Return of the Italian wasps

Will the scooter be to the late Nineties what the Porsche was to the Eighties? Or will bad weather and other drivers keep it out? Matthew Gwyther reports
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WITH POLITICS not proving the success it had hoped, the Berlusconi clan of Italy is moving into Vespa sales. Andrea Berlusconi, a 27-year- old cousin of the media magnate, has announced his intention to buy a plot of land in Chelsea and sell vintage Italian motor scooters to an increasingly re-interested British market. "Vespas have their romantic appeal," said Berlusconi A in a recent interview, "But in addition to their dolce vita image, they are practical. The scooter will be to the late Nineties what the Porsche was to the Eighties."

Vespas, of course, had their UK heyday in the Sixties when they were as integral a part of a Mod's way of life as coffee bars and wrapping deckchairs around the heads of Rockers on August Bank Holiday Monday. (Nothing very dolce about that, either.) Scooters have experienced a sad decline since then.

Based in Pontedera, between Pisa and Florence, Piaggio, creators of the Vespa, used to sell us around 20,000 humming scooters a year in the Sixties but went into a long decline until they hit rock bottom, off-loading fewer than 500 per year at the beginning of the Nineties. (The rival manufacturer, Lambretta, was unable to weather the drought and bit the dust in 1971, although they are still produced under licence in India.)

The original Vespa was designed by Piaggio's aircraft engineers just after the end of the Second World War. The name, the Italian for wasp, arose from a combination of the high-pitched buzz of the engine and the rear end's resemblance to the insect's abdomen. It was conceived as a cheap and simple way of getting people on the move. In the mass market, the Italians have always been best at designing and manufacturing smaller means of transport, the Fiat 500 being the greatest example. (Giovanni Agnelli Jnr, who will eventually inherit the chairmanship of Fiat, is Piaggio's supreme boss at the moment as his mother, Antonella, was one of the Piaggio clan.)

So why are we in Britain so unenthusiastic about scooters compared to the rest of Europe? "I'm not sure," says Giuseppe Tranchina, managing director of Piaggio UK. "It's not just the poor weather here compared to Mediterranean countries. We sell 75,000 scooters a year in Germany." Signor Tranchina does, however, have a hunch. "I think it's to do with your car drivers. The other day I had to come from our office in Orpington to London for an appointment near Jermyn Street. It was Chelsea Flower Show and as I knew the traffic would be bad, I took my scooter. Drivers in London get very upset, uptight, fed up and cut you up all the time. It's terrible that on two wheels you end up doing so much defensive driving. It's worse than in Naples." Tranchina was raised in Palermo so we can safely assume he is no wimp on wheels.

The inherent dangers of bikes in our anti two-wheel culture has not been lost on parents, many of whom are extremely reluctant to allow their offspring to purchase them. The Government is also perceived by motorcycle manufacturers as anti-bike, sticking to a "four wheels good, two wheels bad" dogma. In Italy 14-year-olds can ride a 50cc Piaggio machine whereas in the UK they have to wait until they are 16. The highest motorcycle insurance rates in Europe are an added disincentive.

Part of Piaggio's public relations fight back has emphasised the cool stylishness of their machines. A Vespa has something that a Honda 50 moped lacks. Wouldn't spotty teenagers from Solihull really like to emulate their tanned European cousins from Rome, whizzing about with their Ray Bans on their nose, loafers on their feet and a delightful young ragazza riding pillion on the back? Older riders are reminded of the lift Gregory Peck gave Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

However, aside from superficial matters of image there are now important environmental reasons for scooters to make a come back, especially in traffic-choked cities. They take up little road space, have low fuel consumption and therefore emit fewer fumes. Bearing these factors in mind, it does seem amazing, even to those of us who go on four wheels, that in the 325 pages of last year's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution Report, there was not one single mention of motorcycles.

Rather than latterday Mods, it is with fume-afflicted yuppie city folk that scooters are now growing in popularity. Why emit vast amounts of toxic fumes in city traffic jams when you can glide past on a machine that does up to 150 miles to the gallon?

One individual who took the plunge is Andrew Cowan, a city solicitor. "I started off with a 50cc Piaggio, then I moved up to an 80cc and now I've got a 125cc. It's brilliant. I live in west London and drive it into the City every day. But where it really scores is going for meetings with clients. It's so much faster than a car or a taxi that it's got to the point where I couldn't do my job without it. And I've only had one parking ticket in five years."

He fills the machine at a cost of pounds 3.30 once a week. But what of the dangers? "They are always there," he admits. "Other drivers give you on average one nasty shock per week but I'm used to it now. In some parts of London, particularly in the south east, some individuals are very aggressive. Apart from that, my biggest problem seems to be burst tyres."

This was all starting to sound so ridiculously attractive, it seemed churlish not to have a go. One of Piaggio's largest dealers is Metropolis motorcycles, bang opposite the new MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall, south London. "We've had a couple of them in to get machines," says Andrew Hale of Metropolis. (Clearly the defence cuts are biting when 007 has to swap his Aston Martin for a Vespa.)

Metropolis stocks the full Piaggio line-up, from the basic 50cc Zip right up to the 125cc Hexagon, which is like the Honda Goldwing, the Easy Rider of the scooter world. With a full car- driver's licence I was able to drive off on an L-plated 80cc Typhoon, although under normal circumstances Hale is not happy to let people rip without some basic training. "You can't ride a motorcycle safely from scratch, however large the engine," says Hale. He feels so strongly about this that he even offers to throw in a day's basic tuition worth pounds 85 if novice riders show resistance to signing up for his scooter school.

The first thing I noticed was how things have come on since I last drove a hired Vespa in Sicily 10 years ago. The Typhoon has an electric starter, so no need to skin your ankles trying to kickstart it. The manual gear shift has also disappeared, to be replaced by an automatic system. The engine is still two-stroke but no longer reaches a noise level that leaves you cursing if you're given a room overlooking the street in an Italian hotel. Gone also are the clouds of smoke the oil-and-petrol mix used to make if you got the proportions wrong. It's now done automatically. Maybe the Nineties plastic and slightly lurid graphics aren't quite Gregory Peck in the classic cool stakes but it doesn't look too bad, either.

On the road the Typhoon costs pounds 1,830 with a three-year warranty. British weather means you'd do well to invest in some of the most advanced Gortex bike gear guaranteed to keep you dry, which would set you back another pounds 300. It's a doddle to drive and the pleasure of cruising past a row of traffic cannot be denied. True eco-warriors will be even more pleased to hear that there is also an electric version with a hybrid combustion and battery engine. This scooter bimodale is called the Zip & Zip. Zipping is slightly restricted when you switch to the electric mode, however, because the top speed then falls to 15mph. But that is still faster than the average car in many city centres. !