Monday, 25 April 2016

Happy Birthday Vespa

Photo: Debi Goodwin.  First Vespa at the Piaggo Factory 
The Vespa is seventy years old this year. The post-war creation that sparked a romance with two wheels and a host of knockoffs now comes in a dozen models from the basic to the luxury version that bears the Armani name and all the elegance that implies.

I drive one of the"knockoffs," a Yamaha that tries to sound Italian with its label Vino, as if I'd drink and drive. I can't complain about my scooter. It's held up well but I've always been in sway of the Vespa and promised myself that if I achieved a significant benchmark, I'd reward myself with one. I don't know if I will ever buy another scooter but, if I do, I will succumb to the mythology that is Vespa, a mythology, that in my mind, comes with loaves of bread in the back and turns down narrow, ancient Italian streets with the wind moving through my hair a la Audrey Hepburn.

That mythology, like any fantasy, is of course far from the practical legacy of the Vespa: a world of two-wheeled commuters, of affordable transportation for millions around the world, especially in south-east Asia and India.

And a world where women gained more freedom of movement. At the Piaggio Factory in Pontadera, Italy the women who work in the gift shop, museum and on the factory floor take pride in that history. The creator of the Vespa, Enrico Piaggio, not only had a policy of hiring women in his factory but his intention in designing the prototype was to make a vehicle they could ride in a county where women had just got the vote.
Photo:Debi Goodwin. Vespa prototype at the Piaggio Factory 

The early advertisements for Vespa reflected both that intention and the feelings of freedom that two wheels offered, especially to women.

But while the Vespa has created a tradition of affordable transportation it also left a legacy of air pollution in cities like Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City where scooters outnumber cars and come close to matching the population. In China, the switch to cleaner electric scooters has happened because of regulations to battle smog. But in other places, riders aren't ready to give up on their aging gas-powered scooters.

Piaggio has been introducing greener scooters - both hybrid and electric -  but I've seen no evidence they are catching on. Wouldn't it be great if the company could create a sustainable scooter with the same cache and slew of copycats that the original Vespa? Now that would be a scooter I'd buy.

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