Both of my cars cost less than my most cherished vehicle: my 1958 Lambretta scooter. My daily driver is a 2009 Honda Element, which, per Kelley Blue Book values, is currently worth around $5,000. Even though it’s equipped with a rare 5-speed manual transmission that I ordered from Honda’s factory in Ohio, that doesn’t affect the value in any way. My second car is a 1993 Volkswagen Cabriolet “Collector’s Edition.” Despite purchasing it for a mere $3,000, I subsequently had to “invest” an extra $4,000 in it.
My love of postwar vehicles began when I acquired this scooter and spent my senior year of high school rebuilding it to its original charm. Despite having an engine of only 150cc, and a top speed of 52 mph with a tailwind, and cable-operated drum brakes, the scooter is worth more than both of my cars. The restoration of my Lambretta cost roughly $3,000, and it took 9 months of work that I completed after school (in lieu of homework), but the value of vintage scooters has risen over the past decade. A serviceable scooter like mine could be found starting around $4,000 — but prices start around $6,000 for rarer and restored models like mine. The cars are both far more useful, but the scooter is infinitely more fun.
Before I get to more on my scooter, a little history. After World War II, Italy was in ruins after living under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi occupation. Following a ban on aircraft manufacture, and out of domestic necessity for inexpensive transportation, Piaggio debuted the Vespa Scooter in 1946 as an affordable and rugged vehicle that, by design, was easy to maintain and repair by owners.
The motor scooter caught on — and in 1947, one year after Piaggio debuted the first Vespa, another Italian manufacturing company named Innocenti entered the market with the Lambretta. Innocenti had lost most of their machine-works manufacturing abilities during the war — but they reentered the market with the Lambretta and later became a small-car manufacturer. Both scooters were two-stroke, meaning the engine’s single cylinder is lubricated by oil you mix into the gasoline after filling the tank — and both scooters had four gears with a clutch, operated entirely with your left hand. Your right hand controls the front drum brake, and you control the rear brake with your right foot. Engines ranged from 49cc to 200cc — and in my opinion, 200cc is pretty quick for its tiny 10-inch wheels and cable brakes!
Although similar in appearance, Innocenti’s Lambretta differed by design from Piaggio’s more famous Vespa. Having formerly manufactured aircraft, Vespa created a frame that consisted of steel pressed into a monocoque frame. The Lambretta’s design was instead based on a bent steel tube frame, with the body comprised of six different removable pieces. This manufacturing decision was made due to Innocenti’s prewar steel tube manufacturing capacity — though it also easily solved the issue of cheaply and easily replacing damaged body components, much like Citroen’s 2CV, the “people’s car” of France.
The scooter gained immense popularity in Italy during the postwar period. It served as a vehicle to economic recovery and achieved cult status through films like “Roman Holiday,” with its iconic scenes of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck roaming in a Vespa. Scooter popularity declined during the 1970s in Italy and other European countries like France, Germany and Spain (where Lambrettas were also manufactured), as many upwardly mobile Europeans who depended on scooters were now able to afford cars. Production was then sold and expanded to many Asian and Latin American countries with infrastructure prohibiting wide use of the automobile, like India and Taiwan.
As the after-school shop lackey at Brooklynbretta, a now defunct scooter shop in Brooklyn, I worked on the Lambretta after the shop closed every day. I spent a few hours at a time (with a chain-smoking British Lambretta mechanic and rabid Morrissey fan named Tony) rebuilding the engine, installing new trim and cables, and upgrading the flywheel-powered electronics from 6- to 12-volt. I outsourced the sandblasting, powder-coating and paint, but I left plenty of work to be done myself.
Over the 12 years I’ve owned my Lambretta, I’ve driven it around 4,000 km. I’ve taken it everywhere I’ve lived, including New York City, Rhode Island, Maine and the moneyed beach enclave of The Hamptons, where I’ve enjoyed it the most. I’ve also taken it camping. Country roads with a low speed limit are a perfect match for the buzz of the 150cc motor, while wear and tear is greater within New York City, with taxis, traffic and bad roads to contend with. I store it during the winter and change the oil regularly. I’ve taken the carburetor apart on the side of the road, replaced a flat tire and made various small fixes with a tiny tool kit I keep in the glovebox — and trust me, I’m no mechanic. With regular maintenance, I’ve kept this 60-year-old machine in good running order. With regular use over time, I could see myself restoring the bike again — perhaps in 30 years, when my Lambretta turns 90. Find a scooter for sale