Bikes in the City – Teenage Dreams: Oil or Electric?


The first motorised vehicle I ever owned was a 1986 Vespa T5 ‘Pole Position’. It was red and black. It had a little fairing on the bars. The one with the rectangular headlight and the ‘moon disc’ style wheels.

A little red and black Vespa T5
A little red and black Vespa T5

There was something Jetson-like and futuristic about it. It was three years old when I bought it but it could get up to 75mph with a prevailing wind.  It was the only physical object I had ever truly loved.

The T5 was the vehicle that carried me through a difficult but strangely beautiful period of transition. I was living away from home for the first time. I was trying to get into university, trying to get off the building sites where I earned a crust while struggling through A levels in the evening. The Vespa was my ticket to ride.

It gave me the freedom to range from the ragged building sites at each cardinal point of London where I worked to my rented gaff in the kicked-about periphery of East London. At the weekend there were random explorations to all points in between – from raves in aircraft hangars at the edge of the M25 to all-nighters in inner city warehouses and back to mates’ yards in the blurred dawn time. All this was connected by the smell of two stroke oil and the left-hand twisty shifter.

Rhe T5 was the quickest 125 scooter Piaggo ever made
The T5 was the quickest 125 scooter Piaggo ever made

The thought occurred to me more than once in my scootering adventures that in London as in all cities, a couple of gear shifts separated worlds – sleaze and elegance – drama and dullness – fear, loathing and euphoria. This little Italian machine was the connective tissue between myself  and all this – and what’s more it looked fucking cool. And I became cool by association.

On blasts through the city I cultivated the nonchalant focus of an original paparazzo, weaving in and out of traffic and back doubling through side turnings and alleyways, clad in Levi’s and bomber jacket, my Clark’s Desert Boots stationed strategically at regulation ‘ten to two’ on the foot panels. I was a between-era modernist without realising the fact — and I fetishised Frankie Knuckles and A Guy Called Gerald over Pete Townsend and Paul Weller.

An advert for the Vespa T5
An advert for the Vespa T5

My memory of that time and that little scooter is all colour and possibility. The vast space of London at last seemed accessible to me. And crucially – the journey itself between London’s tectonics was the funnest part. But the world turns. Environmental legislation will soon consign urban, internally combusted motorcycling to blurred memories. But the core truth of the matter endures.

Cheap, nippy little motorcycles are the perfect accoutrements of urban living. You can get anywhere quickly. You can do it cheaply. And you can look stylish while you do it. And notions of what is ‘cool’ come and go quickly too. Look out for youth cults harnessing the twist-and-go joy of electric biking. Let’s just hope these new scooterists eschew skinny jeans and skin fades.

The chemical tang of two-stroke oil may be set to vanish forever from our city streets — and it is probably just and true and necessary that the smell and the noise that accompanies it is consigned to yesterday’s modernist dreams. The question is: can the true modernism that was always at the heart of the scooterist impulse extend and expand to accommodate fossil-fuel free motorcycling? We will have to wait and see. 

But if you know anyone selling a nice Vespa T5 — be sure to give me a nudge.

In Martini livery the T5 really looked in pole position.
In Martini livery the T5 really looked in pole position