CULTURE & CUSTOMISATION – THE VESPA CHRONICLES
CULTURE & CUSTOMISATION
THE VESPA CHRONICLES
It’s been just a year since originally posting this. Given that we’re about to have a spring, it seems a good time to take a second look. And since lifting book boxes this fall has precipitated physical therapy this winter, I’ve learned that my therapist – I’ll call her Leanne – actually rides a Vespa. How cool is that?
I remember almost no details of the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck flick, Roman Holiday. What I do remember is their time together on a scooter, which may not have been the best way of getting close to Audrey, but it worked for Peck – and in another life, I’d guess it would work for me. What I do remember from looking at scooters over the years is the way they visually suck me in, not unlike an early Beetle, military Jeep or a motorcycle’s sidecar. As a postwar product they speak to a simpler time and, for vast swaths of Europe’s postwar population, a real stab at upward (and outward) mobility. If you haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t a clue as to which war is referenced in ‘postwar’, Barry John’s Culture & Customisation – The Motor Scooter Story is both a must-see and a must-read.
In his intro Mr. John begins with – predictably – some history and context. But in the opening pages it’s more about the romance: A bride and groom are shown astride a scooter, presumably heading for the honeymoon, while quotes immediately in front of the book’s intro allude to both a ‘future wife’ and the ‘exciting, fun and carefree days’. In short, Culture & Customisation wades into scooter minutiae about as well as its 100+ pages will allow, but the book is as much a social history of the scooter as it is a design or engineering treatise – while worth noting that the romance of the scooter is fully embedded into its design and engineering.
News to me was that the inspiration for Italy’s postwar scooter initiative was a military scooter supplied to the U.S. Army by Cushman, based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Used to establish lines of communication, the Cushman was dropped from the air by parachute; presumably, the assigned rider was added to it on the ground. With Cushman providing the parameters, industrialists Enrico Piaggio and Ferdinando Innocenti saw a means of pulling Italy out of its economic morass. Not long after, Piaggio’s Vespa and Innocenti’s Lambretta were on the road, and not long after that both would become ubiquitous.
Within its 28 chapters Mr. John devotes roughly equal space to both the scooter’s production history and its social history, which includes – as you might guess – its customisation (for British readers it’s with the ‘s’.) While the copy is compelling, even more so are the illustrations, each one an almost personal piece of art. Buy Culture & Customisation to read, and keep it for its artistry.
Regrettably, I’ve ridden a scooter just once, an Indian-made Bajaj some 15 years ago. Built under license from Vespa, and using a long-discontinued model to serve the Indian market, the Bajaj was simple, minimal and affordable fun. A motorcycle will deliver more thrills per mile, but the scooter will deliver more smiles per gallon.
One of my distinct scooter moments is from an encounter with a Vancouver-based scooter club near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. It was a predictably damp day in Seattle, but it didn’t deter approximately two dozen scooters from assembling there. As you’d guess, while two dozen motorcycles can (to some) seem menacing, the 20 scooters could have been 200 – the positive reception would have been much the same.
On my personal radar is a small-displacement dual-purpose dirt bike, an e-MTB or a scooter. The dirt bike and MTB would certainly be recreational, but a Vespa would get more day-to-day use. I’d call my wife Audrey, and she – of course – could call me Greg. Or, uh…Pecker.
Barry John’s Culture & Customisation: The Motor Scooter Story is published by Evro Publishing, and is available (ideally) through your locally-owned bookstore. All pics courtesy of the publisher.