Nancy and Robert Frehling have been hopping on their silver Vespa to cruise down Miami Beach’s palm tree-lined streets for more than a decade. Though the couple also owns a fuel-efficient Prius to wheel them around town, the open-aired liberation lures them back every weekend.
Some Saturday mornings, Robert rides the Italian scooter from his home in Miami Beach to the couple’s Wynwood-based import business. The fit feels natural: the couple’s business imports hand-blown glass from Italy. “It all came together with the Vespa,” Nancy said.
The Vespa may hail from Italy, but these days it’s associated with South Beach as much as it is with Rome.
Vespa-riders weave through Ocean Drive traffic like jet-skis cut across boat-congested beachfronts, complementing the scenery as seamlessly as the neon lights. This year, Vespa’s signature 50cc — known for its bright colors and quirky side mirrors that jut out like mouse ears — marks its 50th anniversary.
First introduced in the 1940s by Enrico Piaggio and marketed as a cheap way to zoom along lustrous Italian coastlines, Vespas became a South Beach hit soon after its maker, Piaggio, opened its first local showroom in 2001. Now, Vespas are a South Beach staple, especially for young people and urban dwellers, says Cathy Leff, director of the Wolfsonian museum and long-time Beach culture observer.
“They’re hip, eco-friendly and European,” said Daniel O’Donnell, sales assistant at the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach and former owner of a royal blue Vespa. Miami’s la dolce vita vibe gives tourists the desire to hop aboard a Vespa for a tropical version of Audrey Hepburn’s iconic Roman Holiday spin. Its sleek design plays so snugly into the glamorous South Beach image that some luxury hotels once offered guests promotional packages that included fire-engine red Vespas.
These days, tourists seeking an open-air, liberated view of Miami can also rent Vespas and other scooters from businesses along the beach. “It’s the only way to get around and really see South Beach,” said Nicholas Betancourt, sales associate at VIP Scooter Rentals, who rents out as many as 30 scooters daily at prices starting at $49 per day, with that all-important $250 damage deposit. Vespas go for more: Hot Wheels Rentals offers them for $65 per day with a $300 safety deposit. That’s $10 more than the rental price of Hot Wheels’ non-Vespas, and the non-Vespa deposit is $100 less. The shop keeps five Vespas in stock, and despite the cost, they remain popular.
“It’s our premium scooter,” said Laura Gibreal, Hot Wheels Rentals accountant. “It rides better, goes faster, it’s more comfortable and it’s pretty.”
But tightened scooter parking regulations in Miami Beach are taking away some of the convenience and shimmer that attracts riders. “When we first got our Vespa, we could park it in whatever empty space was available,” Robert Frehling said. “Now we get ticketed for anything.”
The city of Miami Beach creates scooter parking spaces by dividing car spaces into four smaller spots. Both cars and scooters pay $1.75 an hour to park.
The regulations were put in place because scooters sometimes squeeze between parked cars, violating the statute that any registered vehicle in the state of Florida — whether it’s a scooter, motorcycle or car — must park in a designated space. Scooter-drivers could pay $18 for expired meters and up to $34 for improperly wedging between two parked cars. Those are the same fees that car drivers pay.