My love affair with the Vespa began -- I've always wanted to use that line -- pretty simply. I'd seen them in a bunch of old movies and all over the place down in my old home of Southern California, but buying an old Vespa that's in pretty good shape is quite a financial hurdle and fixing one up is a hurdle of a whole different height. Since I have neither the means nor the mechanical aptitude, it took a friend of mine to turn me on to the new production Vespas by Piaggio.
The model that I settled on was the ET4. The price tag is about $4,000 on this 150cc model, with a stated top speed of 65 mph. The ET2 is the smaller two-stroke 50cc model. It tops out at around 35 mph and can be had for about a $1,000 less. Standard on both models is an automatic transmission. They represent a huge change over the original Vespa scooters. While there is a certain feel that comes with a manual transmission, it is pretty nice to be able to ride without having to focus on the tachometer. And the transmission is so smooth that shifting is almost imperceptible.
Advances in technology since the 1960s, '70s and '80s like better disc brakes, an electronic starter and improved body materials give the new Vespas a definite edge in performance. Vespas have always been known for their design. and Piaggio has done a great job in maintaining the Vespa style with an updated body contour. The ET4 is slightly sleeker than its predecessors, with a few more niceties. It features a helmet storage compartment under the seat (with room to spare) and a glove compartment spacious enough for at least two pairs of gloves. There are also several plastic body panels that can be swapped out for multi-toned schemes.
Having been a car owner most of my driving life, I thought this would be an indulgence strictly for weekend rides. But soon I realized that since this machine can easily do 65 mph and because it's quick off the line, I can keep up with any of the cars on the road. (In most cases, I can get there faster.) And with gas prices as they are, 40-60 miles to the gallon is a great incentive to leave the Hummer at home. Speaking of being economical, my insurance is only about $230 per year. Other advantages: Never a shortage of parking (don't be afraid to park it in the bicycle stalls), lane sharing, no need for AC, and chicks dig it (at least I hope so).
The $4,000 base price is exclusive of any custom colors or chrome accessories (www.vespa.com). The price may seem steep, but the Vespa is one of the few scooters in production with this level of speed, engine size and overall quality. Having been a Vespa owner for a couple of years now -- my first ET4 was totaled by a good friend of mine ... don't ask -- I've enjoyed the freedom that comes with only having to fill up my 1.5-gallon tank once a week, parking wherever I please, and being a member of a somewhat elite club. Vespa owners carry with them a certain sense of pride in being part of a legacy that has been around since the early 20th century. The Vespa tradition shows every sign of continuing to scoot right along.
Publication date: 10/28/04