Italian model Anna Tonella Autori does make you want to ride Vespa circa 1963 (Photo: Google Art Project’s ‘Historic Moments’ exhibits)
In the late 1960s and particularly throughout the 70s Vespa, or as Gujaratis of a certain generation called it Wah-Spaa as in ‘Wah, kya spa hai!’, was the very definition of luxury transport in India.
Indians did not need the fetching Italian model Anna Tonella Autori to persuade them to buy the scooter. Those who could afford such luxury bought it with unbridled enthusiasm.
On my ritual visit to the Google Art Project I chanced upon its section ‘Historic Moments’, which is a series of snapshots of interesting world events in pictures and videos. The one titled ‘Years of Dolce Vita’ features this charming image. Once you get past the curvaceous Vespa, you do begin to notice equally curvaceous charms of Anna Tonella Autori. It is the sort of name you must pronounce with the Italian intonation even at the risk of being culturally insensitive.
For those riding the lowly bicycle, Vespa was a stunning upgrade. Among the middle class neighborhoods of my hometown of Ahmedabad, the arrival of a Vespa automatically meant someone had come into unexpected wealth. The less privileged neighbors would crowd around the scooter and covet it with near erotic relish. Having been designed in Italy, it had all the right curves. The scooter then seemed like a piece of art. Designers at Piaggio, the makers of Vespa, knew a thing or two about design aesthetics. Everything was considered perfect in a Vespa except, as my friend and fellow journalist Raju Korti pointed out on Facebook, its engine on the one side did make it wobbly and hazardous. Its center of gravity was, well, not that centered. It was a routine occurrence for riders to crash while turning right because that’s where the engine was encased. Funnily enough, even a crash like that was considered a rite of passage among the riders.
Incidentally, Vespa means wasps in Italian. Perhaps the rationale behind naming it so was that the scooter would zip around like a wasp. In India, it certainly did. I never bought a Vespa or for that matter any scooter or motorcycle. I graduated from my bicycle straight to a car. I rode scooters with friends and relatives frequently.
I remember when young women began to ride Vespa in Ahmedabad it was seen to be heralding women’s liberation. For a while it became a statement of liberalism and gender equality among some men to be a pillion rider to a woman driver. Men who rode pillion with a woman driver were considered enlightened because somehow pillion riding to a woman was seen as a position of subservience. Speaking of which, the 1953 movie ‘Roman Holiday’ starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn made it rather cool. The Vespa that Hepburn and Peck rode was accorded a star billing. Of course, there were men who pillion-rode with women drivers for a wholly different reason.
Vespa dominated the Indian market for quite sometime until the emergence of Lambretta, another Italian brand of scooter was introduced to the market in the 1970s. Lambretta never quite became a cultural icon like Vespa but it had its fair share of admirers. Lambretta was considered a little more masculine. It also felt more steady on the road because of its design. The Lambretta business was bought over by the Indian government in 1972 and turned into a state-owned enterprise called Scooters India Limited.
Although the scooters’ sheer utility in ensuring mobility in a market like India was undeniable, it was by no means a glamorous means of transport as it might have seemed because of Anna Tonella Autori or Audrey Hepburn. For one, kick-starting it was quite a painful process which often led to ankle injuries. I remember men in Ahmedabad being summoned by women to kick-start the engine. Not that there were many women like Autori or Hepburn but a mixture of chivalry and a vague thrill of being asked by a woman to do anything at all made young men scramble to kick-start.
I think I have romanticized 1 50-year-old photograph enough. So, so like that.