Scooters in the 90s: the design of a great comeback

Sfera, Booster, Free: in 1995, Domus explored the evolution of a pillar of global mobility, transitioning from a budget alternative to cars, to an ecological one. A mirror of contemporary urban life and flexibility of production systems.

A design concept can quite usually have more than one life, and in the early 90s the case of scooters came to confirm this assumption. Born after World War II by invention, it was not simply an evolution of some existing means of transport; in fact, it had created an image within the collective imagination that had not existed before, the image of the Vespa made by folding unused airplane wings, and the Lambretta, both as capable of circulating in the city as of affording real – albeit strenuous – journeys. But after a period of penumbra associated with the mass automotive hangover, as awareness of the limits imposed by increasingly congested urban environments grew, there came scooters again as an alternative to cars – an environmentally friendly alternative insofar as the term could be conceived 4 decades ago. It took up less space, circulated more easily, and this time, like cars, it could embody a whole landscape of different characters: racing sportiness, safety, aestheticism, practicality. There was plenty of material to create a new imagery, with models like Booster, Free, and Sfera. Spoiler: the mission would succeed. And Domus would take us deep inside this phenomenon in April 1995, on issue 770.

Domus 770, aprile 1995

Scooters. Design in motion

Italy. In the pre-automobile early postwar years, the yearning for individual mobility found no outlet in the car, which was too expensive and élitist. Nor, moreover, could the motorcycle, likewise still not cheap and again élitist, besides being not all that reliable either, offer any sensible alternative. So it was for such reasons that the scooter, in its interpretation, to this day correct, by Corradino D’Ascanio and Cesare Pallavicino with the Vespa (Piaggio, 1946), and the Lambretta (Innocenti, 1947), gained the biggest consensus among the masses in the 1950s and ‘60s. The small wheels, rear motor and flat foot board made this a driver-friendly vehicle and offered excellent load capacities. Simplified by the handlebar gear shift, it could be driven intuitively by people who had no familiarity at all with mechanical transport. 

Black Crystal, Sascha Lakic, France. Domus 770, April 1995

The intent to emulate the car, at least in its practicality, explains the application of such assets as the spare wheel and a fair degree of protection against adverse weather. The scooter’s low power and speeds also made its minor road holding deficiencies less conspicuous, and in any case ensured simplicity of maintenance and low running costs. The scooter was thus the perfect and only alternative to the car, which ordinary people desired but could not yet afford. For this reason the commercial crisis of the classic scooter corresponded to the increased circulation of cars, until in the 1970s its market shrank considerably, while continuing to be important, and indeed in costant growth, only in the developing countries.

Today however the scooter once again crowds our streets too. The comeback of this type of vehicle, which started in Japan in the ‘80s and was well received by the biggest Italian and European manufactures, soon brought it back into the limelight, though on a completely different technical and commercial basis.

BW’S, Zuma, Booster, Elm Design, Japan. Domus 770, April 1995

In the post-car era, vehicular overcrowding, road saturation and traffic restrictions, as well as the ecological question, have revived the demand for supplementary transport. In this case though, not as an alternative to the cherished dream of a car, but as a supplement to the car already possessed.

The new scooter has substantially departed from the rustic, unvaried and lean image of its archetype, to become urban, polyhedric and sophisticated.

Whereas the sales success of Vespas and Lambrettas was the result of felicitous if ingenuous intuitions, the reconquest of their market has been achieved above all thanks to the rules offiercely competitive marketing. The archetypal technical features of the scooter fully responded to a design logic orientated more towards the product than to the market. In fact the Vespa, though distinguished by its overall de sign, was severely handicapped by its most salient manufacturing characteristic: the bearing body. Its organically fused frame and bodyshell made it very expensive to update aesthetically and, more decisively, very difficult to diversify.

Frog, Elm Design, Japan. Domus 770, April 1995

Today’s scooter is the product of a consumer oriented industrial system. It is therefore inspired by the maximum of flexibility and adaptability, both functionally and image wise. ‘The’ scooter no longer exists. Instead, there are different types which single out and target the most sensitive and excitable niches on the potential market. Which means not only people in need of a rapid and handy means of transport for work, such as that typical phenomenon of our contemporary cities, the two-wheeled express delivery messenger, but also urban professionals, high-spirited kids and uninhibited ladies. For each a different scooter: utilitarian and capacious, luxurious and elegant, aggressively snappy, practical and comfortable. They ride the wave of an ever expanding choice which, as in the case of the car, seems unstoppable. The market supply or prototypes provide some significant metaphors. If at Piaggio the Sfera seeks to emulate the classic and solid saloon and the Spazio preludes the covered scooter or even the three-wheeler (the station wagon), for Yamaha the Black Crystal conjures up sports racing (roadster and coupé), the Booster, born as a beach-scooter, suggests new opportunities for leisure (four-wheel drive) while the Frog, without having to specialize functionally, follows up the style of the past now being rediscovered everywhere.

Sfera, Luciano Marabese, Audis, Italia. Domus 770, aprile 1995

The Piaggio Free deserves separate mention, for it is half motorbike half scooter, creating a hybrid market niche: for customers looking for the ideal compromise between the dynamic characteristics of the former and the comfort of the latter.

Such variety is achieved through a design philosophy that takes up and develops the manufacturing principle of the Lambretta (which thus shows itself to be ahead of the more fortunate Vespa): a tubular steel frame clad by a bodyshell in fact forms the basis of the contemporary scooter design.

Drop, Spazio, Luciano Marabese, Audis, Italy. Domus 770, April 1995

The same chassis, on which different set packages of mechanical components and their corresponding ergonomic reliefs are predefined, can today be identified at the level of motor and suspension and can be given a variety of bodyshells. These are usually made of injection-moulded thermoplastic. The demand for graphic and aesthetic characterization is given the maximum attention, both in the possible assignment of different versions of the same model to different user categories, and to ensure that each gets the strongest possible identity. The problem of semantic superimpression, caused by the multiplication of types (resulting from the calculation of variants for each model by the number of models and by the number of makers), is in fact already noticeable on the market and does not appear easy to get round. 

Free, MAC Design, Centro Stile Piaggio, Italy. Domus 770, April 1995

For whilst the Vespa has succeeded in maintaining a sharp identity over the years, thank also to the uniqueness of its manufacturing system, today the erasure of peculiarities, the universality of the scooter and its rapid circulation make it difficult (with few exceptions) to create and keep up a strong product identity. The difficulty is increased by the sharing of componentry, which is maximized in a synergic key so as also to ensure, on a par with painting and finishing standards and accessories, a production quality equal to if not better than, that of the car. Which is, for that matter, being overtaken by now at every set of traffic-lights.

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