A La Mod

The scooter market is revving up with irresistible marriages of fashion and function

This morning seven million people drove a Volkswagen to work, 12 million a Chevrolet, 22 million used a Toyota... and 36 million rode a scooter. I have just made up those figures. The numbers are not accurate, but as the Italian inventors of this most beautiful and useful two-wheeled device say : "Si non e vero, e bellissima e immortale" (If it's not true, it's beautiful and immortal). Even America, home of the mighty burbling Harley-Davidson ElectraGilde, has succumbed to the convenience of the nifty scooter: Piaggio launched its ET4 to an astonished Manhattan in 2000.

If Piaggio, a boat and plane manufacturer from Pontedera in Tuscany, seems the least well-known world brand, remember that no one had ever heard of Giulio Cesare. Francesco Redi discovered germs; Giovanni Farina invented eau-de-cologne; Ambrogio Calepino published the first modern dictionary; Fallopio discovered those famous tubes and it was another unknown Italian, Corradino d'Ascanio, Italy's helicopter pioneer, who designed the scooter. Using aeronautical principles (and providing the distinctive step-through frame so women and priests in billowing skirts and cassocks could mount with propriety), his device was such a success that the product's name has become generic, like Hoover. d'Ascanio's design was the Vespa, named after the wasp because of its distinctive buzzing engine note.

The scooter was born in Italy's industrial revolution, and was intended to get the workers newly mobilised. It is a typical product of the years following 1945 when the country's creative energy was invested in design for industry. Italy's furniture, cars and products of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies are a unique expression of modern civilisation. Neither before nor since has so much imaginative effort been so focussed on such accessible, useful art forms.

It was a beautiful historical moment and the Vespa was one of its most distinctive products. But the scooter is emphatically not an historic relic; it is enjoying a vigorous international renaissance.

Designed as an accessible working tool, for too long Vespas had been sold, if they had been sold at all, as cheap transport for poor people. Fiat's Nuova Cinquecento of 1957 then put Italian peasants on four wheels. The scooter renaissance began in the early Nineties when the idea was to sell them to affluent urban professionals who had become bored with having their Audis clamped and their BMWs vandalised. This required a complete re-design and the classic metal Vespa was replaced by the ET4 of 1995-1996 which, with its intelligent use of modern plastics and appealing details, was a triumph of consumerism: the charm of the old was retained, but powerfully enhanced by modern materials and technology. The priest's workhorse had become polite urban jewellery.

Evocative colours were perfect too: period pistachio and limoncino. The Vespa achieved that grail of all product designers: it excited unassuagable cupidity. See one and you need to buy one.And other manufacturers soon learnt to copy Piaggio's example. Peugeot offers a supercharged 125cc Jet Force Compressor with performance levels that would have astonished d'Ascanio.

The Japanese, in their inimitable way, have taken the idea and evolved it to bizarre extremes of invention. Yamaha's TMax 500 is technically a scooter (because the engine is in a single unit with the rear wheel), but looks and goes like a cafe racer. Piaggio's response is to offer the GranTurismo, a Vespa stretch with more stability and more comfort, intended to seduce those few remaining professionals who still insist on driving their luxury cars into city centres.

The Vespa started a fascinating design adventure which is really only just beginning. The best scooters are intensely desirable as objects and wonderfully efficient as machines: the Futurist dream of instant mobility is at last available.

Scooters are the very best that design can achieve: a marriage of very great convenience between fashion and function. Oh yes, I should also mention they are a complete blast to ride.

By Stephen Bayley

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