Like Gregory Peck on the scooter, through the streets of Bangalore

By Allan Jacob

There was a time when scooters symbolised the automobile culture. I’d like to think there was a nice balance to life in those days. You didn’t have to be brave to drive a scooter. A helmet could be dispensed with. Normal was okay but would suffice. Riders simply stepped onto it, rested their feet on the platform and enjoyed the road. No fuss, no sweat — if they got a good first kick in. The starter may have stuck out like a big sore toe from beneath the bulbous machine but they were undeterred. They kicked it down once. Twice, three times. Cold start. So they tilted it to the side and let the engine juices flow.

Satisfied, they gave it another kick, praying that the thing would resist the urge to recoil and kick them back. The shin was usually the soft spot. Soon, they would be rewarded for their efforts with a welcome groan from the engine. Hands on the accelerator, they wrung it as best as they could, careful not to snap the cables — just the right wrist action was needed. The purring was what they were seeking through the torment. It called for timing and practice, right hand and left foot coordination, and they were good to go.

Scooters were elegant and clean machines for many: that’s because the engine was covered, which protected their clothes from the grime and the oil which often spilt from vehicles. Even a poor journalist played by Gregory Peck could romance a princess, take her on a spin and sweep her off her feet while astride them — in the movies, of course. I am referring to William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, a classic my dad insisted I watch for the “subdued” performance by the suave and stylish Peck and his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, who played royalty cloaked in anonymity.

The movie didn’t make an impact on me, I must say, when I finally viewed it on a heavy-duty VCR — a Video Cassette Recorder — some four decades after it was made in 1953. But the headless Vespa 125, V30T – popularly called the Farobasso, which Peck rode in the film, stayed in my memory. “What a great looking couple on an odd two-wheeler!” I thought back then. So, I fast forwarded Roman Holiday and went for ‘the time of my life’ with Dirty Dancing, a dance and music classic starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze on a Scooty (another scooter if you didn’t know) that I had borrowed from a friend.

As for the Vespa, I had seen several models on Indian roads. I didn’t fancy them but I rode them anyway. A company named Bajaj manufactured them using ancient Roman technology until they went out of fashion. But stop. Let me explain that this nostalgic ride had its roots in another modern-day Roman adventure, or mishap involving a smooth Hollywood actor.

I read this week that George Clooney was knocked off his scooter by a Mercedes car while on a trip to Italy. Early reports didn’t mention the scooter brand but the luxury car model was all over the place, so I scanned online for the name of the scooter. I later discovered that it was a Yamaha Tmax. Nothing like the scooters of yore. This one had sleek lines and was fit for a hunk — all muscle and less soul. The Japanese model that Clooney used looked like a confused cross between a motorbike and a scooter. I was disappointed that it lacked the scootery contours I was familiar with though the concept was the same. Thankfully, Clooney only spent a couple of hours in hospital and was treated for minor bruising before he was discharged. And yes, he was wearing a helmet.

But the Yamaha TMax is not a patch on a Lambretta or a Vespa of old. The two Italian brands had character and staying power. I am thinking of the Italian word…ah, bellisimo! The Vespa is still around in a modern avatar and so is the Lambretta (I confirmed on Google). In fact, the Lambretta was the first scooter I had set my eyes on. It was curiosity at first sight when I caught a glimpse of the orange-brown-white machine. An uncle named Joy (they called him Joey in Malayalam, though his real name was John) rode it around Bangalore. I remember his house on Stephens Road, and the morning he came to our place in Vasanth Nagar one Republic Day. The march-past was an occasion never to be missed for my father’s and uncle’s generation — the last of the patriots, I called them.

So, a melange of bikes, and the lone uncle on a Lambretta scooter swooped down on our residence that morning. The bigger lads, most of them my cousins, rode pillion on the Yezdi and Enfield Bullet bikes helmed by friends and other family members. But uncle Joey was happy to have me stand on the platform in front of his scooter. He was the last to set forth on the journey to Parade Grounds. My mom insisted he was level-headed and responsible (he wore a helmet, I didn’t). Her reasoning didn’t make sense to me then. It doesn’t now.

While the bikers sped away, I remember urging uncle Joey, who was cruising, to go faster. He replied: “Those bikes have larger wheels, they can go faster than us. On a scooter, you stand and feel the gentle, nippy air on your face and take in the sights; Bangalore is beautiful, isn’t it?” (which it was, in the seventies).

While I grew impatient with his pace of riding, he continued: “What’s important is that a scooter helps you get to your destination with a smile. That’s impossible when you speed on a bigger bike with a large engine.” He made a great impression with this plain-talking, simple philosophy of the road, and I often wonder why people fail to smile and ride or drive their vehicles these days.

Growing up, my first scooter ride was a on Bajaj Chetak owned by a family friend. I had the drive to ride, but I was yet to overcome my fears. I must have been 13, but I did it on my first try and casually went for a spin around the block as my dad watched, a gentle smile lining his face.

Through the years my heart has remained with motorbikes,  though my spirit, my soul rests with scooters. From the kick-starter variety, to self-starters and smarter options now, they have innovated and come a long way. I can say with pride that these machines helped me stay grounded. And like uncle Joey said, I can smile at the road ahead of me, and sing like Louis Armstrong: ‘What a wonderful world! Oh, yeah.’

Allan is a news junkie and history buff

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