Not quite a bicycle, not quite a motorbike, the Vespa is utilitarian, stylish, fun, and cheeky. There's not much to it -- a seat, an engine, and a groovy splashguard -- but in its own unassuming way it leaves a filament of Italian culture in its wake whether it's ridden in Chicago, Brussels or Bognor.
Vespa manages to stay cool in popular culture throughout the decades. Gregory Peck rode one in "Roman Holiday," and Audrey Hepburn rode on the back of one while adhered to Gregory Peck. Vespas look cool parked in front of art colleges, juice bars and any back lane or side street in Europe.
The Vespa started life in 1946 in a bombed-out Italy. A disastrous economy and an even more disastrous road system didn't lend themselves well for motorists. The easy and fast solution was to build small, easy to drive and reliable vehicles that could negotiate potholes and backstreets.
Aeronautical engineer Corradino D'Ascanio was the man commissioned to design the original Vespa. D'Ascanio couldn't stand motorbikes, which may explain why the Vespa looks the way that it does. It is essentially a two-wheeled form of transportation without the noise, the exposed engine, and the crass, unsightly grease of a traditional motorcycle. Like so many Italian products, the Vespa is clearly designed with lifestyle in mind first, and product second. The Vespa was not designed to be bigger, louder and grouchier than all the other motorcycles; it was designed to lend itself to Italy's unique post-war social climate.
The zippy engine and little wheels help you nip through back alleys and traffic jams. The splashguard stops your stylish trousers from getting speckled with mud in the winter; the nice comfy seat prevents chaffed buttocks. Buy the optional windshield and your hair stays bug-free for an evening at the jazz club.
Italians have been making lifestyle brands since before the rest of us realized we had lifestyles. While much of the world concerns itself with horsepower, processor speeds and return on investment, Italian brands concentrate on bubble cars, espresso machines, stylish shoes and Memphis table lamps.
Olivetti is a good example. While IBM (IBM
) was filling offices with square products in grey and beige, Olivetti was commissioning the funky new designer Ettore Sottsass to make bright red typewriters that looked like handbags and adding machines that looked like hairdryers.
Perhaps this focus on lifestyle is the reason why the familiar Vespa look and feel hasn't changed significantly since its original incarnation. The lifestyle of the single, middle-class European Bohemian is essentially what it was fifty years ago; cappuccinos still have froth, art galleries are still in lofts, and French film noir is still...well, noir. For Vespa, it's not the brand or the logo that's cool -- it's literally the vehicle of a lifestyle. Its image is effortless. Vespa has an indisputable history and, in its own unassuming way, it possesses something that other brands spend billions trying to achieve: authenticity.
Brands such as Levi's, Harley Davidson (HDI
), and Marlboro all have an indisputable authenticity, the strength of which relies on whom it doesn't cater to. Vespa concentrates on delighting a small market. Mass-market brands (Prius, Lexus or BMW) cater to the multitudes, trying to amass as many users from as many different backgrounds as possible. They are inclusive brands, while Vespa, by virtue of its shape and size, is an exclusive brand in the literal sense of the word. It's not for families, it's not for the elderly, and it's certainly not for your parents (unless your dad is Johnny Depp).
However, while authenticity is great, it also has its limitations -- stray too much from the original message and loyal followers won't like it. So while Vespa may have a bright future, it is securely locked with the past. While at diametrically opposite ends of the motorcycle spectrum, Vespa and Harley-Davidson both share a common conundrum because of their authenticity. Both can innovate, but not too much. Both can diversify, but not so much as to dilute their original image. The basic "Vespa-ness" of Vespa cannot be tinkered with too radically.
So while brands such as Starbucks( SBUX
) and Tommy Hilfiger (TOM
) regularly spend a king's ransom to convince us that their brands are lifestyle brands, that they fill that yawning gap in our lives and are really, really cool (honest!), Vespa is the genuine article. It is cool by virtue of its Italian heritage, its authenticity and its low-key image. As brands such as clothing label agnes b. show, cool is not assumed. It is something to be discovered. Sometimes, the harder you try and the louder you shout, the less you convince.