In the Fifties they wore thin-collared suits, Levi 501s, mohair sweaters and pointed-toe shoes called winklepickers. They were the Mods and they used their money to buy Vespa or Lambretta scooters, a mode of transport that was relatively cheap and did not dirty their clothes.
These days there is a new kind of Mod in town. You will find them in Jo’burg in the Maboneng district or hanging out at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, where a row of vintage Vespas awaits their vintage-clad riders.
And if you know the right road in Koelenberg, Cape Town, you might find the country’s original Vesparado gang playing darts and drinking beer in their club house. “We were joking around one day and said: ‘We should start a bike gang for Vespas,’ ” said James Hannah, vice-president of the Cape Town Vesparados.
The idea spread and nowadays, if you catch the right week, you will see the Jo’burg arm of the same group having breakfast at Sophia’s in Greenside before their morning ride.
“A few years ago no one wanted a Vespa,” says Maurizio Apicella, a mechanic at Cava Motors in Fairlands, Johannesburg. “Now everybody’s after them. I get five or six phone calls every day from people looking for them.”
In 2009, New York Times writer Dexter Ford observed the growing Vespa craze in the United States. Paolo Timoni, president and chief executive of the Piaggio Group Americas, the US arm of the Italian manufacturing company that has been making Vespas since 1946, told Ford: “If you were walking across New York City four years ago you’d be unlikely to see a scooter anywhere. Nowadays, you’ll probably see a scooter on every other block.
“Five or six years ago most people were buying Vespas as recreational vehicles. They liked the design, the great colours, the fact that a Vespa is an Italian product. But, more and more, there is a larger share of people who are choosing Vespas as an alternative form of transportation — either to reduce their [travelling costs], or because of traffic congestion. And some buy a Vespa as an environmental effort — to leave a smaller carbon footprint than a car.” Buyers, he wrote, were being lured into Vespa dealerships by the prospect of “70-plus miles per gallon efficiency, traffic-dodging agility and leave-it-anywhere parkability”.
Vespa does not release sales figures, but futurist and author Watts Wacker estimated that about 16-million Vespas had been sold worldwide between 1946 and 2003, with sales growing by at least 20% every year after that.
Dozens of Vespa groups have sprung up online, including Vespa fan clubs, sites that organise Vespa get-togethers and others that allow the swapping of photos.
Toys for boys
Vespa South Africa says that, even during the recession, local sales have increased by 20% to 30% every year for the past 10 years. Both the first- and second-hand markets for the scooter are growing.
New scooters are bought by older, wealthier customers — generally men. They spend from R55 000 for a four-speed manual single-cylinder Vespa PX with a 150cc engine to almost R90 000 for a 278cc, automatic four-stroke GTS 300 Super Sport edition.
The second-hand buyers are younger males. Lured by the affordability and history of the machine, they spend between R5 000 and R30 000 on their scooters, depending on the year, model, mileage and condition.
For the South African consumer, purchasing a Vespa today is fuelled by the same purchase decisions that motivated the Mods in the Fifties: buying a way of life.
Louw du Toit, a shareholder in Vespa Wynberg in Johannesburg, calls the Vespa a “lifestyle purchase”. He says the scooter’s biggest competition is “overseas holidays, a new kitchen at home, remodelling — that kind of stuff”.
“It [owning a Vespa] is completely different from anything else,” says Du Toit. This appeal of otherness seems to be partly driving the Vespa movement.
The scooter’s history is also unique. It was designed in 1946 by Italian aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio for a country with a crippled post-World War II economy and an infrastructure damaged by bombing.
True to its aeronautically inspired roots, the scooter has a single front swing-arm to hold the wheel and front suspension like an aeroplane. The engine on the original Vespa was taken directly from a bomber aeroplane.
But Vespas are not only distinguished by their difference from other vehicles: they are also distinguished by their difference from one another. “No two Vespas are exactly the same,” says Du Toit. Riders customise the scooters’ paint jobs, hand grips, lights and seats.
Trevor Woolfson, director of Vespa Wynberg, custom-made a Vespa so that all three of his children could ride with him at the same time. The tangerine-coloured scooter “is the only one of its kind in the world”, he says. “Every time we take it out, pictures of it go viral.”
Artist and two-time Vespa owner Yiull Damaso completely covered his 2000 PX200 Vespa in 43kg of tiny mirror fragments, which took about a month to complete. The result is a disco ball on wheels that wins him a constant stream of friends and admirers.
“I’ll be driving along on the highway and I look and a guy’s trying to take a picture on his phone as he drives past,” says Damaso. “It’s a super-happy bike. It’s almost like it’s got its own life, its own character going.”
Style and sense
A few years ago, most South Africans bought Vespas purely for their image and lifestyle appeal. But according to Du Toit, purchasing decisions, following global trends, have begun to be influenced by more practical considerations: lower fuel and maintenance costs, the scooter’s traffic-dodging ability and its ease of parking.
Damaso agrees. “A Vespa is the easiest mode of transport,” he says. “It is just so easy to get around. You always park like a rock star on the front doorstep. You never have to pay for parking, even when it’s boomed off. I don’t have to deal with traffic, ever. It doesn’t matter if its peak-hour traffic or not, I still get to the place I’m going to pretty much at the same time. And the saving on petrol is unbelievable.” R70 in a Vespa tank will fill it up and take you about 160 km.
There is something about Vespas that extracts nothing short of fanatical behaviour from their owners. Du Toit, Woolfson and Damaso all tell epic tales of transcountry adventures on their scooters.
Du Toit and Woolfson recently went on a rambling 3 000km, six-day journey from Johannesburg through the outskirts of Lesotho, down to the Transkei and over the Outeniqua mountains to Cape Town — in the coldest week of the year.
“We were literally riding through snow,” says Du Toit. “It was crazily cold. A lot of the time we were freezing our asses off. But you actually end up laughing in your helmet. I promise you, it is the funniest thing.”
“The colder and wetter you get, the more memorable the trip,” adds Woolfson.
With five friends from Johannesburg Damaso recently rode his mirror-ball Vespa through Mozambique and Swaziland. The trip was “quite dangerous”, says Damaso.
“The second day was monsoon rains the whole day. At the end you’re cold, you’re wet, you should be miserable, but you’re actually not.”
Freelance writer Melissa Andrews and photographer Christopher List have embarked on an even more expansive Vespa adventure. The pair are about halfway through a 10-month, 12 000km ride to “all corners of South Africa”.
They are exploring and documenting the country’s natural beauty in support of Food & Trees For Africa, an organisation that plants trees and creates food gardens for school children and low-income communities. They chose to ride Vespas to keep their safari “carbon neutral”.
Twenty-three-year-old Luke Boelitz, who was a Mail & Guardian photography intern from Boston’s Tufts University, caught Vespa fever near the end of his three-month stay in South Africa. His ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town took five days at an average speed of 70km/h. He rode an early 1980s P200 that cost him R15 000.
“The pace was a defining aspect of the trip,” says Boelitz. “You have no choice but to become a little more relaxed about where you’re going. You can’t put the throttle down if you’re already going as fast as the bike will allow.” Boelitz took secondary roads and stopped over in small towns on the way.
“Everyone wants to talk to you when they see you on a Vespa with two big backpacks in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “You really do get a chance to meet the locals.”
In Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, Boelitz was “riding around checking out the town” when he met a 10-year-old boy who only spoke Afrikaans. Without understanding the boy’s language, Boelitz quickly realised he wanted a ride on the scooter. “He hopped on the back and I took him to his house and met his family.”
And perhaps these stories, more than anything else, are the defining aspect of the Vespa culture. From the scooter’s World War II beginnings to the Mod culture it inspired in the 1950s and today’s tales of epic adventure, everything about the Vespa is steeped in nostalgia.
The Vespa’s biggest selling point is not cheap fuel, its ability to zip through traffic or a clean suit when you hop off. The scooter’s biggest currency is memories.
“The best times of my life have been on a Vespa,” says Damaso. And I will bet you a R70-full petrol tank that most Mods would agree.