With ABS brakes, LED running lights, a catalytic converter and electronic fuel injection, it’s about as far from the two-stroke smoke of the 60s as you can imagine.
There are only four Vespa Sprints in the United States – and for the past few days, I’ve been lucky enough to ride around on one.
Hailing from the sixties along with the Primavera, the Sprint is an iconic brand for the Piaggio Corp., from the days when British mods grooved to The Who, girls wore go-go boots and pageboy hairdos, and Italian youths prowled through piazzas with cigarettes dangling from their lips, a devilish sparkle in their eye.
You’re about as far from the two-stroke smoke bikes of the 60s as you can imagine.
The $5,099 Vespa Sprint, which goes on sale in mid-June, aims to bring back some of that verve. It’s the first Sprint-branded bike in 38 years, and while the price tag is higher than it was in the 60s and 70s, the bike is as sure to put a smile on your face as the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.”
Piaggio Corp. unveiled its newest Sprint and Primavera models, the first new ones on U.S. shores in nearly four decades, at a New York City event on May 8. It was a small affair, just a handful of executives and members of the press, but a huge deal for the Vespa brand.
The 1965 Sprint was a smaller-bodied scooter with a distinctive, rectangular headlamp and a peppy, sport-tuned engine. It shared a small-frame design with Primavera bikes, both of which lacked the wide rear bodies seen on most other scooters; those bikes still remain popular with collectors today.
In the new 2015 Sprint — the first new frame in seven years from the company — Piaggio has a bike that’s very different from most other Vespas you see zipping around. For one thing, there are 12-inch tires on the Sprint, the biggest wheels a 150-cc model has ever sported. Most bikes sport 10-inchers. Riding on two extra inches of rubber makes it more maneuverable and safer, Piaggio claims.
The 150-cc Sprint is also the first Vespa ever to feature an ABS braking system. Add in LED running lights, a catalytic converter and electronic fuel injection, and you’re about as far from the two-stroke smoke bikes of the 60s as you can imagine.
The Sprint is a lot like every other scooter out there, to be fair. Yes, the designers work to customize them, but a generic look connects the frames of the entire family, from the classic shape of the LX series to the quirkier stylings of the new 946. The rounded, romantic curves of the 60s have been gradually sharpened over the years, leaving a familiar silhouette that’s nonetheless more angular than it once was, a basic fact that moves today’s bikes closer to generic rides from Honda than I’d like – the Sprint included.
The rounded, romantic curves of the 60s have been gradually sharpened over the years.
The new Sprint has touches of its own, beyond a larger wheelbase than the popular S models, those 12-inch tires, and new rims and a saddle seat. The rectangular headlamp is unmistakable. A series of round bags meant to fit between the seat and the handlebars, echoing the spare tire location from the 60s-era Super Sprint. They carry bullseye patterns or British flags – a cute touch. There’s a new instrument panel as well, dominated by a speedometer (showing kilometers per hour for some reason) and including a small LCD for time, gas and a trip meter.
On a pleasant Tuesday evening last week, I picked up a Sprint from Vespa Brooklyn, one of that first batch of four flown to the U.S. for the unveiling, and drove it for the first time.
Driving the Sprint is almost as foolproof simple as the controls. On the left handlebar are left and right turn signals, a horn, and a rear brake; the right carries a front-brake lever, the ignition and kill switches, and the throttle.
Turn it on, twist the throttle and go – that’s all there is to it.
The Sprint may not have the lion’s roar of a Harley – it’s a scooter, cut it some slack – but the 4-stroke, 3-valve 150-cc engine is no slouch. Rev the engine at idle and you’ll hear a throaty “whumph”, like a thoroughbred at the gate panting away.
It takes off like one too, thanks to 9.4 pound-feet of torque. That’s not fast enough to throw you from the seat, but it’ll quicken your pulse and put a smile on your face for sure – and it’ll have everything else at the stop sign vanishing in your rear-view mirrors.
Then and Now
As the owner of one of those 60s era small-frame Vespas – a 1966 Sears-branded model – I can see first-hand the change over the years. It’s remarkable. Yes, the new Sprint brings back the mood of that era, but it drives like a modern machine. My bike is fun but wobbly, and frankly a little terrifying to ride. The Sprint pulls steadily through traffic, holding the line in a turn tighter than a wind-up toy.
Yet the Sprint drives remarkably quietly; carry a passenger behind you on the seat and you can talk at normal levels even while zipping down a street. It idles quietly too, perhaps one way Piaggio was able to coax 117 mpg out of it. Fill the tank (just 2.1 gallons) and you could in theory drive from New York to Boston on one tank of gas.
In theory anyway.
In reality, the highways might get tiresome, especially because the bike officially tops out at 59 mph, although the speedo runs through 80. Zipping downhill on the Manhattan Bridge between Brooklyn and New York, I pulled it closer to 70. And with the wind in my face and tears streaming from my eyes, that was frankly as fast as I wanted to go.
The Vespa Sprint will be available in mid-June, starting at $5,099.
- Drop-dead simple controls make riding as easy as it is fun.
- Astonishing fuel economy — up to 117 mpg.
- ABS braking system provides safety, reassurance to the nervous.
- Despite hints of flair, somewhat indistinguishable from every other other Vespas.
- Limited “vintage” elements beyond brand name.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the location of the front- and rear-brake levers. The correct information is above.