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Several hundred scooter enthusiasts converge on Santa Rosa

With its poolside lounge and spacious backyard, the Sandman Hotel on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa can feel like a refuge and sanctuary.

That is decidedly not how it felt Friday morning, as a tribe of several hundred vintage-scooter aficionados converged on the parking lot, tinkering with their antique Lambretta motor bikes, kick-starting them, revving their engines, creating a cacophony accompanied by a miasma of acrid white smoke.

“I love the smell of two-stroke in the morning,” declared Denver James, referring to the oil that must be pre-mixed with the gas that goes into the tanks of these temperamental craft. He is U.S. 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 movie in which motorcycle gangs take over a California town.

James was seated at the registration table, greeting participants in 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, featuring group rides through Wine Country and the Russian River valley.

Lambretta is the brand name of motor scooters manufactured in Milan starting in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II. His steel-tubing factory leveled by Allied bombs, Ferdinando Innocenti retooled the plant to make scooters ideal for navigating roads and cities still clogged with rubble.

This year marks the 75th birthday of Innocenti’s inspiration. The 350 devotees in Santa Rosa for this milestone rally include visitors from Italy, Canada and all over the U.S., including Florida, said club secretary Kieran Walsh, who flew in from Tampa.

Rivalry with Vespa

Less popular than their southern Italian cousin, the Vespa, Lambrettas have nonetheless drawn a worldwide following of riders charmed by their style and flair, their arresting retro lines and vibrant colors.

“It’s definitely two different camps, like Ford and Chevy,” said Robert Wilson, visiting from Seattle, of the divide between Vespa and Lambretta owners.

“To me, the Lambretta is the Cadillac of Italian bikes,” said Felicia Marinelli, who owns three of them, including a vanishingly rare “Riverside” model with a single seat and no speedometer, just a classic Lambretta insignia where that gauge would normally be.

She would switch to a Vespa, she allowed, if it was the 1950s model ridden by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday.”

That Vespa-Lambretta divide fades, said Kermit Claytor, from San Carlos, in relation to the wider gulf between “vintage, metal-body two-stroke scooters” — Vespas and Lambrettas alike — “versus modern, twist-and-go bikes with plastic bodies, Chinese motors and automatic transmissions. You can’t show up on one of those at these rallies.”

Mods fuel resurgence

Their popularity flatlining in the postwar years, Lambrettas enjoyed a comeback in the United Kingdom fueled by the Mods, a 1960s subculture highlighting slim-fit Italian suits and a renewed appreciation for Innocenti’s bulbous-paneled scooter. Lambrettas had yet another renaissance around the release of the 1979 film “Quadrophenia,” based on The Who’s rock opera. In that movie, the Li 150 Series 3 Lambretta ridden by the young mod Jimmy is the very symbol of his rebellion.

While those scooters intrigued Claytor, as did the Vespas and Lambrettas crowding the 1989 Fine Young Cannibals music video Good Thing, he never got around to buying one.

But then, around 12 years ago, after years astride a series of Ducati motorcycles, the South Bay native bought a Lambretta. He had kids, and wasn’t riding the Ducati that much anymore.

“Those 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 taking a scooter made to go 40, and getting it up to 75, than it is to take a Ducati that's made to go 140, and make it go 70. So yeah, I bought one, then I bought another one. I got like 5 in my garage right now.”

Bring your toolkit

The downside of vintage Lambrettas is that they are, well, vintage. Unlike the more practical, utilitarian design of the Vespa, said Josh Snow, who helped bring this Jamboree to Santa Rosa, for almost every function on a Lambretta, “it’s five parts and a special tool.”

As much as he loves his Lambretta, said Trent Hagerman, visiting from Vancouver, British Columbia, “Everything rattles, parts feel like they’re falling off. And very often they are. You have to carry a toolkit. You’re always tightening screws.”

He is at peace with that, having embraced the lessons of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book, “Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“You’ve got to be in tune with these and understand ’em,” Hagerman said, “because every one is different. They have their starting subtleties. You know when things are going wrong, things are loosening up.”

At all of these rallies, bikes break down, and fellow Lambrattae pull over to assist them. If the bike can’t be repaired, a chase truck is there to give scooter and rider a lift 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 struggled to start his scooter. His Li 150 Special rasped and wheezed with each attempted kick start, but the engine would not turn over.

You can always try to roll start it, suggested a fellow attendee.

Instead, Michael Davis pushed down on the kick-start lever once more, with gusto, and at last the engine caught. Bystanders cheered and clapped.

This Lambretta, he said, was “one of many” he has owned, “in various states of dysfunctionality.”

He’d brought this scooter across the country, even though “it’s not really ready,” he admitted.

Risk of a breakdown is worth it, he said, to be in the company of the members of his Lambretta “tribe,” as he described it, whose members are happy, should his bike falter, to help him bring it back to life.

Failing that, he added, there’s always the chase truck.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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