The coolest round town ride is back
The biblical return of Lazarus from the dead was possibly an easier feat than the revival of Lambretta, once maker of the world's most popular motor scooters. Global ownership of the rights to the Lambretta name is still under dispute, but that has not stopped Rome-based firm Lambretta Motolife Italia SpA from producing a new range of scooters that pay homage to the original bearers of the brand.
The first model to arrive in three newly appointed metropolitan New Zealand Lambretta dealerships is the LN125, a $4995 bike so retro in design that it makes any current Vespa model look modern.
So it's little wonder that Auckland transport memorabilia dealer, Rick McCay, got quite excited when I pulled up on the LN125 to take some photos of it outside his shop, Airships.
Rick quickly disappeared inside and began to rummage through his stock, and returned with a prize exhibit - a Lambretta badge lifted from a bike built during the brand's inaugural Innocenti era.
The chipped and tarnished chrome of the historic badge pretty much told the tale of a once- mighty motor-scooter company that has had a rough roller-coaster ride though history.
The story began when Milan- based steel tube maker, Fernando Innocenti, was surveying the bombed ruins of his factory after World War II, and saw a future in building something that would provide affordable mobility.
Innocenti joined with former Italian Air Force general Corradino D'Ascanio, designer of the first modern helicopter, and the pair work on something inspired by the lightweight Nebraskan-made Cushman scooters used by the United States military during the war.
However, the pair fell out when Innocenti wanted the scooter to have a tubular steel frame, but D'Ascanio was convinced that a moulded and rolled steel spar structure would work better.
The latter jumped ship, taking his monocoque design to Enrico Piaggio, who used it to kick-start Vespa. Undaunted, Innocenti then hired leading aeronautical engineers Cesare Pallavicino and Pier Luigi Torre, to finish off his tubular steel-framed scooter, design the engines, and set up the production lines.
In 1947, the first Lambretta, named after the Lambro River adjacent to the Milan factory, emerged, almost exactly one year after the first Vespa.
Despite the latter's head start, Lambrettas initially proved more popular. The D models, built between 1951 and 1957, were reckoned to have outsold the combined sales of all other two-wheeled vehicles made during those years. It's these popular 1950s-vintage Lambrettas that the design of the LN125 most recalls.
Penned by Alessandro Tartarini, the strips of LED riding lights (every bike should have them) are the LN125's only concession to modernity. But what about that front disc brake? Surely that isn't part of Lambretta's heritage. It's entirely fitting, as the 1960 Lambretta TV was the first motorised two- wheeler to use a disc to slow, albeit one without quite the same power to retard momentum as the LN125's well set-up stopper.
It would be nice if the rear drum brake of the LN125 offered similar braking performance to the front disc, given that rearward weight bias of scooters places a new emphasis on rear brake performance.
Despite proudly wearing a badge that hails it as a product of Milan, the LN125 is assembled by SYM in Taiwan, maker of the four- stroke, single-cylinder engine (the pressed steel bodywork of the Lambretta is made in Milan, then exported to Taiwan for the assembly of the bike).
SYM, ally of Hyundai in a Taiwanese car-assembly venture, is a proven engineering partner, and the 9-horsepower single is a great choice of motivation for the first product of Lambretta's revival. It's smooth and frugal, and capable of pushing the LN125 to a top indicated speed of 90kmh if required.
About the only disappointment of the twist 'n' go powertrain is the lack of fuel-tank capacity. Although the 125 single sips fuel at a rate of 4.0 litres per 100km, the 5.9-litre tank requires refills at regular intervals.
So who got the basic Italian scooter chassis design format right, D'Ascanio or Innocenti? As a Vespa owner, I'd say the latter, as the LN125 handles with more decorum than my ride.
Innocenti, the company, suffered a premature death when it was bought by British Leyland in the 1960s and shut down in 1972, perhaps in revenge for making a better Mini than the British.
Meanwhile, the LN125 is so good that it deserves to correct the fortunes of history and bring the Lambretta brand back to the forefront of the scooting world.
AT A GLANCE
* Engine: 124cc liquid-cooled single, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 6.7kW (9bhp) at 8000rpm and 8.3Nm at 6000rpm.
* Transmission: CVT transmission, belt final drive.
* Frame: Tubular steel frame with engine mounted on rear swingarm. Unadjustable front forks and twin rear shocks.
* Price: $4995.
* Hot: There is no cooler thing to ride around town than a vintage scooter and the Lambretta pays complete homage visually to its highly popular ancestors. Comfortable seat, good front brake.
* Not: The small fuel tank will put you on a first-name basis with petrol-station attendants; it has less underseat storage than a Vespa, weak back brake.