Wheels within wheels

Colum Lowe couldn’t wait to get back on two wheels in the form of his friend’s Vespa, but the experience was marred by car drivers’ attitudes toward scooterists

Every time I find myself sitting in a traffic jam in central London thinking about how well spent that £5 was on the Congestion Charge and watching motorcycles whiz by me as carefree as a cloud, I dream back to the years before the birth of my child when I too had a motorcycle and the roads of London were my plaything.

Consequently, I was particularly excited when a good friend of mine recently offered to lend me his scooter while he was away on holiday for a few weeks. Ah, to be back on two wheels, the wind in your hair, the thrill of the open road, the total non-existence of traffic jams, motorcycling really is the only way to get about London. The bike in question turned out to be a Vespa, the thinking man’s scooter, the style icon of European personal transport, originally designed in the 1940s by the aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio which sold a million units in the first ten years of production and has been altered little since.

Let’s get one thing straight, scooters are not motorbikes and scooter riders are not bikers. D’Ascanio couldn’t stand motorbikes and set out to design something completely different, so when I first took to the road I was in for a big surprise. I’m not talking about the total lack of acceleration or the dodgy brakes and suspension, nor even the ridiculous gear shift thingy on the handlebars – after all, the bike was designed in the middle of the last century and 60 years of sales is hard to argue with – I’m talking about other road users.

As a motorcyclist I already knew that scooter riders are at the bottom of the biking fraternity food chain, slightly above the pizza delivery boy in terms of respect, but tolerated on the road by ‘real’ bikers. What stunned me most was the reaction of car drivers. In all my time riding a motorbike in London I only had one or two minor run-ins with car drivers, but on the scooter it was virtually a daily occurrence, even pedestrians would hurl abuse at me. This never happened while I was on my Ducati. Of course, Ducatis are cool, recently voted the Coolest Brand in Britain, in fact, and the latest race model, the 999, was designed by Pierre Terblanche; I mean come on, even the names are cool (the parts and labour aren’t though, take it from one who knows).

And here’s for why; the average motorist (myself included) assumes that if you’re riding a scooter you’re either a girl, a spotty 16-year-old who can’t get a licence for anything bigger or a middle-aged man who collects stamps and spots trains at the weekend. Therefore, any level of abuse can be hurled at their riders safe in the knowledge that there is no risk of personal injury to yourself. Whereas, as everyone knows, ‘proper’ motorcyclists are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They carry large chains up their sleeves to deal with troublesome car drivers just like me. This is obviously not true, but, as we are all too aware, perception is king. Of course, as a designer, I should obviously be above such triviality – it is, after all, our job to communicate these sorts of values to unsuspecting consumers. We spend our working lives designing objects and environments to manage/manipulate (delete as appropriate) perception.

I should know more than most that it’s just a marketing ploy, a bit of superficial styling. Beauty is only skin deep after all. I should buy products because of their function, ones that deliver on my needs, and not be confused or put off by the ‘packaging’. But alas it is not so, designers are people too it would seem and perhaps more prone to ‘brands’ than the end users for which we design. All of which means, as much as I would love to potter around town on Vespa’s latest creation, the lovely ET4 (no gearshift thingy on the handle bar and a 125cc four-stroke engine, mmmm), I just know I won’t be happy riding a scooter, no matter how practical.

It is a strange contradiction that Italian men, famous for their machismo, are happy to ride around on scooters, whereas the average British male still considers this wonderful form of personal freedom a ‘poof-scoot’.

So, until I can get further in touch with my feminine side and cease to feel the need to reinforce my masculinity through my possessions, can somebody please design a scooter with all the practicality, fun and convenience of a Vespa, but with a bit of Ducati attitude, a hint of danger and excitement, and a bit of ‘come too close and I’ll f***ing have you’.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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