As most Wellingtonians, or at least those who’ve sat next to Tony Simpson in the pub, will know, the Capital’s CBD of the 1950s was made up largely of newspaper offices, department stores and coffee bars. In fact, a survey taken at the time showed there were roughly two coffee bars for every department store, and three per paper boy. One consequence of this was the proliferation of scooter gangs in the city, as it was easier to push one’s machine between coffee stops than to keep it in petrol. And, according to one wit of the day, some scooters needed more maintenance than the many ex-wives of King Farouk. Scooterists ran on coffee, scooters ran every once in a while.
Not so the Vespa. As reliable a vehicle back then as it is today, the Vespa was favoured by the city’s elite. And none were more elite (and still are) than the members of Wellington’s pre-eminent scooter gang, the Vesperadoes.
Taking their name from a cowboy film of the 40s combined with a clever play on words, the Vesperadoes ran their club from the rear of a gambling den in Haining St (although the owner of the den would later claim in court that he was merely providing a cover for the scooterists’ activities). In the club’s heyday, membership was almost into triple figures and included several policemen, an accountant, the entire women’s adjunct of the Hataitai Workingmen’s club and at least three Cabinet Ministers. There was a wide range of activities, with weekend “runs” going as far afield as the Sans Suzy Expresso Lounge in Epuni, although not all events were overnighters.
By the late 60s however, the tide was turning. Cheap Japanese motorcycles were flooding the market as were cheap plastic filter coffee machines. The popularity of scooters and coffee lounges declined markedly. The world was changing.
But some people are resistant to change. Much in the same way that a few folk still insist on wearing singlets, or giving way when turning left, a handful of Vesperadoes refused to trade-in their Italian machines and GI-issue parkas and stayed true to their core beliefs – riding high in the saddle and falling off on wet road-markings. Their wheels may be little but their hearts are big.
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