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[whitespace] Kristen Scooter Pie: Be it temperamental or finicky, Kristen maintains that Vespa is a girl's best friend.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


The Cult Of Vespa

Is the Italian scooter the ultimate urban accessory or a trashy working-class ride?

By Michael Beattie

DRIVING A CAR just isn't an option for 26-year-old Kristen Nichols, a member of the Santa Cruz Vampires motorcycle club. She happily admits to being obsessed with Vespas, the diminutive Italian motor scooters. At 6-feet-plus, Kristen towers over her current ride, a two-stroke PX125, a machine about as old as she is.

"I don't want an automatic," she declares, dismissively shaking her mane of carrot-red hair. The new Vespas don't come with manual shifting, and that simply won't do for Kristen.

"I want to be totally in control." And if the price she pays for that control is frequent breakdowns and the occasional seizure of the elderly two-stroke motor, so be it.

The first time her Vespa seized in midstride, Kristen found herself in some serious danger. "Luckily," she says, cracking a grin, "the truck driver behind me realized what was happening and gave me some space. The rear wheel locked, and the Vespa slid sideways under me. I kind of figured I had to pull the clutch in, which got the scoot straightened out, and I managed to roll to a stop."

Since that encounter with piston seizure, Kristen has come to terms with breakdowns. "My Vespa never leaves me stranded," she insists, "just frustrated."

It used to be that Vespas were actually considered reliable transportation, but that was in the days before they attained cult status. In post-World War II Italy, the aeronautics company Piaggio came up with a motor-scooter design that the company's president said looked like a wasp: a bulbous rear, a narrow waist and a wide front end. In Italian, vespa means wasp, a name that was reinforced by the insistent buzzing of the little lawnmowerlike engine.

The little motor that could was the basis on which Piaggio exploded into a multinational corporation with factories and dealerships around the world--except, of course, in the United States, where the crude two-stroke engine could no longer be tolerated in the California of the mid-1980s. Strict air quality regulations lost Piaggio its largest single American market, and the company pulled out of the States entirely.

The funny thing was that even though Piaggio disappeared from the United States, the cult of the Vespa just grew and kept on growing in its absence. Former dealerships stayed busy importing parts and keeping the old machines running. New riders, like Kristen, were attracted to the Vespas as they passed by on the street.

"I just fell in love," she says.

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A Roman's Holiday: Driving cross-country on a Vespa isn't quite as crazy as it seems.

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Revvvolution

IN 1996, PIAGGIO introduced the world to its ET series, a new modular design featuring a two-stroke 50 cc engine and a four-stroke 150 cc engine. ETs are now available in the United States; still, most who own classic Vespas turn up their noses at the new Vespas.

It's not just that, technologically speaking, the new scooters are different; it's also that Piaggio is marketing them to a different kind of rider--the beautiful, young, fashion-conscious urban dweller.

Piaggio's first foray into the North American market pitched Vespas for their practicality, as a second car. Today the marketing is styling Vespas as the ultimate retro accessory, and riders like Kristen don't like people appropriating Vespas as fashion accessories, whether they are classic two-strokes or new four-strokes.

Kristen's purist attitude is the first qualification to becoming what she calls "scooter trash." Kristen earns her living working in a welding supply store. It really bugs her that there are people who can and will buy "trophy" Vespas.

To some extent the scooter-trash lifestyle harkens back to the 1960s and '70s, when mods on Vespas and Lambrettas did battle, West Side Story-style, with rockers on motorcycles.

And Kristen says she's often battling the stereotype propagated by the cult movie Quadrophenia. Scooter trash, it's true, do tend to like ska music. Bands like the Parka Kings and Deals Gone Bad get rave reviews in the San Francisco-based publication Scoot Quarterly, the voice of scooter trash everywhere.

Vespa rallies are also a key part of the scooterist lifestyle. Kristen recalls one rally in Arizona where everyone went on a camping trip that involved riding for hours in freezing, pouring rain.

"There were potholes everywhere," she recalls. "We were so tired and cold when we got to the campground all the girls got together and had a good cry. It was great!"

The camaraderie was great even if the weather wasn't. Kristen isn't a big fan of some of the party tricks enjoyed at rallies.

"Can't have a good get-together without fire," she explains. "Everyone likes a campfire." But then she would never endanger her ride the way some people do: by zipping across beds of red-hot embers. It's a rare edition of Scoot Quarterly that doesn't carry some photographs of a flaming Vespa at a rally somewhere.

At Café Pergolesi, other patrons greet Kristen with cries of "Scooter trash!" She bestows a radiant smile on her admirers with the aplomb of a seasoned politician, pausing to exchange a word or two with young people drinking coffee and pretending to study. The adulation from nonriders is welcome.

"It's always a struggle to be a woman in a male-dominated sport. But among scooter trash there are lots more women riding and fixing their own bikes," she says. "It's no big deal if you ride a scooter. It would be harder riding a motorcycle to get acceptance." Besides, she adds, if she rode a motorcycle she'd be showing off.

"Anything goes on a Vespa because nobody expects anything from you. You're always a rock star; all you've got to do is pop a wheelie, and everyone watching is amazed."

She tries to keep some perspective though: "It's not a hobby," she says of her Vespa ownership. "It's a disease--not healthy at all."

"That's my baby," she continues. "It's terrible to be so attached to something you can lose so easily." She recalls the day an SUV backed over her parked Vespa and dragged it screeching down the street. A friend had to restrain Kristen from attacking the oblivious driver.

ET, Call Home

I GREW UP in Italy, where Vespas were, and still are, just a cheap and easy way to get around. I remember one particular day standing around in an aimless group on the sidewalk, when someone wheelied past us on his Vespa, on his way home. We all shook our heads slowly as the wasp buzzed into the distance behind a cloud of blue smoke.

"Guarda questo, vuole far il fanatico in Vespa" [Look at this guy, he wants to show off on a Vespa], one teenager said sadly, and we all nodded. If he wanted to impress someone why didn't he get a proper motorcycle?

Now it seems the wheel has come full circle, and Vespas are all about being cool. The Vespa boutique on Franklin Street in San Francisco looks like a cool place from the outside, displaying Ferraris and Porsches and all manner of expensive cars so beloved by our dotcommer formerly millionaire neighbors. The industrial chic showroom also features a semicircle of ET Vespas, in black and white, and red and blue, turquoise and a strange shade of almost pink. The Vespa literature on display harps on about the movie Roman Holiday, in which Audrey Hepburn, playing a princess, went for an illicit Vespa ride.

There's another couple on the floor, dressed in expensive, supple black leather, idly checking out the machines. They look exactly like the yuppie scum so despised by Kristen and so coveted by the new Piaggio importers.

Their hair is fashionably distressed; they view the world from behind ridiculously narrow sunglasses and totter past the scooters on absurdly thick platform sandals--just the sort of impractical footwear you can get away with even if you want to ride a Vespa. The footboards on the scooters are much more forgiving than the foot pegs on a "normal" motorcycle.

I sidle past and take my first close-up look at a two-wheeler by Piaggio since I bought my own brand-new P200E in Brooklyn 20 years ago.

The salesman knows less about the bikes than I do, apologizing that he is really a Rolls Royce salesman, and Irene, who deals with Vespas (sniff sniff), isn't in. In the world of marketing, Vespa boutiques look to me to be a typically Italian business strategy, destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

When I find my way to the San Francisco Scooter Center in the bowels of Hunters Point, Barry the owner says quite offhand, "Want to take a ride?"--and adds casually, like a nouvelle cuisine waiter with a pepper grinder: "Want a helmet with that?"

I looked like a fool, and I knew it, but I couldn't help myself. A plump middle-aged man riding the streets of San Francisco on a 150 cc scooter, in an ill-fitting helmet and wearing a Cheshire cat grin. It had been 10 years or more since my last ride on a Vespa, but even this brand new ET4, with just 70 miles on the clock, brought back the old familiar sense of fun. By the time I get back to the shop all I can think is that I want one of these machines (sorry Kristen!). Barry tells me he once got the bike up to 75mph, a speed the old P series scooters could only dream about.

Mike Pepper
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Getting His Fix: Mike Pepper practices the addictive art of restoring classic Vespas in his Santa Clara shop, South Bay Scooter Works.

Kickin' It

LORENZO, WHO runs the scooter section of First Kick, a San Francisco motorcycle store, is disappointed Piaggio chose not to entrust their new marketing campaign to the old scooter shops that kept the brand name alive during Vespa's 20-year hiatus from the American scene.

"On the other hand," Lorenzo admits, it's up to the scooter shops to change their image a bit too.

"Customers don't necessarily want to buy their $4,000 scooters in a greasy enthusiast's shop," he says with a wry grin. "They deserve swept floors, a nice display and good treatment."

First Kick reminds me of a Volkswagen store, not a dealership but an enthusiasts' gathering place, as Lorenzo puts it. There are classic Vespas restored and for sale, with prices ranging from $2,600 for a 1980 PX125 to $4,200 for a red 1979 P200E with just 800 original miles on it.

Scratch at Lorenzo the businessman's outer skin, and underneath you'll find just another crazy scooterist.

With barely any prodding, Lorenzo wheels out his own pride and joy, a 1963 Innocenti Lambretta 175, with flashing chrome and dark-blue paint. The 1960s mod restoration fits nicely with the image Lorenzo himself projects, from his short spiky black hair, through his black T-shirt and tight black jeans.

"This," says Lorenzo rocking back on his heels, admiring his thoroughbred ride, "is the ultimate urban accessory. Just like some people wear expensive watches or a nice pair of shoes to make a statement, I ride my scooter around town."

That kind of accessory attitude among the new urban elite Vespa aficionados is giving Kristen, greasy Santa Cruz scooter trash, a cow.

"It's a total pain in the ass," she grumbles. "Dentists and doctors are buying up all the classic scooters and putting them in their garages, instead of riding them."

Which, she points out, is what they were built for. Plus, all this hoarding of two-stroke Vespas is driving up the used market like crazy, putting a restored Vespa out of Kristen's financial reach. "In another life I'll have a clean restored scooter, and I'll pay those guys in San Francisco to work on it," she adds without conviction.

In the meantime, Kristen keeps her PX125 running with her own limited mechanical skills and help from her buddies.

"I know the mechanical theory behind the bike, but I'm a little shy about going in myself and pulling apart, say, the gearbox. Oh, and if you are going to work on the piston I discovered a new rule: always start the job with a spare piston handy."

According to Kristen, anyone who chooses to become scooter trash, as she styles herself, will be forced into a life of privation.

"You have to be tough to ride a scooter. If you have any doubts--" her voice trails away for a second, then she tells me how it was she decided to forgo the pleasure of wearing skirts. She says she was riding along one day happily minding her own business when she happened to look down at the road whizzing past her stockinged feet and thoughts of road rash and nylon melting into her skin invaded her mind. After that day she chose to wear only jeans, which wouldn't necessarily protect her, but at least wouldn't require surgery to remove from under her skin, in the event she were to take a tumble.

"Pre-Vespa I was actually cute," she says with a faraway look in her eyes, remembering skirts and makeup and hairstyles that weren't always dictated by a helmet. "I long for the days when I can wear what I want to wear."

Those days are a long way away yet. Kristen revels in the freedom she gets from being scooter trash. Her T-shirt and heavy duty, black Ben Davis jeans aren't exactly a uniform, but their extreme practicality for an outdoors way of life that may involve frequent roadside repairs makes them a popular choice for riders of classic Vespas.

Starving Artistry

LUST FOR the ET4 is still with me when I pull up outside the unassuming shop that is South Bay Scooter Works in Santa Clara. Owner Mike Pepper, a hairy blonde hulk with fists like turnips, is working delicately on a white Vespa frame, freshly painted but lacking any and all electrical or mechanical accessories, like lights, engines or controls. His cramped shop is lined with scooters, including a trio of Lambrettas, but mostly Vespas in various stages of assembly.

Since 1994 Mike has been working on scooters, and now he's taken to buying broken scooters and scooter parts and restoring classic machines, including a 1954 Vespa (like that scooter in Roman Holiday), one of the old bikes with the headlamp on the front fender. I decide I want that too, when it's restored.

"I'm not in this business for what's new and neat," Pepper says." I'm just another starving artist."

Working on classic Vespas is "a pain in the butt," he says, but he makes the statement with a smile. Vespas are like that, it seems. Where some people get a dog to reduce their blood pressure, other people ride and fix Vespas.

Mike says he, like Kristen, has come to terms with seizing two-strokes, in the 10 years he's been repairing them. "It's the fuel," he notes. "Unleaded gas doesn't provide enough lubrication for the pistons, seals and bearings, and things dry out. Seals break and pistons seize."

Kristen
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Smile, You're on a Vespa!

DESPITE ALL THE hassles, people who come in contact with scooters end up happy, just like Mike Tornincasa in Santa Cruz. He works on classic Vespas, more as a hobby than a job, while he's busy studying electrical engineering at UCSC. He sent me an email when I was trying to get in touch with the scooter scene: "This hobby has brought me an incredible amount of joy. Vespas make me happy."

When I found his home on a backstreet in Live Oak, I could see no sign of scootermania from the outside. On the inside, it's a different story. The coffee table in the living room sports a Vespa picture book. The kitchen table is covered with Vespa badges, Gran Turismo, GS, Sprint Veloce, sparkling silver in the sunlight.

"I got those on my last trip to Italy," he says and I marvel that he has the appropriate Vespa scooters to attach them to, awaiting restoration in his garage.

Tornincasa himself is as classic as the Vespas he restores, Italian through and through from the line of his steely jaw to his Vespa-like wasp waist, his straight black hair and broad shoulders. Mike's good looks were noticed by the talent scouts at Jockey. He was featured in one of their ads standing around a bunch of scooters as part of their "Real People" ad campaign from a few years ago.

Mike is amazingly down to earth about the experience of spending a day on a San Francisco street in his underwear with top models.

"The pay was nice--it financed another trip back to Italy for me." Tornincasa keeps a 1965 Sprint 150 in a friend's garage in Milan and goes back each summer to take trips across Europe on it.

In the photos he shows me, I see a younger (and more handsome!) version of myself, astride a bright green Vespa, loaded with a backpack under some foreign sun. In this case Spain or Germany or France, which as it turns out was no picnic.

"I broke down in Marseilles and had to push the Vespa for seven hours up a series of hills. The locals kept pointing up the steepest hills directing me to the scooter shop. Not one of them offered to help. That's the French for you," he remarks with the sort of innate contempt for one's neighbors that Europeans spend a lifetime perfecting.

"They fixed the ignition flywheel, but it cost me four times what it should have. I don't like France. But Italy's great."

Like so many Italian-Americans, Tornincasa, who grew up in San Jose, never learned Italian as a child, but since he fell in love with scooters he's reconnected with the country of his ancestors.

"I have relatives back in Italy, cousins and stuff, but I don't have much in common with them. Now, thanks to my Vespa I have friends all over. ... Italy's full of dealers and handymen live on each corner ready to fix your Vespa."

Mike paid a visit to the Vespa factory in Pontedera and he has taken part in events and rallies in Europe and in the United States.

"Clubs are great. I was in a club for a long time, even though there isn't a real scooter club in Santa Cruz." He tells me stories of huge gatherings where swarms of scooter riders fill the streets in major American cities.

Mike says he's turning away from the clubs and rallies these days, spending more time at home working on his restorations and hanging with his friends.

That leaves Kristen as my sole source of information about the elusive Santa Cruz Vampires. Aside from admitting membership in the club, she'll tell me little else. She says the club was founded decades ago in San Bruno and got its name from its members' habits of riding mostly at night. Besides that tantalizing fact, she says most of the club members ride full-blown motorcycles and only half a dozen or so ride scooters. While she insists there is nothing spooky about the Vampires, an article in Scoot contradicts her, showing a photo of a bizarre altar with candelabra and God knows what on display.

To find out more, Kristen says I'd have to get initiated, and she makes the suggestion with a smile that looks more like a leer to me. I may be a fool for liking Vespas as much as I do, but I'm not that crazy.

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From the May 30-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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