Johannesburg - I enjoy riding a Vespa. There, I’ve said it.
As a full time motoring scribe we tend to pilot an enviable array of machinery, from entry-level to the exotic, or more-importantly, from the not-so-quick to the very quick.
My colleagues at Star Motoring will tell you one of my standard phrases – sometimes in jest, sometimes not – has been “it’s not fast enough”. Which is generally where the debate around there being more to a car begins.
And probably why my enjoying riding a 150cc Vespa around Joburg is all-the-more ironic.
The fact of the matter is, though, that I’ve had more thrills on my red two-wheeler than in some million-buck machinery. Why, you ask? Two reasons really. My adventures on the Vespa mark my first real attempt at riding a bike, period, meaning the experience in itself has been quite unnerving.
The second reason is that physical experience of speed you get when riding, even on a little Vespa. Bikers have mentioned this to me for years, that rush or feel of riding, and I’ve always brushed it off against the dangers associated with this mode of transport.
But even after all the horror bike stories, weather constraints and taxi drivers, I have to agree with them. There’s a level of excitement associated with biking.
So yes, I’ve donned my helmet and gloves and boarded a Vespa for a long-term test of both my riding skills and the bike itself.
So why a Vespa and not one of the cheaper and more-widely available scooters out there? It’s simple: think iconic scooter and you don’t think Boy Boy riding through Tiananmen Square, you think old Vespas on tiny Italian city streets.
And you picture that iconic Vespa design, a trademark found in Vespa bikes to this day.
IS IT REALLY EXPENSIVE?
And before we go any further, I’m not going to disagree with you when you say that these are expensive wheels. A 150cc starts at R70 000, and a 300cc costs R30 000 more. What I will say, after spending two months with my red number and soaking up the local Vespa culture, is that if you can afford it, don’t think twice.
Is the new Fiat 500 or MINI Cooper cheap? Nope. Sure, they’re more competitively priced against their rivals than the Vespa, but different brands seem to put different price tags to heritage and quality. You’d buy a pair of Levis jeans for five times the price of a no-name brand – there’s some of that thinking going on here.
And to be honest, I can tell you there’s also quite a quality feel to a Vespa. Ask around and you’ll be surprised to hear how many old Vespas are still running around.
Where the newer Chinese scooters are mere appliances that you throw away after a few years, Vespas tend to hold a fair resale value – have a look online, you may be surprised – with the really older ones demanding some serious tom.
In terms of its build quality, Vespa claims its bikes are the safest two-wheelers on the planet. The company that created the world’s first scooter today uses an all-steel chassis, which forms a solid protection plate from the front to the rear and creates that typical-scooter footrest (along with proper protection for the rider’s legs).
My little 150cc (154.8 to be precise) is also rather modern in that it runs a fuel-injected, four-stroke engine and uses ABS brakes (disc up front) to stop. It features a catalytic converter as part of its quieter exhaust set-up, consumption is pegged at 55km a litre (at 70km/h) and has an electric starter for quick, get-up-and-go.
THE LEARNING CURVE
My first experience on the bike was a clever little riding experience which the Vespa stores offer potential customers. I headed to the Design Quarter showroom (Melrose Arch now also has a store) and within 15 minutes I was kitted up and zooming around on a bike in the parkade. I say this is clever as it’s just the motivation you need to get your learner’s licence (and finance application) going.
The learner’s process, as you can imagine, is more harrowing than your first public road experience on the bike. Getting an appointment was easy, but the appointment date was months away.
And trust me when I say this, you may think you remember everything from when you were 18 and got your car learner’s licence, but there’s lots of those little uncommon signs and details you have forgotten.
Luckily, after a fair amount of studying I may add, I was ready to rock with that freshly-printed learner’s sheet in my hand. And boy has it been worth the effort.
But this being a long-term test, you’re gonna have to wait a few weeks for a proper debrief on the riding-side of things. Let’s just say that it’s been rather interesting.