They call themselves the Vesparados and they are, indeed, a wild bunch—wild about their Vespa scooters.
About 20 owners of the iconic Italian scooter belong to a loosely knit social group that meets at least once a week, sometimes more in good weather, to tool around Omaha and enjoy the freedom of the outdoors. Rides usually end with libations, dinner, or both.
If the name Vespa doesn’t ring a bell, think Gregory Peck vrooming through the crowded streets of the Eternal City with a laughing Audrey Hepburn on the back of his scooter in 1952’s Roman Holiday. Thanks to the Oscar®-winning film, Americans fell in love with the Vespa.
First manufactured by Piaggio & Co. in 1946 for easy and economical transportation in decimated post-War Italy, the Vespa remains better suited for boulevards and byways, not highways.
“Most Vespas can reach 80 miles per hour,” says Gil Cohen, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Omaha Magazine. “But I wouldn’t suggest keeping it up there for very long. We don’t travel on interstates.”
The Vesparados come from a wide range of professions. But when the helmets go on, each rider assumes their Vespa persona.
“Everybody has a handle,” explains Cohen. “I’m ‘Jersey.’”
On a recent summer evening, the South Jersey native sat astride his red Vespa GTS 250 waiting for others to gather at a Fiat dealership at West Dodge and 180th streets for a cool, twilight ride along the nearby Lincoln Highway. Cohen’s GTS series scooter features Vespa’s trademark pressed-steel unibody, flat floorboard, and prominent front, but with today’s technology. True to the original premise of economy and affordability, the Vespa averages about 65-70 miles-per-gallon and costs around $7,000 tops, with smaller scooters in the $3,000-4,000 range.
Ten riders eventually joined Cohen, including new Vesparado Todd Lemke, breezing in on a GTS 300 scooter.
“I had to have a bigger bike than Gil’s,” laughs the publisher of Omaha Magazine, who hasn’t gotten a handle on his handle yet. Lemke has always loved “anything with two wheels and a motor,” and finds the Vespa a natural extension of his motorcycle and dirt bike hobbies.
The parking lot, now filled with Vespas in hues of blue, red, green, and brown, crackled with laughter, indicating long-standing friendships among the participants. Husband-and-wife dentists Bill and JoAnn Kathrein, a.k.a. “Tito” and “Cupcake,” shared good-natured ribbing with longtime friend Dr. Bill Bucy, a dentist who lives in Auburn, Neb., and stores his Vespa in Omaha.
Joining in on the conversations were Spencer “Dragon” Jacobs of Badger Body and Truck and his girlfriend, Kathy Anthes; Dr. George “Doc” Perlebach; Wells Fargo Financial advisor Denis “Ballanca” Roberts; Omaha attorney Dan Smith, clearly enjoying his first Vesparado outing; architect Steve “Itchy” Ginn (no question asked, no explanation offered), whose new GTV series “retro” scooter has the headlight attached to the front fender; and David “Blazer” Parsow, looking very dapper in a crisp, white shirt and black sport jacket. “It comes from being in the clothing business,” deadpans the president of Parsow’s Fashions.
The riders motored single file down the Lincoln Highway toward Elkhorn and stopped at a plaque commemorating the centennial of the transcontinental roadway. Placed neatly side-by-side, the scooters looked like a multi-colored, metallic chorus line; their owners looked like they were having a blast.
Vespa may mean “wasp” in Italian, but to the Vesparados it means “let’s buzz around.”