Vespa con sale

Text: Mike Blanchard • Photos: Saroyan Humphrey

Spotlight  |  The people of Italy are arguably more race crazy than just about any group of people on earth. They are also known for the beautiful shapes of their vehicles. Like all objects vehicles are cultural statements. They all tell a little story about those who made them and those who purchased them.

After the Second World War, Europe was smashed and there was no money to buy cars or even large motorcycles. There was barely money for small scooters and motorcycles. There is a historical thread that runs through several of the most successful motorcycle companies. Honda, Ducati, Piaggio all started making low cost two wheeled transport for war torn countries. Honda and Ducati started with clip-on engines for bicycles but Piaggio invented a whole new thing, the Vespa scooter. Designed specifically not to be a motorcycle, the Vespa was a revelation. It was charming and stylish and very tunable. 

After a slow start Piaggio sold hundreds of thousands of them in the post war years. When the Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn film “Roman Holiday” came out, featuring the couple riding a Vespa, the scooter became an international smash hit.  

Fabricator and Vespa restoration specialist Marco Quaretta (left) and Marco Fumagalli study photos of historic racing vespas during the design process of the Dafne racers. Photos: courtesy of Marco Quaretta

Piaggio launched the first Vespas in 1946. Almost from the beginning people started racing them. The most high profile races being the Moto Giro (Italy’s 1000 mile small bore motorcycle extravaganza) and the International Six Days Trial (ISDT) in which Vespa won six gold medals in 1951.

All the frames (are) modified for more aerodynamic performance, inspired by some racing models produced by Piaggio over the last 50 years.

The fuchsia and silver scooters featured here have an interesting history. Several years back, inspired by the film “The Worlds Fastest Indian”, Vespa collector Marco Fumagalli got the idea to bring a Vespa to Bonneville and run it on the salt. The idea percolated until Fumagalli caught up with a friend who had recently gone to Bonneville and raced a car during Speed Week.

Fumagalli, 44, hails from Seregno near Milan. He has over 130 Vespas dating back to the mid ‘40s, and a huge collection of ephemera and Vespa related signs, literature, toys and accessories.

As it turns out no one had ever raced a Vespa at Bonneville during Speed Week. There is no class for scooters. The Southern California Timing Association, SCTA, really knows nothing about scooters outside of their use as pit transportation. Fumagalli’s initial approach to the SCTA was greeted with a resounding “What?”  

Fumagalli persevered and sent the organizers a package outlining Vespa’s long history in racing. But there was a snag. Since there is no specific class for scooters they are classed as motorcycles. The smallest wheel size allowed for motorcycles by the SCTA is 15 inches and vintage Vespa wheels come in eight inch and 10 inch sizes. There is also a regulation that the engine of a motorcycle must be inline with the wheels. Vespas have the engines mounted slightly to the right and the engine forms the rear suspension. The SCTA technical guys refuse to budge on this regulation. One wonders why but that may be off topic.

The SCTA offered to let Fumagalli make a timed run but would not allow the time to be entered in the record books. However, if the bikes were entered in SC-VG (sidecar vintage gas class for bikes made before 1955) the minimum wheel size is ten inches. 

Fumagalli’s friends and fellow enthusiasts from the Vespa Club Milan loved the idea and pitched in to help. These guys are vintage Vespa to the core and very proud of Italy’s storied racing history. They were determined to add to the glory of Vespa’s race heritage with vintage machines. According to Fumagalli this was “a chance to demonstrate the validity and ingenuity of an Italian engineer 66 years after the debut of the first Vespa.”

We have made about 15 runs. The greatest problem was the carburation because of the meteo (weather) and the inability to test the Vespas on the road.

Fumagalli approached his friend and Vespa restoration specialist Marco Quaretta to help with building the bikes. Quaretta had some conditions. First, that he would be given two bikes to build. One of which he would keep. Second, the bikes had to to be named after his daughter Dafne and painted her favorite color Fuchsia. A deal was struck.

Quaretta, 57, ended up building three bikes. A 98cc racer based on a 1953 125cc model for the 100cc class and two 125cc bikes of 1951 and 1954 vintage with engines hopped up with period speed parts.

“All the frames (are) modified for more aerodynamic performance, inspired by some racing models produced by Piaggio over the last 50 years,” said Quaretta. “The leg shield is built in aluminum formed by hand. The sidecars have frames of chrome molybdenum steel and the bodies, in aluminum, inspired by models of the period.”

Marco Fumagalli tests out one of the Vespas during construction. 

The leg shields and bodywork are beautifully built and if you did not know Vespa too well you might not even notice that they are not stock. That is how good Quaretta’s work is.

Quaretta’s shop is in Livorno where he lives with his wife Lucilla and the teams seven-year-old namesake Dafne. “I am a Vespa collector and restorer since the ‘90s,” said Quaretta. “I personally restored all my Vespas and sometimes I swap some parts with other collectors.” 

In the spring of 2015 the team had everything ready and packed the bikes and all the pit equipment into a shipping container (along with a ping pong table and a fooseball table for downtime entertainment) and in June shipped it all off to the States. In July, a month before Speed Week, the SCTA informed all contestants that the races were canceled. Rain had made the salt too wet for racing. The Dafne team decided to come anyway and traveled across the West to experience America and get a look at Bonneville even if they could not race. 

In 2016 the team was notified too late that the race was a go to be able to ship the scooters and equipment from Italy. So 2017 was their first opportunity to race the scooters.

The best speed, 37 MPH, was recorded by Fumagalli riding the 1954 125cc bike with a Sei Giorni racing engine. 

“We have made about 15 runs. The greatest problem was the carburation because of the meteo (weather) and the inability to test the Vespas on the road,” said Quaretta. “The biggest challenge for us is to go to Bonneville. To build and organize a team, to ship it and think of everything we will need in a desert, it is a very big challenge.” 

When asked what the biggest surprise of the experience was Quaretta replied; ”The surprise is the atmosphere that we breathed at Bonneville. Pure passion, a very rare thing. For everybody, Bonneville it is a(n) incredible experience, an incomparable experience.”