With its poolside lounge and spacious backyard, the Sandman Hotel on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa can feel like a refuge and a sanctuary.
That’s decidedly not how it felt Friday morning, as a tribe of several hundred vintage scooter enthusiasts converged on the parking lot, tinkering with their old Lambretta motorcycles, starting them, revving their engines, creating a cacophony accompanied by a miasma of acrid white smoke.
“I love the smell of two-strokes in the morning,” Denver James said, referring to the oil that has to be pre-mixed with the gasoline that goes into the tanks of these finicky watercraft. He is the United States Ambassador for the Lambretta Club, USA, which, for this weekend at least, has turned Santa Rosa into a benign version of “The Wild One,” a 1953 film in which gangs of bikers take over a Californian town.
James was seated at the registration table, greeting attendees at this weekend’s Lambretta Jamboree. Held in Seattle and the Black Hills of South Dakota in years past – canceled by COVID-19 in 2020 and 21 – the rally is taking place in Sonoma County through Sunday, with group rides through Wine Country and the Russian River Valley.
Lambretta is the brand name for motor scooters made in Milan from 1947, after World War II. His steel tube factory razed by Allied bombs, Ferdinando Innocenti retooled the factory to manufacture scooters ideal for navigating roads and towns still cluttered with rubble.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Innocenti’s inspiration. The 350 faithful in Santa Rosa for the milestone gathering include visitors from Italy, Canada and across the United States, including Florida, said club secretary Kieran Walsh, who traveled from Tampa.
Rivalry with Vespa
Less popular than their southern Italian cousin, the Vespas, the Lambrettas nevertheless attracted a global following of bikers charmed by their style and flair, striking retro lines and vibrant colors.
“It’s definitely two different camps, like Ford and Chevy,” Robert Wilson, visiting from Seattle, said of the rift between Vespa and Lambretta owners.
“For me, the Lambretta is the Cadillac of Italian motorcycles,” said Felicia Marinelli, who owns three, including an extremely rare “Riverside” model with a single seat and no speedometer, just a classic Lambretta badge where that gauge would normally be.
She would upgrade to a Vespa, she allowed, if it was the 1950s model ridden by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in ‘Roman Holiday’.
This Vespa-Lambretta divide is blurring, said Kermit Claytor, of San Carlos, of the wider chasm between “vintage metal-bodied two-stroke scooters” — Vespas and Lambretta alike — “versus modern bikes. twist-and-go with plastic bodies, Chinese engines and automatic transmissions. You cannot stand on one of these at these gatherings.
The resurgence of fuel mods
Their popularity stagnated in the post-war years, Lambrettas saw a comeback in the UK fueled by Mods, a 1960s subculture showcasing tailored Italian suits and a renewed appreciation for the scooter at Innocenti bulbous panels. Lambrettas enjoyed another revival around the release of the 1979 film “Quadrophenia,” based on The Who’s rock opera. In this film, the Lambretta Li 150 Series 3 driven by the young mod Jimmy is the very symbol of his rebellion.
While these scooters intrigued Claytor, much like the Vespas and Lambrettas that surrounded Fine Young Cannibals’ Good Thing music video from 1989, he never had time to buy one.
But then, about 12 years ago, after years riding a series of Ducati motorcycles, the South Bay native bought a Lambretta. He had kids and didn’t ride the Ducati much anymore.
“These motorcycles are angry until they’re going at least 80 miles an hour,” he explained, “and you’re always in trouble with the cops,” he said. .
“It’s more fun to take a scooter that’s made to go 40, and crank it up to 75, than to take a Ducati that’s made to go 140, and crank it to 70. So yeah, I bought one, then bought another, I have about 5 in my garage right now.
Bring your tool kit
The downside to vintage Lambrettas is that they are, well, vintage. Unlike the more practical and utilitarian design of the Vespa, said Josh Snow, who helped bring this Jamboree to Santa Rosa, for almost every function of a Lambretta, “it’s five parts and one special tool.”
Even though he loves his Lambretta, said Trent Hagerman, visiting from Vancouver, British Columbia, “Everything is banging, the parts feel like they are falling off. And very often they are. You must carry a tool kit. You are still tightening screws.
He is at peace with this, having adopted the lessons of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book, “Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.
“You have to be in tune with those and understand them,” Hagerman said, “because everyone is different. They have their starting intricacies. You know, when things go wrong, things loosen up.
At all these gatherings, the bikes break down and other Lambrattae stop to help them. If the bike cannot be repaired, a chase truck is there to bring the scooter and rider back to the hotel.
A hundred yards away by the pool, a man with shoulder-length hair whose denim jacket identified him as a member of the Nashville, Tennessee-based “Snakes” riding club was struggling to start his scooter. His Li 150 Special grated and hissed every time he tried to start, but the engine wouldn’t turn.
You can always try throwing it, suggested another participant.
Instead, Michael Davis pressed the start lever again, enthusiastically, and finally the engine stopped. Passersby cheered and cheered.
This Lambretta, he said, was “one of many” he owned, “in various states of malfunction”.
He had taken this scooter around the country, although he “isn’t really ready”, he admitted.
The risk of breakdown is worth it, he said, to be in the company of members of his “tribe” Lambretta, as he described it, whose members are happy, if his bike fails, for the help bring him back to life.
Failing that, he added, there is always the pursuit truck.
You can contact editor Austin Murphy at [email protected] or on Twitter @ausmurph88.