No. 332: Vespas
We have now made our way to Italy, so it seems appropriate to write about their beloved and iconic Vespas. I have actually been collecting photos of these lovable shiny scooters in Paris and around France over the years, and now that I am in their homeland, I am thinking that it is time do a little poetic waxing on the subject.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have never driven a Vespa, never taken a ride on one, and never even sat on one. I guess I am just plain chicken when it comes to anything with only two wheels, except for my beloved vélo. Still, in my mind’s eye, I see myself on one of these snappy, multihued machines, tooling through the French (or Italian) countryside or zipping between cars on the Paris streets, harmonizing helmet protecting my noggin. I have a couple of girlfriends in Paris who brave the wacky French drivers, and scoot about on their Vespas, and I must say, they look quite marvelous, and save a lot of money on petrol to boot.
The Vespa came about as a response to the realities of post-WWII Italy. It was a cheap and reliable mode of transport for struggling Italians who needed to get around the bombed out country. However, had it been only a form of transportation, I doubt we would still be talking about them; but a fashion statement, now that is another story.
The original prototype designed by the Piaggio Company was based on the small motorcycles made for parachutists and nicknamed “Paperino” (the Italian name for Donald Duck) because of its strange shape. Not quite right, the head of the company ask for a redesign. Using their technological and design know-how gleaned from designing rail carriages, luxury coaches, seaplanes and of course, airplanes, propellers and engines for the war, and “unfettered by any preconceptions about what a motorcycle or scooter should look like”, the slick, sporty Vespa was born. Equally important to function and drivability was comfort and style. The Vespa was designed to keep its driver looking smart, not disheveled, but perfectly intact for any photo-finish. Piaggio decided to call its creation the wasp (vespa) based on the sound of its engine, its aerodynamic form, and its lean, but curvy, and sexy shape. Once he introduced the snazzy and sleek colors, we were all goners.
Nowadays the Vespa is an intrinsic part of Italian (and French) social history. Riding one today, I imagine you still feel a kinship to the “Dolce Vita” years. Maybe someday I will have the guts to jump on one and ride through the splendid countryside or romantic cities of Italy and live my own “Roman Holiday”…I can picture that…
Viva la Vespa!