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History of Lambretta in the U.S.

Opportunities Lost: The History of Lambretta in the U.S.

By John Gerber


Reprint from 'American Scooterist,' Winter 1997/98 with permission from Vespa Club of America



Lambretta has a long history in the United States. Unfortunately, except for a few short years, it is not a proud history, but a sad one of failure and missed opportunities. If the Harvard Business School were doing a case study in scooter marketing, the numer­ous attempts to market Lambrettas in the U.S. would be a case study in gross mismanagement.


FIRST STIRRINGS

As was true for Vespa, the first Lambrettas to enter the U.S. were brought in by return­ing GIs. Tino Sacchi has claimed that a batch of 2,000 unsold A models entered the U.S. This is absolutely incorrect. It is incon­ceivable that any Lambrettas were sold in the U.S. during the 1940's. None have sur­faced, no advertising has been found, and 2,000 Lambrettas would have absolutely sat­urated the tiny U.S. scooter market. Rather surprisingly, the first Lambrettas sold in the U.S. appear to have been German made NSU Lambrettas, which were imported by the New York based BMW distributor Butler and Smith, starting in 1951. Sometime after­wards, two distributors began importing Italian Lambrettas. Baker and Shalit of New York handled the East Coast and Anderson Motorcycle Supply of Los Angeles the West Coast, but nothing in the way of a national dealer network appears to have been orga­nized.


THE GOLDEN YEARS

The first major breakthrough for Lambretta in the U.S. came in 1955 when Innocenti established an American division. The fact that Innocenti chose to come in directly-which they had done in no other country-indicates the importance they attached to the American market. Initially two models were offered. A 125 D model retailing for $350 and the 150 Ld for $450. Later the 125 Ld and 150 LOA electric start were added to the lineup. The creation of Innocenti's American division also coincided with the beginning of the first U.S. scooter boom-the greatest we have ever seen, which Innocenti played a major role in shap­ing.


During the years 1956 to 1958. Innocenti and its American competitor, the Vespa Distributing Corporation, used sophisticated Madison Avenue advertising firms to mount unusually skillful public relations and marketing campaigns, which within a two year period brought knowledge of European scooters to the atten­tion of a good part of the American public. It was a cam­paign based on American conditions and an under­standing of American attitudes and tastes. In 1957 at least 50,000 scooters were sold, of which probably 30,000 were European scooters. Names like Vespa and Lambretta, which had been almost totally unknown in 1955, became by 1957 common household words. Scooters were advertised regularly in major U.S. magazines, virtually every TV game show offered scooters as prizes. and scooters appeared by the hundreds in TV variety shows, fashion shows. and department store window displays.


On the assumption that consumers would buy products identified with individuals they admired, numerous celebrities were given or photographed on scooters for publicity purposes. At times it seemed as if all the leading film stars in America were out riding scooters. Even pow­erful politicians such as Mayor Robert Wagner of New York and Senator J. William Fullbright got into the act. Countless ads for all types of products prominently featured scooters. Although not on the level of tail fins and Elvis, scooters became a minor icon of the l 950's. Skilled publicists cultivated contacts with journal­ists, which led to dozens of feature arti­cles in mass circula­tion magazines rang­ing from the New Yorker to Popular Mechanics. It can probably be said that there was not a mass circulation magazine in America that did not feature scooters at some point. It was a marketing campaign that was never dupli­cated and one that would be just as valid today. For Lambretta, one highpoint of this campaign came when two Lambrettas were

featured on the cover of Playboy in June 1959.


The mid-1950s also witnessed the first stirrings of organized scootering in the U.S., with which Innocenti was closely involved. When Scoot magazine began publishing in December, 1956 Innocenti gave it full sup­port. In 1957, Peter Garland, who had been active in the Vespa Club of Britain (the dynamic club of the 1950's, not the ridicu­lous farce of a club that exists today), began working for the Vespa Distributing Corporation and immediately organized the Vespa Club USA. Innocenti followed suit and attempted to organize an American Lambretta Owners Association modeled on the British Lambretta Owners Association. During this period Innocenti had an International Lambretta Club which was the counterpart of the International Federation of Vespa Clubs [FIV), with affiliates in places as far flung as Ghana and Thailand. When support for a U.S. Lambretta organization failed to materialize, Innocenti sought to develop a larger club open to all scooters, but this also came to nothing. In 1958 Innocenti offered to merge its embryonic club structure into the declining American Motor Scooter Club (with which it has been closely working) and help run the club, but its offer was rejected. Nonetheless, at least half a dozen local Lambretta clubs flour­ished during the l 950s. Among them were the Albuquerque Ramblers, the Westwood Village Lambretta Club in California, the Los Angeles Lambretta Owners Association, and the Lambretta Club of Rantoul, Illinois, Gainesville. Florida, and Gallon, Ohio. The Los Angeles Lambretta Owners Association, which had been organized by the scooter journalist and actor Ted Jacques, was unusually large and quite classy, with many participants connected with the Hollywood film industry. It sponsored well-attended weekly events, which often drew in major actors and actresses. The Albuquerque Ramblers, sponsored by Harris Sales, was noted for its famous mass annual rides. Among these was a ride to Pike's Peak in 1957 and a ride of 30 scooters to the Grand Canyon in 1959. The Galion Lambretta Club rode regularly to East Coast rallies. Innocenti also helped organize and support national and regional scooter rallies. At the annual New Hope, Pennsylvania meet, ­America's largest and best organized scooter rally-a team of Lambretta mechanics was dispatched to work on any scooter needing assistance.


Much of Innocenti's enthusiastic support for scootering was due to the unusually large number of scooter enthusiasts within its ranks. During its early years, Innocenti's American division was composed largely of Americans who had a long list of scooter accomplishments. Bill Frits, Innocenti's pub­lic relations manager, made a Lambretta trip from New York to Mexico City and back. Technical services manager James Foster toured Europe on a TV 175. Technical ser­vices representative David Perez gained fame at scooter meets and races with his tuned Lambrettas. All of this only goes to show that there is a close correlation between scooter sales and enthusiasm. Dealers and importers who cannot sell themselves on the virtues of scooters and scootering are unlikely to sell to others.


Long distance Lambretta trips were another major source of publicity which helped establish a Lambretta reputation for durabil­ity-a reputation that was more apparent than real. Cesare Battaglini's epic world travels were especially well publicized. During the 1950s there were often several persons a year traveling around the world on Lambrettas and Innocenti usually tried to give them full publicity. Countless others crossed the U.S. on Lambrettas and their exploits also received varying degrees of publicity. Several of these were women. The most well publicized of these trips were Ted Jacques' trips from Hollywood to New York and back on a Ld 150 (the return was done in the dead of winter) and to Alaska on a TV 175 I.


By 1959 everything seemed to be going per­fectly for Innocenti. With a claimed network of 350 dealers the company appeared to have estab­lished firm roots in the U.S. Montgomery Ward had begun selling a 125 Ld model know as the Riverside for $350 in 1957, which brought Lambrettas into even the smallest American towns. The new, beautifully designed Li series had just been intro­duced, with the Li 125 selling for $389 and the Li 150 for $449. The TV 175 I, which had been introduced a year earlier at $599, was reduced to $559. In the eyes of everyone connected with the U.S. scooter industry the future seemed golden. Scoot magazine had been transformed into the even classier Scooter and was now owned by the publish­ers of Car Life. The staff believed a circula­tion of 100,000 could be obtained within a year. Gene Pavey, the editor of both Scoot and Scooter had predicted a year earlier that there would be a million scooters on the road in the U.S. by 1960.


ROCCO AND HIS FRIENDS

Yet, despite this apparent success, powerful forces were at work at Innocenti, which would make 1959 a watershed year for Lambretta in the U.S. In September, 1959 Andreas Rocco was brought in from Italy to replace Sinclair Gray as head of the compa­ny. Innocenti family retainers soon replaced the other Americans in the firm and crony­ism became the norm. For the future of Lambretta in the U.S., these changes had disastrous consequences. The sophistication of Madison Avenue gave way to the provin­cial mentality of the Italian village. The ener­gy generated by enthusiasts working within the firm was replaced by the smugness and lack of imagination of Italian hacks on a plush New York tour of duty. They were men who knew nothing of American conditions and their renowned talent for living well was not matched by a talent for marketing. Under these circumstances, the dynamism and creativity of the early years yielded swiftly to a culture of arrogance and complacency.


When the 100,000 subscribers envisioned by Scooter became more like 10,000 and the magazine ceased publication in May, 1960, it became clear to all sectors of the American scooter industry that the mass sales envi­sioned a few years earlier would not materi­alize. The economic downturn of 1959-60 also played a role in weakening scooter sales. Organized scootering had also peaked. The American Motor Scooter Club, unable to reverse its declining membership, was forced to disband. The Vespa Club USA soon met the same fate. Local clubs became both fewer and smaller in size.


Yet, in the final few years before the invasion of Japanese motorcycles, scooter sales still accounted for a sizable portion-probably a majority-of the American motorized two wheeler market. While sales were stagnant and many dealers dropped by the wayside, Innocenti still possessed a huge national dealer network (although many of these dealers were inactive or existed only on paper). Some new luster was added to the Innocenti lineup with the introduction of the new Li/TV Series II models in the spring of 1961. The machines were priced at $398.50 for the Li 125, $458 for the Li 150, and $515 for the TV 175.


Lambretta sales were strongest in the cosmopolitan Northeast cor­ridor and California and weakest in the more provincial South (with the exception of Florida and Texas) and Midwest (with the exception of Ohio). Probably about half the Lambrettas sold in the U.S. were Montgomery Ward Lambrettas, with the largest number the 125 Li III models. Montgomery Ward Lambretta sales, however, were only about a third of Sears Allstate Crusaire sales. The most successful Lambretta dealerships were those paired with Vespa dealerships. Many scooter buyers were initially attracted to the Vespa, but chose a Lambretta out of concern what they perceived to be a lack of proper balance on the Vespa, or for the Lambretta's more styl­ish external design, wider range of colors, and greater passenger comfort. Most fre­quently, sales outlets were motorcycle deal­erships, which were often dingy shops where scooters were disdained in favor of "real" motorcycles and thus sold quite poorly. Much of Innocenti's sales and distribution work was farmed out to regional distributors and representatives. Several of these were unusually dynamic individuals-Ray Cotton in California, Ken Oden in Ohio, and Ben Olken in New England-who were able to build impressive dealer networks and sales in their regions. In general, except for the boom years 1957-58, Lambretta sales were probably no more than a third of Vespa sales.


INDIAN SUMMER

Starting in late 1962 and early 1963, Lambretta sales began to pick up and the future once again seemed promising. The mood was one of buoyant optimism. The new, stylish Series III Slimstyle models were unveiled in April, 1962 and created new enthusiasm for Lambrettas among dealers and scooterists alike. The new models were hailed as "the motor scooter of tomorrow" Prices were slightly lower with the 125 Li retailing for $359, the Li 150 for $419.95, and $499.95 for the TV 175. Wholesale prices to the dealer were $270 for the 125, $315 for the 150, and $375 for the TV 175.


As a vote of confidence in their new product, Innocenti offered a six month warranty-the longest in the industry. The years 1962 and 1963 also marked the start of Honda's spec­tacular "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda" campaign, which helped gain popu­lar approval for motorized two wheelers of all types. The new and dynamic East Coast Vespa distributor Vescony, under the leader­ship of Arnold Mende, Jim Messing, and John Jacobson (VCOA #933), also launched an exceptionally well designed advertising campaign. While Innocenti, with characteris­tic inertia, did very little advertising of its own, Lambretta sales initially rose in the wake of the Honda and Vescony advertising campaigns. The year 1962 also witnessed the creation of America's third scooter maga­zine, Scootourist, which Innocenti-in partic­ular its California representative Pay Cotton and San Francisco dealer Al Fergoda ­played a major role in creating and support­ing. Even as sales continued to increase throughout 1963, many pressing problems lurked just under the surface-problems which Innocenti, with its Italian village men­tality, failed even to significantly address, let alone resolve. Perhaps no problem was more pressing than that of adding and retaining dealerships- As motorized two wheeler sales increased throughout 1963 and 1964 Innocenti gained many new dealers and claimed a national network of 500 dealers. However, these new dealers were often low quality dealerships-boat dealers, gas sta­tions, auto dealerships, hardware stores, etc.-whose commitment to scooters was minimal and who often gave Lambretta a "fly-by-night" reputation. Usually such deal­ers-like their Vespa counterparts of the late 1970's and early 1980's-stocked few parts and were totally incapable of providing even the most basic service. At the same time, many of the largest and best Lambretta dealerships began to take on Japanese motorcycles.


Two major cities in my local area during the early 1960's illustrate lnnocenti's many shortcomings. In Minneapolis, a metropoli­tan area of two million persons, Honda had at least half a dozen dealerships-all with large showrooms modeled on auto dealer­ships and the other Japanese makes were becoming equally Large Sales numbered in the thousands. Vespa sales, under the dynamic Jerry Commers of Cushman Motors, were 200 for 1963 and 300 for 1964. Until 1963. Karl's Cycle Shop, a pre­dominantly German motorcycle dealer. sold perhaps half a dozen Lambrettas a year. In 1963 the dealership was given to a gas sta­tion, which sold approximately 20 to 25 Lambrettas a year as a sideline. The dealer soon gained a reputation for sleaziness and dishonesty and stocked virtually no parts. In Madison, Wisconsin, a university town of 200.000, Rodney Kreunen of Cycles Inc .. another dynamic Vespa dealer. sold 200 Vespas in 1964. The local Lambretta dealer, an automobile dealership located in a small town 15 miles from the University of Wisconsin campus. sold only a handful of Lambrettas a year.


Despite its weak dealer network, Innocenti's marketing strategy-based on the provincial Italian model-was strictly dealer focused. In other words, the entire burden of advertising and marketing rested solely on the shoul­ders of the local dealer. Piaggio, of course, still maintains a similar philosophy today and the consequences have been equally dis­astrous. Throughout 1963 and 1964 the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers spent millions on advertising and Vescony mount­ed a brilliant and innovative advertising campaign. which featured regularly appear­ing ads in mass circulation magazines such as Life, Esquire, and Sports illustrated along with a couple of television commercials. Innocenti stressed repeatedly throughout the early 1960's that it considered the American market critical for replacing the losses suf­fered in the declining European scooter mar­ket, but the firm had almost nothing in the way of an advertising program. I have a complete collection of dealer newsletters for 1963 and 1964 and the only mention of advertising was a long discussion of a ban­ner to be loaned to dealers for display at county fairs, etc. Although the Japanese firms were selling at least a half million lightweight motorcycles a year in the U.S., Vespa was still referred to as "our main com­petitor". This was the period of the so-called "British Invasion", when British pop music and "mod" clothing styles took America by storm. Much of the music and clothing styles were tied to the mod movement, and an imaginative importer could easily have developed advertising and publicity that con­nected Lambretta to this powerful new cur­rent. Yet Innocenti seems not to have had even the slightest awareness of what was happening in England.



In 1963 Rocco also became president of the American Motor Scooter Association, the trade association of the scooter industry in America. A bold and logical move would have been to develop a coordinated effort of all the major U.S. scooter manufacturers and distributors-Innocenti. Vescony. Cushman, and Rabbit-to organize a publicity campaign promoting scooters as alternatives to motorcycles. But Rocco was not a man of boldness and innovation.


Innocenti did manage to sign a deal with Schwinn bicycles in 1963, which gave Schwinn dealers the option to become Lambretta dealers (at least in certain areas). Although this was a brilliant move, which brought Lambretta to many new areas, and could have done for Lambretta what the Cushman-Vespa partnership did for Vespa. Innocenti never followed through in sustain­ing it with national advertising and the full potential of this arrangement was never real­ized.


Throughout 1963 Lambretta sales continued to rise to their highest levels since the boom year of 1957, but the gap with Vespa was widening dramatically. Andreas Rocco pre­dicted that 1964 would be "Lambretta's biggest year." High hopes were placed on three new models. the 100cc Cento priced at $300, the Li 150 Special selling for $449. and the TV 200 priced at $500. The rather ugly Cento was a disaster and sold only a fraction of the spectacularly successful Vespa 90. The TV 200 did much better, but even with its bigger engine and better perfor­mance, was still no match for the Vespa GS 160. The Li 150 Special, which was market­ed as the "sports car on two wheels", sold quite well and was lnnocenti's greatest suc­cess in 1964.



Another major success for Innocenti in 1964 was the sale of a large number of TV 200's to the New York City police department. Although the department bought Vespa GS 160's as well. the total number of Lambrettas purchased eventually reached 500. A special Scooter Patrol was organized and a Scooter School set up to train the members. The Scooter School was located on Randall's Island in the East River and consisted of a week of courses. Reportedly, the flunk-out rate was quite high. The adventures of two members of the Scooter Patrol were later immortalized in Dave Fischer's 1974 book. The Incredible Scooter Cops. The Scooter Patrol still exists, but Yamaha Riva 125s have replaced Lambrettas and Vespas. The Scooter Patrol made Lambrettas visible to millions of New Yorkers, yet Innocenti was completely unable to take advantage of this for marketing purposes. Innocenti was also less successful than Vescony in selling police scooters to other communities, although the police forces of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard University did purchase Lambrettas (due mainly to Ben Olken's marketing efforts).


Rocco's high hopes for 1964 proved to be an hopeless illusion. lnnocenti's dealer network began to rapidly unravel and Lambretta sales entered a downward spiral at a time when Vespa sales were accelerating to record highs. The gap between Vespa and Lambretta sales widened throughout 1964 into a chasm. Innocenti's disdain of mass advertising was a critical factor, but the company's poor parts service also played an increasing role in undermining the confi­dence of consumers and dealers alike. For reasons that are almost impossible to fath­om, parts orders often took as long as six months to be filled and yet prices were about 20 percent higher than Vespa parts prices. Telephone orders by dealers were deliberately discouraged by hefty charges. During this period, I talked with at least 10 dealers who gave up Lambretta franchises because of Innocenti's poor parts service. Some of them, such as Cycles Incorporated of Madison. Wisconsin, had extremely large sales. Vescony, by contrast, with its modern, business school based approach to market­ing, had one of the earliest computerized parts inventories in the industry. To insure that all Vespa owners had quick. easy access to parts, Vescony published an elaborate. nicely illustrated mail order catalog. Vespa owners could get parts sent to them within 10 days. Instead of setting up a centralized wholesale and retail parts distribution sys­tem similar lo Vescony's. Innocenti attempt­ed to organize regional parts depots based on the Italian model. But with sales a far cry from those in Italy, local depots were unable to stock a full range of parts and the effort soon became another of Rocco·s foolish exer­cises in Italian provincialism. In the West, however, parts distribution was given to Harrison Reno of Santa Ana, California, who provided fast and efficient parts service (but at prices 20 percent higher than lnnocenti's prices in the East). Not surprisingly, the sales gap in California was far less than elsewhere.


One thing Innocenti did do right was to attempt to revive organized scootering. Throughout 1963 and 1964, Innocenti gave full support to Scootourist magazine, buying its back cover and encouraging dealers to sell copies. When Scootourist proposed a national scooter rally at the 1964 World's Fair, Innocenti gave the idea enthusiastic support. Innocenti also supported expanding the Southern California Scootourist Club into a slate wide club, and perhaps eventu­ally into a national club, but in 1964 the club disbanded after a decline in member­ship. With the collapse of Scootourist in the summer of 1964 it became clear that scooter sales could not be translated into organized scootering. The one thing that could have given scooters permanent roots in the American landscape was no longer a possi­bility.


THE BUBBLE BURSTS

For American scootering, 1965 marked the last days of an Indian Summer just before the bubble burst. If in previous years the rising tide of Japanese motorcycles had car­ried Vespa and Lambretta in its wake, it now posed a mortal threat to the very existence of scooters in the U.S. market. The passive and unimaginative manner in which Innocenti met this challenge in the U.S. only foreshadowed the manner in which they responded to the same challenge in world markets-a failure which would ultimately lead to the full scale collapse of Innocenti's Lambretta division in 1971. In 1965 Vespa sales remained high-higher than 1963 lev­els-but were down at least a third from the record 1964 levels. Lambretta sales, much smaller to start with, fell even further. In many regions of the U.S. Lambretta had almost no presence. Throughout 1965 Lambretta and Vespa dealers alike took on readily available Japanese motorcycle deal­erships in droves. Innocenti's main response was to come up with a brochure and an advertising theme entitled, "What Kind of Nut Would Buy a Lambretta?", which was surely one of the dumbest scooter ads of all time. It was also a question a good number of other people were probably asking in 1965. In a desperate move Innocenti tried to sell regional distribution rights for exorbitant sums. Ben Olken, who had completed suc­cessfully in Vescony’s backyard, was told he would have to pay $50.000 to continue dis­tributing Lambrettas in New England. He declined and the rights were sold to another firm, which, when sales failed to materialize. ended up suing Innocenti.


By 1966 U.S. scooter sales were heading toward a collapse. Vescony still had a national dealer network and modest sales of a couple thousand scooters a year, but Innocenti had almost no dealers and sales were virtually non-existent. Montgomery Ward had stopped selling Lambrettas in late 1965. For the few dealers who had Lambrettas on the showroom floor it often took months to sell them. In 1967 it was clear that the slide could not be reversed. Vescony decided to call it quits and gave the distribution rights back to Piaggio early in the year. Innocenti stayed in the U.S. mar­ket-probably with a skeleton staff-until late 1967 or early 1968. It is doubtful that more than 100 to 200 Lambrettas a year were being sold. At the time, distribution rights were transferred to a new firm, which after figuring out what the real situation was, gave it up after a day. No provisions were made for continuing parts distribution. With the collapse of Innocenti's American division, Lambretta was never again a signif­icant force in the U.S. scooter market. The seemingly endless, half-hearted, resuscita­tion attempts that followed were but minor postscripts to a sad story.


UNSOLVED MYSTERIES

Shortly after the downfall of Innocenti, there occurred one of the great unsolved mysteries of American scooter history. At some point in 1968 as many as 2,000 Lambrettas were suddenly dumped on the U.S. market at rock bottom prices. New 150 Li Specials were sold for as low as $200 and SX 200's for $295. The catch, of course, was that parts and service were, for the most part, unavailable. It remains unclear exactly where this large number of machines came from. Given the small number of machines sold during the preceding three years, it seems doubtful that Innocenti would have built up this large an inventory. More likely, Innocenti may have brought them in on a bank Joan and then defaulted by declaring bankruptcy as a quick and easy way of sell­ing 2,000 Lambrettas. Or it is equally likely that a dummy corporation was set up by someone else for this purpose. According to one account, Malcolm Bricklin, who was associated with a long series of shady auto deals, from Subaru 360's in the 1960's to Yugo' s in the 1980's, was involved in this. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has any information on this strange deal (or anything else related to Lambretta marketing in the U.S.)

Another strange episode in U.S. scootering history occurred in 1969 when a Staten Island, New York based firm brought in a batch of perhaps several hundred GP Lambrettas in what was probably an attempt to test the American market. I can recall walking into Camrod Motorcycles in New York in 1969 and seeing a showroom floor filled with about 45 red Lambretta GP 150's retailing for $395. At least some GP 200s were sold since I spotted one parked on Fifth Avenue. Nothing in the way of a national dealer network was created. although Italian GP's have turned up in Chicago, Boston, and Washington, which leads me to think some may have been sold in those cities. In 1971 the New York City police purchased about 40 GP's (and possibly more) from the English Lambretta distributor. Another batch of 20 GP's was imported by a Canadian firm in 1969.



ENDLESS POSTSCRIPTS

The next entry of Lambretta into the U.S. market came with the first oil crisis of 1973, when International Sportcycles, a Union City. New Jersey motorcycle shop, began importing Servetta Lambrettas. But by the time a small dealer network could be orga­nized, the oil crisis was over and virtually all the Lambrettas remained unsold on show­room floors. Dealers quickly dropped the Servetta franchise and dumped the remain­ing scooters at heavily discounted prices. International Sportcycles continued to import Servettas throughout the 1970's and made several attempts to market Servettas nationally, all with only limited success. The most ridiculous attempt came in the late 1970's when someone at the firm, in a great stroke of genius, came up with designating them as the "Performer." A batch was brought in with large, garish lettering on the side panels. Stupidity is not confined to Italians. Dealers would be recruited only to discover that there was no market for Lambrettas. In 1975 I saw a number of Servettas in the showroom of a Volvo dealer­ship in Minneapolis. When I inquired, the dealer bragged that he just sold 10 at the auto show. Further probing revealed that he had sold none and that he would be happy to sell at below wholesale. It is doubtful whether there were more than five compe­tent Servetta dealers in the U.S. during this period. Parts service was even worse than Innocenti, with orders often taking a year or more to fill. No Innocenti Lambretta parts were stocked, although thousands of Innocenti Lambrettas were still drivable in the U.S. International Sportcycles advertised in Rider and had some success in getting Rider to publish road tests, but the company was completely unable to bring Lambrettas to the attention of a wider public. Sometime around 1979 it apparently gave up the fran­chise.


Sometime afterwards, the Servetta franchise appears to have gone to George Kyco of Springfield, New Jersey, who operated under the name of Lambretta of America. During the oil crisis of 1980 a large batch was brought in. Most Servettas arrived after the crisis had peaked and remained unsold. Dealers were once again of the "fly-by-night" variety-automobile dealers and so forth­ who saw quick and easy profits to be made, but when the profits failed to materialize they swiftly dropped the franchise. It is a sad commentary on American business ethics that consumers foolish enough to buy Lambrettas were left totally in the lurch, with no parts or service after their dealers dropped the franchise. Perhaps never was the phrase caveat emptor-let the buyer beware-more appropriate. Servetta prices were comparable to Vespa prices, but the machines lacked oil injection, 12 volt electri­cal system, and electronic ignition, which were now standard on P series Vespas. And, of course, the paint work, switches, and many other features were greatly inferior to Vespas. Even the most unsophisticated con­sumer could readily perceive these short­comings and as a consequence few Servettas were sold. In 1981 I encountered a moped dealer in Rhode Island who bought a batch of 10 of them in 1980 and had not sold a single one. In the end, most Servettas imported in 1980 ended up on the bank­ruptcy liquidation market. where they lin­gered for years. In 1981 I came across a liq­uidator's trade journal which featured a cover photo of a warehouse full of Servettas awaiting liquidation. An enterprising recre­ational vehicle dealer in San Diego offered a free Servetta with the purchase of every RV. Even today, unused Servettas occasionally surface. Although the number of Servetta Lambrettas imported was probably less than five percent of the number of Innocenti Lambrettas imported, far more American scooterists today ride Servetta Lambrettas than Innocenti Lambrettas. This is due sole­ly to the fact that parts and service was never available for Servettas and thus most machines ended up sitting in garages with low mileage.


A smaller number of Indian GP Lambrettas was also imported during the oil crisis years. but they fared even less well than Servetta. At least three firms are known to be involved, Lambretta South of Dalla, Texas, a firm in Stockton, California, and Columbia Motors of either Florida or Georgia. None was able to organize more than a handful of dealers.


Around 1984 Cosmopolitan Motors of Philadelphia became the Servetta distributor. On the surface, the firm seemed to offer new possibilities. Cosmopolitan had a long histo­ry of importing various European motorcy­cles and scooters stretching back to at least the early 1950's. But they also made a mess of virtually every brand they handled and the history of the firm is another history of failures. Although a strong scooter subcul­ture was emerging in the wake of the film Quadrophenia and a renewed interest in vin­tage machines was rapidly developing, Cosmopolitan was completely unable to tap into either of these trends. Once again, vir­tually no dealers could be recruited and the final effort to market Lambrettas in the U.S. soon ended in ignominy.


Over the course of a 30 year period, an esti­mated 75,000 Lambrettas entered the U.S. Of these, the greater majority were Innocenti Lambrettas. Servetta Lambrettas never num­bered over a few thousand and Indian Lambrettas no more than a few hundred.


During the past few years, Darren Lenkhorn (VCOA #799) and his Performance Scooters of Montreal have successfully brought small batches of gray market Indian Lambrettas into the North American market. What was once a flood in the 1950's has been reduced to the tiniest of tickles. Yet, the opportunity to buy a new GP 200 is one we have not had and in all likelihood we will not have much longer. It is probably an opportunity of which all of us ought to take advantage.




Editor's Note: For those who never met John Gerber, he was a scooterist logged more saddle time on Lambrettas and Vespas that anyone else in the United States. He was also dedicated to writing about it and the machines he loved with countless submissions to 'American Scooterist' and many other scootering publications around the world. As you read here, he was a man of opinion and was happy to share it. This article pre-dates Lambretta Club USA and this entire issue of American Scooterist was dedicated to the Lambretta.


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Walter Alter
Walter Alter
Oct 01, 2022

Excellent history that cleared up a lot of mystery for me and my Lambretta odyssey that evolved into Batcave Scooters in San Francisco during he 1980's. When I got my first SX200 around 1979, there was briefly a Servetta dealer in Fairfax, CA, north of SF, a rather strange location and the town I was brought up in, an act of fate that still puzzles me. Through a storefront window could be seen a couple of Servetta's but the shop was never open and no one answered the phone. A few months later it was gone and the battle to find service parts, Lambretta USA's Achilles heel, began.


I don't recall how, but a shop manual fell into my hands…


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Walter Alter
Walter Alter
Oct 02, 2022
Replying to

The exciting aspect of current parts availability are all the crazy competition tuning and conversion parts hitting the streets that squeeze a little extra oomph out of the pickle shaped engine. :)

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