If you’ve heard of Lambretta or Vespa scooters, chances are they conjure up on-the-road scenes from vintage movies, or images of British mods of the 1960s sitting astride these cultish Italian machines in two-tone suits as they vie with leather-clad rockers for control of the highways. But today, the real home of these stylish marques — which are to scooter lovers what Triumph or Harley-Davidson are to motorcycle fanatics — lies a long way from the design capitals of Europe. It’s found, instead, in India — in teeming New Delhi, to be precise, home to several workshops like Vespabretta, a vintage-scooter restoration company in the city’s Nitholi district.
There, a beautifully refurbished red-and-turquoise Lambretta from the 1970s and several older Vespas wait in a gleaming row to be shipped to buyers all over the world (but especially in the U.K. and Europe). “Scooters have been popular in India for ages,” says Vespabretta owner Sunny Anand. “We’ve all grown up knowing and loving scooters. And that is probably why we can restore them with perfection.” The shop ships about 150 a year.
Although Vespa scooters have a quintessentially Italian image, they have been part of the Indian streetscape since 1948, when they were imported by Bajaj Auto. Offering aspirational style at an affordable price, they were a huge hit, and by 1960, Bajaj was producing Vespas in India in collaboration with the brand’s Italian manufacturer Piaggio. (The Italian firm had another joint venture with India’s LML Motors from 1983 to 1999.) Lambretta scooters — originally manufactured in Milan by Innocenti — closed up shop in Europe in 1972, finding it impossible to cope with competition from manufacturers of small cars. An Indian state-owned company, Scooters India Limited, bought the manufacturing rights and during the 1980s was churning out as many as 35,000 Lambrettas annually. Production ceased in 1997 as the firm began to concentrate on more lucrative three-wheeled vehicles, but a large pool of scooter expertise remains.
This long association with the world’s two most sought-after scooter brands, plus the ready availability of spare parts, cheap labor and experienced mechanics, has given India a huge advantage when it comes to scooter restoration. “The automobile revolution started in India late — till the 1980s, Vespas and Lambrettas ruled the Indian roads,” says Ranojoy Mukerji, a Delhi-based auto expert with a special interest in vintage models. “So there is a huge vintage-scooter base in India. There are many more professional restorers now and expert mechanics who can still work with the old technology.”
The work of restoring vintage scooters is arduous. The companies have scouts looking for vintage models all over the country. When an old scooter is acquired and delivered to the workshop, mechanics will work on it for a month or even more. But because wage costs are relatively low, and spare parts locally available, buying from India is cost effective. Restoring a vintage scooter in Europe can cost as much as $6,000; the same work in India, including shipping, comes to about $2,000.
Some enthusiasts look farther afield — to countries like Thailand and Vietnam — for even cheaper restoration work, but India offers by far the most experienced Lambretta and Vespa mechanics. The only drawback is a stringent government policy on the re-export of vehicles, especially old models manufactured before the 1970s. Mukerji explains that the regulations are in place to prevent the export of valuable antique cars and vehicles. Nonetheless, he is optimistic that the rules regarding scooters will be relaxed before long. “The future of the Indian vintage-scooter restoration industry is looking very good, especially as there is a growing demand from European countries for restored vintage vehicles,” he says. “I have no doubts that the industry will grow phenomenally in the coming few years.” That’s good news for New Delhi’s restorers and the world’s scooter enthusiasts — who will finally have to come to terms with the fact that their “Italian” scooters are as Indian as chapatis and cricket.