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Vepa @ 60: the defining element in the wars between Mods and

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  • An English Boy
    http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article361202.ece Vespa: the coolest thing on two wheels is 60 years old It has been through 20,000 mechanical changes,
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2006
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      http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article361202.ece

      Vespa: the coolest thing on two wheels is 60 years old

      It has been through 20,000 mechanical changes, 120 different models -
      and
      clocked up global sales of 16 million. As Vespa celebrates its 60th
      birthday, Peter Popham pays tribute to an Italian brand that refuses to
      go
      out of fashion

      Published:�01 May 2006

      No other product in history has taken humiliation, destruction and
      poverty
      and made them the stuff of dreams. The Vespa, the original and best
      Italian
      motorino(scooter) has just turned 60, and despite 20,000 mechanical
      changes,
      120 different models and total sales of more than 16 million, it is
      still
      recognisably the same machine as the one that made its debut in April
      1946.
      Inside, though, everything has changed: the old two-stroke engine, as
      responsive and peppy as it was noisy and polluting, has given way to a
      clean, quiet four stroke; the transmission is automatic. But the look is
      essentially unchanged. For one new model, the makers are even putting
      the
      headlamp back on the mudguard, as it was on the original.

      They can't tamper with the look too much - they can only tease and
      titivate
      it, adding leather seats, fiddling with the shape of the handlebars -
      because the Vespa is much more than just another two-wheeler:

      In one clean, sleek piece of machinery it says Italy, with all the sweet
      connotations that word has acquired: sunshine, speed, voluptuous
      olive-skinned women, casually impeccable men. It says Gregory Peck and
      Audrey Hepburn, breezing through the city in Roman Holiday. More than
      the
      Mini, the Jaguar, the Aston Martin or the Ferrari, the Vespa is the
      ultimate
      cool machine.
      But is also, in much of the world, the poor man's saloon car, the
      simplest
      and cheapest family vehicle. What the sit-up-and-beg bicycle was in
      Mao's
      China, the Vespa was, and to a large degree remains, in the teeming
      cities
      of India, carrying husband, wife, nursing baby, two children and luggage
      on
      family excursions.

      When the Vespa came into being, Italy, too, was a poor country. Enrico
      Piaggio, the son of the founder of the company of the same name, was an
      aeroplane builder. His designer, Corradino D'Ascanio, was an
      aeronautical
      designer who built the first modern helicopter. But in the spring of
      1946,
      ravaged by war and invasion, this country did not need more planes and
      helicopters. Italy needed to get out of the rubble of its bombed cities
      and
      on to the potholed road.

      The country had no money and no work, no place to go and nothing to do
      when
      it got there, and its whole future to invent from scratch. The Vespa was
      the
      product of desperation, and the answer to desperation.

      One reason it did so well, from the day it launched, was that it was the
      ultimate anti-motorcycle motorcycle. What makes motorbikes irresistible
      to
      the minority of the population that finds them so is precisely what
      makes
      them obnoxious to everybody else. They are intimidating, noisy and
      dangerous
      looking. They go much too fast. You have to lie almost flat to ride
      them,
      wearing heavy protective clothing, and you look as if you are going to
      die.
      It is almost impossible to ride them and not get dirty.
      Piaggio's good fortune was that Corradino D'Ascanio belonged to that
      segment
      of the population that really hates motorbikes. So he produced a
      two-wheeler
      radically different from any that had been previously thought of, as if
      the
      classic motorcycle had never existed.

      Yet if Piaggio had given the nod to D'Ascanio's last prototype but one,
      the
      whole project might have sunk without trace - and Italy's reputation for
      elegance, style, sexiness etc with it. Because that prototype, the MP5,
      stank. It was nicknamed "Paperino", the Italian for Donald Duck, because
      of
      its ugliness.
      The fundamental ideas of the scooter were already present, the notion of
      hiding the engine and protecting the rider behind a curving sweep of
      steel
      that culminates in the handlebars. But a crucial final step had yet to
      be
      taken: the engine's bulk was still throbbing between the rider's splayed
      legs. Piaggio told D'Ascanio to have another try.

      With the MP6, the breakthrough was achieved. D'Ascanio slices out the
      engine, as if with a sweep of a butter knife, and banishes it to the
      hubs of
      the back wheel where it sits like a bulbous growth either side of the
      chassis. Nothing but air separates the seat and the handlebars, and the
      rider can place his or her feet on the spacious, empty platform with
      knees
      together as if sitting at the table of a cafe eating a gelato.

      Piaggio took one look at that revolutionary design, with the bulbous yet
      aerodynamically curving engine housing and exclaimed: "Sembra una
      vespa!" -
      "It looks like a wasp!" The name stuck, and was soon being applied to
      the
      infernal whining of the machine's two-stroke engine as the swarms took
      over
      Italy's cobbled lanes.

      The 1950s were the beginning of the heyday of the Vespa: one million
      scooters were produced in its first decade, and factories opened in
      Britain,
      Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Indonesia and India as well as Italy.

      Italy's transformation from a picturesque but rather ridiculous place,
      the
      home of spaghetti and Fascism, to the epitome of Mediterranean chic, was
      well under way. It was incarnated in figures such as Gianni Agnelli, the
      elegant boss of Fiat, who had A-list friends across the world; in
      products
      such as the Olivetti typewriter and modern Italian furniture; in the
      burgeoning film industry and its extraordinary directors, Fellini,
      Pasolini,
      Visconti. But nothing captured the spirit of that transformation better
      than
      the Vespa.

      It epitomised the way that - in the teeth of American cultural hegemony
      and
      although profoundly influenced by America - Italy managed to plot its
      own
      postwar course, to create its own icons of style. American cars sprouted
      absurd fins and ballooned ever larger. Yet no American in a Chevy ever
      looked cooler than Gregory Peck squiring his princess past the Colosseum
      on
      the Vespa. That was 1953, and sales of the machine went through the
      roof.
      And American celebrities came flocking. Marlon Brando, Ben Hur director
      William Wyler, Charlton Heston and John Wayne were among the Americans
      who
      succumbed.

      It was on the coat tails of Roman Holiday that the Vespa charisma
      crossed
      the Channel and, in the mid-60s, became the defining element in the Bank
      Holiday wars between Mods and Rockers. The Rockers, like the Hells
      Angels
      they anticipated, were greasy, dirty and hairy; obviously trouble. The
      Mods
      were more ambiguous; nicely turned out in their Fred Perry sports shirts
      and
      tight-fitting, three-button, Italian-style suits, sharp hair cuts and
      these
      domesticated Italian two-wheelers. But they were no pushovers. They
      listened
      to ska and soul music, the Action and the Who; they took pep pills and
      fought the Rockers on the sands of Margate and Brighton with chains and
      flicknives. They did what no Italian would have thought of and loaded
      their
      Vespas with mirrors and redundant waving antennas. With Mafia chic
      somewhere
      in the mix, the Mods reinvented the Vespa as a war machine. They took it
      as
      far as it would go. But they couldn't kill it off.

      Mods morphed into skinheads and some of them still rode scooters, but
      the
      Vespa on the Italian cobbles - with stucco and marble, wisteria and
      umbrella
      pines in the background - sailed on regardless.

      The Eighties was the most difficult decade for the Vespa, because it
      signaled the arrival of the Japanese. But thanks to a mixture of
      protectionism and patriotism, the Vespa did not suffer the fate of
      Britain's
      bike brands. Italy's roads today are full of Yamahas, Hondas and
      Suzukis,
      but the Vespas hold their own: Piaggio, the company, has refused to
      concede
      the fight, bringing in supercharged models while keeping the retro
      market
      fully supplied. After being banned from the US in the 1980s because the
      dirty two-stroke engines failed to meet emission standards, it has
      returned
      with cleaner four-stroke models.

      Further developments are in the offing. Piaggio tested a zero-emission,
      hydrogen-fuel-cell scooter this year. The company's president, Roberto
      Colaninno, said "On 11 May, at Campidoglio in Rome, we will present
      Vespa
      with a brilliant heir. We are talking about a real revolution." Rumour
      has
      it that Piaggio will unveil the first Vespa three-wheeler.

      The Vespa's extraordinary longevity - it has far outstripped other cult
      motoring object such as the Mini and the Beetle - owes much to its
      revolutionary design; but also to Italian cities, many of which are
      impossible to negotiate by any other means. There is nowhere to park a
      car,
      even if one has the patience to sit out the interminable snarl-ups. In
      ancient cities such as Rome, the building of new subway lines is
      permanently
      embroiled in financial and archeological challenges. The bicycle is only
      for
      those with unusual courage. The scooter, however is just right.

      No other product in history has taken humiliation, destruction and
      poverty
      and made them the stuff of dreams. The Vespa, the original and best
      Italian
      motorino(scooter) has just turned 60, and despite 20,000 mechanical
      changes,
      120 different models and total sales of more than 16 million, it is
      still
      recognisably the same machine as the one that made its debut in April
      1946.

      Inside, though, everything has changed: the old two-stroke engine, as
      responsive and peppy as it was noisy and polluting, has given way to a
      clean, quiet four stroke; the transmission is automatic. But the look is
      essentially unchanged. For one new model, the makers are even putting
      the
      headlamp back on the mudguard, as it was on the original.

      They can't tamper with the look too much - they can only tease and
      titivate
      it, adding leather seats, fiddling with the shape of the handlebars -
      because the Vespa is much more than just another two-wheeler:

      In one clean, sleek piece of machinery it says Italy, with all the sweet
      connotations that word has acquired: sunshine, speed, voluptuous
      olive-skinned women, casually impeccable men. It says Gregory Peck and
      Audrey Hepburn, breezing through the city in Roman Holiday. More than
      the
      Mini, the Jaguar, the Aston Martin or the Ferrari, the Vespa is the
      ultimate
      cool machine.
      But is also, in much of the world, the poor man's saloon car, the
      simplest
      and cheapest family vehicle. What the sit-up-and-beg bicycle was in
      Mao's
      China, the Vespa was, and to a large degree remains, in the teeming
      cities
      of India, carrying husband, wife, nursing baby, two children and luggage
      on
      family excursions.

      When the Vespa came into being, Italy, too, was a poor country. Enrico
      Piaggio, the son of the founder of the company of the same name, was an
      aeroplane builder. His designer, Corradino D'Ascanio, was an
      aeronautical
      designer who built the first modern helicopter. But in the spring of
      1946,
      ravaged by war and invasion, this country did not need more planes and
      helicopters. Italy needed to get out of the rubble of its bombed cities
      and
      on to the potholed road.

      The country had no money and no work, no place to go and nothing to do
      when
      it got there, and its whole future to invent from scratch. The Vespa was
      the
      product of desperation, and the answer to desperation.

      One reason it did so well, from the day it launched, was that it was the
      ultimate anti-motorcycle motorcycle. What makes motorbikes irresistible
      to
      the minority of the population that finds them so is precisely what
      makes
      them obnoxious to everybody else. They are intimidating, noisy and
      dangerous
      looking. They go much too fast. You have to lie almost flat to ride
      them,
      wearing heavy protective clothing, and you look as if you are going to
      die.
      It is almost impossible to ride them and not get dirty.
      Piaggio's good fortune was that Corradino D'Ascanio belonged to that
      segment
      of the population that really hates motorbikes. So he produced a
      two-wheeler
      radically different from any that had been previously thought of, as if
      the
      classic motorcycle had never existed.

      Yet if Piaggio had given the nod to D'Ascanio's last prototype but one,
      the
      whole project might have sunk without trace - and Italy's reputation for
      elegance, style, sexiness etc with it. Because that prototype, the MP5,
      stank. It was nicknamed "Paperino", the Italian for Donald Duck, because
      of
      its ugliness.

      The fundamental ideas of the scooter were already present, the notion of
      hiding the engine and protecting the rider behind a curving sweep of
      steel
      that culminates in the handlebars. But a crucial final step had yet to
      be
      taken: the engine's bulk was still throbbing between the rider's splayed
      legs. Piaggio told D'Ascanio to have another try.

      With the MP6, the breakthrough was achieved. D'Ascanio slices out the
      engine, as if with a sweep of a butter knife, and banishes it to the
      hubs of
      the back wheel where it sits like a bulbous growth either side of the
      chassis. Nothing but air separates the seat and the handlebars, and the
      rider can place his or her feet on the spacious, empty platform with
      knees
      together as if sitting at the table of a cafe eating a gelato.

      Piaggio took one look at that revolutionary design, with the bulbous yet
      aerodynamically curving engine housing and exclaimed: "Sembra una
      vespa!" -
      "It looks like a wasp!" The name stuck, and was soon being applied to
      the
      infernal whining of the machine's two-stroke engine as the swarms took
      over
      Italy's cobbled lanes.

      The 1950s were the beginning of the heyday of the Vespa: one million
      scooters were produced in its first decade, and factories opened in
      Britain,
      Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Indonesia and India as well as Italy.

      Italy's transformation from a picturesque but rather ridiculous place,
      the
      home of spaghetti and Fascism, to the epitome of Mediterranean chic, was
      well under way. It was incarnated in figures such as Gianni Agnelli, the
      elegant boss of Fiat, who had A-list friends across the world; in
      products
      such as the Olivetti typewriter and modern Italian furniture; in the
      burgeoning film industry and its extraordinary directors, Fellini,
      Pasolini,
      Visconti. But nothing captured the spirit of that transformation better
      than
      the Vespa.

      It epitomised the way that - in the teeth of American cultural hegemony
      and
      although profoundly influenced by America - Italy managed to plot its
      own
      postwar course, to create its own icons of style. American cars sprouted
      absurd fins and ballooned ever larger. Yet no American in a Chevy ever
      looked cooler than Gregory Peck squiring his princess past the Colosseum
      on
      the Vespa. That was 1953, and sales of the machine went through the
      roof.
      And American celebrities came flocking. Marlon Brando, Ben Hur director
      William Wyler, Charlton Heston and John Wayne were among the Americans
      who
      succumbed.

      It was on the coat tails of Roman Holiday that the Vespa charisma
      crossed
      the Channel and, in the mid-60s, became the defining element in the Bank
      Holiday wars between Mods and Rockers. The Rockers, like the Hells
      Angels
      they anticipated, were greasy, dirty and hairy; obviously trouble. The
      Mods
      were more ambiguous; nicely turned out in their Fred Perry sports shirts
      and
      tight-fitting, three-button, Italian-style suits, sharp hair cuts and
      these
      domesticated Italian two-wheelers. But they were no pushovers. They
      listened
      to ska and soul music, the Action and the Who; they took pep pills and
      fought the Rockers on the sands of Margate and Brighton with chains and
      flicknives. They did what no Italian would have thought of and loaded
      their
      Vespas with mirrors and redundant waving antennas. With Mafia chic
      somewhere
      in the mix, the Mods reinvented the Vespa as a war machine. They took it
      as
      far as it would go. But they couldn't kill it off.

      Mods morphed into skinheads and some of them still rode scooters, but
      the
      Vespa on the Italian cobbles - with stucco and marble, wisteria and
      umbrella
      pines in the background - sailed on regardless.

      The Eighties was the most difficult decade for the Vespa, because it
      signaled the arrival of the Japanese. But thanks to a mixture of
      protectionism and patriotism, the Vespa did not suffer the fate of
      Britain's
      bike brands. Italy's roads today are full of Yamahas, Hondas and
      Suzukis,
      but the Vespas hold their own: Piaggio, the company, has refused to
      concede
      the fight, bringing in supercharged models while keeping the retro
      market
      fully supplied. After being banned from the US in the 1980s because the
      dirty two-stroke engines failed to meet emission standards, it has
      returned
      with cleaner four-stroke models.

      Further developments are in the offing. Piaggio tested a zero-emission,
      hydrogen-fuel-cell scooter this year. The company's president, Roberto
      Colaninno, said "On 11 May, at Campidoglio in Rome, we will present
      Vespa
      with a brilliant heir. We are talking about a real revolution." Rumour
      has
      it that Piaggio will unveil the first Vespa three-wheeler.

      The Vespa's extraordinary longevity - it has far outstripped other cult
      motoring object such as the Mini and the Beetle - owes much to its
      revolutionary design; but also to Italian cities, many of which are
      impossible to negotiate by any other means. There is nowhere to park a
      car,
      even if one has the patience to sit out the interminable snarl-ups. In
      ancient cities such as Rome, the building of new subway lines is
      permanently
      embroiled in financial and archeological challenges. The bicycle is only
      for
      those with unusual courage. The scooter, however is just right.
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