-Lemmy of Motorhead famously referred to them as ‘hairdryers.’ To him and his ilk, they are whining little machines whose performance an attitude are a joke compared to the brawn and substance of the classic piece of English Iron.
Hundreds of thousands, across the generations, have disagreed. For them, the modernists among us, the scooter is an iconic mode of transportation that is both functional and stylish. It’s an enduring opinion. Last year, world wide scooter sales increased by an astonishing 41%. In contrast, motorbike sales declined by 7%.
It would seem that once again, the Mods have seen off the rockers.
The scooter is of course heavily associated with the Mods, that fashion obsessed 60s British youth cult that made this machine their official form of transportation. For the true Modernist, the scooter was perfect. Not only was it stylish and functional, it was foreign, sleek and colourful and it represented the future.
Moreover, its past was just as enticing as its present.
The scooter was born between the two World Wars. In 1919, Italian engineering companies turned their attention away from weapons of mass destruction and towards personal transportation. Within months they were producing early versions of the scooter. Over the years the Autoped became the Skootamota became the Unibus became the Autoglider became the Brockhouse Corgi. In 1947, the scooter arrived.
The man responsible for its classic design was an Italian named Corradino D’Ascanio. His boss, Enrico Piaggio, had surveyed the ruins of post war Italy and quickly realized that the population needed cheap transportation. His company already produced the MP 5 (nicknamed Paperino, the Italian name for Donald Duck because of its weird design,) but Piaggio had never been convinced of this bike’s qualities.
He challenged D’Ascanio to come up with a better product.
For his part, D’Ascanio hated the motorcycle. He thought them bulky and unsafe. Worse still the drive chain alone made for an extremely dirty riding experience. To eliminate these problems D’Ascanio put the gear lever on the handlebar, gave the vehicle a body that carried all the stress and created a seat which was far safer than that of the motorcycle.
When Piaggio saw D’Ascanio’s original designs, he exclaimed, ‘Sembra una vespa!’ – It looks like a wasp!
The machine had just been bestowed with a name which would become as famous as pasta. Such was the purity and strength of D’Ascanio’s original design, the shape and engineering principle of the Vespa has resisted change for nearly fifty years. Originally of 98cc capacity, it later evolved to 125, 150 and then 200 cc. Piaggio’s first run of the Vespa numbered just one hundred. Very soon, as demand outstripped supply, the company were able to leap into serious mass manufacturing.
Inevitably, they soon had a rival. In 1947, the Innocenti company of Milan unveiled the Lambretta scooter. Unlike the Vespa, the Lambretta was open framed and did not offer much protection against rogue weather elements. It didn’t seem to matter. By the early 1950s sales of both scooters had rocketed. Although other companies produced their own variations, Vespa and Lambretta led the way. Always have done, always will.
In England the first inkling that a revolution was taking place in Italy came through films such as Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. This very famous scene depicted the two stars, merrily scootering around the Italian capital. Soon UK advertisers of everything from clothing brands to coffee began using the scooter in their posters and commercials as a symbol of fun and adventure.
Britain was, of course, undergoing massive changes of its own. After years of post-war gloom and austerity, the economy was now starting to heat up and a new liberal sensibility was taking hold, particularly among the younger generation. The global cult of the teenager was born.
Smack bang in the middle of these cultural shifts came the Modernists. Their name was soon abbreviated to ‘Mods;. Modernists were born just after the Second World War. To them Britain’s past was a land they had no intention of visiting. Instead, they demanded they own the future – and the exotic, stylish italian scooters would be an integral symbol of that future.
In keeping with their anti imperialist instincts, Modernists developed a outward-looking worldview that allowed them to look everywhere for inspiration. They listened American R&B and Post Bop Jazz. They watched Italian neo realist films as much for fashion tips as to get their groove on. And they of course spotted the scooter there too.
By the early 60s a huge demand for the Vespa had developed in the UK. Many Mods used the system of hire purchase to get hold of these expensive machines. In keeping with their desire to customise and make them their own, many Mods also added mirrors to their machines or painted on the names of favourite record labels, singers, bands, lovers, scooter clubs, etc.
But they didn’t just use their scooter to zip round town being fashionable – they also headed out of London to seaside resorts such as Margate or Brighton. Some of these jaunts ended in fights with rockers or the local motorbike gang. These incidents were totally overblown by the nationals but what this press coverage really achieved was to forever associate in many people’s minds the parka clad Mod with the scooter.
This obsession with image amongst the British mods lasted well into the eighties, inspired anew by Franc Roddam’s 1979 film Quadrophenia, (which was based on the album of the same name from iconic Mod band The Who). Quadrophenia inspired a second modernist boom among the youth of Britain and to this day there are pockets of Scooter loving mods all over Britain and the world.
In Italy, though, a different story was taking place. The emergence of the small Fiat and Mini cars began to challenge the scooter’s dominance. However, the Vespa could resist such developments thanks to the huge worldwide orders they had received from America, Japan and of course, Europe.
In 1960 Vespa sales passed the two million mark; in 1970 it reached four million, and by 1988 could boats that they had sold ten million machines. Today, that figure is 16 million units sold.
In the mid 90s, the Britpop musical phenomenon, fronted by bands such as Oasis, brought the scooter back into vogue once more. The day after their historic Knebworth concert Noel and Liam Gallagher were photographed driving round town on their GX scooters, overnight doubling their price. By this time Vespa and Lambretta had been busy redesigning their machines for the 21st century. Many of their designs although safer and more efficient, lacked the style and beauty of the original. There is now a trend towards placing modern day engine within classic scooter frames to achieve the optimum in scootering. One thing is for sure, the appeal of the scooter, much to Lemmy’s disgust, refuses to die.
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