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Not Just a Scooter: Jaunty Vespa Cruises Anywhere (But the Highway)

Richard O'Brien

Okay, so it's not exactly the Via Veneto, this little asphalt parking lot two blocks off Route 22. And I'm in North Plainfield, not Rome. But, hey, I'm channeling a little Marcello Mastroianni here. I twist the throttle and, with a thrilling and very stylish purr, the shiny black Vespa LX carries me smoothly down the lot, the breeze ruffling the imaginary silk scarf around my neck. Ciao, belli!

It is impossible to look at any Vespa — a vintage model from the early 1960s or a brand new Granturismo, with its thoroughly updated yet classic lines — without experiencing a certain thrill, a sense that, yes, the Italians really do know what's important in life. After that, invariably, comes, "I want one."

Well, good news, ragazzi! These days, with gasoline prices seemingly climbing by the hour, what might once have appeared to be a romantic extravagance can suddenly be justified as being downright practical. Picture zipping around town on two wheels to the tune of 65 miles to the gallon rather than rumbling around in an oversized SUV that requires a new mortgage every time you fill up.

Sound like fun? Well, the folks at Long Motors, which in May opened the only Vespa dealership serving central New Jersey (and one of about 100 in the United States), are betting on that combination of exhilaration and practicality appealing to a lot of folks in Princeton and the surrounding area.

"These are crazy times. We're averaging more than 25 emails a day asking about our products," says Chris Long, whose father, David Long Sr., opened the first Volvo dealership in Princeton, back in 1981. Hmm, could the Vespa one day be as ubiquitous on Nassau Street as the Volvo? "When my father brought Volvo to [Princeton], it was like the town was hungry for a new car line," says Chris. "It was such a neat fit. Well, we think the Vespa can be a neat fit too."

The Vespa (the name means "wasp" in Italian) has been a neat fit wherever it has gone ever since its introduction in Italy in the years immediately after World War II. The brainchild of Enrico Piaggio, who had taken over the family aircraft manufacturing business from his father, the sturdy little two-wheeled scooter with the unibody steel chassis was the perfect vehicle for Italy's ruined roads and struggling economy. In 1949, Piaggio produced 35,000 Vespas. Within a decade, a million were on the roads, providing cheap, convenient transportation — and iconic style — to riders all over the world. The Vespa was imported to the U.S. through the early 1980s, at which point Piaggio stopped sending them to the States because of toughened U.S. emissions standards. Despite — or perhaps because of — their scarcity, Vespas became collectors items, with enthusiast clubs across the country keeping the image alive. Then, in 2001, Piaggio resumed importing the scooters to the States, beginning in Southern California and spreading, with that jaunty little roar, across the country. Seven thousand Vespas were sold in the U.S. in 2003; in 2004 the number topped 10,000.

The Longs first came up with the idea of selling Vespas in 2003, when, during a family Thanksgiving in Minnesota, they visited a Vespa boutique. It took about a year to land the franchise. Right now they are selling the scooters out of their dealerships in Lawrenceville, Edison and Bridgewater. The storefront shop in North Plainfield is where all the service and preparation is performed. Eventually, the Longs hope to open a Vespa shop on Nassau Street and another in the Lambertville/New Hope area.

There are two basic models of Vespa, the LX and the Granturismo. The LX comes in either the 50-cc or 150-cc version. Both feature a single-cylinder, four-stroke engine with automatic transmission. The 50, which sells for about $3,200, has a top speed of just 39 mph and is intended for use around town or at resorts or on private estates, while the 150, which goes for about $4,200, can hit 59 mph and is a true go-anywhere-except-the-highway vehicle. The Granturismo features a 200-cc engine, automatic transmission and electric starter and sells for $5,200. All Vespas still have the distinctive single front fork, a vestige of Piaggio's airplane background that makes removing the front wheel quick and easy. As for luggage space, well no one buys a Vespa for hauling lumber, but the storage compartment, concealed by a raise-up seat, is surprisingly roomy. It is also helpfully labeled "No pets." I'll remember that when my dog asks to go for a spin.

Only about 20 percent of the Longs' customers are experienced motorcyclists. The rest are "virgin to the two-wheeled world." In fact, says Chris Long, "one of the things that we're hearing from buyers and others interested in the Vespa is that it is attractive to them because its not a motorcycle. You don't have to shift, and it has the step-through body shape so you don't have to fling your leg over the saddle."

Still, you'll need a motorcycle license to operate a Vespa on the road, but the process is a relatively simple and painless one, and you can take delivery of a Vespa before receiving your license. "We've had customers who've bought a Vespa in the morning and had their permit by that afternoon," says Chris Long. "That allows them to ride with a licensed companion until they pass the test for their own license."

So just who is the Princeton Vespa rider? Well, from what the Longs are seeing, Vespa buyers in the area tend to fit into one or more of a few distinct categories. There are, they say, the people who have been overseas, to Europe or maybe to Bermuda, and have seen or even ridden a Vespa before and are thrilled to learn that they can get one of their own back home. Then there are the "train station types," commuters to New York or Philadelphia, who see the Vespa as a practical, fun way to get to the station and back. There are others who take their Vespas with them to vacation homes at the Shore or in the Poconos. There are also a lot of spouses and partners who buy a brace of Vespas to share the riding experience.

"The oldest guy to buy one so far," says Chris Long, "was 79 years old."

And — I think to myself as I rev up my black Granturismo for another spin around the parking lot — I bet he suddenly felt a whole lot younger.


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