CLOSE TO THE VESPA

IF YOU RIDE AN ITALIAN SCOOTER, SKA DANCE AND WEAR SKINNY TIES, YOU'RE A HEPCAT. JUST ASK BOB DARNELL.

The mad scientist of scooterdom is a little guy in shorts by the name of Bob Darnell. In truth, he is not so little--maybe five feet nine or ten, possibly five feet eight, he's not exactly sure--but he seems small in the diminutive, oil-spattered world he's created from an old home just off Indian School Road.

The place is now his shop--one part work space, one part showroom and lobby, one part office and supply room--and out back there is this sort of junkyard swollen with what appear to be gigantic dust-covered toys. Some of them, especially the ones he says are actual cars and trucks, look like something you'd stick a quarter into outside K mart to keep the kids entertained for a while.

But then there are the two-wheelers, and those are the rocks on which Darnell has built his enterprise, Classic Vespa of Phoenix. Every one of them, except for a stray Lambretta or two, bears the mark of Piaggio, the Italian transportation giant that gave the world the Vespa motor scooter nearly half a century ago. In the Sixties, British working-class mods sponged Lambrettas and Vespas into their signature pressed look and rebel lifestyle, a movement immortalized in the Who's Quadrophenia a decade later.

Bob Darnell, who wears a tee shirt that itself immortalizes the Who, is making a living breathing life back into Vespas. He is 26 years old with hair chopped so short it looks like he spread it on with a knife. Customers beep daily through the doors of Classic Vespa, he says, bringing in scooters that have sat unused for years. Sometimes, Darnell will perform what he calls a full restoration, which is to say that he attempts to improve upon perfection. Occasionally, he succeeds.

He is aided in this, he says, by the Vespa being such a superior machine, a classic art piece coddling a piston, a cylinder and a carburetor. Owners talk of precision engineering and dazzling curvature. The Vespa is the Cindy Crawford of motor scooters.

"In the late Fifties, early Sixties, there was a huge scooter market, and everybody jumped on the scooter bandwagon," Darnell says. "But the ones still on the road are Vespas, man."

Piaggio, which saw Vespa sales decline worldwide to about 500 annually a few years ago, has since discontinued sales in the United States. In the Vespa's heyday, the company sold 20,000 a year around the globe.

More than two million of them were sold in America. Darnell is actively looking for them. "They're out there," he says. He purchases them from people who've got them stashed in their backyards, in their garages, wherever. He hunts them down in Sun City. "A lot of that stuff is sittin' stagnant right now, just waiting to evolve," he says.

He has 70 of them in his junkyard, some appearing beyond rescue, along with the futuristic Vespa minicars and trucks, as well as Sugar, his pit bull pup. In his workshop, Darnell hammers and dollies away with thick arms because, with a steel-bodied Vespa, you can. "I'm a little tiny guy, man, but I crank," he says.

Luckily for Darnell, scooter bandwagons return. The mod scene never really died. Instead, it reappeared, cometlike, throughout the Eighties, young mods riding down Mill Avenue listening to Madness and the Police. Darnell was among them. Now mod has incorporated ska, a sort of big-band-meets-reggae musical form in need of a corresponding look. The shirts and ties, the neatly buzzed heads, match up well with the sophisticated image of the Vespa scooter.

At least this is what Darnell is hoping. It is happening elsewhere, especially in Britain, where there is a magazine called Scootering, and all along the West Coast, where Vespunks frequent coffee houses in packs. Some of Darnell's customers praise his creativity, even his foresight, but the thing he has not been able to create successfully, though he is desperately trying, is the notion of a local Vespa "scene," an event that could transform him from mildly to wildly successful.

If there is a scene out there, so far it has eluded him.

As do many men who must use Lava soap on the job, Bob Darnell has a Playboy centerfold posted near his work space, but that is because Miss March 1994 is straddling a Vespa.

"I'm a firm believer in Jesus Christ," he says before breakfast one morning, just after he says grace, at the International House of Pancakes. Jesus, he confirms, would have tooled around Galilee on a Vespa if it had been possible.

Darnell has buzzed to the restaurant in a green 1964 Vespa truck he and business partner Greg Mann appropriately call the Pickle, careering around the parking lot like an art-deco meter maid on meth.

"I've been doing this since I was 12," he says over hash browns and pancakes. "Actually, I stole my first Vespa when I was 12. Some old man had it parked in front of a motor home and I went and asked about it, if he wanted to sell it, and he said, 'Get outta here, kid, you're bothering me.' It was out in the sun, all ragged, so I just took it. And I got caught. You do stupid things when you're a kid. But that's where the passion started."

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