I rode my first Vespa scooter way back when I was 11. Well, strictly speaking, I was riding pillion, but the feeling of speed and freedom after juvenile years spent in the back of cramped family Fords in smoggy post-war England was intoxicating.
Not, of course, that I knew such long words back then. Anyway…
I’d been packed off for the 1959 summer school holiday for an extended stay with friends of the family who ran a youth hostel in the English Lake District (think Lowveld mountains but craggier, and with lots more dams, rivers and pine trees) and they didn’t have a car. I’m sad that their names have long fled memory so John and Mary can substitute.
HEAVEN FOR A KID
Mary liked fishing in the local lake – Elterwater, named for the ancient village in which stood my temporary home – and showed me how to catch perch and pike. John like riding his Vespa and, kindly man that he was, didn’t mind the barely-noticed extra weight of a skinny pre-teen on his frequent trips to the nearest real town, Ambleside, all of seven kilometres away.
A short ride today but 15 minutes each way of heaven for a kid.
It was probably a Vespa 150 GS, a model launched in 1955 that Vespa experts, according to Google, today say is "the most popular, imitated and remembered model". It had numerous innovations: 150cc engine, four-speed gearbox with a twist-grip changer (if I recall correctly), standard long saddle, "faired" handlebar/headlight, wheels with 10" tyres and a top speed of 100km/h thanks, history tells us, to “a much more aerodynamic body”.
Slightly more than a half-century later (wow, that IS scary) and I’m in a Vespa showroom in Cape Town, the city I now call home, 15 000km from my 1959 bucolic refuge and surrounded by two-wheelers that John, if he were looking down from heaven, would instantly recognise.
And another Englishman is present, weather fugitive and entrepreneur Andy Reid who, sparingly built and with tousled fair hair and spectacles, looks rather like the scoot pilot who drove me between the hedgerows of north-western England all those years ago.
WORD FROM THE FOUNDER
Reid, 13 years ago, retired at 40 and wanted “a Vespa lifestyle” but had trouble finding a dealer. So he called Italy and became the scoots' sole importer of the Piaggio brand and today has boutique Vespa franchises in Johannesburg (3), Durban (1) and Cape Town (2).
You could say he was stung into action: Vespa is, after all, the Italian word for wasp, the description (that stuck) first used by then aircraft-builder Enrico Piaggio when he saw the prototype in 1946. “It looks like a vespa!” he said. And indeed the swollen appearance of the engine/seat assembly resembles the stinging insect’s abdomen, its eyes and feelers the handlebars and headlight, the thin floorboard the skinny bit in between.
Reid explains the situation today. “People love the Vespa brand but that doesn’t always mean they want to buy one,” he admits in his media booklet. “We had to overcome the collective fear that people have and the easiest way to do that was to get them to ride.
“Once a potential customer rides a Vespa there’s a good chance they’ll fall in love and buy one.”
Which is why, outside each franchise, you’ll find a row of shiny scooters and, inside, a coffee machine and somebody who just wants to talk scooters. Like Reid: “If you don’t believe in the potential of your idea you’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody else.”
THE MODEL RANGE...
There are four models in the current Vespa range, each a sensible answer to commuting, quick-time shopping, fun Sunday rides, or for your 16+ school-goer to be freed, like I was back in 1959, of “the family ride”.
A Vespa, however, is not cheap - Reid describes them as "a lifestyle choice" and prices range from R69 000 to R170 000 - but put an Asian import alongside a Vespa and you’ll quickly see why: proper metal chassis and bodywork, quality workmanship, the promise of a 20-year service life - way in excess of any other scooter.
Leased models are refurbished after five years - and back out they go, Reid says. Obsolesence is not a word that Vespa acknowledges.
Each model can carry two people and the entry model (R73 950) is the Vespa PX that was launched in 1977 and the longest-lived model yet produced. It’s the totally “traditional” Vespa but jacked with modern technology and a two-stroke, single-cylinder, air-cooled engine.
Next is the Primavera (R78 950), the closest to the original but with a 150cc four-stroke engine, easy open-road cruising, exhaust catalyser and larger alloy wheel rims.
More rugged is the Vespa GTS 300 Super (R104 950) – closer, way closer, to a real motorcycle though, in looks, still very much a scooter and with a much more powerful 300cc, four-stroke, quad-valve, liquid-cooled engine (the largest yet on a Vespa) and two-tone alloy wheel rims.
...AND TOP OF THE RANGE
Top of the range is the Vespa 946 Emporio Armani (R169 950) with its steel-plate frame, aluminium finishes, anti-lock brakes, traction control and cachet of the Armani name.
Cash is welcome, but finance or leasing can be arranged, along with service contracts over various periods. Riding lessons come as part of the deal - through really, if you can ride a bicycle you can ride a Vespa.
For more information go to the Vespa global website or, the South Africa site.
STREETWISE: Two-wheeled temptation outside a Vespa dealership. It's deliberate - importer Andy Reid reckons that once you've ridden one, you'll buy one. Image: Vespa