Written by Vicki Holder
Business is booming, says Paul Grubi, scooter specialist at Motomail in College Hill, especially for stylish Italian Piaggio, Vespa and Aprilia bike brands. “People walk in the door and say they’re sick and tired of the traffic. They say ‘It takes me ages to get to work in my car. And when I get there, I have to waste time finding a park and the cost is driving me crazy’. Everyone’s looking for alternatives to tackle their woes.”
When they’re on a scooter, suddenly riding to work is fun again. I can personally vouch for the feeling after a short fling around the CBD waterfront on the Piaggio Zip 50CC. With the wind and rain – not exactly rushing through your hair – but beating against your visor, there’s an exhilarating sense of freedom. Taking up only a fraction of the road space of a car, they zip through the narrowest of strips and always find a place right at the head of the traffic queue. You arrive at your destination in a fraction of the time by car. Fuel savings are yet another bonus.
Even staunch Harley riders are swapping their big bikes for smaller scooters. While I chatted to Paul at Motomail, in walked a heavily tattooed dude who’d decided a Piaggio Zip was an easier, quieter option than the Harley for short trips around town.
“It’s spawned real interest in the whole scooter sub-culture. Once you get a bike, you discover a whole lot of culture in this two-wheeled-world.”
“But buying a scooter is not just about overcoming the inconvenience of the traffic, parking and cost savings,” assures Paul.
First, a huge range of well-designed and constructed apparel and accessories is totally hot. The bike is a great excuse to purchase this sporty fashion-inspired attire.
Then there’s the social aspect. “There’s a sense of community. People sharing a common interest and passions and making friends.”
Paul encourages those who buy scooters to join the Motomail Scooter Group, take lessons from a pro-rider and participate in the Motomail Urban Scooter Ride which happens every few months.
“These are people who work hard at their jobs, mostly aged in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They’re looking to be part of something. Around 30 scooter owners usually meet up to hit the streets for a couple of hours of fun and camaraderie on a Sunday. We all bugger off to the Museum, head around Westmere, Pt Chev and out towards St Heliers before coming back to regroup for photos and a few suppliers’ prizes at Buoy Café down on the water. We really love it.”
“It’s really hard going but enjoyable,” says Francis. “When they stop each night, they sit around the motel, talking about and fixing their bikes. That’s just what they love to do.”
Over in Newton Road, Francis Linehan at Retro Scooter (specialising in Vespa and Lambretta servicing) organises the legendary annual Motoretta Tourist Trophy ride. About 80 scooter riders journey on ‘an epic four-day 1000 km test of man and machine’ through the best roads and scenery in New Zealand – and a chance to win a handcrafted MotoTT trophy.
Synonymous with style, freedom and all things Italian, the Vespa brand in particular carries a lot of nostalgia, says Paul.
The name is linked with high fashion and conjures up images of handsome men tearing along narrow Italian streets or beautiful girls with hair billowing behind them as they ride along coastal roads.
“There’s a whole community of enthusiasts into that romantic retro thing.”
Hollywood has always had a love affair with the Vespa. You could argue the scooter should have grabbed star billing along with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the 1952 classic Roman Holiday – images of them riding through Rome have helped the film endure. Even today, if a movie is set in Italy, it must have a Vespa.
The first Piaggio motorcycle was designed in 1944 in the factory of Enrico Piaggio, son of Piaggio’s founder Rinaldo. Enrico left the aeronautical field to address Italy’s urgent need for a modern, affordable mode of transport. The design his engineers produced featured bodywork enclosing the drivetrain that formed a splashguard in front with handlebar mounted controls and a tall central section that had to be straddled. The prototype was nicknamed “Paperino” or duckling (as in ugly) in Italian.
When Enrico saw it, he exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa!” (It resembles a wasp!”) effectively naming the new scooter on the spot.
Enrico Piaggio himself hated it. It was so bulky, dirty and unreliable that he commissioned a redesign with the engine mounted beside the rear wheel. In the new design, the wheel was driven directly from the transmission, eliminating the drive chain and the oil and dirt associated with it. The changes allowed a step through design without a centre section with the thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist and the steering rod resembling antannae.
Following its debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first 50 sold slowly, then sales took off, but after Roman Holiday, they exploded worldwide. The Vespa spawned a thousand copycats, none quite as successful as the Vespa.
Today, a huge range of scooters are available to suit all tastes and lifestyles. Different sizes and price points varying from small 50cc two-stroke engines to the new generation of high performance, high tech sporty vehicles – something for everyone.
Says Paul: “When I see someone ride away on their bike with their nice jacket and gloves, I think, how cool. That person is really happy.”