As is always the way with the British, they take aspects of other cultures and make them inimitably their own. What better example can there be but the Lambretta? Think scooter, think Lambretta (not Vespa, shhh!), think Mods, think bowl cuts, mirrors, and parka jackets. The Lambretta is a deservedly British bit of cool. Not much evokes the early 60’s better than a Lambretta with a big RAF roundel painted on the front shield.
How did an Italian Scooter Become a British Icon?
Until the late 1950’s, scooters were nothing more than a very cheap way of getting around. For less than £100 (admittedly a few month’s wages for most people), anyone could get themselves a new Lambretta scooter and suddenly the roads of Britain and Europe were open to them. They could go anywhere in reasonable comfort. Your legs did not end up filthy and wet (most of the time), you could hop on one in a skirt or a dress when you were sneaking out of the house at night to go dancing, and they were easy to maintain and modify. The Lambretta was surprisingly fast as well, with a bit of care you could push one past 90 miles per hour and survive.
British kids were growing up in a time of newfound wealth. The austerity of their early childhoods had been replaced with full employment, high wages, strong unions, and access to American and European markets that were similarly booming. This meant they had disposable income, something that was an impossible dream for even their parent’s generation.
New jobs and opportunities to travel made the up and coming generation more eager to get around than before. Lambrettas were perfect for this and so they sold in droves and the Italian scooter became a British classic.
That Italian Style
It is a stereotype that happens to have a basis in truth: the Italians are a stylish people. They care about what they wear and what they look and have made the Brits feel inadequate for a long time. Many of the greatest design houses were and still are Italian. While the reputation of affordable Italian cars leaves a lot to be desired, they did all have a distinctive style and grace that was widely emulated. Italian scooters looked great and had a much better reputation. The Lambretta had its problems but it usually ran well, was cheap, and people were finding that they looked “cool” (still a new word in the late 50’s) when they rode them.
The Mists of History
Nobody knows who first painted a Lambretta in RAF colours, or why that first person thought a dozen wingmirrors was definitely superior to the standard two (actually, this addressed a genuine concern with scooters – seeing behind you on those two tiny mirrors was difficult, though 20 does seem excessive), but we owe them a lot.
It probably originated with people just using them to meet up but soon entire gangs of the newly christened Mods were cruising around Britain on their scooters. Lambrettas seemed to be more popular in the North, but everyone knew they were cool. Well, not everyone …
Mods vs. Rockers, Baby
Rock ’n’ Roll was the direct competition of the R&B, ska, and soul that the Mods were listening to. Musical tribalism was common in those days, with each band and singer belonging to a certain subgroup that it was heresy to cross. Playgrounds and even parts of cities were dominated by this group or that group. By the early 60’s, it was Mods and Rockers being played out across Britain, like a game of cops and robbers but with lethal weapons, bad haircuts and amphetamines.
From the plural viewpoint of today’s musical melange, it can seem silly that people would be so fierce about their musical identity, but identifying with something bigger than you, a distinct identity you could claim for your own in defiance of your parents and The Man was incredibly important to young people in this time.
Rockers had long hair, rode motorbikes, and listened to heavy guitar based music. Perhaps inevitably, the Mods and Rockers ended up in conflict. The film Quadrophenia is the best depiction of this musical and stylistic disagreement. Mods would turn up on their Lambrettas, looking sharp in their pinstripe suits, and fight the long haired and smelly Rockers.
Martial Culture and Swinging London
The well publicised fights between Mods and Rockers put these cool looking kids on front pages around the worlds. Other kids wanted to look like that, so groups of Mods started popping up around the world. Bands like The Who and the Small Faces sold millions of records and put the Mod look, Lambretta and all, right into millions of kids’ bedrooms.
All things pass and most of the Mods grew up, cut their hair and got jobs. Some became hippies and grew their hair. It all seemed to die away until the 1980’s, when Lambretta riding Mods revival bands like The Jam stormed stages, making Britain cool again. Then Blur and Oasis brought Britpop to the world. What were they riding? Lambrettas.