In 1984 Piaggio and LML began building Vespa LX150 scooters in India, and the design is still being sold today. Genuine Scooters markets the design as the Stella.
Retro. You can go two ways with it. Volkswagen blazed the first trail with the smash success of the New Beetle back in 1998. Make it reminiscent of the original, except with all the performance, reliability and conveniences of a new product. Sure, a 1971 Beetle looks cute, but have you driven one of these things? It has all the comfort, performance, safety and ease of use as a small, cheap car from the 1930s, mainly because it is a small, cheap car from the 1930s. If you’re going someplace in one, wear old clothes and make an appointment with your dentist because you’ll need new fillings. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, as noisy as a WWI biplane and about as easy to drive as a melted golf ball.
So, when consumers say they want a car just like they used to have, they are lying to you. They just think they do. Manufacturers mostly follow the VW model, building dependable, high-performance products that sort of recreate the experience. Vespa—keeper of the classic Italian scooter flame—builds scooters that share design elements with the original two-stroke, manual-transmission scooters of yore, but perform much like scooters from Japan and Taiwan. Twist and go convenience, along with modern suspension, brakes and handling.
Then there’s the other path. Some manufacturers were never told the old days ended, and therefore just kept making things the way they had always made them. That’s certainly the case for Indian automotive companies, many of which had license-building agreements with European vehicle manufacturers. In 1984, Piaggio started a joint venture with LML—a company known for making industrial weaving machinery—to build Vespa LX150 scooters in India, and that basic design has been sold on the Subcontinent for the last 26 years.
If you know vintage Vespas, you know the LML product. It’s a simple stamped-steel monocoque body replete with steel sidecovers and a big steel front fender. A spare tire is under one cover, the compact drive unit—combined with swingarm and transmission—juts out on the other side. Suspension is handled by a monoshock in back and that signature landing-gear-like single-sided front end. Braking is handled by a small disc brake (with braided steel line) in front and a drum in back.
If you yearn for the heady aroma of two-stroke exhaust in your nostrils, you’re in for a disappointment. To ensure meeting emissions requirements for the foreseeable future, LML tossed out that smoky old two-stroke powerplant and replaced it with a catalyzed, clean-burning four-stroke, 147.55cc air-cooled Single. It retains a four-speed manual gearbox, carburetor and hand-operated clutch as well as that iconic PX150 chassis.
The styling is remarkable, especially for a product with a $3599 hangtag. Look closely at it and you’d swear it was 1977 all over again. Check out the aluminum trim along the leg shield, lustrous paint in five designer colors (the blue you see here isn’t exactly like the blue you may have had on your old P200E you had in college, but it’s a nice color anyway), long-stalk chrome mirrors and those stamped-steel interchangeable, bolt-together 10-inch wheels. Slovenian-made white-wall tires aren’t period-authentic, but add some serious flavor. Lift the seat to fill the 1.8-gallon tank, pull out the choke knob, flip the fuel tap to “on,” and shove down on the kickstart lever with the toe of your Doc Marten to start it up (there’s electric start too). Any more authenticity and you’ll start looking over your shoulder for Scott Bakula to appear and
tell you you’re his grandfather and to not eat smoked salmon at the Katzenburg bar mitzvah or Lionel Richie will get the atomic bomb.
If the five color choices don’t allow enough free expression, you can always accessorize. Because the Stella is such a close facsimile of the original Vespa product, many vintage Vespa parts will bolt on, including bodywork, chrome bits, seat, crashbars and other items. Add a top box and a windscreen if you want to go road warrior, or you can do the full-on crashbars-and-spotlights Quadraphenia treatment.
Like the original P200E (or PX150, if you ever rode one of those), the Stella is a refined, well-engineered product—within limits. The motor is appliance-like, clearly intended for maximum function and economy, so while it starts easily and runs well, it’s as far from high-performance as you can get. It’s rough and buzzy like a two-stroke, and retains the whirring, rattling noise a Vespa owner will expect. But the exhaust note is lower and thumpier, leaving no doubt of its four-stroke redesign. But riding it is a lot like the old P(only slower); redline comes quickly, necessitating quick shifting action on the handlebar-mounted shifter. Keeping up with traffic is easy, if said traffic isn’t trying to race with you, and the scoot quickly gets up to its 30-40 mph cruising speed. Faster than that is possible, but hardly relaxing.
And do you need to go faster than that around town? I didn’t in the time I had to test the bike. A crowded inner city—think Mumbai, Milan or maybe Chicago—is perfect for the Stella. If there is a two-wheeled vehicle with a tighter turning radius, it may be a folding bicycle somebody forgot to unfold. The 245-pound claimed wet weight feels even lighter thanks to an absurdly low center of gravity. Comically steep steering geometry (rake is 25 degrees—Yamaha’s R6 supersport motorcycle has a 24-degree steering head angle), wheelbarrow-sized wheels and under-50-inch wheelbase means you can do things on the Stella you’d never try on any other motorized vehicle. It can plod along at a crawling infant’s pace, and then zip into a tiny gap in traffic before anybody knows what you’re doing. “Telepathic” doesn’t describe how quick steering response is. “Precognitive” is more like it—before you even realize you want to turn you’ve already turned, picked a parking spot, gotten off the bike and are halfway into your second Campari and soda. Getting on the Stella after riding a more orthodox motorcycle feels a little flighty until you get used to it—and then it’s a lot of fun.
Welcome to classic scootering. The PX design—itself a refinement of the original Vespa from the late 1940s—is a highly evolved product, used by millions worldwide as basic and practical urban transportation. It’s simple to ride (don’t let the clutch and gearbox intimidate you—somehow working the tranny with your wrist is easier and more intuitive), has decent brakes, goes up any hill you want, is very easy to get on its centerstand, and there’s a little clip under the seat for your man-or-woman purse (or grocery bags). Errands and intra-urban commuting are suddenly easy and fun.
You’ll look good cruising around, but don’t be in a hurry. Stella’s 147.55cc Single is economical but falls short in the performance department.
It’s not just fun for the rider. The Stella has the power to draw a crowd and start conversations. Strangers want to know what it is, who makes it, how much it costs, if it’s hard to ride, how far it’ll go on a tank of gas. It looks good no matter how you look at it—authentic and well-proportioned. Everybody is surprised when you tell them it’s a new bike, made in India, and it gets over 100 miles per gallon.
Actually, Genuine Scooters claims 140 mpg in the EPA test loop, which seems amazing. However, Scoot! magazine was able to squeeze 100 mpg (with a large and jolly rider on board) in regular riding. That seems to jibe with my testing, where the needle on the fuel gauge didn’t really move during a long afternoon and evening of riding. That means a potential of 120-150 miles out of the 1.3-gallon tank.
Of course, every product has its disadvantage, and you’d be rightly suspicious if I didn’t point out the flaws in a 30-year-old design. The Stella is not seamless (literally, as you can see the seam down the center of the body). The seat is too high (over 31 inches) for shorter riders to flat-foot without sliding way forward or even standing up off the seat, and there is no storage room under it. The price of scalpel-like low-speed maneuverability is handling that is, to put it politely,
indistinct at speeds over 50 mph. Don’t expect to go much faster than that, as the bike seems to top out around 60 mph anyway, which means it’s not really a freeway machine (check your state laws on what constitutes freeway legality—in California, anything under 150cc is a “motor-driven cycle” and not allowed on divided freeways). The turn signals are accompanied by an annoying beeping warning signal. And the suspension isn’t the best I’ve experienced. In spite of using upgraded shocks, it’s still underdamped and tends to bounce around and get overwhelmed if you hustle too much in a town with crappy pavement.
But the Stella isn’t about doing the Hustle. It’s about grooving to your own soundtrack, and enjoying a very elemental scooter experience. It looks right, performs right (although the two-stroke was probably more fun) and will convince you—and anybody who’s looking—that you’re riding a vintage Italian scooter. It’s far from perfect, but so were the originals, which is probably why there are vintage Vespa clubs but no rallies for Yamaha Razz owners.
The bad news is you can’t buy one—yet. U.S. customs sent the shipments of 2010 four-stroke Stellas back to India for non-compliance with production specifications. Genuine expects to have a few 2010s in Genuine dealers before 2010 ends, with 2011 models arriving sometime before next summer. Not to worry—both LML and Genuine are solid companies and will be in the game for the duration, backing up a two-year warranty and providing parts support for over 200 Genuine dealers nationwide.
So how authentic do you want your scooter experience to be? If you’re the kind of person who likes to iron shirts and grind your coffee just before you brew it, if comfort is less important than getting the full experience, a Stella may be the way to go. If you just want to look like the real deal, there are alternatives. But if you really want to please the scooter Gods, the $3599 Stella could be the only ride around.