When University Motors offered to lend me a Douglas-Vespa scooter for a period of time, rather than for a specific test, I was delighted as I had long wanted to get to know this British-built Italian scooter. I have always believed that the Douglas concern deserved more credit than they got for the way in which they have reproduced the Italian Vespa scooter in every detail. So many firms are afraid to build a good machine under licence, preferring to attempt to alter the design and claim it to be their own, and usually producing a flop.
The little Vespa, with its open frame and 3.50 by 8 in. tyres, total mechanical enclosure and 125-c.c. two-stroke power unit, was one of the founders of the scooter movement on the Continent, a movement that has now gone beyond the limits of reasonable expectation, and the Douglas concern, in building the Vespa under licence, has now spread this movement in this country, where it already has acquired quite a sound foothold. Simplicity of operation is the keynote of the Vespa and it is essential to forget one’s motor-cycle training when riding it. Starting is effected by a lever on the off side in conjunction with a choke control very conveniently placed under the saddle, and even on ice-covered mornings the little 125 c.c. unit burst into life after six gentle depressions of the lever with the foot. A three -speed gearbox is employed and it is operated by a twist-grip and rods, mounted on the left-hand handlebar, while the clutch lever is incorporated in this mounting. A normal twist-grip on the opposite side controls the throttle and, once away from rest, using the clurch normally, only the two twist-grips are required to motor along, clutchless changes up or-down being the order of the day. The change is slow, due to the engine having rather a lot of flywheel effect, but providing you do not mind waiting between gears the change is quite pleasant, though a little stiff to operate. Braking is effected on the front wheel by a hand lever and by a foot lever on the rear wheel, and both are very powerful for the performance of the machine. The machine loaned was fitted with a very effective and neat moulded perspex windscreen and carried a pillion seat and spare wheel, which acted as an excellent backrest for the passenger.
In the course of three weeks’ general usage, which entailed local running, a number of long trips and a fair amount of town going, over 1,000 miles was covered and throughout it was cruised wherever possible at 38 m.p.h., which seemed to be the comfortable maximum cruising speed. All-out maximum was 42, though 50 was seen downhill, and even at this speed the handling was first class. The machine’s ability to go in a straight line was remarkable and far better than many motor-cycles, but cornering was a little odd at more than normal speeds, probably due to the difference in height between the centres of gravity of the live weight and the dead weight and air effects on the windscreen, for it was much more controllable without it, though very cold! No attempt was made to nurse the Vespa along, as Auntie would; it was ridden hard everywhere and through the whole running it averaged 100 m.p.g. of petroil, and on long runs 105 miles were comfortably put into 3-1/2 hours, and there was not one involuntary stop or bother of any sort. That was one of the remarkable things about the Vespa; it inspired immense mechanical confidence and 200 miles in a day did not seem at all out of the ordinary. In fact, although it outwardly resembles a toy, because we have yet to become fully accustomed to them in this country, when using it there was never any thought of it having any limitations and one viewed it from the transport angle as one would a normal 500-c.c. motor-cycle.
I would not go so far as to say that as a domestic article, which is the way to view a Vespa, it is perfect, far from it. The ride, while being very comfortable, suffered badly from fore and aft pitching when no passenger was carried, the fuel tank only held 1.1 gallons, so that one was always messing about buying half-gallons in order not to risk running dry, and the weather protection, while being as good as one could expect on an open machine, did produce horrid draughts around the legs, caused by swirl around the front apron. As on all two-wheelers, the lights were hopelessly inadequate, and the Lucas headlamp was non-adjustable. Current was supplied from a B.T.H. flywheel dynamo, which was infuriating when trying to find the way in the dark; every time I slowed down to check the route the light died away, an inevitable failing with this type of lighting.
Taken all round, the little Douglas-Vespa serves an excellent purpose as a runabout that makes life very pleasant in not having to get out a large motor-cycle or motor car just to go shopping, or go down to the “local.” Used for such purposes it can hardly be bettered, and so good is it that as I have said, it fitted in extremely well as an all-rounder, but such use did bring out failings. Priced as it is at £100 plus nearly £30 of purchase tax, it is rather an expensive luxury for letter-posting and the like, and has not quite everything demanded by a two-wheeler for all-round use, but it could easily be modified. Bearing in mind that I covered my 1,000 miles in the coldest part of the winter, and yet still enjoyed the Vespa, it does indicate that in the summer months it should have an immense appeal, for after all two-wheeled motoring in the winter is really only for the “real motor-cyclists” and the Vespa is intended as economical transport for all and sundry, and I can see why it is so popular in hot countries such as its birthplace.