I remember the moment very distinctly and still stings a little.
Back in 2011, I was a relative newcomer to scooters. While I had ridden a variety of dirt bikes and mini-bikes in my youth and experienced periodic motorcycle rides over the years, it had been ages since I really rode anything. My family and I were living in Bangkok and I needed transportation. While we had a car, traffic in the city was beyond horrible. The only way I could get around was to own two wheeled transportation. After doing a little shopping, my wife and I concluded I needed a scooter and at her insistence, it had to be a Vespa.
From that moment forward, I was a scooterist. I rode my LX 150 every day and when I returned to the US, I bought another, identical model. I spent money and time customizing every inch of my bike. I invested hundreds in chrome, custom accessories, updating the engine and adding my touch to every inch of my bike. I helped form a scooter club and when we found about scooter rallies, my buddy Jeff and I planned our first trip to “High Rollers Weekend” in Las Vegas.
We were both off the wall with excitement about attending our first rally. Hauling our two scooters nearly 500 miles to meet other scooterists, go on rides, shop for accessories and experience scooter culture first hand was something we eagerly anticipated. I was excited to see other bikes and most important, I was proud to show off my beautiful, Italian-made, Vespa LX 150.
After a six-hour drive to Las Vegas, Jeff and I had built big expectations about the event. We didn’t have a clue about what we were going to experience but as we made the slow descent into Las Vegas on the Interstate, expectations of the event were off the charts. We pulled our trailer up in front of the hotel and began to unload. We saw scooters zipping around and we eagerly moved our bikes into the street. Before we had even put them on their center stands, some guy glanced at us and said, “Go vintage or go home.”
While there are those who prefer Coke over Pepsi, European football over American football, Blues before Jazz or chocolate over vanilla, you learn as you mature there are very few “right” answers in this world. Whatever one person spouts as the “best” is the worst to another. It didn’t feel great hearing this about my beloved Vespa but I had encountered snobs before and it didn’t leave the greatest impression about the event but I moved forward.
One of benefits of this experience was it taught me that there are two segments in Vespa culture. When Vespa owners congregate, the question often arises, “Do you own modern or vintage?” This question serves as a proverbial classification tool to segregate riders. It’s meant to see if you are a “true” Vespa owner. The premise is that a person who buys a modern bike isn’t really a Vespa owner because it’s not vintage.
The modern Vespa you find in the states is made in Pontedera, Italy. I visited the factory a few years ago and they still make bikes in the same location they have been making them since 1946. Piaggio remains the manufacturer and the design comes from the minds of Piaggio engineers just as it did 70 years ago. It still wears the Vespa emblem and retains all the same style, design and functionality of the vintage bikes.
The essence of the original Vespa is retained in the modern design. When a person unfamiliar with scooters sees one on the street, he or she immediately identifies it as a Vespa and often wonders if it’s old. The current product may be designed with innovation but Piaggio recognizes its history and the appeal of their product. There is clearly a concern for its history but still a powerful desire to look forward. When you purchase a modern Vespa, you are purchasing a state-of-the-art machine incorporating all the latest technology while retaining the heritage that has established Vespa as the premier brand of scooters in the world.
So, what’s the appeal of vintage? Why do some vintage owners feel like a modern isn’t equal to its historic counterpart? I have discovered several reasons and many do have a valid foundation. First, owning a vintage bike requires an esoteric knowledge that you don’t need for a modern bike. An inexperienced rider can’t just hop on a vintage bike and go. It takes an understanding of how to operate a gear shifter on the handlebars, push a foot brake, turning the petcock and understand the inner workings of a two-stroke engine.
Next, the vintage bike is exclusive. It’s rare to see two identical bikes and most owners take pride in that fact. If a bike does have a similar paint color, there are often subtle distinctive elements that will make it unique. Perhaps it’s the year, the engine size, the seat configuration, headlamp shape or even the branding on the bike. Vintage bikes are almost always one of a kind.
Last, owning a vintage Vespa gives you a sense of accomplishment. They are not maintenance free. You either need to be rich and have a good mechanic or you must be willing to get your hands dirty because they are fickle things. A vintage Vespa often suffers from technical problems requiring time, knowledge and enough skills to keep these aged things running. Think of it as a form of hazing.
Last summer I bought a 1968 Sprint VLB and I have experienced all of this and more. I get why vintage owners sometimes feel special. As I have learned to ride, I have picked up that special knowledge; I have worked hard to make my bike unique and I have been through the hazing ritual more than once. I ran out of gas (no gauges), rebuilt the carburetor and done a ton of small repairs. I have become a “vintage” owner.
While I love my VLB, I haven’t abandoned my modern Vespa either. I still own and love riding my LX. It’s effortless. I hop on, turn the key and it goes. I love how smooth it is to ride, that I have turn signals and that it’s reliable. Two hours on my VLB and I am exhausted. Two hours on the LX is just getting warmed up. I ride it every day as my commuter bike and I take the vintage out on the weekends and to rallies. Both are completely distinct experiences and yet, very much the same.
Whether I ride my vintage or my modern, I remain a Vespa owner and scooterist. The things that made me become passionate about riding scooters exist in both. The nimble controls, zipping through traffic and the exhilaration of riding remain part of the experience regardless of which one I take out. I feel safer and more comfortable on the modern but I get more thrills on the vintage. I don’t feel like I should choose a side because like the expression says, “they are two sides of the same coin.”
That first rally taught me a lot of things. It helped me develop an appreciation and love of the vintage Vespa. The hundreds of older bikes on display whet my appetite to enter that world. It also taught me that scooterists are awesome. That one comment was the only rude thing I heard in three days of riding. In fact, my club and I continue to return to “High Rollers” every year. So while you may have an affinity for the complexity of a vintage bike or be seeking the ease and smooth ride of a modern, either way, you are still riding a Vespa and really, that’s what it’s all about.
The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and not a direct representation of the Vespa Club of America, it's member base, it's Officers or Board.