Dave McCabe’s been riding the Vespa S for a few months now, here’s his perspective:
Cue the Muppet with the fedora and trench coat: “So you wanna buy a letter ‘S?’” The stylish Vespa S 150 has been on the market since March but many of us remain confused by what it is, and what Piaggio intended to do with this model.
What’s with the fancy red “S” anyway? How many cars these days have an “S” edition? The most well-known is the wildly-successful Mini Copper S. There are also “S”es adorning Toyota Corollas and Acura RSXs. The Volkswagen Beetle and the Porsche Boxster are as shamelessly consistent as the others, using the same racy calligraphic “S”—except in grey or chrome instead of red. This says nothing of similar variants such as the Honda S200, the Suzuki SX, and who knows what else. There’s definitely a trend here and maybe it’s a gotten little out of hand.
Of course Piaggio has a proud tradition with the 19th letter in the alphabet, making a valid claim to its use that predates the existence of all of the aforementioned car models. In 1955 the ground-breaking Vespa GS was introduced. It was the first production scooter consciously designed to bring motorsports to motorscootering. Back then the letter meant “sport” and was included within the VIN of all GSs and subsequent top-of-the-line Vespas. The VIN for the GS 150 was VS1 (through VS5), the GS 160 was VSB, the Super Sport was VSC, and so forth.
As with VINs, the history of Vespa is rife with model name superlatives that begin with S: Gran Sport, Super Sport, Super Sprint, Super, Special and Sprint. Super duper super scooter.
So where is the “S” in the Vespa S? Some serious scooterists remain shockingly stupefied. With cars, that fancy little red letter signifies substantial performance enhancements. Outwardly, little may be changed, but inside one might find a bigger engine, a turbocharger or supercharger, upgraded brakes and/or a stiffer suspension.
The Vespa S mostly appears to be the opposite, all style and little difference under the hood (so to speak) as compared to the LX. With the exception of bolt-on changes and a stiffer suspension, the S is largely an LX monocoque frame with the same engine and same chassis. Most of the changes are cosmetic. Here’s a list of the body changes:
- front fender
- horn cover
- square headlight
- front glove box
- tail light
- plastic trim around the bottom rear of the body
The style changes are intended to help reinforce Piaggio’s rebranding of their smaller ET4/LX scooters as the “smallframe” analogue to the GTS. For more than 40 years, Piaggio produced Vespas based on two different body styles, a smallframe and a standard body. With the rollout of the GTS Vespa, more attention needed to be focused on the LX to give it a new identity. The removal of the legshield glove box, new seat, restyled tail light and most importantly, the addition of the square headlight all work to accomplish this.
In good design sometimes less is more. This is one of the hidden surprises of the Vespa S and I think the scooter’s biggest selling point. The S sells for $200 less than the LX. For this “economy” price a number of items are lost, notably the key ignition immobilizer, the ability to unlock the seat from the ignition, and the legshield glove box.
Many are confused by the loss of the glove box. Why replace one relatively inexpensive section of plastic with another, particularly at the loss of some utility? The money saved must be negligible. The new arrangement adds a small, mostly useless, storage tray as part of a flat plastic panel. Really it’s little more than an excuse to enclose the turn signal bulbs, but the lower part of the panel includes floor rails that bend up the inside of the legshield, allowing the rider to put their feet up on the legshield.
I have always found the ET/LX to be claustrophobic. The glovebox forces the rider into an upright (and somewhat prissy) posture. At 5’8” I’m practically short and even for me it feels constrained. It must really be a squeeze for someone with long legs.
Riding with the new extra legroom is a revelation and really makes the scooter come alive. The rider can vary riding positions for comfort or riding style. You can put both feet up on the legshield and scoot your butt back in the seat. This may not be the most stable way to ride, but it certainly is the way a lot of teenagers in Europe rode when they had their original 50 Specials. Being able to slide your posterior back in the roomy single seat helps take advantage of the flickablity of this scooter. You can steer more with your waist. Also, even with only one foot forward, having a foot firmly pressed against the legshield improves your sense of control in the bike.
This is the uncelebrated “S” in the Vespa S and more than makes up for the loss of certain features. Of course, how can Piaggio market an omission as an improvement? Still, it is an awesome improvement, particularly for someone like me who is new to modern Vespa riding. I’m sure there were some passionate engineers who wanted to recreate a fun Vespa similar to what they rode as teenagers. This is probably where the idea of turning the LX into something more reminiscent of the iconic smallframe 50 Special came from. It is a difference that only a vintage scooterist would consider (stomping your feet forward to improve a ride is not anything a self respecting sport motorcyclist would do) and I’m sure it was lost in the translation from the design/engineering department to the marketing and style-conscious copy writers.
There has been a fair amount of anecdotal speculation that the S is faster than its LX brethren. To date, no one has been able to confirm any engine differences. There have been no reports of the jets, variators, or CDI varying from the LX. With about 700 miles on my scooter, I have fairly consistently been getting 60 mpg with city driving. I weigh 180 pounds and do not ride very conservatively. This seems consistent with other honest reports of the LX’s fuel economy.
It may be that the scooter just seems faster. With the new adjustable rear suspension, an added roller cage bearing in the steering column, and a slightly lighter front end, the scooter feels more “flickable.” It’s fun, and the stiffer ride may create the impression of increased speed.
It is also unclear if the front suspension is up-rated. All that’s known is that Piaggio switched front suspension manufacturers to Kayaba, a well-regarded “brand name” fork and suspension supplier.
There is another secret “S” in this Vespa that was not realized in production. Looking closely at the computer-rendered line drawing from the owner’s manual is like getting a not-intended-for-public-consumption snapshot of the scooter in development. The image is a little odd since the scooter shows some of the new S style changes but not all. It retains an LX seat, the front fender and plastic trim around the bottom rear of the body. The fender and trim piece were later redesigned to look slimmer and help make the new red suspension more visible.
The real surprise is that if you look closely at the rear tire, you can see a rear disc brake, note the caliper and disc cooling holes are exactly as shown on the front brake. This is no puff of smoke coming from the grassy knoll. It’s quite distinct. An added disc brake would make all the difference in wide-open-throttle urban scooter bombing. The current set up is acceptable, and a huge improvement over the Vespa P-series brakes that I’m used to, but wouldn’t it be so much better to be able to keep one good hand on the throttle and the other on a more-responsive rear disc brake?
So what does this mean? Clearly the designers originally intended the S to be a high-end sports Vespa. At some point the corporate types must have decided to save money and switched emphasis to the 50 Special angle, which in spite of its reputation for fun, was about as stripped down an economy Vespa as was ever made. The square headlight, distinctive horncasting, vintage smallframe-like features, and even the body colors reinforce that in this scenario, the “S” stands for Special not Sport.
Of course, another more-tantalizing possibility is that Piaggio will give us incremental improvements. Maybe that disc brake in the owner’s manual is an unintended sneak peek of things to come? We have heard rumors of a 4-valve engine. Fuel injection is an even more likely possibility, and with fuel injection, doesn’t it make sense to have better braking ability? This appears to be an established marketing technique now. The successive improvements from the GT 200, to the GTS 250, and now the GTS 300 keeps loyal consumers wanting the next new thing.
As critical as I may come across about the S, I absolutely love it. It has redefined what scootering is for me. It’s tons of fun to be able to stop and corner with way more confidence, way more than I ever had on a manual vintage Vespa. Plus, for the first time I can move around on the seat like I do on my older Vespas. The style of the Vespa S is also the first modern Vespa model that clicked with me and many other vintage scooter fans. As much as I’d love to have a cheap used ET4 to taken apart and experiment with, it looked too much like something from a sci-fi movie. The S won out. The LX is an improvement, but compared to the S, it seems like an incomplete step in the evolution of the design. The S is it—at least until the next S arrives.