Vespa 400

Call it youthful ignorance, stupidity, or just part of growing up in a smaller town, but it was really tough as a car-loving kid to spot anything of interest in my hometown. 

The car shows were often filled with Mustangs, Camaros, Novas, and the occasional hot rod—Sunday toys for the men who toiled away at one of the world's most established petrochemical facilities. 

Don't get me wrong, I love metallic vinyl seats on an old Impala as much as the next guy, but after a while it all gets a little boring. 

You can imagine my surprise, then, after I'd joined the Canadian Citroën Club and imported a 2CV that there was a member living in my hometown who not only owned a few Citroëns but restored them in his spare time.

And lives, as it happens, around the corner from one of my best friends. 

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when my father texted me a photo of a beautiful red Vespa 400 a few months ago. 

"What is this?" he asked, with my response, "OMG a Vespa 400! Where are you!? Get the owner's contact info!"

He did, which is how I found myself in the passenger seat of Ken's beautiful red Vespa 400 a few weeks ago for a quick jaunt around the neighbourhood, its rear-mounted inline two cylinder two stroke engine huffing and puffing with the theatre of a Parisian moped and the speed of a mobility scooter. 

I can't blame the car—three speeds (or four, I can't quite recall…the car was available with either) and 393cc are just about right for motivating a curb weight of just 375 kg (827 lb).

I blame the two Canadian guys on board, and probably more me than Ken—I recall my breakfast involved some form of doughnut. 

Launched in 1957 and designed by Piaggio in Italy but built in France by Ateliers de construction de motocycles et d'automobiles (ACMA), the 400 enjoyed huge publicity on its debut, with many touting it as the perfect blend of scooter and car. 

The problem, as is so frequently the case, is that by the late 1950s even the most austere motorists had their pick of more grown-up, practical transportation in vehicles like the Citroën 2CV and Fiat 500. Though more expensive than the little Vespa, the alternatives had more usable space inside and more performance to keep up with traffic. 

One of the quirks of the car, and something current owners are still dealing with, is the need to blend oil and gasoline to feed the little two-stroke. Vespa later added a semi-automatic mixing device, and eventually a fully automatic system. As most are now more than 50 years old, many current caretakers bypass the sometimes unreliable system in favour of mixing their own fuel. 

When I rattle off the Vespa 400's specs, keep in mind how light on fuel small cars are these days, while remaining feature-packed and usable almost anywhere. Top speed is a loud 83 km/h (~52 mph) and 0-64 km/h (40 mph) is hit with a time of…just…23 seconds. 

Fuel consumption should be amazing, but isn't: 5.11 L/100km (46 US mpg), a figure I'm only a few ticks from in my Fiat 500 Abarth if I stay off the boost…

In production for only four years, the car failed to excite drivers in period but now is an amazing example of an attainable and useable classic. Relatively high fuel consumption and pokey performance matter little to the owners of classics rolled out on sunny days—with the added attraction of holding the keys to a microcar cute enough to stop traffic. 

 

* A special thanks to Ken for taking me for a spin in the Vespa, and for letting me drive one of his other curiosities…actually his wife's!