Cycling with the Ape

Piaggio Ape

You might have heard of Piaggio, the Italian scooter manufacturer and its “Vespa” model. Two wheeled transport is very popular in Italy, especially with smaller 50 and 125cc engines. The countryside is often hilly, towns and villages are never far away, and frequent good weather all combine to make this mode of transport very practical and suitable.

If vespa is Italian for wasp, then note ape means bee, you say “ah-pay”. It’s this that gives its name to the Piaggio Ape, a three wheeled scooter with a flatbed at the back that’s part utility vehicle, part tuk-tuk. These are quintessentially Italian and should you ride in Italy you’ll see one of these buzzing along the roads.

Of course the country has many other unique traits, but from the cyclist’s perspective, you will find the Ape buzzing around all over the country. It makes sense. Cheap and economical to run, they share many parts and features with the standard Piaggio scooters, allowing service by the owner or in one of many garages. As the Italian economy grew in the last 50 years this cheap vehicle allowed many small farmers access to the land and the means to transport produce to market.

Ape Controls
No steering wheel, but handlebars

The flatbed at the back isn’t huge but serves to carry a day’s produce from the greenhouse to the market stall or enough building materials and tools to keep workers busy for a morning before they head home for lunch. Plus they are small enough to fit through many a medieval town centre, when streets only had to be wide enough to let two mules pass.

They are also useful for impromptu motor-pacing sessions. Laden with crates of fruit even the most occasional cyclist has a power to weight ratio to match the 50cc version. Just be warned that they don’t handle well, if there’s a bend in the road up ahead it’s time to ease back.

Made in Turin
Piaggio itself is an Italian industrial giant. From Torino, the largest manufacturing base and home of Fiat and its Lingotto plant, at the time Europe’s largest factory and one of the first places to employ Ford-like mass production methods in Europe.

Piaggio began in aviation indeed it still continues today with Piaggio Aero. But following World War Two the Italian army was obviously subdued and a wider population required cheap transport. The moped was born. Two wheels are not unique to Italy, indeed they are common across Europe and beyond. But the three wheeled Ape has yet to cross the Alps in meaningful numbers. Although sales are apparently booming in India.

Anyway, if you are lucky enough to ride on Italian roads you are bound to see these, whereas visit neighbouring countries like France, Switzerland or Austria and you will find great roads but not these amusing little trucks. Although they’re not as quaint as you might think given the potent fumes that come out the back.

  • I did a similar piece to this in the past but there are many more readers these days so I thought it worth revisiting

13 thoughts on “Cycling with the Ape”

  1. A fantastic vehicle for pacing behind. I’ve done a few kms on holiday behind one of these when you get the nod from the driver. Once rode up a hill behind one (they are not that fast) but got past everyone in front of me before falling back as he got to the summit. If I lived out there I’d own one just for getting about town (if I couldn’t use the bike)

  2. You see a few of them here in Nice, about 40-odd kilometres from the Italian border. All Italian-registered though. That’s quite a long drive at a rickety 25 kph!

    Of course France’s response to the Piaggio is the Solex, which fans of track racing will be familiar with.

  3. Apes – especially the ones with a small 50 cc engine and a suitable speed, around 40-45 km/h – are rapidly disappearing in Italy and it is a real pity for cyclists. No other vehicle comes close in aerodynamic advantage (for the cyclist, that is) and low speed. Nowadays the most you can usually hope for is a normal moped, with some luck with a windshield.

  4. I won’t miss the 2-stroke versions of these things when they finally cough their last. The fumes make drafting behind one far from worth it to me. BUT I will commend the folks who use them (especially the less stinky four stroke version) rather than a pickup truck – they take up far less room on the road and are rarely a menace to cyclists. We’re in Volterra today on Day 4 of our Taste of Tuscany guided tour. We’ll offer our clients here an option to cut their ride in half day-after-tomorrow and instead drive up to Montecatini to see the arrival of La Corsa Rosa. I hope they take us up on it!

  5. kids in small mountain towns trick them out and give them custom paint jobs, but that’s way uncool for kids in the beach towns where their grandparents ride Apes into the village to go shopping. They suck for drafting unless there is a bale of hay on the back and it’s going uphill, but everyone give them respect on the road in Italy no matter how much they hold up traffic.

  6. * I did a similar piece to this in the past but there are many more readers these days so I thought it worth revisiting

    And thank you for doing that.

  7. Lovely, it’s these little vignettes of culture and local knowledge around a particular race from both Inner Ring and those below the line that add so much more to the coverage of the racing and make this blog such a pleasure to visit. You never know what the next post will be. Great stuff.

  8. They don’t just belch fumes, they’re also pretty noisy – I was behind one for about 30 minutes in Umbria last year and just couldn’t take any more of the racket. Good fun for the first 5-10 minutes though, especially up a gentle slope (too slow downhill).

  9. A little bit of trivia added, I once read that the wheels of the first scooters after the war were leftover ones from the fighter plane manufacturing, and that that’s how they got to be so small compared to normal mopeds’ ones.

  10. What about that 3-wheeler that Clouseau crashes into that villa’s swimming pool, in Nice, in the Pink Panther ? I think that was a Citroen, though…?

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