Motor mouth: Young at heart

Motor mouth: Young at heart - How do you know you are having a mid-life crisis? Well, Popes appear younger for one, but another reliable indicator is that you no longer understand popular music - the DNA fires its irrevocable switches and, against your co

by STEPHEN BAYLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How do you know you are having a mid-life crisis? Well, Popes appear younger for one, but another reliable indicator is that you no longer understand popular music - the DNA fires its irrevocable switches and, against your conscious will, one day you find yourself hollering: 'Turn that bloody thing off.' But the dead giveaway is when you start thinking about motorbikes.

Real saddos buy Harley-Davidsons. Talk about a contra indication of sexual prowess. Those Saturday Chelsea cowboys with grey temples, rumbling V-twins and fringed saddlebags may as well use a megaphone to tell all of the King's Road they haven't had an extra-marital affair. A more wholesome option is to buy a scooter.

Why do we all love scooters? In the same way you can't get cross with a koala bear, there is something about a scooter's shape, sound and associations that excite only positive responses. Scooters improve the landscape, and it's hard to be hostile about something from a culture like Italy's that has produced so much beauty and delight.

The scooter is the symbol of modern Italy. Just as under-employed engineers at SAAB decided to build a car, those at Piaggio in 1946 also chose the profitable alternative to thumb-twiddling. Like SAAB, Piaggio was an aircraft manufacturer and the original Vespa was, through designer Corradino d'Ascanio, much influenced by aerospace technology. Like a modern plane, the Vespa used a monocoque structure where everything you see is efficiently load-bearing and pleasingly aerodynamic. Its most distinctive feature, however, was inspired by sociology, not science. Suspecting the majority of users (whether priests or women) wore skirts, d'Ascanio gave the Vespa its characteristic step-through frame to preserve modesty and dignity alike.

The bright and buzzy Vespa was a huge success, a simple idea executed with passion and style and as a result it soon passed into international iconography. I promised myself not to refer to it but I can't avoid saying Rock Hudson and Roman Holiday. But by the '70s, its elegant simplicity had done a paradigm shift and become heavy and crude. Compared with ever more sophisticated and reliable Japanese competition, the Vespa was a bit of a clunker. And ever more prosperous Italians were going straight into four wheels rather than graduating through two. Good for Fiat, bad for Piaggio.

As a family business, Piaggio lacked the human and capital resources to address the problem - until, that is, the late Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, the Fiat heir linked to Piaggio through his mother, took over the business in the mid-90s. I met Giovannino in 1994 when we did the Brighton Run in the original one-and-a-half-horsepower Fiat. It took literally all day and, believe you me, we had plenty of time to discuss scooters. Young Agnelli understood the limitations and the opportunities for the Vespa.

For too long Vespas had been sold as cheap transport for poor people. The new idea was to sell them to affluent urban professionals bored with having their Audis clamped and their BMWs vandalised. The completely redesigned 1995-96 Vespa was a triumph of consumerism: the charm of the old was retained but powerfully enhanced by modern materials and technology. While an old Vespa might dribble two-stroke while farting at passers-by, the new Vespa was polite urban jewellery. Evocative colours were perfect too: period pistachio and limoncino. The Vespa achieved that grail of all product designers: it excited unassuageable cupidity. See one and you have to buy one.

The great thing about Vespas is that you can drive one with a car licence and so BMW owners don't have to endure the ignominy of training on a wet playground somewhere. Only the very stupid and dull would not enjoy it.

It has a stepless gearchange so all you have to do is get on, start up, twist grip, point and steer. The only rule is what my first Italian ski instructor told me: 'Ay, you, no fall'.

Delightful, gorgeous and amusing, to tell the truth, the Vespa is also scary in traffic - 49cc means you cannot keep station with an angrily ridden mountain bike and, because men-in-vans know you are wearing Paul Smith, they tend to aim at you. You could not take one on a long journey, and no one is absolutely certain where you can legally park them. But these are small prices to pay. I have had two. Each was stolen. Says it all.

Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.

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