The Italian scooter wars were in full ruckus in the late ’50s, as Lambretta and Vespa fought ferociously for market share. A number of other companies were building scooters, but those two were very much the leading contenders. “New” being the keyword to success, the Lambretta Company, with founder Ferdinando Innocenti very much at the handlebars, came out with the almost all-new Li series in 1958.
The company had built more than a million scooters in the previous 10 years and was selling them all over the world. Italy was just moving into the automobile stage, with the Fiat 600 appearing in 1955, but a scooter was substantially cheaper. This was the basic transportation for a nation which, following World War II, had become enthralled by the notion of having one’s own means of getting to work or going on a date. Or even competing, as scooter races were very popular in the late ’50s.
Scooters were easier to ride than motorcycles. A gent in his business suit did not have to “throw a leg” over the saddle. Women riders were increasing, and they appreciated the ease of getting on the saddle while wearing a skirt. The twist-grip gear change meant one did not have to take the shine off the toe of a shoe when shifting, as with a conventional motorcycle shift lever.
Looks were essential in selling a new model. To the untrained eye Lambrettas might all look similar, but to the cognoscenti the differences were quite apparent. By scooter standards this Li was a pretty luxurious ride, with many pressed-steel body panels keeping dirt and grime off the rider and passenger. Overall it was, and looked, a bit larger than the previous LD model (Retrospective, December 2010). Two comfortably well-sprung solo seats were standard, though a dual-seat was available.
The designers of the Li had developed what was referred to as the wide style, noted for its curvaceousness. At the front, the broad new fender was attached to wide leg shields and did not turn with the wheel. The headlight was integrated into the front panels and, unfortunately, did not turn with the handlebars—to the frustration of some who were trying to read a street sign at night. This 1958 model has the optional luggage rack and spare tire attached, along with a travel trunk of unknown origins.
Innocenti, a plumber before he got involved in motorscooters, was fond of pipes. The tubular frame for the Li, as with previous Lambrettas, was simplicity itself: a single large pipe, about five inches in diameter, which went from the steering head down to the floorboards and then back up under the saddles to provide a structure on which to bolt the engine.
At the front, a short fork pivoted from the frame and was connected to the wheel by trailing links, with springs inside the fork legs. At the other end, the rear suspension was of the swingarm variety, with a single shock absorber running up to the frame. Comfortable enough for two, the Li had a top speed of about 55 mph—solo rider leaning forward a little. The broad leg-protector panels did hold the speed down a bit.
The engine was quite new, a 148cc two-stroke single laid flat and pointing forward. This flat design was mounted quite low in the frame, allowing for a larger gas tank and toolbox beneath the seats. Being a two-stroke, oil was mixed with the gasoline, which presented no problem in Italy as gas stations had special pumps for two-strokes. Just dial in the mix you want and pump away. There were a lot fewer smoky exhausts in Italy than in the U.S. where the rider had to measure and mix the oil his or herself, and often was overly enthusiastic.
The gas mixture was sucked in via an 18mm Dell’Orto carburetor, compressed 7.5 times, and the resulting output was said to be 6.6 horses at 5,300 rpm. Ignition was via a 27-watt flywheel magneto and a coil, and for those countries that thought the lights should go on without the engine running, an 8 amp-hour battery was included. Power went via an oil-bath primary to a 4-speed transmission, controlled through the left-hand twist grip, then to the rear wheel.
Speaking of wheels, the previous LD had 8-inch wheels, while the Li had upsized to 10 inches. This allowed for larger and better brakes, as well as improving the handling. Slightly…this was still basic transport and had no notion of 40-degree lean angles.
In between the two seats was the filler for the gas tank, which held an adequate 1.9 gallons. Also under the seat was the filter for the carburetor. And a toolbox with toolkit, containing a few wrenches, screwdriver, points file and a “rear-wheel lifting stand.” Roads and tires being what they were in those days, flat tires were not unknown. With the spare on the back rack, a rider could take care of the problem in a few minutes and be only a little late for work.
This Li Series I was a hit, sold well, and after two years was upgraded to the Series II. The only change—the headlight went up on the handlebars. It was seen in the 1961 movie Come September, with Rock Hudson at the handlebars, Gina Lollobrigida hanging on sidesaddle. In 1962, the Series III appeared with a few changes to the rear panels. In 1968, the Li was replaced by the DL.