"The birth of the scooter coincided precisely with the post-war boom in the consumer economy. And along with the industrial boom came an explosion in what used to be called 'Commercial Art'. This was the age of the Ad Man. "
Vespa T5 Mk1: Pole Position, 1985
The Vespa T5 may have alienated some traditionalists: but its killer performance and truly modern styling meant that for Andy Gillard it was the 1980s scooter that took pole position
The 125cc Vespa T5 was arguably the last sports Vespa developed and produced by Piaggio, the creators of the Vespa scooter.
Launched in 1985 the T5 can trace its roots back to the first Vespa Gran Sport 150 (GS) of 1955, which was unique in the range that until then was offering just basic commuter scooters for the masses.
Fast forward to the 1980s and Piaggio were sponsoring the Formula 1 race series, offering drivers who achieved pole position at each round a brand new Vespa as a prize. Throughout 1984, successful drivers were awarded a model from the Vespa PX range, but when they launched the T5 in 1985 Piaggio had the perfect opportunity to utilise their sporting sponsorship for marketing.
Vespa 125s usually featured a cast iron, 3-port barrel, but the all-new T5 had an aluminium barrel with Nikasil lining, five transfer ports (hence the T5 name), an exhaust designed for performance (rather than simply emitting waste gas), a larger carburettor and a gearbox calculated specifically for such a scooter. The new Vespa also featured a ‘pole position’ sticker and was marketed as such, with some literature also including Formula 1 cars.
The burgeoning scooterboy youth culture in the UK at that time was waiting for such a machine, although at first the Vespa T5 was rejected by many. Like many vehicles from the 80s the T5 was squarer, featured more plastic than before, was generally not really seen as a good looking scooter. However once customers released its mechanical potential, we all remembered that you don’t have to look at the mantlepiece while stoking a fire!
Scooterboys (and girls of course) were soon ragging their Vespa T5s the length and breadth of Great Britain, tatty L-plates flying in the breeze behind them. A normal Vespa PX125 would struggle past 52mph, 57mph was the max if you were extremely lucky, flat out down hill with the wind behind you. A 125cc T5, however, could show you 70mph on the speedometer if you adopted the correct riding position – and were into a little slip-streaming! Cut the legshields down, fit dropped handlebars, an aftermarket race exhaust and tweak the carb, and there was even more to be achieved if you’d done it right.
Back then those of us who had a Vespa T5 (and I still do) loved it, abused it, often killed it, and then looked for another. All the time waiting for the fabled 200cc version to materialise. Sadly Piaggio never produced such a beast, so we had to make do with the 125, and an aftermarket performance kit to take it up to around 172cc was the only choice.
The Vespa T5 remained popular in the UK especially though, and after the 80s-styled original was killed off by the Italian factory, they continued producing a version for the British market called the T5 Classic, fitting the engine into regular PX frame and adding a few T5 cosmetics to make it stand out. This lasted until around 1999 when finally EU regulations deemed it too polluting for their liking and so the T5 came to an end.
The thing is though, like all good classics, the T5 had a short but significant run, and because it arrived at an important moment for British youth culture, it will alway have a place in a heart somewhere, even if all of those around that person don’t have the foggiest what they are rabbiting on about.
The sight of half a dozen scooterboys and girls, riding across what some local council called a campsite in the 80s (today we’d call it contaminated waste-ground) on a single Vespa T5, the suspension crushed under the weight, panels dented to hell from previous aborted attempts, Hoffmeister lager slopping from the cans held by those on board as hundreds around them cheered, was what it was all about. Head down, full throttle on the A1 south heading home afterwards, trying to get from God-knows-where in time to start work at 8 o’clock on Monday morning with bleary eyes, an empty wallet and the smell of bonfires in your hair, waking only to think about where you were going next weekend. And then battering your poor Vespa T5 back into shape for another good thrashing around the country.
What a bike!
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