Nowhere is two-wheeled transport more integral to a nation’s identity than Italy—whether you’re talking about Audrey Hepburn tooling around on a Vespa in Roman Holiday, legendary racer Giacomo Agostini rounding a hairpin turn on his Grand Prix–winning MV Agusta, or today, when 10 percent of Italian road-going vehicles ride on two wheels (compared to just 3 percent in the United States). In “il bel paese,” motorbikes are not transportation; they’re a way of life.Such centrality, though, was initially born out of necessity. After World War II, physical devastation and economic distress rendered automobiles largely unobtainable. So companies like Ducati, which originally produced radio components, as well as MV Agusta and Piaggio, which were aviation firms, began manufacturing small, affordable motorcycles. Soon enough, the aesthetic experience of riding a bike threaded its way into the Italian bloodstream.
“People in Rome care a lot about style,” says Alessandro Rappini di Casteldelfino, one of Italy’s top bike customizers. “And the vehicle they ride is an extension of their own personal style.” In a country where engineers are as revered as doctors, motorcycle brands—and their distinct form of engineering—matter.
It was with this in mind that Rappini set out to customize five classic Italian motorcycle brands—Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, Vespa, Ducati, and Laverda—for the opening of the Rome Polo menswear flagship on Via del Corso this month. The bikes serve as a celebration of the Polo spirit in two-wheeled form: a perfect marriage of Ralph Lauren’s passion for motorcycles and a country equally enamored by their allure.Here, the bikes.
MV Agusta 350 Sport, 1970
Though racing is part of the heritage of many Italian motorcycle companies, few capture that raw, competitive spirit quite like MV Agusta. Unquestionably the jock of the group, MV Agusta dominated Grand Prix racing during the 1960s and ‘70s like no brand has done before or since. Its fire-engine red and silver liveried three- and four-cylinder Grand Prix machines became synonymous with success, as did the men who rode them—legendary racers like Agostini, Mike Hailwood, and Phil Read. And though it’s not a race bike, the 1970 MV Agusta 350 Sport that Rappini has customized—low clip-on handle bars, a tank in MV’s traditional racing livery of red and silver, and the classic MV logo in blue—certainly channels that championship spirit.
Vespa 50, 1970
Piaggio, an advanced aircraft manufacturer, lost several factories to World War II bombing. To survive, and to fulfill Italy’s urgent postwar need for cheap transportation, the company began production of the Vespa (which means “wasp” in Italian). The scooter soon came to worldwide attention when it co-starred in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. In 1961, its reputation was sealed when it appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Rappini channeled that era’s spirit by customizing a 1970 Vespa 50 with black handlebars, a classic dark gray paint job, and a rich Bordeaux leather seat.
Ducati Scrambler 350, 1968
First introduced in 1962 as a 250, the Scrambler 350 was Ducati’s first foray into the world of off-road motorcycles. (The company originally got its start producing radio components.) In 1968, Ducati re-issued the bike with wide-case engines for better off-roading capability, and it became an instant classic. And though it was originally intended for dirt, the scrambler, like the café racer, has become the essence of casual hip. Rappini has stayed true to the bike’s roots with wide bars, high pipes, high gearing, and a classic ‘70s paint scheme of orange and black.
Laverda 750SF, 1976
“Laverda is one of the best bikes Italy has produced since 1970,” says Rappini. And many bike enthusiasts would agree. While most Italian brands focused on either racing or small-bore commuters, Laverda, during their 1960s and ‘70s heyday, preferred to compete with the big boys. Literally. Their 650 and 750 parallel twins were some of the largest bikes on the market. Not only were they big and powerful, they were built to be indestructible. Rappini’s 750 SF, a highly desirable bike among today’s collectors, has been customized to feature a more upright seating position and a sharp gray-and-Bordeaux paint scheme. It is a raw, powerful, big-bore bike that practically demands long hours in the saddle.
Moto Guzzi V50, 1978
As Europe’s oldest motorcycle manufacturer in continuous production, Moto Guzzi understands the weight of its own history. And though its early days were filled with racing success—the brand won five straight 350cc Grand Prix titles during the 1950s—after 1957 they abandoned their racing program. In 1967, the company introduced its now iconic 90-degree transverse V-twin engine. These were big-bore, technologically advanced bikes that, throughout the 1970s, helped Moto Guzzi gain a reputation for sophistication and style. To capture that, Rappini’s 1978 Moto Guzzi V50 has been entirely customized in gloss black. “It’s very sleek. It’s a café racer, and everything is black, the engine, the seat, everything.”
SCOTT CHRISTIAN is a culture and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, The Guardian, GQ and Glamour. He currently lives in New York City.
- ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION