Vespa LX with Suzi Perry

Kevin Ash, Suzi Perry

It hurts motorcyclists to admit it, but arguably the most brilliant two-wheeler design of the last century had the word `Vespa` on the side.

The designer of the 1946 original, Corradino D`Ascanio, was an aeronautical engineer, in search of alternative work within Piaggio after the end of the war rendered its aircraft manufacturing division redundant.

He was not a motorcycle fan nor was he familiar with two-wheeler engineering convention, which is exactly why the Vespa was so utterly original. Instead, D`Ascanio applied aeronautical and auto principles to the problem of supplying cheap and efficient mobility to the transport-starved masses of Italy and the rest of Europe. Hence the Vespa`s aircraft undercarriage-style trailing link front suspension and its monocoque chassis, both radical departures from normal practice.

Where most motorcycles wore their mechanicals intimidatingly on their sleeves, so the Vespa hid its fan-cooled motor beneath its bodywork, opening up ownership prospects to people with no interest in the machinery but a deep desire for what it could do for them.

That bodywork, which with the buzzing two-stroke exhaust note inspired the name Vespa (Italian for wasp) for its narrow-waisted, pointed-rear shape, has a cute, androgynous mien that`s endured for almost 60 years, a second reason to admire the design. In the 50s its practicality came to the fore, allowing even skirted females to ride (or sit side-saddle, Audrey Hepburn style) without dirtying their clothes and maintaining their dignity thanks to the step-through space between seat and legshields. It was the antithesis of the oily, noisy motorcycles of the time, which is what drove sharp-suited British Mods to adopt Vespas and rival Lambrettas in their stance against the grubbiness of the Rocker cult.

The look endured throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s, supported by a functionality that was, and is, unarguable. Here was a two-wheeler without the aggression or embedded performance attitude of a motorcycle, which required nothing more of the rider than a crash helmet (and not even that in many countries until the last decade or so), which was clean, unbeatable in traffic and cheap to run, values just as desirable today as half a century ago.

The way Piaggio has nurtured its charge is textbook. The Vespa has been updated in typically Italian fits and starts, but the basic style as well as its principles have always been adhered to, allowing modern riders to relate to a heritage unique in the scooter world. It`s not frivolous to compare it with the Porsche 911, a mere youngster against the venerable Vespa but also with a traceable look as well as lineage that could have been copied in principle from the little scooter.

The Vespa has massively outperformed Porsche too, in the showrooms at least, where some 17 million have been sold since 1946. The biggest risk came in 1996, when the Vespa ET series was introduced, the first Vespa ever to feature the automatic transmission universal on other scooters, after years of twistgrip gear changing. There`s a Porsche parallel here too: the 996 version of the 911, introduced at a similar time to the ET, faced a similar pseudo-crisis, as this was the first ever model to be water-cooled. Purists dismissed both as tainted, but half a million others were happy enough with the Vespa ET to vote in favour with their cash. And the 911 is doing just fine thank you.

It was this significant and successful Vespa ET which the LX replaced, and with automatic transmission now well established in the Vespa line-up, it`s not an issue or even discussed. The LX maintains other traditions by continuing to use a monocoque steel bodyshell, which forms both the chassis and much of the bodywork, and the additional bolt-on panels are also steel. Almost all other scooters use plastic bodywork wrapped around separate tubular or pressed steel frames.

There`s no particular weight advantage either way, and the sheer success of the Vespa means the expensive initial tooling needed for this type of manufacture is covered by volume sales reducing unit costs. It also means the chassis is capable of being designed for greater stiffness, an advantage for handling and stability enhanced by the fitment of an 11 inch front wheel - the old ET used 10 inch wheels front and rear.
Two engines are available for UK models, a 125cc, four-valve four-stroke, and a 50cc two-stroke using the Australian Orbital company`s clean-burning direct injection technology, making it fully compliant with all current emissions requirements.

Suzi Perry
For all its impressive history, for me the Vespa has more personal memories of putt-putting from beach to beach in Spain in the late 1980s, pillion to the dashing Spaniard who was to become my boyfriend for the next four years. It was a cool, carefree and easy time which dovetails perfectly with the generic Vespa image.

The LX is a lot easier to get on with than the old gearchange model of my Iberian romance. I was impressed first by its stability on the dreadful road surfaces in Rome. The old ET was more stable than earlier Vespas but the LX moves on again, giving you confidence in its security even when crashing through potholes so vast you wonder if you`ll make the other side. Braking is reasonable, although I thought the rear could have been stronger as even when the boys were trying to impress with their skids they were finding they had to squeeze the lever hard. They resorted to handstands in the end...

One disappointment was the sluggishness from a standstill. When you`ve filtered your way through to the front of a line of battered, revving Fiats and Alfas, you really want to be moving off smartish when the lights go green, but the 125 wants to pick up its skirts first before really getting going. In fact the 50cc two-stroke just about matched it, certainly up to about 20mph, which impressed me greatly about the little bike.

The ergonomics are impressive, in the way it coped with a range of rider heights. I`m 5`6” (1.68m) and was perfectly comfortable with it, reaching the ground without difficulty (a lot of scooters are compact but still have awkwardly high seats to maximise the carrying space). Kevin meanwhile, who at least matches Gregory Peck in height at 6`3” (1.91m), if less obviously in other respects, didn`t find it too cramped, and didn`t look ridiculously tall on it either. I`ve heard him complain that Vespa stablemate the Aprilia RSV4 can make him feel like a supermoto rider, but the 50cc LX`s proportions were just fine.

There`s a hewn-from-solid feel to the LX which few other scooters can match, no doubt due to its steel construction, and I love the Vespa style generally. The old ET did look like a Vespa, but only just as there was a diluted feel to its rounded edges. The LX has much sharper, better defined lines which pay full homage to the originals, and it keeps the round headlight with its cowling, which all turns with the bars. The round chrome mirrors and grab handles are a classy touch, and I love the retro black-on-white of the dash.

The spring-back sidestand is a pain to use and you`ll struggle to fit a full-face helmet in the underseat storage space, although as it`s quite long the problem is more of shape than volume.

But that`s about it as far as complaints go. At £2,950 the LX125 is at the expensive end of the class but it`s not the most costly, and residual values of Vespas are strong. The LX50 again is premium priced at £2,290, but feels well worth it too, and depreciation of Vespas is a lot less than many cheaper scooters.

As round-town transport a Vespa is cool in a timeless rather than latest fashion-led sort of way, a true classic. Even if it didn`t evoke fond memories of sunny Spanish sands, it`s still my first choice scooter.

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