Vespa drought overcome after 50 years

All colours of the rainbow for Vespa scooter riders.

Roger Bull, a SAFREA member born with camera in hand, has claimed Vespa as his ride of choice in recent years.

Fifty years after making the transition from two to four wheels, Roger eased back onto the saddle of a new-age Vespa seven years ago. He hasn’t looked back since, apart from the regulatory glances in his rear-view mirrors.

Roger, a long-standing MG sportscar owner and experienced professional photographer, earned my earnest respect when he joined a group of Vespa owners who rode from Johannesburg to Cape Town. As committed scooter riders, they were careful to avoid the direct route.

Hah! Why ride a scooter for 1 600 km on a national road, albeit populated with scores of speeding pantechnicons trailing buffeting tailwinds, when you can take the long way round via the scintillating town of Pofadder. I’ve got nothing against the citizens of that fine town. A few years back I enjoyed an excellent cup of coffee there while on an assignment.

The town is named after a Korana chief who ruled the area known as Bushmanland many years ago.

Scooter riding at 16

Roger tells me he ‘started riding scooters when I was 16 in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia, to get to school each morning. But it wasn’t a Vespa, it was an upmarket-looking, Lambretta-like scooter called the NSU.’

Roger Bull at 16: cool as a cucumber on his NSU scooter.

When Roger returned to the scooter-fold, his licence from half a century ago was still valid. But gone were the days of having to kick-start scooters. Technology has moved on.

‘My NSU was a great scooter but it was much slower than the Vespa. I was often envious of my many friends, all of whom were riding Vespas.

‘So when I decided that I’d like to return to the scooter fold, naturally the only choice was a Vespa. Initially, I looked at what is today the classic Vespa model but in the end, I was advised by another Vespa rider that I would get more enjoyment if I  bought the modern version. And he was right.’

So Roger’s love affair with the Vespa brand is based on more modern technological advances. These days, Vespa scooters are fitted with the latest mod cons like ABS brakes, four-stroke engines, fuel injection and automatic gearboxes.

New-age Vespa scooters have an extensive range of technological advances.

Two-stroke scooters

In my day, Vespa scooters with high mileage were as cheap as chips. You had to add the contents of a little tin of two-stroke oil to the petrol every time you filled your tank. And the little lop-sided scooters would putt-putt along nicely for many kilometres on two litres of low octane fuel.

Roger mentions that a club dedicated to riding the classic, two-stroke Vespa models with manual gearchanges has been established.

‘A lot of people collect these classic models from the early 60s and even further back to the 50s. I don’t know when the first Vespa scooters arrived in South Africa but possibly it was in the early 50s. The original models were designed and built-in Italy shortly after the end of the Second World War.’

On the subject of old Vespas, I’d like to mention that my first powered two-wheelers were Vespa models. I couldn’t afford the parking fees in central Durban so I’d leave my car at home and ride to work on my Vespa. I’d park the scooter on the pavement directly outside the Natal Mercury offices. Parking fees: zero.

The Vespa also helped me run the Comrades Marathon. My helper used the scooter the year that the organisers banned the seconding of runners from motor vehicles.

Here’s what the problem was. Typical temperamental Italian, my old scooter would refuse to kick-start when the two-stroke engine got too hot. That year was particularly hot. The only way Oliver could start the machine was to put it into second gear, hold the clutch in and run alongside the scooter, jump on and let the clutch out.

Needless to say, he was more tired than I was at the end of the race.  

In the seven years after his return to scooter riding, Roger has had two minor spills and has progressed way up the learning curve of ‘how to avoid being stupid when astride a scooter’. Apart from the long journey to Cape Town, Roger has also ridden the high road into Lesotho, visited Mpumalanga, taken a trip to KwaZulu-Natal and cruised the quaint tourist town of Clarens in the Free State, always in the company of other Vespa riders.

Notice the different styles of Vespa scooters parked at the Long Tom Pass. The cannon was one of several such weapons used in the Second Boer War.

‘There are hundreds of social riders in the Vespa fraternity in Johannesburg and other cities. Before the Covid pandemic, we’d undertake weekly breakfast rides to different venues around Gauteng. I’m looking forward to the time when those rides will be re-launched as more people get vaccinated.’

Roger has watched stripped-down Vespa racing at the historic Swartkops short track just outside Pretoria. These bare-bones machines looking nothing like the svelte Vespa scooters that have become so popular in South African cities.

‘Those guys are braver than I am, ‘ says Roger. ‘I’ve witnessed quite a few spills on the corner where I was viewing the racing.’

Vespa scooters stripped down for bare-bones racing.

As a person of small stature, Roger’s current mount of choice is a 150cc Vespa Prima Vera. The more powerful and faster models have 300cc four-stroke engines and are quick and nimble enough to use safely on South African freeways.

Most forms of transport with internal combustion engines do not make good investments. But Roger points out that ‘depreciation on Vespas is the lowest of all vehicles worldwide. In other words, they maintain their value over long periods.’

Check out the Vespa website at  Vespas.

Vespa scooters score most votes

On that note, the Vespa website mentions that more than 47 000 readers of the Motorrad monthly periodical, one of the international ‘bibles’ for motorcyclists, voted the Vespa GTS as Bike of the Year in the scooter category.

‘She’s the one, the Italian with elegant and sleek lines, unique with her entirely steel body, the absolute best, the most desirable in the scooter field, even beating out some “home town heroes” like the BMW C-Evolution and the BMW C 650, not to mention the Japanese Yamaha T-Max DX,’ says the magazine.

‘Vespa has already achieved this important recognition several times, so much that the periodical’s website comments: “It doesn’t matter how much power or technical equipment the other scooters bring to the table, in the end, this Italian girl is always at the top of the podium.”’

Vespa sales are not to be sneezed at. In 2018, sales increased 16% over the record numbers achieved in 2017, surpassing the extraordinary quantity of 210 000 units. And in the last ten years, more than 1.6 million new Vespas have been manufactured and sold worldwide.

I’m not sure that prices are listed on the website but you’ll get no change from R100k for a new model. Even the historic two-stroke Vespa scooters are selling for over R30k these days. I can only hark back to the day when I paid R1.5k for my 125cc, powder blue scooter.

This EWN video will let you accompany a rider on a Vespa test drive: https://youtu.be/wjFueIE3X6M.

Check out more creative work by SAFREA members at https://safreachronicle.co.za/.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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