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Vespa goes back to the future

Thu, 22 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0800

IT'S been a while coming, but the gorgeous Vespa 946 - EICMA 2012's Best of Show - has finally introduced something to the two-wheeled world that our four-wheeled counterparts have had for a while. 

I call this 'reverse retro-futurism' - the art of borrowing lines from models past and imbuing them with a sleek sense of future direction (as opposed to retro-futurism, the pre-1960s design trend of depicting the technology of the future. The term 'decopunk' may come close, but feel free to tell me if there's a more exact term.)

It's what the New Mini and the New Beetle (both 1997 and 2012 versions) have done so well, and so successfully: building an all-new model as a tribute to a classic, something that's modern yet already timeless, with a widely-appreciated, inclusive aesthetic (and here we eliminate the Plymouth PT Cruiser from the conversation).

The biking world is great at retro, indeed thrives on it, but not so good at adding in a taste of the 21st century. The Bonneville/Thruxton, W800, CB1100, ZRX, SportClassic … all lovely bikes, but ones that at best update the originals' lines. Some call this trend de-evolution - the car equivalents would be, say, the new Dodge Challenger and the new Ford Thunderbird, for instance - but I think it's a shortcut. It's looking to the past for inspiration, but not moving them on significantly enough. In film terms, a remake, not a reboot.

And there are of course bikes that 'do' retro by simply slowing (to a crawl) their pace of evolution - Harley-Davidson comes to mind (as do Porsche or Jeep in the car world). To me, that just doesn't count. 

That said, the only other recent bike that I thought did something close to what Vespa has done with the 946 is, ironically, H-D's V-Rod

I daresay bike styling is even more important than that of cars, because even an ugly car can serve as practical transport, but an ugly bike will just not get ridden (unless you're talking about the pizza-delivery end of the market). Bike buyers are also a finicky, even formulaic bunch - we look at Wankel engines and hub-centred steering like the ice-cream man just filled our cone with pigeon poop - so it's unsurprising that bike manufacturers tend to play it safe. 

But get it right, and the reward could be a whole new generation of bike design. I hope the Vespa 946 inspires motorcycle designers to go back to the future and revitalise the simple joy of staring at your parked bike, and seeing the yin and yang of heritage and possibility straddling it comfortably like rider and pillion.


By Sachin Rao


See also: AMA Pro Racing Announces Preliminary 2013 Road Racing Schedule, Motorcycle.com Adds a New Editor, Harley-Davidson Secures NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle Title With One Round Remaining.