Scooter fans hit the road to pay homage to an Italian job

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The Independent Online
At first glance, they seem unlikely pilgrims. Yet Patch, Bellboy, Daz and Vic are among almost 1,000 British travellers heading on a sacred mission - to reach Milan by the 50th anniversary of the birth of Lambretta, the Italian scooter which helped define the Sixties.

Patch and his friends plan to celebrate the anniversary of the first Lambrettas rolling off the production line at a gigantic international rally on Saturday.

Each day this week, groups of riders from all over Britain will converge on Milan, in many cases on scooters twice as old as they are. Thousands of equally dedicated worshippers from around the world will also be paying homage after trips that may have taken several months.

For Patch (real name Patrick Hood) the Lammie is more than just a scooter. A classically trained dancer, he gave up his career as principal at the Vienna Festival Ballet to open a business, Scooter Surgery, in Tooting, south London, just over a year ago. His Lambretta epiphany came when he was 12-years-old. "A friend let me take one out illegally. It was race-tuned and I was pushing it up to 90mph. The feeling was indescribable - excitement and fear mixed into one."

The first Lambretta was designed by Ferdinando Innocenti, a steel tube manufacturer, whose factory in Milan had been heavily damaged by Allied bombing during the Second World War.

To meet the desperate need for cheap transport and get production started again at his factory, Innocenti designed a small-frame motorbike. It was made out of curved steel tubing, with small wheels, a step-through riding position and an engine bolted on under the seat. Lambrettas began rolling off the line in 1947 and within years were being sold by the million.

Lambretta's main competitor, launched a year earlier, was the Vespa, by Piaggio. By the late Fifties, the two had blown their rivals - including Harley- Davidson and Messerschmidt - out of the water.

In Britain, the Lammie easily outsold the Vespa for more than two decades, aided by its more elegant slim-look design, better stability on the road, higher top speed and greater ease of maintenance.

Lambretta's demise came in 1972, despite the company launching its mechanically most advanced scooter, the GP, three years earlier. Scooterists still mutter darkly about British Leyland, the catastrophically-managed UK car manufacturer which bought Innocenti in 1971 and halted Lammie production, allegedly to concentrate on making the Mini. Innocenti itself went down the tubes a while later.

For years, Lambrettas seemed destined only for the scrap-heap. Then, as the craze for scooters took hold again, assisted by Britpop bands Oasis and Blur, plus the revival of Sixties music, Lammies were rediscovered.

Today, container- loads of broken down Lambrettas sell within days of being imported from Italy and undergo a nut-and-bolt restoration.

Patch has no qualms about the revival: "Mechanically, Lambrettas have stood the test of time. Properly restored, they can go on running forever."

Steve Edwards, his workmate at Scooter Surgery, says: "Lammies are my hobby, my job, everything. They have given my life meaning."