Last weekend, I rode a boxcar to Joliet, Illinois, with the rest of the 24 Hours of LeMons hobos and helped put on the third annual American Irony race. Traditionally, the justices of the LeMons Supreme Court travel around race-track grounds in some sort of Judgemobile appropriate to our exalted station, and this time we had the use of what turned out to be one of the greatest motor vehicles in the entire world: a 2008 Piaggio Ape (pronounced “ah-peh”) 50 Europe with just 21 miles on the clock.
I also had the use of this much less interesting (though still fun) machine for the weekend, but it remained parked off to the side of the paddock while the Ape flew the flag of the LeMons Supreme Court. Yes, a review of the Mitsubishi is coming soon (spoiler: the Big Nose HVAC Guy hasn’t made a comeback for the 2013 model year).
When you’re putting on a race with more than 100 teams competing, the pit scene sprawls like no-zoning-laws Houston suburbs. I’m wearing two hats when I’m there— race official and journalist covering the event— and that means I need to be able to zip around the facility in (or on) a vehicle that can squeeze between broken-down race cars, broken-down trailers, broken-down tow vehicles, and broken-down racers.
For pure function, the best pit transportation I’d used at a LeMons race had been the Honda Metropolitan scooter. The Metropolitan always starts, it’s quiet enough to sneak up on unsafe race-car fuelers and bust them, and its 30 MPH top speed is nice when you need to drive several miles around a vast compound such as Road America or New Jersey Motorsports Park. Given my respect for the Honda Super Cub, I’d take one over the Metropolitan any day… but so far no team has loaned us a Passport C70.
Style is very important to a LeMons judge, however, and that’s when such fine machines as the Volkswagen Shorty Transporter— which wanted to kill its occupants as well as any luckless pedestrians within its reach— really come into their own as Judgemobiles.
The Ape manages to combine function superior to the Metropolitan’s with style at least as dignified as the Shorty Transporter. Of course, the ideal Judgemobile combination would be the Ape and this bagged Cadillac limousine.
While the Ape is nearly as maneuverable as a scooter, its cargo bed means you can load it up with timing-and-scoring gear, boxes of Penalty Box equipment, or bribe-beer-sodden coworkers.
The rear wheels get some serious
negative positive camber when the cargo bed is empty, but the unladen handling still feels much less scary than that of, say, a Reliant Robin. The reason I can make that comparison is that the same Volkswagen Squareback-racing team that loaned us the Ape has also let us use a Robin and an even sketchier Invacar three-wheeler.
The driver sits in the middle of a little seat and operates scooter-influenced hand controls and a foot brake. Allegedly, you can squeeze a second person in the cab— there’s room, if you really like your companion— but controlling the thing might get dicey.
On the left of the handlebars, there’s a normal motorcycle-style clutch lever, and there’s a traditional twist throttle on the right.
To shift, you twist the entire left grip (clutch and all) and look for your gear in this little pinball-machine-style mechanical display. First gear is best suited for climbing steep grades; starting out in second works fine on flat ground.
So driving the Ape is sort of like riding a scooter, only you’ve got a roof over your head and a windshield in front of you. It rained most of the weekend, and the Ape didn’t care about rain or mud. It even has an excellent windshield wiper/washer.
The instrument cluster tells you everything you need to know. The 40 MPH top speed on the speedo is pretty optimistic; I never got the Ape above 20 MPH and never got into fourth, but it felt obvious that the 50cc engine wasn’t made for sustained high speeds.
Because it’s Italian, there’s a lighter and an ashtray.
The window-latch mechanism was about as simple and failure-proof as it’s possible to be. If you need to reach out of the window, you just unlatch the hook and push the plastic all the way out.
The door latch/lock mechanisms are also very simple and elegant. The entire door assembly might weigh as much as five pounds.
It keeps you dry in the rain, you can drive it through spaces meant for pedestrians, and it can haul a respectable cargo load. The only real drawback of the Ape, for an American, is that it’s not street-legal anywhere in the country (unless some states have a loophole you can drive an Italian three-wheeler through).
Here’s some in-Ape video of an inspection tour of the Autobahn Country Club pits.
The Ape 50 is about the simplest motor vehicle possible, yet it does most of what a much larger urban-delivery truck needs to do. I think the 24 Hours of LeMons needs to buy its own Ape for California races!