Vespa, the Italian icon

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

I am always fascinated by how history shapes companies. Take Vespa for instance. Were it not for the Second World War, the Piaggio company would probably still be making planes and trains. The Second World War crippled Italy and they were even forbidden from developing any military technology 10 years after the war ended.

So, if you were Enrico Piaggio, and your business, and most roads around it, were flattened by Allied forces, what do you do? You make a motorcycle, of course! You have enough scrap metal laying around and even some of the landing gear from Mussolini’s aircraft. On top of that, you have a surplus of engineers who can no longer work on military applications.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

The designer of the original Vespa was Corradino D’Ascanio. He was an aeronautical engineer and hated motorcycles as he claimed they were bulky and dirty. Although he based his design on the American Cushman military scooter, he enclosed everything in sleek bodywork, probably so that he does not get dirt and oil on himself. He even did away with a drive chain, mounting the transmission directly to the rear wheel. This man’s obsession with cleanliness was the birth of an iconic shape. All it needed now was a name.

Up to this point, it was simply named “Moto Piaggio 6”. When Enrico Piaggio saw the design from above for the first time, the name came to him. The round, pointy rear, connected with the narrow waist and the handlebars that resembled antennae. Piaggio said that it looked like a wasp, or Vespa in Italian. So, from 1946, Piaggio started making Vespas and with their production know-how, they could mass produce their motorcycles. Sales skyrocketed and in 1950, they sold 60000 of them.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

Fast forward to today, and the basic design of the Vespa has remained largely unchanged. I am not ashamed to say that I love the practicality of a scooter, but the Vespa was the one scooter that has eluded me. Fortunately, through a chance meeting with Clinton Lehman, who owns Clint’s Scoots in Centurion, I was able to get a Vespa GTS 300 HPE for a weekend. What is more, Clint invited me to attend their Friday breakfast run. Owning a Vespa becomes more than just a practical means of transport. It introduces you to a lifestyle that you can share with other Vespa owners.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

Clint gave me a quick tour of the Vespa and its controls. The Vespa is simplicity itself. There are the normal controls you would find in your K53 manual and the only extra button had ASR on it. This is apparently some rudimentary form of traction control and I was advised to switch it off immediately. Apparently, it is rather intrusive. As with all scooters, there is generous storage under the seat and this particular model has a cubby in front of the rider as well. Both are lockable and the front cubby has a USB socket so you can charge your phone on the go.

The seat is quite spacious and tapers to the front. The foot well of the bike is quite wide, so if you are vertically challenged, the narrow seat will make getting your feet down easier. Keeping with the simplicity theme, the instrument cluster only displays the most basic information.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

Because most of the Vespa still has metal body panels, the bike feels solid and well made. That also translates into a very smooth ride. The HPE pulls off with vigour and I doubt that you will easily lose a race with a cage between robots. As I turned onto the highway, the bike rapidly picked up speed and I hit the speed limit (120 km/h) in no time. Even for a 300, the Vespa does not go much faster than that, but it would keep up with most traffic situations.

It was not until the next morning that I really appreciated the Vespa. On my way to the breakfast meeting spot, there was an accident on the N1 and the traffic was severely backed up. I filtered through the traffic with a minimum of fuss. Not having to worry about gears and clutch, you can just concentrate on the road.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

At breakfast, a total of 17 Vespas were in attendance. Along with two other first timers, we were introduced to everybody and we chatted about everything Vespa. I also met Bruno Gila, who looks like the type of guy I would like to follow to food. He hosts culinary tours that sound like a lot of fun.

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

The next day I took my wife out for breakfast and I must admit that she was not comfortable on the back of the bike. Also, the rear fold-out footpegs are set too far forward causing my wife’s feet to get in my way. But, as I learned the previous day, there is a very neat solution to the problem: just get her a Vespa too!

Photo credit: Brian Cheyne / ZA Bikers

The thing is, on a Vespa, you take it easy and you enjoy the ride. SO, before you dismiss a scooter off the bat, go visit Clint’s Scoots and take one out for a test ride.

You might just come round!