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."

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.

"There's a certain mystique about owning something Italian versus something German or Japanese, which is where most of our imports come from," says Tony Weaver, a Phoenix accountant who just parted with his 200cc--the muscle Vespa--for $1,500. "You could do wheelies on it if you wanted to," he says. "But I'm getting to be an old fart. I felt like my luck was running out."

And every once in a while, the more daring scooterists will white-knuckle down the interstate, braving the gusts of passing 18-wheelers. Maybe scarier than the tractor-trailers, though, are the looks from the riders on Harley Davidsons, the growling meanies of the two-wheeler world. If Harleys are hogs, Vespas are poodles. Andre Agassi, meet John Kruk.

"You were like a gnat buzzing around their heads," Weaver says of his encounters with Harleys.

"The more wacked out you make your bike, the more you get laughed at," says Dave Schuttenberg, the ska band member. "I have a friend--he's got mirrors going all the way down the front, and people would just openly laugh at him."

Vespas, even at 70 miles per hour, provide no match for a sneering cycle. However, they do get 100 miles to the gallon and run as smooth as a Swiss watch. What's to prove? Perfection has no competition.

The resurgence Darnell sees in store for Vespas is being ushered in by national advertisers like Esprit, Maybelline and Absolut, who have sought out the bikes for recent marketing campaigns. In the Valley, Vespas have made appearances in display windows at Fashion Square in Scottsdale and outside Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country Shopping Center.

Some might look at scooters as just another trend. The market is riding fairly high right now on the shoulders of such contraptions as the Honda Elite. But with Vespa dealerships an American thing of the past, those who own the sacred scooters guard them with the satisfied knowledge that there are only so many to go around.

And with no local scooter clubs to recommend themselves, Darnell and a cat named Steve Naughton, a local promoter, came up with the idea of Dance Hall Thursdays at a downtown club called Jackson Street Grill. They envisioned the venue as somewhere the 'Tones--short for Two-Tones, or ska enthusiasts--could satisfy their ska appetites and watch scooter films, after, of course, arriving on their Vespas.

It's a whole vibe, a scene, they're attempting to create as has been done on the West Coast. They even use a logo showing a couple astride a Vespa in their Dance Hall Thursday announcements. "They kind of fit together," Naughton says. "That's what our night's all about."

Big things happening, that's what Darnell sees. Even so, his promoter persona still rubs some people the wrong way.

Says Schuttenberg of Dave's Big Deluxe: "I could see some of the traditional riders looking at Bob as possibly bastardizing the scene, but I don't look at it that way at all. There's people who are elitist. They don't like outsiders in the scene. But I look at Bob as somebody who's taking bikes that probably would rot and getting them back out on the road."

The ska nights have attracted many, but, so far, the Vespas themselves have been pretty rare. Last Thursday, not more than a couple of the scooters showed up for a gig featuring local ska phenoms Kongo Shock and national ska-sters Regatta 69. Everyone else drove big four-wheeled cars.

Inside, they danced as ska dancers dance, a strange mixture of the Twist and amateur speed skating. The more skillful shake about like marionettes, flailing with such force that wallets pop out of pants pockets. Nevertheless, the dancers are quite well-dressed.

Two particularly agile dancers are members of the Deuces scooter club. "We are the scooter club around here," one of them says. They appear to be in their early 20s and are both tall and lanky. They say the Deuces have about eight members and meet at places like Java Road and Orbit Espresso.

Outside, away from the buoyant music, Bob Darnell is waiting under the yellow-orange light of Jackson Street for a scene that is playing extremely hard to get. He leans against the Pickle, parked flamboyantly at the curbside, watching for a couple of friends he thought for sure would make it tonight.

A woman he met inside is hovering nearby, regarding the Pickle and an adjacent red Vespa skeptically. She has no desire to own a scooter. Why? Because they're the in thing, she says, that's why.

Darnell has no use for such an attitude. He purses his lips and sits back, watching for Jim and Andre. That would be two more scooters. They should have been here by now.

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