CLOSE TO THE VESPA

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

He grew up on the west side--"Scumville, USA," he says--and emerged from a rough, fatherless childhood with the realization that he either had to face responsibility or sink. He had another Vespa, legally this time, by his 16th birthday. Then, much later, while on yet another Vespa, he met his wife. He was cruising down Cave Creek Road when he stopped on the roadside to help out her and her distressed Volkswagen.

He started out repairing Porsches and VWs, but then Vespa business picked up enough that he dropped the other makes altogether.

About 80 percent of his business, he figures, goes to the beatnik coffee-house crowd, with the remainder split among yuppies with money and serious collectors. The average cost of a fully restored Vespa is between $2,500 and $3,500, although Darnell can put together a basic bike in running condition for up to $2,000 less, with a warranty.

"Until you ride one, you don't know," he says. "Once you own one, it's all over."

When Steve Strauss, the dreadlocked drummer for Azz Izz, a local reggae band, brought his Vespa down from Colorado Springs, Darnell prodded him into letting him restore it.

Seeing Strauss' machine now, you can understand why people flip out over these things. It's one of Darnell's fully restored models--a radiant blue swathed in chrome with a stylish Vespa mudflap and red hubcaps. Strauss rolls it out into the shade in front of his house, eyeing it like a proud father, then leans over and wipes off a water spot on the scooter's front end. "This is the only thing I'm a total freakazoid about," he says.

Dave Schuttenberg of Dave's Big Deluxe, a ska band in Tucson, has a 1974 Vespa Rally 200cc he's having painted M&M orange with white racing stripes. "The style of these bikes is just so superior to anything else in the scooter world," he says. "The curves, the teardrop cowlings, the rounded edges, the chrome accents--everything about it reeks of style."

Schuttenberg and his scooter buds throw a road rally twice a year, like the ones they have over in England. About 40 scooters meet somewhere in Tucson, head down into towns like Sonoita and Patagonia and finally through Nogales to a campsite, with the rest of the night given to massive keg partying and ska dancing. This year's Tucson-to-Nogales run could draw up to 60 scooters, Schuttenberg says, now that word has spread to California.

But in the Valley, the group activity is minimal, limited to a couple of scooter clubs Darnell downplays as negligible, though Details magazine gave a nod about a year ago to the scooterists who hang out at coffee houses like Java Road. That was about the time Darnell's business began to pick up.

He says he stays away from those groups. They don't have a life, he says; they don't have to go home and face the responsibilities of a family. Besides that, they badmouth him, and he says he's not sure why. It could be those Calvinist philosophies he effuses--or it could just be that he's so tremendously upbeat, the sort of guy who will surprise a dude he barely knows by telling the eager-to-serenade help at IHOP it's the dude's birthday when it's really not.

Whatever. He's not worried about it, though--he's got orders to fill and the possibility of a big-money Vespa deal with Nike linked to the Super Bowl.

"You can sell anything to anybody, if you believe in it," he says. "Americans are so gullible."

The Vespa was born of economic necessity when workers at Piaggio's factory, amid the ruins of post-World War II Italy, needed a way to get around the bombed-out place. Up to then, the factory had produced air transportation, and so engineers developed a scooter whose aerodynamic style was a key innovation in an industry that had barely mastered function and convenience.

The engine was encased on one side of the rear wheel; a spare tire was tucked in on the other side. The front tire, like those on the landing gear of an airplane, bolted onto an axle and could be pulled off in the event of a flat without taking apart the whole front end. It had a lockable glove box. Finally, the aerodynamic, perfectly formed curves--Vespa means "wasp" in Italian--added the beauty that had been lacking before. It proved impossible to improve upon.

Filmmakers fell in love with it. With exposure in movies like La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday, a star was born.

A competitor, Lambretta, loomed close behind and vied with the Piaggio creation through the Fifties, the pricey, temperamental Porsche to the Vespa's Volkswagen Beetle. Vespas were softer, less slick. Even today, those who ride Lambrettas, when they name their bikes, tend to give them guys' names while Vespa owners name theirs after girls.

The rivalry extended to where America shopped. Sears sold a Vespa, marketed as the Allstate; the Riverside was Lambretta's nod to U.S. consumers, sold through Montgomery Ward.

But Lambretta gasped to a halt in 1971. Vespa, on the other hand, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. For about six grand, you can fly to Italy, tour the factory and Vespa museum and own a brand-new scooter.

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