Our friends at Motorbooks know that I’m an enthusiast of two-wheeled machines as well as four-wheeled, so when they sent me a copy of Vespa Style and Passion, I knew I was in for a treat. 2020 Is the 75th anniversary of the Vespa brand, so this book is well-timed and will thrill many readers. I was thrilled as soon as it came out of the box- Vespa is known as an icon of style, and this beautiful volume is very stylishly designed with a light and inviting layout and cheerful colours. But just like its subject, there is substance beneath the style. Let’s take a peek inside.
Authors Valerio Boni and Stefan Cordara have impeccable credentials as moto-journalists, with a combined 71 years of experience in the field, having written many books and magazine articles about many marques. Their skills and experience show well in this book.
Despite being over 200 pages, the book only has three chapters (which, in fairness, are divided into a few more sub-chapters). The first chapter opens with some background on the evolution of the Piaggio family businesses, starting in furnishings for ships and progressing through railcars and into aviation, becoming the leading aviation manufacturer in Italy. After WWII the company needed new business and saw an opportunity in fulfilling war-ravaged Italy’s immediate need for affordable transportation. The design that became the Vespa scooter was revolutionary, following an intuitive approach that was centered around the human user. This groundbreaking design also incorporated some technical brilliance, such as aircraft-derived suspension, a forced-air system for engine cooling, and interchangeable wheels. The original Vespa concept was so good that it is still used today and has been copied for decades.
The second chapter is the largest, one subchapter of which contains roughly half of the book’s page-count in a section detailing all the models from 1946 to 2020. You’ll find everything here from the 98 that started it all, the GS that was made famous by the Mods of the 1960s, and many, many more variations on the original theme, right up through the current Elettrica, and electric-powered model that can be connected to a smartphone. And the original theme still shines through and still works brilliantly. There is also a section about Vespa’s advertising and communications.
The third chapter is perhaps the most interesting, as it deals with Vespa’s impact in the world- from movies and fashion to serious travel and customisation and art and even racing. Yes, there IS such a thing as scooter-racing! For me, the big take-away from this chapter is that something that started as a utilitarian tool to meet a specific need in a defeated country was so elementally good that it can’t die, and that despite what seems at first like a design that does so little, the Vespa has become so many different things to so many different people. These qualities are what make Vespa a true icon, and this book beautifully presents that iconicness.
Ben and Mickey do a special episode. We talk about Vespa, Style and Passion, a book sent to us by our friends at Quarto Knows publishers. The conversation turns to the general world of scooters. Mickey bemoans a couple of un-loved BMWs in his parking lot, and Ben bemoans a seller’s poor treatment of a second-generation Camaro.
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I got lucky again with this one. I had to see some customers in other states for a few days and a local branch of the car rental company put me in a nice fresh BMW. I only had it for a short handful of days, but I made the most of those days with it. I had three customers to visit, the first one in the opposite direction to the other two, so some miles would be involved. The Alpine White 330i looked like a great traveling companion- would it be?
Once inside, the first impression was comfortable but it required some adjustment. The seat seemed a little awkward until I started playing with the controls. It had more than the average assortment of adjustments, and the seatback’s bolster-width adjustment was the key that made the rest of if fit. The ergonomics worked fairly well for my big, tall frame, with one exception- getting out of the car. The doors are somewhat small, and I needed to have both the seat and the steering wheel far back. This resulted in the seatback being behind the edge of the doorway, and the wheel encroaching into the other side of the passage, making for a narrow gap between wheel and doorjamb through which to extricate myself. A little push on the sill from my left hand helped, a similar trick to one I used to use for getting out of the very low and wide-silled Turbo Esprit that I once owned. But the difficult egress was a small price to pay for the comfort.
Another impression this car gives is of technology. The instrument cluster isn’t a cluster of instruments at all, but a single instrument in the form of a multifunction TFT display that conveys lots of information, all organised by which screen you’ve selected or which drive-mode is in use. The displayed information isn’t always intuitive to interpret, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of what’s going on. BMW could have made the tech very Germanically cold, but they put a certain amount of ‘organicness’ in it that made it a little easier for humans to grow into. They also kept the dashboard fairly clean, putting most of the tech-controls on the centre console, but even that wasn’t overwhelmed with buttons and switches and knobs- just enough to let you know that a lot of features are accessible but not enough to discourage exploring them. I didn’t have time to dig into all the features, but those that I did were easy enough to understand and use. Speaking of user-friendly controls, I’ve often had less than great things to say about the ‘joystick with a flowchart’ school of gear-selector design. This BMW’s selector is of that type, and it takes a few tries to get the hang of how the buttons and nudges make it work, but once you get the hang of it, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen (looking at you, Cadillac XT5).
Levers and buttons and screens are all fine and good, but cars are for driving, and the 330i is a delight to drive. Comfort mode is the default setting, and in this mode the car is unobtrusive, just getting along as needed, perfect for most people’s everyday utilitarian driving from A to B. Pro Eco mode is for energy-efficiency, although I’m not what’s ‘pro’ about it. Sport mode is for fun. I found Pro Eco was most useful for long hauls on the highway, Comfort in the city, and Sport for when I wanted to get around the slowpokes or otherwise enjoy a brisker drive. BMW stick tightly to their tradition of rear wheel drive; as a result you can enjoy as much acceleration as you want without any torque-steer surprises. The handling is good and very smooth but don’t stay in Comfort-mode if you really enjoy cornering. The steering-feel is good, certainly better than the bland anonymity of most current cars’ electrically-assisted steering, but it still isn’t the great feel for which the BMW 3-series was famous in times past. There has GOT to be a way to improve this woe that afflicts so many cars these days.
Disappointments were few. The biggest one for me is the lack of a spare tire. Not even a space-saver, not even a compartment under the trunk floor to hope for a spare. I also wasn’t pleased that the only 12V socket for the front seats is at the front of the console, right by the cup-holders. If you use a big travel-cup, this gets a little crowded, and certainly isn’t as neat a solution as putting the socket inside the storage space under the armrest. And the socket didn’t even function in my rental car, but luckily my charging cables were long enough to reach from the socket on the rear of the console for back-seat passengers. If those passengers have legs, they won’t want to sit behind tall people: the legroom behind the driver seat all but disappeared once the seat was adjusted for my size. I was also surprised that the 330i was not equipped with heated seats, which are so common today that almost every car has them, even my seven-year-old Mazda 3.
Nice touches abound too. The TFT displays are bright and easy to read. The climate-control system is easy to understand and keeps up well with southern summer heat. The smart key is even thoughtfully designed, so that you don’t have to remove it from your packet to find the button to lock the car- just stick your hand in your pocket, and when your thumb finds the raised, rounded BMW roundel, give it a press. The car will also unlock automatically when the key gets close to a door, taking things a step further than the touch-unlock feature that many cars come with.
The BMW 330i’s MSRP starts around $41000, and options can make it climb steeply from there. For the money you get a comfortable, satisfying, well-designed car that is a joy to drive. Given the opportunity to spend more time with it, I definitely would.