Photo by Jasna Boudard
One hot day this summer, people strolling along the seafront in the Costa Brava town of Calella were surprised when a swarm of nearly 100 vintage Vespas suddenly drove up, throwing a cloud of dust up behind them. They were arriving for the annual ‘Calella Scooter Rally’, which sees Vespa and Lambretta lovers from all over Spain, as well as France and Belgium, come together with their lovingly cared-for scooters.
The riders lined up their classic bikes in the shade of Calella’s sycamore trees, turning the area into an open-air museum. Some bikes were still in their original state, while others had been fitted with new lights, exhaust pipes or seats. The oldest ones were from the Fifties, a time when Vespa was still producing scooters in Spain. One even had a sidecar, which was closely inspected by the curious onlookers.
This rally, now in its 12th year, is organised by Jonathan Valero, a 32-year-old from Barcelona, as part of the Sant Jordi Vespa Club that he runs. “As young as 12, I was already riding a Vespa under my father’s watchful eye,” Valero said. At 16, he got his first Lambretta, a 125cc 1971 model: “I’ve still got it, and it runs smoothly.” When he was 17, he made a three-week trip around Spain on his Lambretta. “And even now, when I go on holiday, I use my Vespa,” Valero explained. His Vespa 200, only 11 years old, can carry his wife as a pillion passenger and has room for suitcases.
Valero’s love for these classic machines has even spilled over to his professional life, with his decision to turn his hobby of repairing his own scooters into his work, by opening a scooter shop in Gràcia. At Only Scooter, as well as carrying out repairs, Valero sells accessories for Vespa addicts.
So how did the Vespa, which now produces such love, first come into being? In 1946, Corradino d‘Ascanio developed the first Vespa at the request of Enrico Piaggio, the Italian engineer whose family-run company produced rolling-stock and airplanes until Allied bomb attacks in World War Two put a halt to their enterprise and left the company looking for new avenues to explore. In 1948, the successful model Vespa 125 went into mass production with 55,000 scooters produced in the first two years. Then in 1952, the company Motovespa produced its first Vespa 125 in a factory near Madrid. By 1976, in the factory in Pontedera, Italy, 7,200 workers produced more than 2,500 scooters daily.
Nowadays, what the Volkswagen Beetle, Citroen 2CV and Renault R4 are for cool car collectors, vintage Vespas are for scooter lovers. Arguably, a key moment in the development of this love affair was in 1953, when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn appeared in the movie Roman Holiday, riding a Vespa together through the narrow streets of the Italian capital (in the days before helmet wearing was enforced). This image helped to create a global Vespa cult, with rider clubs now set up around the world, from California to India.
Impressively, the old-style scooters have maintained this level of adoration despite the fact that owners have to mix their own fuel for them. That’s right: each time a vintage Vespa rider runs low on petrol, he (and it usually is a he, although Valero says that an increasing number of women are riding them) has to fill up the engine with a mix of gas and oil, then start it with the kick-start mechanism, rather than with a key as you do with the modern machines.
It’s not just the bikes themselves that are popular, however. Manufacturer Piaggio used sex appeal in marketing the Vespa right from the start. In the Fifties, the company issued a Vespa Calendar with pin-up girls, which achieved a circulation of around 275,000 copies, plus a pocket edition of 900,000. The old issues of these calendars, featuring women in bikinis next to different models of the scooter, are today much in demand with collectors.
Despite this wide-ranging appeal, in the crisis-hit Barcelona of today, selling vintage Vespas can be difficult. Last year, enthusiast Juanma Nacarino opened Vespa Vintage on Passeig de Sant Joan. The beautifully restored Fifties’ Vespa, which he always parked in front of the store, attracted the eye of many passers-by, but few went in and actually bought anything. Some time ago Nacarino had to close the shop and now it only exists on the internet. Similarly, Maria Otero Solé thought the fashionable neighbourhood of Gràcia would be a good place to sell scooter gear, Vespa memorabilia and mod stuff, and she opened a store in Torrent de l‘Olla. This shop is now up for rent.
While classic Vespas may not be the best area for a niche business idea, for bike lovers looking for something with style, it’s the only way to go. Three years ago, Albert Larruy from Arenys de Mar “only” had a BMW Cross motorbike, but what he’d really always wanted was a Vespa. In 2008, a colleague offered to sell Larruy his bright red Vespa 1983 PKS 75 bike. “I couldn’t turn down his offer, thinking about how much it would be worth when it was overhauled,” Larruy said.
The scooter had been in storage for 10 years so it needed to be completely renovated. Larruy restored the engine, cleaned the fuel tank and fitted a few new parts, and now the scooter runs as good as new. “The nice thing with the old Vespas is the simplicity of their motor,” he said. “With some basic knowledge of how an engine works, you can do everything by yourself.”
And even in Barcelona, with its thousands of scooters, a vintage Vespa is something special. “You see people’s faces on the street, and they are fascinated by this scooter,” said Larruy. He reckons that a Vespa is not ideal for long-distance touring, but it is very convenient in the city. ”You simply get around faster than in a car, especially in jams, when everyone has to wait.”
He is not the only one who enjoys having a Vespa in the garage but not all owners are so keen to take their vehicles out and about. In L’Hospitalet, there is a well-kept secret stash of proudly preserved Vespas from the Fifties, including some rare Spain-made specimens and an ‘Ape’, the three-wheeled minicar Piaggio used to produce. But the Catalan owner, who we’ll just call J.S., and who also runs a scooter repair workshop, is so concerned about them getting damaged that he only takes them out onto the street on special occasions. Although this means he doesn’t get to share his vintage Vespas in the same way as Albert Larruy and those members of the Sant Jordi Scooter Club gathered in Calella, the dedication of J.S. to the classic machines is just as evident, with his declaration that he will never sell what he calls his “beauties”.
Only Scooter: www.onlyscooter.com
Vespa Vintage: www.vespavintage.es
A tota Vespa: www.atotavespa.com
Club Scooterisa Sant Jordi: www.myspace.com/scooterrun
Rent Vespas at Via Vespa: www.via-vespa.com