The Place Where an Ape is a Bee

We just had a holiday in Italy, where one of the things we always do is play “Spot the Ape”. If you’re familiar with Italy you will have seen the tiny three-wheeled vans and pickups made by Piaggio, and if you’re familiar with Italian you’re probably itching to tell me that it’s not an ape, but an apé. (Tell that to Wikipedia…)

It’s a key difference, because in Italian ‘apé’ means ‘bee’. These funny little vehicles were the worker-bees that laboured to reconstruct Italy’s postwar economy at a time when few could afford a conventional commercial vehicle. The famous Vespa (‘wasp’) scooter had arrived in 1946, an innovative mobility solution for a country with finances that were every bit as ruinous as the roads: a year later, aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio (1891–1981) adapted his Vespa, giving it two rear wheels and a box for cargo. The Apé was born.

Early Apé with no cab, seen in a museum.

In the wild, Apés never look as clean nor as well cared for. [Image: Flickr user “monkeyhel”]

The Apé was just about perfect for its time and place. In the 50cc variant, the Apé didn’t need a registration number and driving one didn’t require a license – rather like the arrangements in France with the VSP or voiture sans permis rules for microcars. Even the most powerful Apés in the early years had only a 125cc engine so it was never going to set any speed records, but low gearing made it ideal for hauling loads up the steep streets found in so many Italian hilltop towns. Its small size made it perfect for negotiating narrow lanes and tight bends, and for parking in awkward spots while making deliveries.

Apé Pentaro with a baby elephant on board.

If three wheels wasn’t enough for you, there was the Pentaro variant…

1956 was a significant year for the Apé. The model C finally lost its Vespa-style saddle and acquired a car-like seat. They also offered an Apé with an enclosed cab for the first time, and an electric starter was an option. (Hold out until 1964 and you could even get one with a heater in the cab. To this day, a steering wheel remains an optional extra: most have handlebars.) The vehicle was diverging from its Vespa heritage, but it remained an affordable alternative to a conventional van. People did all kinds of quirky things with the Apé… and they still do. If you see one in the UK, the driver is almost certainly selling artisan coffee – but in Italy they were used by people in trades of all kinds.

A 1963 model Apé

A 1963 model Apé. What’s not to love?

The Apé is being made under license in India; I’ve seen them used as airport runabouts in Dar Es Salaam, and they’re popular in Portugal, too. Although auto rickshaws (‘tuk-tuks’) are found in dozens of countries, most aren’t Apés, and are nothing to do with Italy. Even so, these three-wheelers are a practical format that won’t go away.

It appears that the Apé is becoming a rarity in modern Italy, and that’s a shame for those of us that always look out for them. (Bonus points for an Apé with two people squeezed into the cab together.) The disappearance of the Apé is a sign of progress, of a kind: people can afford four wheels instead of three, and the traffic moves a bit faster than it used to, at least in between towns: in urban areas we all crawl at the same speed. I can’t help wondering if there isn’t an Apé-shaped space in our modern logistics networks. Any of the light vans that call at my house to deliver small packages could be replaced with an Apé. (Preferably an electric-powered Apé that departs with a hum instead of a puff of exhaust smoke, but… whatever.) So many of the things that get hauled that final mile are lightweight packages: it’s absurd, but instead of picking things up while I’m at the supermarket, I save money by getting all my toiletries from an online retailer – despite the obvious cost of delivery to my door. Some people are doing the same thing with groceries, and it’s only a matter of time before most of us decide that it’s cheaper to cut Sainsbury’s (etc.) out of the loop.

And then? Perhaps the world is ready for a resurgence of the Apé.

Ape panel van

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