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Scooter Madness

Scooter Madness

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Published by tdichristopher
How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. By Tom DiChristopher. AsiaLIFE, April 2009.
How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. By Tom DiChristopher. AsiaLIFE, April 2009.

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Published by: tdichristopher on May 25, 2011
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07/17/2013

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Scooter madness
How American intervention, an undergroundeconomy and Cold War politics created the world’slast stockpile o classic Italian scooters.By
Tom DiChristopher.
Saigon Scooter Centre is located down an alleyway in HCM City’sDistrict 12, hidden behind the coee shops and orchid stalls thatline the boulevard to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Withthe nationwide popularity o Honda—the word or motorbike in Vietnam is xe Honda—you’d think the Scooter Centre would be amecca or Japanese motorbike enthusiasts. But step inside, andyou’re transported to a more ar-o land: Italy.Among his stock o 50s and 60s-era Vespas and Lambrettas,owner Patrick Joynt has more than a ew vintage motorbikes, roma WWII-era Excelsior to a German Zundapp 50cc. But there’s areason his collection—perhaps the best in Southeast Asia—is domi-nated by Italian classics. Vietnam is the last place on Earth you’llnd a stockpile o classic Vespas and Lambrettas.“Even the Italian classic scooter market dried up years ago,” saysJoynt. “I mysel and riends were going over there on buying tripsin the mid 1980s, and the country has been pillaged since, leavingvery ew classic scooters.”Joynt has been in Vietnam or twelve years now, hunting downand restoring scooters, exporting hundreds overseas and keepingothers or his personal collection. The history o Italian scooters in Vietnam, however, stretches back to the 1950s, during the waningdays o French colonialism. That history continued into the 60s andearly 70s, when the South’s changing global alliances infuencedthe boom and bust o the Vietnamese scooter market.For more than 25 years, Vietnam’s classic scooters wouldremain an undiscovered national treasure, hidden away like timecapsules carrying stories rom the Cold War.
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21
 
Our Story Begins in Italy
They say that necessity is the mother o invention.In the case o the Vespa and Lambretta, the samewas also true o design.Today, both brands are widely regarded as iconso a bygone era, but in 1946 they provided a practi-cal means to an end, a way orward in the post-waryears when the country’s industry and inrastruc-ture were devastated.Enrico Piaggio, head o Italy’s leading aeronau-tics company, aced a crisis on two ronts. Not onlywas Italy’s aircrat industry subjected to restrictionsas part o peace agreements, but his two actoriesin Tuscany had been plundered by retreating Ger-man orces and were eventually reduced to rubbleduring strategic Allied bombing.Ater brokering the return o his machinery,Piaggio assessed the economic realities and socialneeds o post-war Italy. He decided that what hiscountrymen needed was an aordable and practi-cal orm o light transportation. Inspired by Alliedmotorcycles, he commissioned a design or a sleek,modern motorbike or the masses.Unhappy with the rst prototype (the Paperino),Piaggio turned to aeronautical designer GeneralCorradino D’Ascanio. The general disliked conven-tional motorcycles and took the opportunity tocorrect what he saw as their dening faws. To keepthe driver clean, he incorporated a shield-like rontand replaced the greasy drive chain with a meshtransmission. By positioning the engine beneathrather than in ront o the seat, he let legroom toaccommodate women. A supporting arm similarto airplane landing gear made the small tyres easyto change, and the handlebar-mounted gear levermade shiting a snap.Upon seeing the nished prototype, Piaggio issaid to have exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa!” (“Itlooks like a wasp”). Italy shared his enthusiasm—the Vespa was an immediate success. Within a ewyears, demand led Piaggio to license production toactories across Europe and in Brazil and India.Another industrialist who saw his actoryrazed during the war, Ferdinando Innocenti, aceda longer road to success with his product—theLambretta—despite having gone into research anddevelopment beore the war had ended.Innocenti was inspired by the U.S.-made Cush-man motorbikes and began to consider using hisrolled tubing industry to produce a similar model.But even ater Piaggio’s success with the sleek,aerodynamic Vespa, Innocenti insisted on a designwith an exposed rear-mounted engine, which heound beautiul. Following months o buzz thatzzled into skepticism as Inncoenti struggled toget it right, public response to the rst Lambrettamodel was lukewarm, and many o the bikes wereshipped to Argentina.The second Lambretta incarnation dialed itin closer with better suspension and a handlebar-mounted gear lever. The third model, the1950 Lambretta 125 LC incorporated a luxurious,streamlined body with sleek, elongated back panels.Innocenti nally got it right with 1951’s D model.With both Vespa and Lambretta in ull produc-tion, the stage was set or the scooter boom toexplode into a craze.
Meanwhile in Vietnam
Ater Vietnam renewed relations with America inthe early 90s, journalist Henry Kamm returned to Vietnam to capture the country at a crossroads.He’d been a correspondent during the war, andound that a ew things had picked up right wherethey’d let o:“Trac is at least as chaotic as it was in theearlier days, and Communist rigor has notprevailed against the penchant o the Saigo-nese to break the social contract or mutualsaety symbolized by trac lights or one-waystreet signs. The young have revived the grimlyunromantic pre-1975 Sunday-evening mat-ing ritual, in which endless swarms o boysdrive their girlriends on their two-wheelers,at maximum speed and noise levels, rom thesquare around the Roman Catholic cathedraldown General Uprising Street to the riverrontand back up the parallel one-way streets.”Kamm’s remembrances o Vietnam’s streets, aswell as the archive o photos at Saigon ScooterCentre depicting proud owners posing on their Ital-ian bikes, are evidence that Saigon was very much apart o the global scooter craze o the 50s and 60s.
22 aslife HCMC
Throughout the war, businessmen imported whatwere previously luxuriesrefrigerators, radios, motorbikes—rather than capital goods like factoriesand machinery
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