By Jeremy Wilker
PIAGGIO MUSEUM TOUR
I recently went on my first Italian vacation and while I certainly have a passion for scooters, I wasn’t intent on wrapping my schedule around the small machines. However, it was soon realized that Pisa and Lucca are remarkably close to Pontedera, home of the Piaggio scooter factory and museum. Surely to be this close after traveling so far… and so the decision was made to visit the factory and to eventually rent scooters for a tour of the Tuscan landscape. And, I’d tow along our Italian-American friends, too.
We gathered together at our friends’ place, a former olive mill now renovated into a fabulous three-story stone house/rental property in the hills of Tuscany (yeah, sure, sort of like “Under the Tuscan Sun,” except for real and not at all adapted for Hollywood). Then we made the drive down to Pontedera to see the Vespa Museum. Thankfully the drive is scenic enough and not terribly long, for we still hadn’t figured out the Italian timetable yet. See, depending on the whims of the management, many places are closed at least one day during the week.
Could be a Monday, might be a Wednesday. It happened to be a Tuesday and the place was shut down. It may have been closed anyway as we arrived around 4:00 pm and so many places in Italy shut down from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm for siesta. But not all. You see the challenge? So we wandered around the antique shops of the downtown area of Pontedera, a fairly industrial city, and decided to come back the next day for a proper visit.
A bit of history on Piaggio: the company was founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio and produced ship fittings. Piaggio rapidly expanded into railway fittings and aeronautics and prior to World War II was a dominant force in airplane manufacturing. After the war left so much of Europe in at least partial ruin, Piaggio was forced from a wartime production into building for peace. Italy was in a tough spot; both physically and economically destroyed. The country needed to be revitalized and mobilized but at an affordable price for vehicle and fuel. Enrico Piaggio, son of Rinaldo, with the assistance of designer Corradino D’Ascanio, produced the first Vespa scooter in 1946 and the rest is, as they say, history. (An unproven story I enjoy is that it also didn’t hurt to have a very large supply of airplane tires sitting around waiting to be used). The idea and design were so good that even today (over 50 years later), the Vespa still looks like a Vespa.
The Piaggio Museum is located in a former factory tool-shop on the grounds of the Piaggio factory and was opened in March 2000. Frankly, I found it rather exciting to be driving along the streets of factory, between all the huge buildings, watching people come and go from their jobs, while I was searching for the location of the museum. The main entrance is simple and understated, but once you walk through the gate and enter the courtyard, there is no mistaking your location. A large 1941 train car emerges from the museum entrance, behind several historic Vespa motor vehicles and a small (and very cool) 1951 P148 airplane.
The airy openness of the former factory building makes a wonderful museum, with space and light giving visitors ample opportunity to enjoy the amazing works on display, which “are the most beautiful and the rarest of their kind, such as the prestigious Vespa Dali or the record-breaking Vespas,” according to the Piaggio Museum website. That is not just hyped-up marketing speak. The scooters and vehicles on show are breathtaking and range from the very first Vespa in 1946 to the brand-new Vespa Granturismo 200cc four-stroke automatic. In between, you can see three-wheeled Ape (pronounced “ah-pay”) utility vehicles, mopeds, record-setting racers, a movie model that can swim and fly, a Vespa 400 micro-car, a stretch-limo Vespa, a military scooter with a bazooka, and a miniature Vespa fire-truck. Also on display is a gorgeous collection of Gilera motorcycles and a few of their renowned airplane engines.
The thing that really caught my attention, and something I did not get to experience, is their historical archive. Containing documentation from the company’s inception up to present day, the archives hold over 4000 files and contain information on every product ever made, including advertising and photographs, sales, finances and details on all the staff and workers from 1917 to the 1970’s. Housed in rich, dark woods and beautifully illuminated, the archives just beg to be explored. The archives are open to the public. You will, however, need permission from the President of the Piaggio Foundation. (Note: I also missed their historical video display as they were having a staff medical meeting and needed to use the projector).
Should you ever plan to visit the Piaggio Museum (and I do recommend it), remember that it is only open from Wednesday to Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and entry is free. Pontedera is about 15 minutes south of Pisa, so make the trip before or after you visit the Leaning Tower. Don’t forget to visit their very nice gift shop so you can stock up on Vespa paraphernalia. You can also gather information on their website at http://www.museopiaggio.com/
It seems like my friends have all been to Italy before and they all say the same thing: “You should see all the scooters!” I figured they were exaggerating since scooters are not a daily sight here in the States, but I was so very wrong. Scooters are literally everywhere in Italy, buzzing along the streets and alleys at all hours of the day. You can be walking around a town and suddenly when you turn the corner there are over a hundred different scooters parked along the plaza. While in Florence, I witnessed a constant (and I do mean constant) stream of scooters whizzing along the river road. So cool!
But be careful! In Italy it would appear that scooters follow their own rules: splitting lanes, zooming past in the wrong lane, making sudden turns or riding with large loads on the back. Non-scooter drivers pretty much ignore the scooterists, as driving a car in Italy has its own demands (the main rule seems to be Drive Fast and with Total Conviction). Thankfully, wearing a helmet on a scooter is compulsory in Italy as I witnessed three different riders get hit by a car. Nobody was hurt (except for their pride) but it did explain why every single scooter looks so rough! I’m altogether serious when I claim that most scooters are scuffed and scraped and dented in some way or another — these are not just “fun” machines but daily transportation vehicles that get pushed hard. And I guess that would explain the state of the some of the imported vintage scooters as well.
As I mentioned above, we (Meghan, Doris, Doug and myself) rented Vespa ET4s for a day and cruised around the Tuscan hillsides. The narrow, winding roads seem custom made for fast, nimble scooters and the scenery is breathtaking; rivers cutting through deep, tree-lined valleys, terraced olive groves and grape vineyards, tiny villages apparently hewed from stone, beautiful statues in the town squares, small restaurants serving the most amazing fresh foods, and crisp Italian air. You have to experience this! Just remember to bring along your international driving permit ($10 at AAA) so you can get the bigger displacement scooters. You’ll easily be able to locate a scooter rental place and/or authorized Piaggio service center.
END OF SEASON
That wraps it up for another scootering season — we’ll see you in the early spring! But, maybe you don’t want to put the scooter into full hibernation mode or you’ll miss the chance to ride all year ’round with the “cold weather challenge crew.” Last year saw an informal contest form around who rode the furthest in the coldest temperatures. Crazy, in my opinion. Crazy, but cool. Ride safe, ride often, but bundle up! My fingers are cold just thinking about it….
The Twin Cities’ Vintage Scooter Club, The Regulars, meets on the first and third Sundays of each month at Pizza Luce in Uptown Minneapolis (32nd and Lyndale Ave) at 2:00 pm for socializing and riding–as long as weather permits. Join us! The website is located at http://www.minnescoota.com