The engine was screaming and had been for over an hour.
I had managed just five miles in that time…
… the tiny APE 50 van I was driving, powered (if that is the word) by a 50cc moped engine, was labouring up the French Alps and making heavy weather of it. True, the designers back at the Piaggio factory in Pontedera did not have ascending the Alps in the forefront of their collective minds when first putting their talented pens to paper. But there I was, a mad Englishman, driving this diminutive three-wheeler up the Alps and wondering what was I doing there and if after all the entire whole project was just a little bit, well, silly…
The APE 50 was launched onto the British market fairly recently and although very new to us, the Italians have used this vehicle to carry all sorts of goods since its introduction in 1948 to a war ravaged Italy. The war brought Italy to its knees, industry was all but dead and with dreadful unemployment everywhere small businesses started up sparking a need for a cheap form of transport. Piaggio, using components from its already successful scooter called the Vespa (meaning wasp), designed and built the Ape (pronounced “ahh-pay”). In those days the Ape looked, from the front just like the Vespa but with two wheels at the rear with a pickup body. Innovations flourished, customers built cabs and load covers for the tiny pickup and so led Piaggio to make some design changes and the vehicle went from strength to strength. Tens of thousands have been built since its launch and production of the APE 50 is now around 16000 per annum. The first Apes were powered by a 125cc two stroke and then a 150cc.
Various engine sizes are still used but the range is now smaller with a larger 200cc and of course the tiny 50cc. Modern methods, better materials and better build quality now enable the smaller APE to be powered by a 50cc engine, classing it as a moped, costing only £15.00 a year for road tax in Britain. The vehicle measures just 2½ metres long, 1½ metres high and just 1.2 metres wide. I called it a ‘scooter in a box’. Good motoring challenges are hard to come by nowadays, either through impossible politics or the expense of some countries’ Byzantine bureaucracy. Plus life is now too easy as most countries have good motorway systems and cars being so reliable they need no attention for miles and miles, it’s just become a trifle boring. When the APE 50 presented itself, I felt it would make a wonderful story to deliver one from Piaggio’s factory in Pontedera near Pisa, by driving it all the way to the Reliant factory in Burntwood near Lichfield in Britain’s Midlands. For better navigation and trying not to have a road atlas on my knees most of the time, I asked the Alpine Company to lend us one of their excellent GPS navigation packages, which helped no end finding my way through three countries.
For high visibility I chose a bright yellow van, a van so I could keep my gear locked up and dry, yellow for safety; 3M’s red reflective tape was stuck onto the rear door in upside-down chevrons, which against the yellow background showed up wonderfully. The fitting of a magnetic amber strobe lamp ensured I could be seen for miles. Before I set off to Italy, Reliant wisely lent me an APE for a week so I could become accustomed to its foibles and hopefully prevent my looking like a complete noodle in front of all those Italians. One goes right back to the long forgotten days of the Vespas and Lambrettas of one’s youth. Changing gear with the left hand and throttling up and down with the right hand, ahh, it brings it all back.
The APE really does not accelerate;
like a boat, it gets under way.
The 50cc gamely shouts and the little trucklet moves oh so slowly then change to second, another shout from the eager little engine and then onto third. If nothing gets in your way you can change up to top (fourth) and reach the heady speed of 25mph given that the road is flat, not too bumpy and there are no adverse wind conditions. There are two doors, one each side of the cab and strangely I kept using the right hand one through force of habit; being a single seater one could have used either. A not overly comfortable seat with a thin swab and a seat back at precisely 90 degrees making you sit up as one did at school. It’s not a comfortable vehicle, comfort not high on the list in the designer’s mind as the APE is only for short journeys around town. Pontedera is only 20 miles from Pisa and as I started mid-afternoon from the factory gates I thought Pisa would be all I should do on the first day. Checking into Camping Torro Pendente, just 800 metres from the famous tower, I slept the night in one of their static caravans and made full use of their bar.
As well as doing the touristy bit I took a picture of the APE in front of the Tower. We set off north the next morning and made La Spezia by lunch. Along the coast road a side wind made life interesting and it took all my time to set a straight course. Climbing out of La Spezia was hard going and as my bottom was almost numb and I needed a caffeine boost, we stopped for pizza and some coffee. Parking up outside a small café the owner asked what I was doing; I told him, he laughed, told all in the place and refused payment for my lunch. I met a lot of kindness like that from many people on the trip. September is the time of the harvest and sunflowers, now ripe, hang their heavy heads it seems, in shame as they have lost their former glorious golden good looks. Combine harvesters cut swathes through their ranks throwing up clouds of dark dust. Cars and trucks whiz by, fed up with the few seconds’ delay. I know how they must feel but have little sympathy and tell them silently to be more patient.
Reaching Genoa and after reading the Lonely Planet book saying hotels are a trifle dear, I broke my rule Nº 1: ‘No driving at night!’ and carried onto Pontedecimo and ate and slept in the Hotel Nazional. The place is run by a tall, gaunt guy with a sad looking moustache, his unpromising looks belied a dry and wry sense of humour and a complete petrol head. The hotel was an old coach house with massive doors at each end of the covered yard. In a corner were two tiny Fiat 500s of sixties vintage, one in a perfect state of restoration and the other patiently awaiting attention. Next to these tiny gems however was a brand new Audi, moustache’s pride and joy. He’s a good bloke with a fair amount of English and we stood each other beers till about midnight. After going through the Italian/French border passing through the town of Briancon I took the N91 to Grenoble. This, I was told is the least tough of the Alpine routes and as the APE was only capable of ascending slopes of 16%, I thought it wise not to push my luck.
We climbed at the stately pace of 2 – 4mph, engine howling its protest until at one particularly steep section the whole shooting match spluttered to a halt. The road was just too steep. To get over this obstacle I had to slip the clutch and in a series of 15 – 20 leaps clawed my way over; in the end we made it without help but with a very hot and bothered clutch. Once at the top I gulped down extraordinarily expensive fizzy water in the posh café to let the clutch and me cool down. I chatted to a British couple who had, in their Range Rover, a far swifter journey than I. The journey down the mountain was quick, very exciting – 35mph – which I must say seems very fast in the APE. In fact the front wheel took on all the aspects of a rudder with frightening understeer so I soon slowed down to a more sensible 25mph.
Descending with eyes the size of dinner plates I was within a couple of hours of being comfortably ensconced in a family hotel a short distance from Grenoble, eating an excellent dinner at the foot of the mountains. A tiny woman, with a voice like Madame Cholet, fussed about booking me in and serving me a sumptuous meal. Being an adventurer has its advantages. One factor of any long journey is boredom and this one was no exception. The Ape and I puttered along at 15–20mph along ‘straight as a die’ French tree lined roads, which although attractive can get a little ‘samey’. From time to time a cyclist would allow me to overtake and then accelerate and ride in my slipstream, sometimes for miles. When we went our different ways they would give a cheery wave and turn off. In Paris however, things became more exciting. I had to head for the main two sights, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Rounding the latter, the nipple of the gear change cable that allowed me to get into 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear fell out of its holder, leaving me stuck in first gear.
I was not Mr. Popular I can tell you but I became as obstreperous as the French drivers and glared at each car driver who was in the way as I weaved my way through.
The Arc de Triomphe roundabout is not the place for wimps.
The image on GPS’s screen before me was bewildering; a green circle with around eight roads leading off all in green. It looked like a flower with many petals. In two days the APE and I arrived in the northern French port of Calais, boarded a Eurotunnel shuttle to Folkestone and arrived in a dampish England. Certainly a lot colder than blazing Italy and a very warm south of France. Reaction to the APE in England was one of bewilderment and cars seemed to take a long time to pass. The journey to Reliant’s factory in Burntwood in Britain’s Midlands took three days from Folkestone and I arrived to a rapturous welcome.
Driving the Ape in the UK is more difficult than on the continent. This is because I could, ‘over there’, put my nearside wheel on the verge side of the white line at the edge of the road and ride the front wheel on the line, allowing faster traffic to overtake more easily. Here the near side line has warning ‘lumps’ so riding on the line is too uncomfortable and I had to drive the Ape ‘in’ the road slowing down overtaking traffic and earning myself a lot of “looks”. It must be said that the APE 50 is not designed to travel long distances; it’s for local deliveries. However, the vehicle is a credit to all at Pontedera, it had little issues on the trip and it is tougher than I am, so it would seem that its build quality is better than mine…
With many thanks to David Stokes.