Scooters Score With Modernist Riders

Lambretta at Eichler
Jim Palmer's vintage Lambretta adds to the vibe as it sits in front of his Eichler home. But he prefers to experience the bike on the open road. Photo: Richter Design

Some come to scooters because they are cheap, handy transport. Others love their cool, vintage look. Music also pulls in some, as we explore in ‘Scooters are for Riding’ in the new summer ‘20 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

Paul Sachelari, who lives in Oakland, was introduced to a vintage Vespa while studying in Europe. “I was just knocked out by the design of it,” he recalls. “This thing is so beautiful and so cool – and it can get me around! Cool!” Today he owns several vintage Lambretta and Vespa scooters.

Jim Palmer, who lives in an Eichler home in San Mateo Highlands, says it was the music scene that got him into scooters, which have long been associated with the London Mod scene of the 1960s, and with several subsequent revivals of music styles reggae and ska.

“I was into the whole Vespa scooter thing and subculture of music and fashion, that big revival of the Mod style. I had peg-leg pants, and I would wear thin ties,” Jim recalls.

  Scooter rally
Joe Barthlow leads the pack as Lambrettas line up for a ride. Courtesy of Joe Barthlow

Today he owns scooters from both Vespa and Lambretta, and belongs to national scooter clubs for each brand. He is a lead organizer for the San Mateo Highlands Eichler tour – and ensures that vintage scooters are parked in front of several homes on the tour.

Unlike a motorcycle, whose riders sit astride a motor that spews smoke and grease onto their bodies, Vespas and Lambrettas enclose both motor and drive train. They were designed right after World War II in Italy, and they allowed fashionable Italians to wear fashionable clothes while commuting to work—or to nightclubs.

Jason Anderson, a San Francisco architect, bought his first Vespa at age 16 or 17 when he was living in London with his mother. “Her boyfriend had one,” Anderson recalls. “I was forbidden to even have a bike. But I kept it at a friend’s house. My mother didn’t know.”

“I’ve had a bike ever since, except briefly in college,” he says. “Several of the ones I had were just boxes of pieces.

Scooters penetrated the culture in the mid-century era, attracting such celebrity stars as Jayne Mansfield, who promoted Lambrettas.

“I must have been 20 or 21. I rebuilt the entire engine of my second Vespa in a friend’s kitchen. I learned through trial and error.”

“There’s a simplicity to the scooter that can be found in mid-century modernism, a beautiful timeless quality that has inspired some designers to this day,” says Janel Holiday, a San Francisco interior designer.

Her older brother introduced her to the scooter world when she was a a teenager. Holiday got her first bike at age 21 and still owns it. “I ride vintage Vespas and a Lambretta,” she says.

“When you’re on a scooter,” she says “you don’t have distractions. You’re not listening to the stereo. You’re really stripped down. It’s just you and this fast-moving machine underneath you pushing you through the world.”

  Scooters ride
Jim Palmer rides his vintage Vespa during a rally in San Luis Obispo. Photo: Dez Cobb

Not only are vintage Vespa and Lambretta scooters works of visual art and fun to ride, they are social appliances. Many riders belong to clubs that are organized both locally and nationally, and sponsor rides and other events.

Most riders are open to vintage scooters only, though some will tolerate the occasional new vehicle. New scooters are quieter, more environmentally friendly, and more functional than the classics, fans say. But not nearly so cool.

Quite a few vintage-scooter fans go retro in more ways than one. “I love everything vintage,” says Joe Barthlow, who lives in a modern home in Eugene, Oregon, and is president of the Lambretta Club of the USA. “We live in a vintage house. I enjoy what was cool and modern in the 1960s. I drive a ’74 BMW. I love a vintage life; we collect furniture.”

Jim Palmer took his Lambretta all the way to Duluth for one rally, which allowed him to visit his sister there. There were about 100 Lambrettas at the event. “One friend rode all way from San Jose,” Jim says. For rallies that distant, he says, many riders have their bikes brought to their destinations by truck.

One event he loves are the “vintage time trials.” The goal is not to be the fastest. Riders follow a set route, and cannot use GPS.

“The idea is, the person with the average time is the winner. If you do the course perfectly and obey all the limits. It’s encouraging precision.”

For more about vintage scooters and the people who love them, read ‘Scooters are for Riding’ in the new summer ‘20 issue of CA-Modern magazine.

Keep in touch with the Eichler Network. SUBSCRIBE to our free e-newsletter