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Nostalgia For Vespas Is Fueling A Revival Of The Iconic Scooter In Pakistan

Jan 3, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2019 6:00 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Vespa, that iconic Italian scooter, was once the ride of choice in Pakistan until it was replaced by cheaper Chinese motorbikes. But nostalgia for the little scooter has some Pakistanis restoring their battered old Vespas and heading out onto the highway once again. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Mansour Khan was 5 when he stole the keys to his grandfather's Vespa.

MANSOUR KHAN: I was not able to ride it, but we just started it and enjoyed the sound.

HADID: It was imported from Italy in 1969.

KHAN: That Vespa is still in our family, and it's running like a horse.

HADID: Khan's one of the many here who are restoring and riding Vespas in dedicated clubs. They're influenced by global hipster trends and those memories of riding with their parents and grandparents.

KHAN: My grandfather used to have a Vespa. And I'm returning again to the Vespa.

HADID: Khan's is a 1983 silver scooter. He's installed a stereo to play in traffic jams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Another rider, Kashif Malik, says he loves the attention he gets.

KASHIF MALIK: Whenever I'm riding, everybody, you know, look at me. And, you know, they are giving me thumbs-up and stuff like that.

HADID: Malik has a pistachio green 1960s Vespa with its own side car, and he wants you to know it's empty.

MALIK: I'm single and still, you know, ready to mingle (laughter).

HADID: Khan, Malik and their friends peel off on the highway to a mountain resort town.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

HADID: We're weaving in and out of the traffic. There's other motorbikes around us. There's minivans.

We dodge a few trucks, and motorists slow down to stare. Pakistan has a history with these Italian scooters. They were imported here in the '60s. In the '70s, a local assembly plant was set up. Ali Zafar used to work there.

ALI ZAFAR: (Through interpreter) In the past, there were only Vespas here. It used to be very cheap. They didn't use much gas, and they're very comfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN EVENING IN PARIS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: They were also modern and dashing like in this classic 1967 Bollywood movie, "An Evening In Paris." Men ride on white Vespas, and their girlfriends ride behind them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN EVENING IN PARIS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Darling, please go slow. I'm frightened. Please.

HADID: You can also see the Vespa's trajectory to fuddy-duddy. In a Bollywood film from 2008, an old-fashioned husband tries to catch up with his modern wife. So he ditches his battered Vespa and buys a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: Fast forward to now, and Zafar, who used to work in the assembly plant, renovates these old scooters. There's plenty of old-timers who want to sell them, making authentic spare parts pretty cheap. There's a row of rusty Vespas in his workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDER)

HADID: Men scrape and clean them up.

ZAFAR: (Through interpreter) We smooth out the dents and paint it the color that the customer requests.

HADID: Zafar sells a renovated classic Vespa for $1,500. And it's not just Pakistanis snapping them up. Julia works at the German Embassy.

JULIA: Actually, find me on Facebook.

HADID: She's bumped into a friend, and they take a selfie with her Vespa.

JULIA: He was so surprised I'm on a Vespa (laughter).

HADID: A month after Julia arrived, she heard about Pakistan's Vespa restoration business and she snapped one up.

JULIA: It's an old-timer (laughter). It's a cream color Vespa from 1974.

HADID: Most Vespa riders are men.

JULIA: In the beginning, I was so worried how people would react, like, me as a woman driving a Vespa. But everyone is smiling and...

HADID: We finish chatting, and Julia rides away.

(SOUNDBITE OF VESPA STARTING UP)

HADID: And it's hard not to smile. This touch of whimsy on Pakistan's roads is delightful. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Rawalpindi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.