queer lividity by Sting in his first film outing) rode a Lambretta, another famous and well-loved scooter brand.

By the time Vespa returned to the U.S. market in 2000, much had changed. The Japanese brands Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were firmly entrenched with well-established dealership networks selling Italian-styled scooters like the charming and affordable Yamaha Vino. Cheap Asian scooters threatened to flood the market.

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