SOCIETY

SO VERY VESPA

Get on a motorcycle? Puh-lease. These Vespa owners would be too embarrassed. They're driving 'culture.'

KATE FILLION November 21 2005
SOCIETY

SO VERY VESPA

Get on a motorcycle? Puh-lease. These Vespa owners would be too embarrassed. They're driving 'culture.'

KATE FILLION November 21 2005

SO VERY VESPA

SOCIETY

Get on a motorcycle? Puh-lease. These Vespa owners would be too embarrassed. They're driving 'culture.'

KATE FILLION

One night last week, some Vespa-owning members of the Toronto Scooter Collective gathered at a restaurant in Kensington Market, an area whose raffish edges have been smoothed considerably by the city’s real estate boom. It was an unseasonably warm evening and many arrived on their scooters, pausing to get a good look at the other Vespas parked on the street before going inside.

Members of the collective take matters of style seriously: the preferred female look is pretty-in-black, the male aesthetic is strictly metrosexual. And they value the Vespa almost as much for its sleek lines as for the fact that it can zip in and out of city traffic. “I did my driver’s test on a Honda Rebel, and I have to admit, I loved it,” confided Lisa Santonato, a 32-year-old video ^artist. “But I could never own it. I’d be too embarrassed. It’d be like wearing the wrong dress.”

The men nodded: exactly! “The Vespa is the ultimate lifestyle statement,” said Alix Morreale, whose entire back is covered with an Indiaink tattoo of a scene from Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn, “the most famous girl on a scooter ever,” on a meticulously detailed Vespa. “It’s taken 35 hours so far,” said Morreale, 29, tugging down his shirt. “I still have to get the piazza and the Spanish Steps finished.”

Developed in 1946 as a cheap and practical vehicle for the crumbling roads of postwar Italy, the Vespa quickly became a symbol of European urban chic—and something of a cult classic in Canada, where, until last year, only vintage models were imported, as new ones didn’t meet emission standards.

It's 'the ultimate lifestyle statement/ says the man with a scene from Roman Holiday tattooed on his back

Over the years, North American Vespa owners have come to see themselves as style leaders, and other two-wheelers as followers. “Motorcycles all look the same, they’re not practical for the city, and people drive them like idiots. You get a motorcycle to be one of the crowd,” said Randy Byers, a 36-year-

old ad man with handmade jeans and more than a passing resemblance to Friends star Matthew Perry. “You get a scooter to customize it, make it your own. Everyone’s Vespa is different.”

“It’s wearable, workable art,” another man chimed in, between bites of edamame.

“The iconography of the Vespa ranges from La Dolce Vita to Quadrophenia and the Mods,” Byers continued. “You have to learn the music, the clothing—it’s a whole subculture.”

An endangered one these days, as the Vespa becomes more mainstream. In 2004, Canadian Scooter Corp. began importing new, more environmentally friendly models; in the past 18 months, 30 dealerships have opened across the country. As the price of gas has climbed, so have sales—particularly in Quebec, where 14-year-olds are legally entitled to drive 50-cc scooters. Membership is booming in Canadian Vespa clubs, as is attendance at scooter rallies, which involve taking to the open road en masse, horns “quacking like a flock of ducks,” as Santonato put it.

Members of the Toronto collective expressed a little nostalgia for the days when the Vespa was not pegged as a sensible vehicle with mass appeal. They enjoy going to the gas station and filling up for $5, and are delighted by a new Toronto bylaw decreeing free parking everywhere for scooters and motorcycles. “But I did not buy my Vespa for practical reasons,” Byers wanted it known. And in truth, it’s not all that practical in Canada. Although on one Vespa website there’s an ongoing discussion about riding in low temperatures, most Canadian owners pack their scooters away right about now and turn to more proletarian forms of transport.

As the meeting broke up—“We’re aging scenesters, can’t stay out that late on a weeknight,” someone said—Santonato pulled on her helmet, size xxs, and hung her purse on the bag hook beneath the seat of her new silver Vespa. “You have to be a bit of a thrill-seeker to do this,” she said, revving her engine, which was considerably quieter than anyone else’s.

“Girls look really hot on a new Vespa,” noted Byers, “though I think Lisa should get rid of her side mirrors. They’re not cool.” Then he climbed onto his vintage scooter and roared off into the night. M

RIO, WHERE CYCLISTS TAKE THE BUS

Rio de Janeiro’s scenery is splendid, but exercisers who use stationary bicycles often wouldn’t trade up to real road bicycles because of the Brazilian city’s traffic and pollution. Now “Bus Bike” offers 45-minute spinning classes in a bus fitted with 16 exercise bikes, a changing room, a fridge and a sound system. The bus cruises around the city, allowing riders to enjoy the views without inhaling all that nasty fresh air.