/ 29 August 2006

Dedicated follower of fashion

Okay, so maybe I am being a girl about it, but they really are gorgeous little buzzers. From their flowing metal curves and sturdy demeanor to their a cute headlamp faces, Vespas have somehow elevated themselves from mere machinery into icons of style. I’ve been sold on the small Italian scooters for quite some time now, so when I presented myself to the Vespa folk in Fourways, Johannesburg, I was already something of a walkover. By the time I left — having test-driven the scooter and been sold the merits of the incredible new lifestyle it could afford me — I was a gushing fool. A Vespa, it seems, will not only enhance your looks (you can tell by the promotional posters of beaming model types with shiny white teeth), but also cut petrol costs (about 37km a litre) and add miles to your street cred.

Amazing for a vehicle that comes from such humble beginnings. Vespa (meaning wasp) was the world’s first scooter, designed in 1946 to get Italians mobile after World War II left their economy in tatters. It was manufactured with the aim of creating a low-cost product for the masses. Sixty years on and they still stir passion in cult-like pockets across the globe.

It might be a while before South Africa’s city streets inspire enough confidence for large-scale motorcyle use and Vespa certainly isn’t marketing itself to the lower end of the consumer spectrum, as it may once have done. These days their appeal depends less on “mass mobility” and more on a flair for fashion. As Roberto Colaninno, chairperson of manufacturing company Piaggio, said in an interview with The Guardian: “You don’t want another one [scooter]. You want this one.”

In much the same way that some South African brands still ride the crest of change in this country — aligning themselves with notions of multiculturism and hope — the Vespa still aligns itself with post-war notions of independence, desire and nostalgia.

In the words of Umberto Eco: “The Vespa came to be linked in my eyes with transgression, sin and even temptation — not the temptation to possess the object, but the subtle seduction of faraway places where the Vespa was the only means of transport. And it entered my imagination not as an object of desire, but as a symbol of unfulfilled desire.”

It is exactly this yearning for freedom that the Vespa marketing department rides on. Notions of taking the “free lane” — the gap between jammed rows of traffic that the slim little beasties can zip through — are incredibly desirable when one is stuck in the polluted clog of peak-hour traffic. As is the idea of being dashing and daring — whizzing about the city streets and doing “what you do every day, just better with a Vespa”.

What the marketing chooses to ignore — as did I, until my drive home when I encountered two incidences of road rage and was nearly mowed down by a taxi for taking more than the “prescribed” 0,5 seconds to accelerate before the robot turned green — is that in a city such as Johannesburg, where the 4X4 is king, anything on two wheels is like a sitting duck in a hungry lions’ pen.

My little piece of tin has four wheels and is barely butch enough for the mean streets, so I have to admit I might still be a tad nervous about trading it in for a two-wheel mode of transport — pretty as it may be. Yet it doesn’t stop me from dreaming of a kinder, gentler world where I can let my hair blow free in the breeze, hitch my laptop to the seat hook beneath my knees and experience the liberation of the offbeat, off the beaten track of this urban jungle.

The Vespa I rode was the LX 150, which costs R41 950.