Up close and personal with an icon in the making
Few scooters have captured the modern public’s imagination quite like the Vespa 946. It’s a machine that will not be ignored. From its outlandish design to its semi-exotic materials to its technological advancements, the 946 is an example of something manufacturers almost never do. It’s a trade show concept vehicle that’s actually been put into production.
What’s also impossible to ignore is the Vespa 946’s price. At just shy of $10,000, many have wondered how on earth a 125cc Italian motor scooter could possibly be worth that kind of money. Having now gone hands-on with the 946 myself, I think I can shed some light on that number.
The devil is most certainly in the details
The Vespa 946 is an unmistakably modern design. Where the rest of the scooter world seems to chase an ever more vaporous sense of scooter nostalgia (or rather, shamelessly rips off Vespa design cues), Vespa herself has given us a vision of what the future of fashionable travel can look like. The 946’s designers have taken great care to sculpt every last detail of this soon to be iconic machine. Every vent and bezel, every panel gap and every stitch of the 946 has been carefully chosen. The 946 seems to share no common parts with anything else in the Piaggio lineup. In fact, the only thing this bike has in common with any of its Vespa siblings is its advanced, 3-Valve 125cc power plant, and perhaps the front fork. We’ll see that same engine and 150cc versions in the upcoming Vespa Primavera, but it’s a motor that started in the 946. Otherwise the 946 even has its own hand controls, its own levers and its own hand-wrapped leather grips. It even has its own special rims, which feature a level of detail we’ve never seen on a modern Vespa.
In person, it’s these details that really stand out. The bike is “finished” in a way that only a hand-made, bespoke machine can be. Absolutely nothing about the 946’s design feels tacked on, including the mandatory DOT-reg turn signals that have been added to the US versions I encountered. Even those added blinkers sit on sculpted, matched stalks and are shaped to match the rest of the 946’s design language. Best of all, none of these details feel decorative. It’s really easy to look at a bike and simply make each individual component fancy, but it’s quite another feat to create a unified design where each detail works together in harmony with every other facet of the bike’s design.
Each one is built in an elite Vespa coachworks
So besides the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a single “parts bin” component on the entire scooter, the Vespa 946 features a level of fit and finish that must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Every touch point and every integrated component of the 946 is placed and fitted with a remarkable level of precision and care. The reason for this, I came to find out, is because there is no 946 assembly line. There is no “factory” per say, where these bikes are simply bolted together over and over. Each Vespa 946 is assembled in a special, exclusive part of Vespa’s manufacturing facility. I spoke with one source who’d actually toured the assembly facility, which is not open to the public. It was described as one part high tech clean room, one part cathedral. The entire space is sectioned off from the rest of the factory and branded with 946 iconography. Each craftsman wears a 946 coverall uniform. Each Vespa 946 is assembled by a single, elite professional who sees the process through start-to-finish. In my imagination, there is Italian opera playing so loud that the sound of the tools can’t even be heard.
This hand-built quality is unmistakable when you see the Vespa 946 in person. It makes even the best mass-produced scooters on the market look sloppy and thrown together in comparison. What also adds to this sense of quality are the materials in use. There is almost no plastic on the entire scooter. That I saw, only the headlight cowl, hand control switches and the underside of the cantilevered saddle were made from plastic. The horn cast, handlebar shroud and front fender are each made of aluminum. These are plastic parts even on Vespa’s formerly flagship GTS Super models. The solid, high quality feel of metal is present in nearly every touch point. By using real, substantial materials and assembling them with exquisite care, the Vespa 946 really starts to earn that $10,000 price tag when you see it in the metal.
Sure, but is it really worth it?
I know I sound gushy, but I can’t help it. It’s easy to be cynical and just dismiss the 946 as an overpriced fashion accessory for the wives of footballers and retired F1 drivers. Yet I really think Vespa has more noble intentions with this machine. Sure, they’re not going to apologize for the price point. Yet at the same time, looking at all the details, all the care taken in building the 946, and the very small number of these that are likely to get made (possibly as few as 2,000 total), even at $10,000 I don’t think Piaggio is making very much money on the Vespa 946 — and that’s if they’re making money on it at all. No, I reject the cynical outlook on this machine. I think the Vespa 946 exists as a statement from the world’s most recognized scooter brand that they still see themselves as leading the world in scooter design. Looking at the Vespa 946 in person, they’ll get no argument from me. Especially when I remember that besides its unmistakable looks, the 946 also features ABS and electronic traction control. You can’t find traction control on any motorcycle or scooter for under $10,000 right now, and you’re lucky to find ABS at all in the scooter world.
Whether or not you’d ever even consider buying a Vespa 946, I’d encourage any scooter fan to go have a look at one if you get the chance. Given economic realities and the relative instability of the powersports market, it’s likely we’ll never see anything like this bike ever again. Museum curators the world over should look for $10k in their budgets, because this bike is going to be a piece of scooter history.
The last thing I’ll say is yet another refute to a cynical outlook on this bike. Vespa isn’t simply showing off with the 946. They’re showing us the future of what they think scooters should be. One look at the new Primavera, with its obviously inherited 946 design cues, and that much is obvious. I also expect to see the ABS and electronic traction control systems present on the 946 to start trickling down to other Vespa and Piaggio models.
Special thanks to Motoworks Chicago for inviting us to their new model showcase and making the 946 available for photographs. Side note: of the two Vespa 946s on sale that day, one was already sold.
Gallery: Hands-on with the Vespa 946