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.

What’s more, pay-to-park lots don’t work because scooters have no dash on which to place receipts. That problem could be resolved soon; by the end of the summer, Miami Beach hopes to begin using meters that allow all drivers to pay for spaces by punching in their license plate numbers, said Saul Frances, Miami Beach parking director. The city also hopes to install a PayByPhone system this fall.

Despite meter troubles, James Anderson says that parking his Vespa is still far easier than parking his car. Anderson regularly rides his to his job as director of sales and marketing at the Dream South Beach hotel. He keeps his poncho handy in case of rain.

Convenience and the fun factor explain steadily rising sales at the Miami Beach Vespa dealership, one of the first to open in the nation. Tony Cappadona, the owner and general manager of the Miami Beach location and three others, entered the business in 2001. He experienced just one rough patch for sales in 2009.

“It doesn’t make sense to own a car if you live and work in Miami Beach,” Cappadona said. “A lot of my customers have cars, buy a Vespa and end up using it 90 percent of the time.”

Many are moving from a two-car family to one-car-and-a-scooter, said Ty van Hooydonk, communications director at the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Others are students who can drive the scooters at age 16, said Cappadonna. Some have driven scooters on vacation in Europe. And some are urban dwellers who plunk down the entire $4,500 at purchase.

Buyers are willing pay the $1,000 premium a Vespa costs over other brands, partly for the styling, partly for quality, Cappadonna said. The Vespa has an all-steel frame, storage space and can seat two people.

Vespa popularity among Americans is a much-needed bright spot for Piaggio. Since the European debt crisis began, the Italian company has watched European sales of two-wheelers plummet by nearly 50 percent over a five-year period. Yet the company’s sales to the United States jumped 25 percent in the first quarter of 2013. At Cappadonna’s stores, sales spike as much as 20 percent during the holidays, and Piaggio now controls a quarter of the U.S. marketshare.

Still, Vespa faces tough competition from less expensive options like the 2013 Honda Ruckus, said Kyle Carter, general manager at Gables Motorsports. Since 2001, scooter sales overall have skyrocketed 64 percent, according Motorcycle Industry Council figures. The Ruckus is one of Carter’s bestselling scooters; about a dozen cycles leave the lot each month.

Despite the Ruckus’ affordable price, five months ago, Anderson, the hotel marketer, traded in his Ruckus for a Vespa and prefers the Italian scooter. His girlfriend can ride on the back, which wasn’t the case with the Ruckus.

Also, there is “no better image,” he said. “It’s costlier, but it’s worth it because the Vespa is the Rolls Royce of scooters.”

(c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: italy, miami
Photo Credit: A girl sits next to her red Vespa at the beach. Jon Cooper / Flickr