Rome, Italy - One of the most characteristic features of popular culture in Italy - the iconic Vespa moped - is at risk of disappearing from its roads.

Despite an enduring love affair between Italy and mopeds, sales of the vehicles made globally famous through such film classics as Caro Diario by Nanni Moretti are plummeting.

Economic crisis, demographic shifts, and the changing habits of the younger generation are all conspiring to end the moped culture widely associated with Italian life since World War II.

"The younger generation is just not as interested in mopeds as it used to be," Claudio Deviti, head of the motorcycle unit of ANCMA, the National Association of Motorcycle, Bicycle and Accessories, told Al Jazeera.

According to data published by ANCMA, moped sales in Italy have declined from a peak of 600,000 in 1980 to 26,727 in 2014 - a vertiginous fall of 97 percent.

A similar negative trend has affected vehicles that have a higher capacity engine, with sales of 125cc scooters - which Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck famously drove around Rome in the 1953 cult movie Roman Holiday - dropping from 173,343 in 1955 to 37,388 in 2014.

This dramatic decline in moped sales means the story of Stefano Filauro, 29 - a committed Vespa enthusiast from Rome - is set to become increasingly rare.

When Filauro left the Italian capital two years ago to start a PhD in Barcelona, Spain, together with his books, clothes and shoes he also packed up his moped.

As Easter approached and Filauro prepared to head home, he decided he could not do without his Vespa - so simply shipped it back to Italy.

"The idea of being in Rome without my scooter just doesn't work for me," he told Al Jazeera. "I know the majority of people might think I am crazy, but that's just the way it is for me at the moment. I won't change it, now or ever."

Ten days later, Filauro repeated the operation in the opposite direction - transporting his Vespa from Rome all the way back to Barcelona at a cost of about $225.

Deviti of ANCMA said a key reason for the decline in moped sales is that, as in other countries, Italy's youth is experiencing a cultural revolution defined by owning a smartphone.

Whereas as recently as 10 years ago having a moped was synonymous with being able to hook up with your friends, today this role is performed by social media and having constant access to the internet - making owning a smartphone more important than owning a moped.

But not all moped devotees agree with such an analysis.

Outside the Cesare Beccaria high school in Milan, 18-year-old Pietro Falda said he still wants one.

"It's not about having an iPhone, it's just that my parents think it's too dangerous for me to drive across the city. If it were my decision, I would ride one all the time," Falda said.

Another factor affecting moped sales is the economic downturn since 2007, with Italian household consumption decreasing by nearly 10 percent since the start of the crisis.

Weaker spending power has combined with the rising cost of maintaining a moped.

In 1963, when the first Vespa 50 came out, mopeds were considered little more than bicycles and no licence plate, insurance, or helmet were required to use them.

Today, however, a moped costs on average $1,350 to which is added the expenses of insurance, stamp duty, and licensing - pushing up the total cost to about $2,250.

"Today mopeds are simply too expensive for the great majority of Italian households," said Attilio Brisci, a moped mechanic in Cosenza, northern Calabria.

Vespa, Reinvented
 

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien

Blame it on the scenery — the budding vineyards, the endless blue sky, the stone villas nestled in the hills of Tuscany. Or on my guide, Marco. As a local, he's wise to every nook on the road to San Gimignano from Piaggio headquarters in Pontedera, unafraid to lean into a bend or push his shiny red Vespa ET4 to 60-plus mph. Or blame it on the Alfa Romeo creeping up my ass, the sharp turn I try to make at 35 mph, the 460-cc engine on the X9 scooter I'm testing. Whatever the reason, the wheels skid out from beneath me and I dump the bike into a ravine. Hard.

All shiny and yellow, capable of speeds exceeding 100 mph, the X9 is considered something of a superscooter. Lying nose-first in a trench at the side of the road, it's not so impressive. I stand up; no broken bones. Marco has cleared the next turn and is long gone. A crowd of Tuscans gathers around, slack-jawed, and my just-off-the-factory-floor $7,000 superscooter is now worth much less than that. It's the first time this particular Piaggio has seen a ditch, I'm sure. But the company has been here before.

Introduced in 1946, the Vespa drew a cult following as a stylish, maneuverable, easy-to-drive alternative to the motorcycle. Piaggio has peddled more than 16 million of them over the years — more than four times the number of Harleys sold in Harley-Davidson's 100-year history. By the 1970s, Vespa sales accounted for 70 percent of parent company Piaggio's revenue. But concerns about pollution almost undid the business. A week of commuting on a 40-horsepower, 2-stroke scooter is the hydrocarbon equivalent of driving 100,000 miles in a car, according to environmental group the Bluewater Network. When California, which claims 90 percent of US scooter sales, slammed on heavy emissions controls starting in 1981, Piaggio's 2-stroke motors were sent sputtering back to Italy. A decade later, with similar European regulations looming, the challenge to the Vespa line was clear: Reengineer or die.

The story of Piaggio's turnaround is a triumph of technology and design — and a window into the pain and opportunity that comes with reinvention. It begins in the mid-'90s, when a group of 50 PhDs and 150 R&D technicians set out to produce an environmentally friendly engine that still packed enough power to please Vespa's fanatical following. The team worried at first about futzing with a cultural icon. But eventually the engineers hit the trifecta: They found they could stay true to Vespa's unique design, placate the regulators, and make an engine powerful enough to keep the scooter out in front of city traffic. The evolution of that engine, dubbed the Master, holds the promise to transform not just the Vespa line but all of Piaggio's scooters and motorcycles.

At Piaggio's 50th anniversary, in 1996, the company unveiled a cleaner-burning, automatic-transmission 4-stroke engine — the first of its kind for a European scooter. But it was still not good enough for California's tough antipollution laws. By 2000, the company had decreased contaminants 90 percent from 1990 levels and introduced a sleek new line of 4-stroke Vespas to the US. This summer, the company rolled out a separate line of Piaggio-branded scooters, which sell alongside the more expensive Vespas. The hope is that together the two lines will recapture the market share lost to lesser-designed Japanese scooters made by Honda and Yamaha.

DESIGN MAKES IT A RETRO STATUS SYMBOL. TECHNOLOGY MAKES IT THE NEW ROAD RAGE

It's easy to see why 2-stroke engines were once so appealing. By generating power and expelling exhaust with only one revolution of a piston (the upstroke and the downstroke), they create torque quickly. This made the old Vespas fast off the line, a must for urban commuters. But the design's efficiency is what makes it so filthy. A 2-stroke blends oil with gasoline to provide lubrication and burns the mixture together — then simply dumps the unused portion into the earth, water, and sky.

Cleaning up the Vespa proved tricky. Four-stroke seemed the obvious way to go. A 4-stroke engine, like the one in your car, has separate combustion and exhaust strokes. It generates power in one turn of the piston and expels exhaust through valves in the next; the dedicated cycle is what reduces hydrocarbon emissions. But a conventional 4-stroke is also large and heavy and so would compromise the scooter's signature design. The Vespa's original architect, Corradino D'Ascanio — an aeronautical engineer who had a hand in designing the first helicopter — found motorcycles to be inelegant and dirty. He wanted his scooter to be more female-friendly. So he gave it a low-slung body with a leg shield to protect the rider from splashing mud and water. Placing the gearshift on the handlebar and using smaller wheels allowed him to enclose the engine over the rear wheel, beneath the seat. This protected the rider from the engine's heat, oil, and muck — and, just as important, allowed D'Ascanio to design a step-through frame. Motorcycle riders mount their bikes like they would a horse, and ride leaning forward. D'Ascanio imagined scooter drivers sitting upright, with room between their feet for packages — or a skirt.

The new mandate: Design a 4-stroke that would fit in the space originally created for a smaller, lighter motor. Toiling away on a CAD system, engineers shaved off 20 percent of the size and weight of a standard 4-stroke by reducing the number of parts in the oil pump, crankshaft, and crankcase. "What we have now is a few kilos heavier than the old 2-stroke, but in terms of the size and space, it is practically the same," says Maurizio Marcacci, the head of Piaggio engine R&D.

A second concern was power. A 2-stroke generates twice as much power in the same amount of time as a 4-stroke. Piaggio engineers addressed this problem by giving their 4-stroke an automatic transmission — an engineering sleight of hand that saves time by avoiding the need to depress and release a clutch. This makes the bike feel faster. Add in some extra horsepower thanks to evolutionary design enhancements, and Piaggio officials claim that the latest Vespa 150 is actually faster off a dead stop than the old 200.

Vespa, Reinvented (continued)
 

Piaggio spent about $12 million on R&D to scrub the Vespa's hydrocarbon-belching engine. But that was only the beginning. Sensing opportunity, executives have poured $230 million into everything from tweaking the motor's design and performance to remaking the company's 807,000-square-foot factory.

Since its return, the Vespa has transcended its utilitarian roots and become something of a retro status symbol, not unlike the Mini. Piaggio USA officials say the bikes sold 50 percent faster in 2001 than in 2000, and sales are on track to double this year. They have begun to take off in tony communities like Newport Beach, California, and Miami's South Beach. The scooters are also big on the glitter circuit, with Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Thora Birch, and Vin Diesel among the celebrity owners. Around the world they're being marketed as the epitome of cool, at no cost to Piaggio: Microsoft, Keds, Dockers, Target, and Victoria's Secret have all featured Vespas in their ads. In Italy, they're as popular as ever. "Italians love scooters," says Dario Bertoia, a 32-year-old banker who lives in Torino. "There is something about the Vespa that still says cool. It has the right mix of tradition and innovation."

Reengineering the Vespa also brought unexpected dividends. With a greater understanding of 4-stroke engines and a new manufacturing process, Piaggio focused on growth. Purchased by a private investment arm of Deutsche Bank in late 1999, the company now offers several lines of scooters and motorcycles — Vespa and Piaggio, plus Puch, Derbi, Gilera, MV Agusta, and Cagiva — all powered by Piaggio engines. Last year, Piaggio also sold more than 50,000 engines to competitors, pushing revenue to nearly $900 million.

The big test comes when the X9 hits the US in April. With an onboard computer, larger tires, heated handgrips, and a 12-volt socket to recharge a cell phone battery, the X9 is more like a luxury BMW cruiser than a scooter. For Piaggio, it's a chance to show off the new "multivalve advanced super torque engine range," aka Master. At 460 cc, with 39 horsepower, a catalytic converter, and a counter-rotating balancer shaft to eliminate vibrations, it's the quietest, most powerful and environmentally friendly scooter engine Piaggio has ever made. Company officials see it one day powering everything from sub-300-cc scooters to 1,000-cc Gilera motorcycles.

Stylistically, the X9 may be a nonstarter in the US — a hybrid that appeals to neither the motorcycle nor scooter crowds. But this time, at least, Piaggio seems to have the engine right. The company can always fix the body.

At least that's what I'll be telling Marco.There's something very welcoming about the curvaceous, Italian shape of Vespa motor scooters. Practically everyone who looks up when they hear the distinctive put-put sound greets it with a smile and a wave. That charm definitively isn't lost on Peter Maas and his 1962 Vespa GS160 that still wears its original paint. In a recent video, takes a look at Maas' passion and his career of keeping these classic two-wheelers on the road.

Maas got his first Vespa at 16, and after crashing it, he quickly went looking for another. He has kept buying Vespas ever since and has made a living out of restoring them for clients. These days, he works out of a shop that perfectly fits his bikes' old-world aesthetic with big windows, wood floors and parts scattered everywhere. It almost looks like a museum dedicated to vintage scooters.

Check out the video to learn how stealing the key to his grandfather's garage at age six set Maas on this path to love these classic bikes.

Vespa
The name of a scooter. This brand was first invented in 1946 by Enrico Piaggio in Italy, the founder of Piaggio, a scooter manufacturer. Despite what many people tell you, Vespa itself is not a company on it's own.

Vespa is known all over the world for it's commitment to quality and good handling during operation. Vespas along with the Lambretta are favorites among the British mod crowd in Britian. It's biggest distinction from other scooters made by mainstream companies is that every model before the ET2 has styled a fetching retro look.

Vespa could be classified as a subculture or even as a selective lifestyle due to the affection this scooter recieves from scooter enthusiasts. Many people spend years modifying their scooters...(and despite what other people say Vespas are not slow, most of them have the same average speed as other scooter brands).

One of Vespa's first slogans is "La Dolce Vita"-"The Sweet Life".
I rode home on my Vespa and I ran over a few squirrels on the way.

Vespa has not only left its mark on an entire era, but it has even become the symbol of a Europe struggling to rise from the ashes of the Second World War. Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera plant completely demolished by bombing. Italy’s crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets.

Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio’s founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy’s urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation. The idea was to design a vehicle for the masses that could get post war Italy moving again.

An aeronautical engineer named Corradino D’Ascanio, responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter, was given the job of designing a simple, robust and affordable vehicle. The vehicle had to be easy to drive for both men and women, be able to carry a passenger, and not get its driver’s clothes dirty.

D’Ascanio, who could not stand motorbikes, dreamed up a revolutionary vehicle. Dipping into his knowledge of aeronautics, he designed a vehicle built on a frame with a handlebar gear, with the engine mounted on the rear wheel. The front fork, like an aircraft’s landing gear, allowed for easy wheel changing.

From Enrico Piaggio’s vision sprung the Vespa (which means “Wasp” in Italian) in the spring of 1946.

In April of 1946, the first 15 Vespas left the Pontedera plant. The first Vespa had a 98cc two-stroke engine giving 3.5 hp at 4,500 revs. It reached 60 kilometres per hour and had 3 gears.

This was a real two-wheeled utility vehicle that did not resemble an uncomfortable and noisy motorbike, but instead it emanated class and elegance at first sight.

Instead of asking yourself why buy a Vespa, think in terms of why not buy a Vespa?

First, Vespa is the world’s best manufactured motor scooter and certainly, the most attractive two-wheel vehicle on Earth. Also, contrary to popular belief, you need not be Italian to enjoy the marvelous exhilarating Vespa experience. The scooter eagerly welcomes any and all riders but do remember that the true discriminating rider, like you, invariably selects the Vespa as his or her preferred mode of transportation. For once you bond with your Vespa; you will adopt each other’s unique personality. Yes, you will become as freewheeling and intrepid as the delightful Vespa.

Vespa riders quickly discover that even everyday travel becomes a memorable adventure. A daily commute into the city, a last-minute errand, a fast Saturday trip to the farmer’s market – suddenly you’ll look for reasons to twist the throttle and go. Yes, you will find yourself making excuses to share life’s ecstasies with your new companion for the length of your devoted relationship. Is time on your side? Then switch gears without ever shifting and take your Vespa away for the weekend or a leisurely jaunt to destination unknown. Stuck in traffic? Your Vespa is your congestion escape clause.

Plus, there is the added bonus of protecting our eco-environment as you whisk along on your Vespa at an unbelievable rate exceeding sixty miles per gallon. A mere two and one-half gallons will provide over one hundred-fifty blissful miles of serenity.

Wherever you choose to ride, you’ll get there with a minimum of fuel, a maximum of fun and plenty of storage space to bring your laptop or that gallon of organic milk. And if it’s raining cats and dogs or you need to transport six instead of just you or two, go ahead and give your Vespa the day off. While your favorite ride is tucked away in its small and efficient parking space, you’ll log guilt-free miles on other transportation. Why? Because for every mile traveled on your fuel-efficient Vespa, you’ve already made a lasting contribution to conserving our nation’s energy resources, the environment and the mental health of congestion-weary fellow travelers.

 experience the enticing joy of owning a Vespa!