By Roy Ortega
For many motorcycle enthusiasts, the open road is best appreciated when racing at 70 miles an hour down an empty highway while straddling a throbbing, powerful Harley. But don't count me among this class of black leather-wearing, biker boot-clad, Hells Angels-style rabble-rousers.
Nope. My choice of a two-wheeler - and I write this proudly and un-embarrassingly - is an Italian-made Vespa. Yeah, go ahead and chuckle. I'm used to it. Mine is a fully-blown, classy-looking, fuel-injected, four-stroke 250ie GTS model complete with a full-size bug shield, 12-inch alloy wheels, vented disc brakes and a chrome rack in the back.
For years, Vespa riders have suffered jabs, intimidation and often not-so-friendly ribbing from the riders of big bikes like Harley-Davidson Electra Glides and Honda Gold Wings. "Hey scooter jockey, you should get yourself a real bike and act like a real man," yelled the Hells Angels poser who rolled up next to me on Montana Avenue one day. As he gunned the engine of his noisy, trembly and oil-splattered Harley, I laughed when he lurched forward expecting me to race him down the street. I made a quick right turn onto McRae Boulevard and went home. No self-respecting Vespa rider would ever accept a race challenge from a moron riding a Harley.
My love for Vespas goes back to my teenage years in the barrios of Southwest San Antonio. In the 1960s, my friend from down the street, Eddie Pena, owned a shiny new Vespa that he paid for by delivering the San Antonio Light newspaper after school.
Sometimes Eddie would invite me to ride with him as he weaved from street to street flinging rolled copies of the newspaper onto the front porches of houses along his paper route. Man, what a thrill.
Eddie's Vespa was a sky-blue model with a four-speed manual transmission, on-the-grip shifter, floor brake pedal and a 150cc engine. The engine was barely powerful enough to handle the load of two teenage boys and two saddle bags filled with newspapers. It cost all of 23 cents to fill the tank of gas back in 1967.
But the most appealing thing about owning a Vespa was it's role in instantly elevating a young man's social standing. More to the point, a guy on a Vespa was way beyond cool. The chicks were wildly attracted to Eddie and me.
I begged my father to buy me a Vespa. I was elated when he unexpectedly agreed. Unfortunately, my very un-cool father had no capacity for making a distinction between scooter models. To him, a scooter was a scooter was a scooter. You can imagine my disappointment and embarrassment when he came home one day proudly displaying an old, rusted-up Cushman scooter with a lawn mower motor and no wheel suspension he bought cheaply at a nearby flea market.
On that day, I vowed I would someday own a brand new Vespa.
As an adult, I set out to find a new Vespa. But I was devastated to learn that no one in El Paso sold new Vespas. I was even more heartbroken to learn that the sale of new Vespas had all but been discontinued in the U.S. market. The manufacturer, Piaggio of Italy, had undergone some major financial upheavals during the 80s and 90s and decided to pull out of the lucrative American market for a while.
For years, I searched high and low for a good, used Vespa but the pickings were slim and the prices were outrageously high. There was just no way I was going to spend several thousand dollars on an old, beat-up and partially-restored Vespa.
In January of 2008, I ran across an ad in the newspaper from a local motorcycle dealership that had recently acquired the rights to sell Vespas.
Hallelujah! Vespas were back in the U.S.!
But times were tough economically and I hesitated to even look. Spending $5,000 on a new toy was going to be almost impossible to justify to Jo Anne. Maybe I could offer to give up my other vice - eating three times a day.
Driving past the motorcycle shop one day, I caught a glimpse of a brand new Vespa in the display area. I kid you not, I felt a strong and mystical force sucking me toward the building.
I walked into the showroom and there it was. My Vespa.
Forty-three years after my first encounter with a Vespa, I look forward to riding into my retirement years aboard my nimble new little scooter.
I think it was worth the wait.
Roy Ortega may be reached at email@example.com