On a foggy, summer Sunday morning, I pulled up to Motoworks on my grumpy old BMW R100 to find three shiny new Vespas sitting out front. You see, I’d had a silly idea the day before and luckily, I’d mentioned it to Johnny.
“You know, now that the Sprint is out, that makes three new small-frame Vespas in the shop. We should grab a third person and go on a ride up Sheridan Rd on a 946, a Sprint and a Primavera. We could all swap around and see how the three bikes compare.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Johnny replied, surprising me with the quick turn around on my silly idea.
“I think I could make tomorrow work.” I surmised.
“Sweet. You know, next week is Coffee & Classics up in Winnetka and the featured brand is Vincent motorcycles. We’re going to head up to that next week, but we could use the Vespa ride as a scouting trip.” Johnny had the whole thing planned out in the blink of an eye. I suppose if you’re used to pulling together Mexican 1000 runs, riding a handful of scooters up Lakeshore Drive and Sheridan Rd to Winnetka and back isn’t exactly a logistical mountain to climb. “When could you go?”
I did some quick math about getting out of bed on a Sunday. “I could do sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 easy enough.”
“Great. Okay I’ll get to the shop around 8:00 and we’ll be side stands up at 8:30.”
“Perfect. This is going to be fun. Who should we recruit for a third?”
“A third will come to us.” Johnny replied, like some sort of Zen philosopher.
Turns out a third did come to us, in the form of Jacob, one of our shop mechanics. We even picked up Grant from the service department. He likes the new Sprint so much he’s traded in his Thruxton on one. We were now four, and ready to have our own Vespa mini adventure.
What’s fun about the four Vespas we had with us is that all three models — the 946, Primavera and the new Sprint — share the same power plant. It’s Piaggio’s new 3-valve 150cc four stroke thumper, which can also be found in the Piaggio Fly 150. The new engine is a tad more powerful but also more fuel efficient than the engine it replaces in previous models like the Vespa LX-150. So at first thought, these scooters should be basically the same, right? Not at all.
The underpinnings of the Primavera and the Sprint are, in fact, identical, but the 946 is an entirely separate chassis available in only limited numbers each model year. The 946 has a longer wheelbase, ABS/traction control, features key aluminum components that are plastic on other models, and is hand-built in its own little corner of the Vespa factory in Italy. At $9,946 MSRP, it also also costs nearly twice the asking price of a Primavera or Sprint.
The Sprint and Primavera have some key differences from each other as well. The Sprint features a trapezoid headlamp as opposed to the Primavera’s traditional round light. The Sprint has a 1” larger front wheel (and really nice-looking rims, I must say). Lastly, the Sprint also has available ABS, just like the 946, although the traction control system is still a 946-exclusive. One thing I was particularly curious about was whether or not the Sprint’s larger front wheel would make any difference in how it rode. Only one way to find out.
I started out on a bright red Primavera, with Johnny on the 946, and Jacob and Grant each on a Sprint. Our first order of business was to gas up. With full tanks, any of these Vespas would have more range than we’d care to use for the week in Chicago, let alone our little jaunt up Sheridan. Yet that’s the best way to start any group ride. Fuel up and gear up. That was stage zero, but stage one would be a surreptitious stint down 55 to intercept Lake Short Drive. This was, of course, also an important testing procedure. How would these Vespas behave at their top speeds? Zipping up the on-ramp our formation spread out a little bit as we all went hunting for our individual Vespa’s top speed. My Primavera didn’t seem to care one bit as the speedometer bumped against the 65 mph mark. All four of us were soon riding flat out and in full tuck — all but resting our chins on our Vespas’ headsets. Where some small bikes can get twitchy at higher speeds, there was no wobble at all in the Primavera. The suspension was also not at all overwhelmed by the added speed. Bumps were easily soaked up and it let us confidently chase each other down this little stretch of freeway — smoothly sweeping through the flow of traffic.
The whole situation was endlessly entertaining. Doing 62 mph on a small-frame Vespa feels like doing about 120 mph on a larger motorcycle. With our throttles pinned, we even had to swing into the left lanes here and there to make our way around slower traffic on 55. The look you get from most motorists when you blow by them on a scooter is pretty priceless. Our exit for Lakeshore Drive came up quickly, and we swung down into the heart of Chicago’s Museum Campus — zipping by Soldier Field and McCormick Place to join the flow of the still fast-moving traffic on LSD. Contending with a bit more traffic now, we broke formation here and there to make our own best paths through the crowd of fast-moving cars. In terms of size and handling, it was like these new Vespas were born for this type of thing. Much to my surprise, there was no ragged edge to their high-speed capabilities. I never felt like I was over-riding my Primavera, even at top speed.
Lakeshore Drive soon ran out as we continued north. With Lakeview zipping by on our left, what should have been a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan to our right was instead a wall of gray fog — a fog that soon enveloped us entirely, misting up our visors and blanketing us in a high speed dew. Thankfully the temperatures were still in the low 70s, so at least we weren’t too cold, even if we weren’t perfectly dry. Johnny pulled over into one of Sheridan’s many lake-side alcove driveways and we stopped to stretch our legs, take stock of our ridiculous high-speed run on these Vespas, and to make our first rider switches.
My Primavera had been superb, but my next ride, the 946, was one I was particularly interested to experience on real roads. What does $10,000 worth of Vespa feel like on the road? Is the 946 the halo model Vespa wants it to be? Only one way to find out. Johnny took the lead again, zipping away on my former steed, the red Primavera. What I noticed first about the 946 was that it’s not quite as zippy as the Primavera. That’s due to the 946’s weight. With added length, wheelbase, and premium cast components, it’s a heavier machine, and it’s still just 150cc to keep it motivated. Yet what the 946 loses in outright acceleration it gains in handling, rider comfort and road manners through that extended wheel base. That, and the extreme nature of its exterior design can’t be ignored. In describing the riding character of the 946, I keep landing on the term “gentlemanly.” There’s something particularly refined in how the 946 rolls down the road. Taking the sharp, low-speed turns of Sheridan, the 946 was planted and very well-behaved. The only thing I noticed was a little bit of a front wheel chatter, but quickly dismissed it as a side effect of tire tread profile. I’ve encountered this on large-frame Vespas in the past. The 946 proved utterly polite to ride, which gave it a charm that’s tough to nail down, but easy to enjoy.
Our formation continued north — a squadron of wasps rolling through the Sunday morning fog like Spitfires on our way to defend Dover. Grant even had on a scarf. Our rally point was Cafe Aroma in the business district of Winnetka. This will be ground zero for next week’s Coffee & Classics. We pulled up and parked four across, garnering the undivided attention of everyone in the cafe. Coffee turned to breakfast as we talked about the bikes we’d been riding. Our impressions of these three new Vespa models were pretty uniform. The 946 is comfortable, but felt slow compared to the others. The Primavera and Sprint are a pleasure to ride in their own right, with all of us preferring the looks of the Sprint. Yet scooter talk quickly turned to simple conversation among friends. Some of it bike related, but most of it not. The joy of these group rides is as much in the stops as it is in the riding.
With breakfast consumed and Coffee & Classics reconnaissance achieved, it was time to head back. This also meant another shuffle in riders and rides. Jacob took over on the 946 and I hopped on his black Vespa Sprint — my first real ride on this new model. I was particularly curious to see if the larger front wheel on the Sprint would make a noticeable difference on how the front end felt. Pulling away on the Sprint, the power of the new 3V engine on the lighter frame of the Sprint left it feeling so much more eager than the 946. Try though I did, I couldn’t feel one bit of difference in the front end from that bigger front wheel. The Sprint felt just as stable and poised as the Primavera. Truth is, aside from the shape of the rear view mirrors and the ABS light blinking every time the bike came to a stop, the Sprint felt indistinguishable from the Primavera on the road. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. Choosing between the two becomes as simple as whether or not you want ABS, and which one you like the looks of better. Square or circle? Chicken or beef? Done.
Heading back into the city, our squadron exited Lakeshore Drive at Lower Wacker and proceeded to buzz through Chicago’s most famous subterranean roadway. Wizzing past all the concrete pillars and unsuspecting cars, I couldn’t help but feel this terrific sense of “what the hell are we doing?” The four of us bombing through the city’s streets and whizzing in and out of traffic was laugh-out-loud hilarious. Truth be told, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had this much fun on two wheels. Pulling up to the stoplight at Ogden and Roosevelt, nearly back to the shop, Johnny flipped his visor up and yelled over the sound of engines, wind and city.
“This was a great idea! I forgot how much fun this kind of thing can be! I guess that’s why you need something like Baja to appreciate something simple like this.”
I yelled back over the chin guard in my helmet. “Yeah! This kind of silly shit is what got me into bikes in the first place. Just grab a handful of scooters and go find some food on a Sunday morning.”
Truth is, that was the crux of it. It’d taken four scooters and a foggy Sunday morning to remind me why I love riding scooters and motorcycles in the first place. I’d rediscovered that high I’d encountered so many years before and had been chasing ever since. It’s that mix of two wheels, good people and doing something just the right amount of stupid. It’s the easy fun of going for a ride with friends. It’s easy to lose track of that in the wash of our daily commute or even just weekend joy rides. Every once in a while, we have to go looking for that joy again. We’ve got to chase that dragon. Because every once in a while, we manage to grab on to his tail. For me, it was in a full tuck on a tiny Vespa giving me all it had through the tunnels of lower Wacker. When it comes time to find that dragon again, now I know where to start looking. More importantly, I know I need to take some fellow moto addicts with me on the hunt.