The scooter: history of a cultural icon

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Published on 2 November 2017 by Robert Drane

Introduced as cheap post-war transport, the scooter quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Now, in the 21st century, sales are booming again. 

The scooter as we know it today was developed in the 1940s as a low-cost alternative to the car, providing economical transport in a war-ravaged Europe. It caught on quickly and became one of the 20th century’s transport phenomena. But its history goes back much further.

The first recognisable scooter was born in 1894 when Munich company Hildebrand & Wolfmueller introduced the first motorised step-through frame, using a twin-cylinder watercooled engine. By the 1930s, Nebraska, USA-based Cushman was producing simple scooter-framed models with side-valve engines designed to be used on and between the military bases in Europe post-WWI.

At that time, scooters were almost exclusively for military use and it was not until after WWII that the scooter really caught on and reached the civilian market. With petrol rationing in place, little money and poor transport infrastructure the scooter was finding its place.

The first motor scooter was based around the Cushman scooters, originally used by the military as field transport for paratroopers and marines in the European battle arena. Engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio, despite famously hating motorcycles, designed a simple and economical vehicle that was also elegant and comfortable.

From this point came the scooter as we understand it today – a unibody steel chassis with step-through frame geared to make it easy for women to ride in skirts; handlebar gear shift, bodywork to protect the rider, aircraft-style front fork for easy wheel changes, comfortable seating position and no drive chain for easy maintenance.

Vespa and Lambretta

Two Italian names quickly came to dominate the world of scooters – Piaggio with its Vespa brand and Innocenti with the Lambretta.

Originally founded in Genoa in 1884 as a luxury ship fitting business, Piaggio diversified into production of trains and aeroplanes until heavy bombing of the plant in WWII led to the decision to enter the light mobility business. When the first scooter prototype was shown to owner Enrico Piaggio he famously said “Sembra una vespa!” (“it looks like a wasp”). The iconic Vespa was born.

Meanwhile, in Milan, Ferdinando Innocenti was surveying the bombed-out remains of his steel tubing factory. Innocenti came up with the concept of cheap, private transport and decided to produce a motor scooter. Named after the Lambro river valley where the factory stood, the first Lambretta was launched at the 1947 Paris Motor Show, the year after Vespa began production. Capable of 45mph and 150mpg, it was an instant success, combining a classic design with low running costs – perfect for the economic and infrastructure conditions of the time.

Piaggio and Innocenti began heavily marketing their products in the 1950s using the iconography of young people, beautiful women, freedom and wide open spaces as well as producing their own magazines – Vespa News and Lambretta Leader. A new leisure activity and market was born which, by the end of the decade, was heavily skewed towards a new phenomenon: the teenager.

Italian glamour and cheap mobility combined to make the scooter a two-wheeled manifestation of the post-war economic boom, as well as a fashion icon. The scooter became synonymous with Italy and ‘La Dolce Vita’ and its social impact was cemented with appearances in numerous films of the period. The most famous example was Roman Holiday produced in 1953 with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on a 1951 Vespa 125 – an iconic image that helped to sell more than 100,000 of the model in that year.

Scooters appeared in literature (The Absolute Beginners and many others) and music – multiple songs of the time reference Vespa and Lambretta.

La Dolce Vita

Customers were taken with the scooter as a ‘completely Italian product’ and both companies quickly set up service and dealer networks across Europe as well as encouraging the spread of scooter clubs. By 1953, Vespa had 10,000 service points across the world while Vespa clubs alone had 50,000 members. Innocenti’s 1950s advertising campaigns encouraged long-distance scooter journeys with the slogan “more than 100,000km on a Lambretta” and marketing in the form of newsletters, rallies and scooter clubs by both companies created an exciting atmosphere for the mainly youthful owners, helped by the availability of a vast range of accessories. The scooter as a lifestyle statement had arrived and quickly became an icon of changing society in film, literature and advertising.

By the 1950s, the scooter was proving itself outside the urban environment with numerous rallies and expeditions, crossing the Andes, reaching the Arctic Circle, and riding around the world.  No challenge seemed too great for the scooter – two Vespa PX200s even completed the second Paris-Dakar Rally.

Soon, scooter production was licensed to multiple countries and by 1953 half a million Vespas alone had been produced, rising to two million by the end of the 1950s.

The scooter's peak years

By the mid-1950s, Europe was reaching ‘peak scooter’ with models like the Vespa GS150 and Lambretta LD150, now highly sought after. By now, the scooter had the style and performance to cement its position as a youth icon.

Another resurgence was again fuelled by social change. Scooters allowed young people to get where they wanted, and where they wanted to go was dance clubs and parties. By the 1960s ‘Scooter Boys’ clad in American army-surplus parkas were appearing, quickly becoming Mods.

Italian scooters were seen as modern, inexpensive, easy to store and maintain, infinitely customisable and stylish. The choice of Vespa or Lambretta was split along tribal lines – Vespa was seen as reliable, stylish and easily customisable while Lambretta was seen as more contemporary and with greater performance.

By the late ’60s, demand for scooters was dropping as wealth increased in western Europe and small cars became available to more people. Scooter clubs were declining in popularity and only a few remained by the end of the ’70s. Innocenti had closed its factory and Vespa was at a low ebb.

The scooter was down but not out. The Mod revival, the film Quadrophenia and the launch of the Vespa Model P saw the scooter on the rise again.

The 21st century

Today, the scooter market is again in rude health, driven by a combination of nostalgia, the need for low-cost transport and a growing urban population. Most of the established big-name Japanese companies have scooter offerings, many blurring the lines between scooter and motorcycle, particularly at the ‘maxi scooter’ end of the market.

Models like the Honda Silver Wing, Yamaha TMAX and Suzuki Burgman have carved out a new niche in terms of performance, storage capacity and comfort, while lower cost models from India, Korea, Taiwan and China are gaining in acceptance and sales. The Scomadi TL125 mimics the classic Lambretta style; the LML Star and Neco Abruzi imitate the look of classic Vespas, attracting enthusiasts and new entrants alike. Brands such as Lexmoto, AJS and Baotian and many others – mainly from the East – cover the low-cost end of the market.

MCIA sales figures show the scooter resurgence. UK sales in 2016 stood at 28,158, up from 21,700 in 2012, and continuing on an upward trend. Vespa fans can buy a new PX125, the Vespa GTS300 is their fastest model ever and the market leader in 125-650 category, while Lambretta – Indian owned since 1972 – will be a launching a new model this summer. Meanwhile, the market for classic scooters is booming with Vespa and Lambretta models from the ’50s and early ’60s following the price path of classic bikes and appearing at prestigious auctions and sales. Across the UK, many privately owned scooter shops deal with everything from spares supply to nut-and-bolt restorations. Scooter clubs are resurgent, organising rallies and ride-outs with attendance in the thousands.

Scooters keep adapting, both socially and through new technology, power sources and production methods. The scooter is a survivor, and looks set to be with us for the foreseeable future.

This feature ran in the Summer 2017 issue of Motorcycle Rider - the BMF members' magazine. 

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