the rival scooter revival

Lambretta or Vespa? The old battle is hotting up again. Matthew Sweet reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
the scooter revival may have ridden in on the back of Britpop, but within the movement there's a schism that makes the Battle of the Bands look like the Trumpton riots: the Lambretta versus the Vespa. And here's an etymological clue to the gladiatorial contest: Lambretta takes its name from the mighty Lambrate river that roars past the factory where they were produced; Vespa, from the Italian for wasp. It's a hornet's nest of controversy, but let's face it, unless it's got Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on the back, a Vespa doesn't pack the power or the pennacchio of its major scootering rival.

Handling very much like a motorbike, the Lambretta gives a rougher, more serious ride than the Vespa or any of its vacuum-formed Japanese competitors. You can feel the road through the saddle as well as the wind on your face. And from the moment you give it the vicious kick-start it deserves, this machine is guaranteed to make you feel as butch as a docker's pint pot. Mods might have scooted down on their Vespas for an end-of-the-pier fist fight, but the Hezbollah favour the Lambretta as getaway vehicle.

However, there's a big, dirty snag for the trendy young thing eager to climb on top of one: the Lambretta is a high-maintenance machine for those who don't mind getting oil on the cuffs of their Ben Sherman shirt. There's a sound reason why all the spoilt kids of Bayswater get Vespas for their 18th birthdays: although the Lambretta is a heavyweight style triumph, it's also a machine that requires its rider to be a grease monkey. Any wannabe owner-rider also has to contend with the fact that the genuine article is rather hard to come by. Although a new (but hopelessly inauthentic) Indian model can be had for around pounds 1,600, the scooter hasn't been constructed in Italy since 1971 (the factory is now a shopping mall). A vintage version will set you back pounds 2,000 (likewise for a Vespa of the type straddled by Mastroianni or Lollobrigida), but dealers are few and far between. However, one man who might be able to put you on the right track is Adam LeRoy, proprietor of Brighton scooterist emporium "Jump the Gun".

LeRoy's advice is keenly sought by boys mad to graduate from Vespas to Lambrettas. "They don't often want to hear that they might have to go to Grimsby to buy one," he reflects, with the windjamming air of the seasoned scooterist. Wander into LeRoy's shop and you could strut out transformed: a flurry of action behind the Union Jack curtains of the changing room, and the shirt, tie, Staprests and loafers can go on before you can say Fred Perry. At 30, LeRoy is too young to have cruised through the Lambretta's first heyday, but was deeply embroiled in the two-wheeled, two-toned Mod culture of the early Eighties. "Friday night you went out on your bike in your suit, listened to the Small Faces and popped pills - it really was like Quadrophenia. These days it's a totally different world. If I took any of these guys who've got into scooters via Oasis to a rally, they'd be horrified." LeRoy's gloves are off when it comes to the Vespa/Lambretta debate. "From the Lambretta rider's point of view, Vespas are for big girls' blouses - it's as simple as that." The all-male Sunday Sport Scooter Club concur with this sentiment: on their Internet homepage, the elemental power of the Lambretta hovers somewhere between nuclear warheads and chicken vindaloo, the Vespa buzzing about with stick insects and skimmed milk. The club also regard Vespa originator Enrico Piaggio's stated intention to aim his creation at women riders as conclusive evidence of inferiority. Although firmly within the Lambretta camp, LeRoy is not enthusiastic about such misogyny, and keen to defend the limpwristed charm of the hardcore scooter's waspish competitor: "Mods have to be slightly effeminate and dandyish - you've got to really mince around to be a good Mod."

Such gendered conceptions of scooter culture are derided by Susan Shaw, longtime admirer of the Lambretta as a "sleek, superb machine". At 64, she confesses that her Lambretta-riding around Europe "is the only thing in my life that my sons consider of to be of note". "But," she recalls, "it certainly wasn't an all-male thing: lots of girls had them. I'd quite like to get another one again." Now that would put the wind up the boys from the Sunday Sport.