There are many great rivalries that Americans can relate to: Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. Ford versus Chevrolet. Now let’s add some Italian spice to the mix. Sophia Loren versus Gina Lollobrigida. And Lambretta versus Vespa.
Like the famous Italian actresses, the scooters are similar, but different. The Lambretta is rakish and streamlined versus the voluptuous curves of a Vespa, but both have bands of loyal followers. If you want to celebrate Lambretta — along with other scooters — the best place is Museo Scooter and Lambretta in Rodano, just outside Milan, Italy. It is a crisp, white temple of elegance that traces the history of an iconic brand.
Lambretta’s design roots are found in an unlikely place. Rugged Cushman scooters, brought into Italy by U.S. Forces in 1944, inspired the original Lambretta design. The Italians are forever credited with inventing the scooter, but it was an American, E. Foster Salsbury, who laid down the original blueprint. His innovative Salsbury Motor Glide began production in California in 1936. Two years later, he developed the world’s first CVT (continuously variable transmission), a system still in use today.
Nebraska-based Cushman, also in production since 1936, supplied American occupation forces in Italy with their scooters. Used as lightweight, one-person transport devices, they became a common sight on air force bases and as courier-messaging delivery steeds.
At this time Ferdinando Innocenti, an Italian industrialist who had lost his steel production plant to Allied carpet bombing during World War II, saw the need for cheap transport. He assigned designer General Corradino D’Ascanio to develop a simple, strong, two-wheeled device that could carry two people and their groceries. This would help mobilize a nation whose infrastructure had been shattered after years of war.
An aeronautical engineer, D’Ascanio had been a pioneer of helicopter technology in the 1930s, and he adapted several aircraft features into his scooter design. One of the most obvious was the front fork, which resembled an aircraft’s landing gear and had a quick-change facility to aid wheel removal in the event of a puncture.
The prototype bore more than a passing resemblance to the proven Cushman, but the project was stillborn. D’Ascanio wanted a pressed steel monocoque frame, while Innocenti favored a more traditional frame made of steel tubing, which would revive his original factory. As a result, D’Ascanio took his design ideas to Enrico Piaggio and the monocoque Vespa was launched in 1946.
A year later, Innocenti put his tubular-framed Lambretta into production, naming it after Lambrate, the Milanese neighborhood where the factory stood. Lambretta became as popular as Vespa, with various models produced under license around the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India and Spain.
During the late 1950s scooter sales boomed worldwide, and in the 1960s scooters became as much a fashion statement as humble transport, with London’s Mods leading the way. Lambretta won bragging rights when the lead actor in the Mod movie Quadrophenia rode a customized 1967 Li150 Series 3. The actual scooter from the movie sold at a Bonhams auction in 2008 for £36,000 (nearly $54,000 at the time).
By the early 1970s the scooter craze was waning in Europe and the U.K. Feeling the pinch, Lambretta sold out to Scooters India Ltd. in 1972. This government-run enterprise bought the entire Lambretta manufacturing and trademark rights and used former factory employees to set up a factory.
The man behind the museum
Vittorio Tessera is a genial guardian of one of the world’s most famous brands, but he wasn’t always in love with Lambretta. “As a boy, I considered a scooter the byproduct of the motorcycle and disregarded it,” he says. “But then, at the age of 15, something inexplicable happened and the Lambretta entered into my DNA.”
His first Lambretta was a 1953 125 LD, which had been a midwife’s transport in the Italian Alps. Vittorio restored it with the help of his older brother Gaetano. Little did he realize that one day he would own a near-complete collection of Lambrettas in all its model variants.
“Today this may appear an easy undertaking, what with the proliferation of swap meets and the Internet,” he says. “But in 1977 things were different. The words ‘Lambretta’ and ‘Vespa’ weren’t spoken at historic motorcycle gatherings. At the first outdoor markets in Imola, it was impossible to find any parts for Lambrettas, and no one wanted to talk about them.
“So it was in 1981, in this general climate of indifference toward scooters, that my brother and I founded the club Amici del Vecchio Scooter (Friends of Old Scooters). We wanted to spread information about what we thought was an important means of transport and organize rallies.”
In 1979, 19-year-old Vittorio had opened the only scooter restoration shop in Italy. “Initially there wasn’t all that much restoration work,” he says. “To make ends meet I reluctantly had to accept the more mundane work of repairing mopeds and lawn mowers.” But persistence paid off for the brothers. “Along with my future wife, Orietta, and members of the club, I traveled thousands of kilometers around Italy and abroad on my Lambretta,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, his collection was expanding. A chunky-looking 125B was soon joined by an even earlier 125A with sidecar. “The price for the scooter and sidecar was absolute lunacy, but it was supported by our father, Gianni, and mother, Laura,” he says. All the while, the brothers were also collecting scooter-related catalogs, brochures, drawings and films.
The treasure trove
Vittorio’s big break came in the late 1980s when a friend told him he had spotted some Lambrettas in abandoned buildings near the old Innocenti factory. “After some investigation I ascertained that this building belonged to the Innocenti family, and so I attempted to contact them,” Vittorio says. “I can assure you it wasn’t easy to introduce myself to the Innocenti family as a complete stranger and ask them to open the gates so that I might take a look at their old Lambrettas!”
Vittorio’s persistence paid off and the doors were opened. “I was able to admire the treasure,” he says. “Various prototype Lambrettas, unique models, production drawings, films and everything a collector can imagine was there, along with years of neglect and that layer of dust that so excites real enthusiasts.” It took another year, and the help of Benito Battilani, a pioneer of the Italian vintage motorcycle scene, before success was realized. “The most difficult problem was to convince the Innocenti family to give me all the material,” Vittorio says, still amazed at his luck 20 years later. “Finally, after a year, I was able to take it all!” It was transferred to a small museum he had created above his scooter repair workshop. In 1989 he founded the Lambretta Club Italia and things really started to take off. “Through the club I became more acquainted with Lambrettisti worldwide,” he says. “These new contacts gave me more clues in my search for specific rare scooters, such as the Honda Juno K [Japan], the Salsbury Motor Glide [U.S.] and Morin Scootavia [France].”
But Lambretta was always at the forefront, and Vittorio wrote what is considered the master text on the marque. Titled Innocenti Lambretta: The Definitive History, it was translated into English in 1999, and reprinted with 30 more pages as an “Expanded Edition” in 2012. His accompanying restoration guide is in its third reprint. Now he needed a proper museum.
After several years of searching, the breakthrough came in 2001, when the town of Rodano made a large hall available in one of its municipal buildings.
It was an immediate success, and the mayor and councilors of Rodano decided to build a specific building to house and display the entire collection of more than 160 scooters and the Lambretta archive. The new 4,300-square-foot facility opened in 2006.
“The present museum was designed by me,” Vittorio says. “It is laid out in sections in small halls. The first section features models made up to World War II. The second features production models from 1945 to 1972. The third shows Innocenti products. The fourth contains the most representative Vespa (Piaggio) models.”
Every nation has at least one special model on display. For example, the U.S. is represented by the sci-fi like Lowther Lightnin’ Airflo (in stunning purple and chrome lightning logo), with Cushmans and utilitarian Motoscoots shown in various forms.
“Museo Scooter & Lambretta is now part of the Province of Milan’s Network of Business Museums, which brings together museums of national importance, such as the Alfa Romeo [cars], Kartell [furniture] and others,” he says.
While the range of scooters is breathtaking, so is the archival resource. The Lambretta section also houses the Innocenti archive. “There are 5,000 photographic negatives, 45 advertising films, the entire series of original production drawings, as well as catalogs and brochures from the period,” Vittorio says. Much of the paper resource is being transferred to CD for easy access by visitors and researchers.
“Thanks to the generous donations of former Innocenti employees and friends, the museum also serves as a reference point for the entire history of the company’s production,” he says. “Not a week goes by without someone coming forward wanting to contribute memorabilia and other precious finds from the great Innocenti production plant.”
The loves of Vittorio’s life
It’s hard for Vittorio to pick out favorites, but he tries. “I love the Lambretta 125A of 1947 because it is the oldest Lambretta in the world [frame No. 2],” he says. “It has great significance because it is the scooter that Ferdinando Innocenti studied personally with his engineers.” He also nominates a 125D racing scooter. “I have personally met the owner and attended the races he has done,” he says.
Few men could resist the obvious charms of Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield, and Vittorio is no exception. Except that his fascination is with the stylish, swooping, gold-plated 175TV Lambretta built for Mansfield, who was featured in a Lambretta advertising campaign in the early 1960s. It was never delivered. “I found it in the old Innocenti plant in NOS condition,” he says.
What about future acquisitions? “My dream is to buy three special Lambrettas that are owned by a private collector: A 125D racing with 4-speed gearbox, a 125D racing with two exhaust pipes and a prototype of a 48cc moped,” Vittorio says. “I have another dream to find an Italian scooter named ‘Marinella.’ I have never seen one and I have only a brochure as reference.”
The museum is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to noon and 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Rodano, Italy, near Milan. MC
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