Piaggio Ape: Not quite planet of the Apes

In Italy, the Piaggio Ape is popular in town and country. Could it catch on over here, too, asks Ruth Brandon
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Piaggio Ape, or Bee, is the bigger, fatter brother of the Vespa, or Wasp (so called because it sounds like one). It's a tricycle scooter with a cab for the driver and a pickup body over the back wheels. In Italy you see Apes everywhere, used in the country for carting produce and small haystacks, and in town as light delivery vans. And now they're coming over here. Bzzz.

The Ape is an altogether more staid affair than the Vespa. It's slowed down by the extra weight - the smaller, 50cc version has a 20mph top speed - and you certainly can't do wheelies. Think of driving a sewing-machine, or perhaps a sit-on lawnmower - remember David Lynch's The Straight Story? Unlike a scooter, though, it keeps the weather out. And you can load it up with impressive amounts of stuff: the 50cc model will carry 200kg., the TM, 700 kg. You can turn it on a sixpence, whatever that may be: in extremis, you can (if you're strong) even lift it up and swivel it round by hand. There's even a reverse gear, though as it's not fixed you can still drive the 50cc model without a full licence. (In Italy, up till now, Apes haven't required any licence at all. This, however, is no longer so, and all the granddads who've been driving their Ape to and from the vegetable garden for 50 years but have never taken a driving test are up in arms.)

At £2,700 the 50cc model doesn't cost that much more than some pushbikes, and the TM will do 40mph and is still only £3,800. There's a gap in the market for a very cheap, very small urban runabout - especially since the Smart, which at £6,800 for the rock-bottom version is anyway rather expensive, is going out of production. But although the Ape has many advantages - it's manoeuvrable (the wing-mirrors, like a cat's whiskers, indicate maximum width), it's a trike and so less unstable than a scooter, and its 2-stroke engine will do 70mpg - it's unlikely to plug this particular gap.

For one thing it's strictly a single-seater - the TM's steering-wheel version, which can seat two, is not being imported, and if you're driving it with handlebars you have to sit in the middle. But more importantly, it's the essence of naffness. No Mod would be seen dead in one of these, let alone the shiny young advertising persons who favour Smarts. And although a 16-year-old could legally drive the 50cc model, most 16-year-olds of my acquaintance would die rather than be associated with such a machine.

My first thought was that, as in Italy, this is predominantly a vehicle for herbivores: middle-aged allotment-owners and DIYers, who need cheap, short-distance light haulage. Even at 40mph it wouldn't be my choice for any trip longer than a few miles (though someone did drive one from the importers in Darlington to Cornwall, a journey that must have taken several months).

Surprisingly, though, the herbivore sector is not where the demand is coming from. Rather, the Ape's British future seems to be as an urban commercial vehicle. As with the Model T, what the manufacturer provides is only the start: with a bit of imagination, and a little creative bodywork, your Ape can be transformed. I remember a particularly tall friend in the Italian countryside who, finding that the cab couldn't accommodate his knees, cut a hole in its roof and drove his standing up.

Most of the adaptations, though, are to the pickup body. Stick an A-frame on it, and it's a mobile advertising hoarding. Or you can use it as a catering vehicle, in which case it effectively becomes a saucepan on wheels. The pickup back is covered over, and the back of the cab removed, to make a walk-through vehicle with a serving hatch, which can incorporate a microwave and a sink, or a coffee-machine. In a way all this recalls the Model T Ford, whose legendary adaptability was one of its major selling-points - you could use it to power your washing-machine or chainsaw, put in a mattress and camp in it, mount it on skis .... Perhaps Ape should take a leaf out of Henry Ford's book and start a magazine. What new ideas do you have for yours? Answers on the back of a postcard. Second prize, a cup of coffee. First prize, who knows? Perhaps an Ape.

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