Nothing symbolises Italian urban chic quite like the Vespa. But in the city that gave birth to them, the diehards suddenly have a fight on their hands
03 October 2018 | Phil Hoad | Guardian
Corrado Nicora is talking about the flyest Vespa in Genoa: his own. For his 50th birthday, the secretary of Vespa Club Genoa decided that a new scooter was just what he needed. It had to be the tangerine GTS 300, but there was a problem: it was only on sale outside Italy.
He was on the verge of shelling out the extra cash for the imported model when he stumbled across one in a Genoa showroom. His face lights up as he recalls the moment, his hands reaching out like Indiana Jones for a sacred idol. “This one – it’s mine.”
Not being able to find a particular Vespa in Genoa – Nicora believes there are only three tangerine GTS 300s here – is weird in a city where the Vespa is king. Fewer people own cars in Genoa than in any other Italian city apart from Venice; there are an estimated 180,000 motorbikes and scooters in Genoa, among a population of 600,000.
Among them, the aristocrats are the 20,000 Vespa owners. The creator of the Vespa, Rinaldo Piaggio, was born in Genoa and the original Piaggio factory was in the city’s Sestri Ponente district. Lambretta, Vespa’s rival in the retro-scooter stakes, is practically a dirty word. (“No, no, no, no,” says Nicora, when I mention it.)
The Vespa, which is now manufactured in Pontedera, Tuscany, quickly became a worldwide ambassador for Italian style. Its elegant swooping chassis symbolised postwar modernity and freedom, and, in later years, a kind of retro connoisseur taste. But the brand seems ageless: total global sales have passed 18m.
Which makes it even more surprising that Genoa is trying to outlaw them. The city authorities first tried to do so on Vespa’s 70th anniversary in 2016. To curb pollution, they announced that all scooters built before 1999 would be banned from entering the city centre between 7am and 7pm. The uproar was predictable, hitting Twitter first under the hashtag #lamiavespanonsitocca (“Don’t touch my Vespa”). The municipality eventually backed down.
But the new mayor, Marco Bucci, has promised to resurrect similar measures. The municipality has not released details of its upcoming transport policy, which is due to be announced later this year, but it will prioritise a transition to electric vehicles, with subsidised electricity for users. Ominously for diehard Vespa riders, Bucci has promised: “We have to make sure that the most polluting engines are no longer in the centre.”
Although it seems surprising that Genoa would want to tar its beloved city mascot, scooters have acquired dirty overtones in European policy circles. The two-stroke engine that powered the Vespa to worldwide fame burns a mixture of oil and gasoline, producing as much pollution as 30-50 four-stroke ones, according to some estimates. This year, Amsterdam banned pre-2011 models from its low-emission zone and, in 2016, Paris excluded all pre-2000 motorbikes and scooters from the city centre during the day on weekdays. It is an even bigger issue in many Asian cities, where two-stroke scooters are ubiquitous.
Bucci is also keen to project a modern, progressive image for Genoa, a mission made more urgent in the wake of the bridge collapse in August, which killed 43. Bucci, a former pharmaceuticals manager, has “tried to transfer the idea of how to run a company to a city”, says Nicora. “He’s trying to be smart, to revolutionise Genoa.”
It could be that the Vespa is an easy target for Bucci: moped sales are falling, even in Italy. Only 27,000 were sold in 2014, compared with 600,000 in 1980, and there was a 40.2% drop in EU petrol-scooter registrations between the first quarters of 2017 and 2018. Scooters – once the height of freewheeling urban elan – have to increasingly prove they are not dragging down modern cities.
Seventy years ago, Vespa was the acme of modern metropolitan living. It started becoming an urban icon in 1946, when Rinaldo Piaggio’s son Enrico decided the company should create a form of affordable transport for the masses. An aeronautical engineer, Corradino d’Ascanio, came up with the poised, narrow-waisted design that gave the new machine its name: “wasp” in Italian.
The scooter was particularly adapted to scrappy urban conditions and postwar consumers who favoured convenience, says Nick Broomhall, UK spokesman for Piaggio. “You’ve got to imagine what Italy’s roads were like after the war. Let’s get a device that’s light and easy to manoeuvre, and that you can ride without getting dirty, because the engine was totally enclosed.”
Marketed equally at women and men, the Vespa quickly became a symbol of a kind of mobility, freedom, emancipation and romance that is most possible in cities. Umberto Eco, in an essay on Vespa, recalled an unrequited crush who, at the end of a school day, would be swept away by a love rival on a scooter. Both she and the moped represented a kind of platonic ideal. “This is what the Vespa was for me. A magical instrument, which I never really desired, because it was beyond every possible desire,” he wrote.
Piaggio put out just 2,500 of the original 98cc Vespa, but by 1956 it had already sold 1m. Prior to mass TV ownership, Piaggio generated a buzz through the network of Italian Vespa clubs, of which there were 111 by 1952; they lined up for organised scooter races, such as the 1,000km rally with prize money of 5m lira (£2,200 today). Those clubs still proliferate and, though the company no longer controls them, members still receive an insurance discount.
Vespas also featured in many films of the time, including Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima in 1952 and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960, but it was Audrey Hepburn wobbling off with a shriek on a 125cc in 1953’s Roman Holiday that confirmed the Vespa’s growing aura abroad as a marker of Italian urban chic.
The Vespa took on a countercultural spin in the 1960s when it was adopted, along with the Lambretta, as a key component of the mod wardrobe: most famously, Sting rides a GS Rally Vespa in his role as Ace Face in Quadrophenia. Since then, the brand’s retro allure has known no bounds. There are Vespa clubs, roaring out on mod-style rallies in locations such as Jakarta, Johannesburg and Kampala. The 2017 Vespa World Day in Celle, Germany, attracted 4,000 riders from 320 clubs in 32 countries. Vespa World Days, which take place in a different location every year, can be seen as either a huge promotion shindig or the scooter fanatic’s equivalent of a busman’s holiday.
In Genoa, though, the Vespa is part of the furniture. Perfectly adapted to nipping in and out of the alleys of the historical centre, it is not the retro fetish object it has become in Milan or Rome, let alone London or New York. “In Genoa, it’s not a fashion,” says Nicora. “We use it.”
Vespas slip seamlessly into the tightly parked ranks of two-wheelers that flank the city’s streets, lining piazzas and courtyards, and underneath the flyover on Via Aurelia. Everyone uses them: tattooed millennials, bespectacled housewives, grannies riding in tandem. There is none of the free-for-all traffic slaloms you see in other Mediterranean cities such as Marseille; they slot in an orderly fashion into the traffic flow. Vespas seem vital here: public transport coverage is thin in Genoa, with a single, eight-station metro line, and the Ligurian hills, rising steeply up from the port, aren’t bike-friendly.
No wonder the locals took up arms to defend their scooters. It was the city’s three Vespa clubs, along with local motorbike associations, that led the fight to convince the previous mayor to rescind the ban. They used a 26-page PowerPoint presentation in the town hall to show that the maligned older models only numbered around 3,000 and were thus insignificant in polluting terms compared with the cruise ships that docked in the Porto Antico, whose engines ran for days on end. According to their statistics, motorcycles only produced 41 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide in 2011, compared with 3,176 for the port.
Broomhall goes as far as to suggest that scooters could provide a solution to mounting congestion problems and reduce idling emissions by keeping traffic moving. He cites a 2011 study from the Belgian city of Leuven, which found that switching 10% of road users to mopeds would reduce congestion by 40%. The innards of scooters are gradually being upgraded for a cleaner era: the first electric Vespa was announced last year and will be available this autumn.
Nevertheless, Broomhall admits that Piaggio is fighting to stay relevant in the 21st century. “The motorcycle and scooter industry is suffering in that they don’t appeal to younger people,” he says. “If they have money, they prefer to spend it on a gadget.”
In Genoa, however, the Vespa still stands for independence, urbanist trends be damned. Bucci is taking a softer line than his predecessor, promising the city’s Vespa owners “time to adapt”. But he is clear about his priorities. “Our strategy is to favour electric vehicles. With that in mind, two-stroke engines do not have long left.”
The local Vespa clubs have said they are ready to resume their fight. Nicora proudly shows off photos of his customised GTS 300 – with a matte-black exhaust, LED headlights and digital display – and waggles his fingers under his chin, the Italian gesture for exasperation. “People talk about globalisation, but you can’t control people. We are different from cities in the north of Europe, like Amsterdam. We are Genoa. Why do we all have to be the same?”