Photographs by Kaizad Adil Darukhanawala
Culture, art and cuisine aren’t the only things that Europe is known for. For all we know, the term ‘motorcycle’ came from Europe — Germany, to be precise — and that too from two blokes whose names are now linked to luxury cars. Anyway, I think the most accessible European-origin machines available in our country can be narrowed down to the ones you see here; the Benelli Imperiale 400, a reinterpretation of the Benelli Motobi range that flourished in the 1950s, and the Vespa, ‘wasp’ in Italian, the descendant of a scooter introduced in 1946. Although the Imperiale and the Vespa are both manufactured here, they are very Italian at their roots. And although that’s the only bond that these two share, nothing stops them from riding out together.
In a time that favours numbers, the Imperiale 400 is a classic-styled offering pointed at a segment that is ruled by Royal Enfield, and Benelli came into existence in 1911 which is not too long after the RE started out. The Vespa, on the other hand, is Piaggio’s offering for the finer tastes in the scooter space, a niche take on a mass segment. So far, the journey hasn’t been great, but neither has it been terrible; in fact, it is quite something for a premium brand to sustain itself in a highly price-sensitive and competitive market.
The Vespa wears bright colours, flaunting its Italian vibe. Meanwhile, the Imperiale follows a black paint scheme with gold pinstripes; I’m not quite sure why. However, beyond the black, the Imperiale does appeal with its smooth, flowing lines. It has the teardrop-shaped fuel tank, split seats, and sufficient use of chrome that is not too flashy. The Vespa, of course, is instant joy; in a sea of bland me-too scooters, the Vespa manages to release a shot of happy chemicals in your brain. It might attract more eyeballs than more than a few motorcycles, even.
If we look at the Vespa’s extremities, it surprisingly looks and feels compact even when astride it. This one here has a 150cc mill, and still feels delicate and cute until you open that throttle when it shows its true colours. The 11-inch-front and the 10-inch-rear wheels with wide tyres combined with the short wheelbase make the Vespa turn on a dime. The suspension, to be frank, is not as plush as other modern scooters yet the slight stiffness does contribute to carrying near-straightline speeds into corners. And when the time comes to drop the anchors, the disc brake’s bite along with the anti-lift mechanism courtesy of the front suspension design remains assuring and positive. For the ride, it is quite a fun thing.
The Imperiale, on the other hand, is the opposite of the Vespa in both size and performance. The Benelli comes across or rather wants to portray a more mature persona, nonetheless making its presence felt wherever it arrives. The round headlamp, spoked wheels and oval brake lamp dictate a classy appeal, while the white-backlit dual clocks, gas-charged shock absorbers, and clear-lens turn signals indicate its stride into the present. Blame the stringent emission norms if you want, but the performance from the 374cc unit has dropped, robbing the response that you’d expect. An instant informer is the exhaust note which feels heavily restricted.
However, the saving grace here is the way the motorcycle handles. Given enough time, one can easily scrape the footpegs and exhaust shield when attacking corners. Even the suspension is plush, absorbing most of the undulations that the roads throw your way. Long journeys, when not in a hurry, will ensure that you will reach your destination in comfort. Yes, you can reach triple-digit speeds on it, but that is not the way you’d want to ride it for long.
Both machines have their personas, target audiences and types of fun they offer. They are both aware, or should know by now, that chasing the masses is not what they are meant for; rather, they give a taste of what European machines can offer to those who choose to be different from the rest. Yes, premium prices come with both, but it’s more of a decision of emotion over practicality as befits Italians. And with that, I do hope these two do well in the future so that we get more accessible Italian motorcycles and scooters in India. Arrivederci!
Benelli Imperiale 400
Displacement: 374cc, single
Max power: 20.7 bhp@6000 rpm
Max torque: 2.95 kgm@3500 rpm
Type: Double-cradle frame
F/R: 41-mm telescopic fork / twin shock absorbers
F/R: 300-mm single disc / 240-mm single disc
F/R: 100/90 R19 / 130/80 R18
L/W/H (mm): 2170/820/1120
Wheelbase: 1440 mm
Ground clearance: 165 mm
Seat height: 780 mm
Kerb weight: 205 kg
Fuel capacity: 12 litres
PRICE: Rs 1.99 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi)
Vespa VXL 150
Displacement: 149.5cc, single
Max power: 10.32 bhp@7600 rpm
Max torque: 1.08 kgm@5500 rpm
Type: Monocoque frame
F/R: Single-sided arm / monoshock
F/R: 200-mm single disc / 140-mm drum
F/R: 110/70 R11 / 120/70 R10
L/W/H (mm): 1770/690/NA
Wheelbase: 1290 mm
Ground clearance: NA
Seat height: 770 mm
Dry weight: NA
Fuel capacity: 7.4 litres
PRICE: Rs 1.22 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi)