The Mods of the 60’s are synonymous with scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas in particular. They became icons of British style, often painted with Union Flags, RAF roundels, or festooned with extra wing mirrors.
The Lambretta is distinctive, once you know how one looks, you can recognise them anywhere. Their popularity extends far beyond nostalgic boy racers, however, a Lambretta is a fun, convenient, and stylish way to travel. Some people have even been around the world on one.
The Making of a Classic
The origins of Lambretta’s popularity in the UK goes back to around World War II. Fernando Innocente, the man responsible for the classic Lambretta scooters, had owned a factory that was bombed flat during the war. In the reconstruction, affordable transport was hard to come by. Instead of going back to making steel tubing, he recruited General Corradino D’Ascanio, the designer of the first modern helicopter, to make him an affordable, easy to use, and simple vehicle.
This was an odd choice: D’Ascanio hated motorcycles. It turned out to be an inspired choice as he stripped down the design of a motorcycle and reimagined it, using the American Cushman scooters that were cruising around occupied Italy as inspiration.
Fallings out and Rivalries
When Innocente and D’Ascanio fell out, the latter took his designs to Enrico Piaggio, who used them to make the Vespa. One of the great motoring rivalries was born.Innocente continued with his designs and in 1947, the first Lambretta rolled off the production line. The name Lambretta came from a mythical water-sprite on the local Lambrate River. With its front shield, manoeuvrability, surprising pokiness and speed, it was an immediate success.
It was not just the Italians who loved the Lambretta, the brilliant blend of versatility and price made it popular from India to Indiana as poorer people started to get on the roads. By the 60’s, their popularity was waning as smaller cars became cheaper and more available but the distinctive look of a Lambretta had made an indelible mark on the history of transport and style.
Why did the Brits Love them?
The generation coming of age in the late 50’s and early 60’s were uniquely privileged. They had grown up after the war in increasing affluence as Europe dragged itself out of the rubble and rebuilt itself. For the first time in history, a rebellious and forward thinking generation had the freedom and the cash to decide for themselves how to dress and act.
A Lambretta might have set a young man or woman back £100 in the early 60’s. This was relatively affordable for that generation, many of whom left school and went straight into well paying jobs. The freedom transport could bring was irresistible to the kids who had been brought up in Europe, not Britain, with unprecedented access to their own and other countries.
Lambrettas were versatile, easy to repair, and crucially, easy to modify. Anyone with a basic knowledge of mechanics could soup their engine up or add on unique modifications. Lambretta put out series after series of increasingly futuristic looking scooters (there was even a “Luna” series to commemorate the moon landings), which were eagerly lapped up for people who wanted that distinctive look.
The Emergence of a Style Icon
Looking at a Lambretta now, it is easy to see why they were more than just a way of getting around. The smooth curves, organic design, and the freedom the scooter represented was designed and marketed with care and intelligence. Sometimes a design comes along that is an instant classic, regardless of who drove them.
Some very cool people started riding them. Bands like The Who and the Small Faces came to represent the Mod look, which was sharp suits, R&B, soul and ska music, and the obligatory scooters. It had to be a Vespa or a Lambretta, of course. Pictures of boys and girls in dark sunglasses cruising on their Lambrettas took on a whole new edge when the reaction to the “counterculture” and the rise of “moral panic” made rebelling against your parents even more appealing.
The Mod revival of the late 70’s brought Lambrettas back into style and made sure they would never be out of style again. The 1973 movie Quadrophenia, written by Pete Townsend of The Who, sealed the image of Mods forever in many minds. The association with rebellion, identity, sex, freedom, growing up and transformative drug use were stamped onto the minds of generations who grew up after Lambrettas stopped being made. They seem to hark back to simpler but more exciting days, that beautiful time in which modern life was defined and redefined by a unique generation.
The Modern Lambretta
Original Lambrettas can fetch some serious money, going for thousands of pounds. It is not just the original Mods or even the original revivalists who love them, each generation seems to find a place for the Lambretta and all the distilled cool that goes with it. They are noisy, smelly, and dangerous, and all the more fantastic for that.