By on October 17, 2012

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!

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24 Comments on “Review: Piaggio Ape 50 Europe...”

  • avatar

    If you completely unhook the windows, do they flap as you drive?

    Because that would be awesome.

  • avatar

    I think you can register those as scooters– Bajaj sold Indian variants of the Ape here in the US for a little while in the early 2000’s, alongside their awesome Chetak (if you’re into steel-bodied largeframe scooters, that is.) I think the three-wheelers shared the 150cc 4-stroke running gear with the two-wheeler, so there would have been plenty of torque.

    Unfortunately, the home market of India was not interested in a larger 4T engine, so they quit making them after just a few years. A shame, because that Chetak is a fine piece of kit.

    • 0 avatar

      My brother has a Chetak as one of his 7 cycles. And I think it is tied with his Sportster for the most ridden of his machines. I was looking to get the TukTuk version a couple of years ago but the wife did not think it was quite safe enough for dropping the kids off at school. (ended up with a 65 Dart wagon that was not much safer though)

      Here is a panel van version for sale

      • 0 avatar

        Having ridden in a TukTuk version, I’d agree with your wife! Maybe it’d work in Manhattan or SF (well, if it can get up hills) as a livery vehicle though.

        Of course, now that Bajaj is no longer making scooters, having moved “upscale” to motorcycles and cars, some of these could become classics.

        Bajaj’s big announcement earlier this year was the RE60, which is supposed to use slightly less fuel than a VW Lupo 3L — it’s a 2.9L/100 km car instead of a 3L/100 km. Bajaj has been trying to challenge the Tato Nano in making a cheap car.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe Texas allows these to be registered as mopeds. I occasionally see a three wheeler in South Austin that looks like a Bajaj to my untrained eye. The gentleman who drives it appears to be a Sikh, judging by his turban and impressive gray beard.

  • avatar

    I’d so love to be able to donate one of these to my local Scout camp! The golf carts we use out there don’t do much when it starts raining (and being along the coastline of South Carolina, that happens quite a bit)…

  • avatar

    I remember seeing these in Germany clogging up the Landstrassen. You slap a orange reflector triangle on the back and you’re good.

  • avatar

    This Ape 50 camper concept is sweet! “For the man who camps close to home.”

  • avatar

    These are street-legal in Virginia as they qualify as a “moped” as long as the engine is 50cc or less. No plate required, but you do need DOT helmet and eye protection.

  • avatar

    Wow-talk about channeling a 1960s-vintage Cushman Truckster!

    I drove one during my high school summers, making local deliveries for a retailer in one of those three-wheelers with cargo box. The controls were car-like, with a steering wheel, three on the tree shifting, all the pedals on the floor. The 20-some horsepower boxer twin motor would almost propel it to speeds nearing 45 mph, flat-out. Maybe you need one of these to commute around Denver in, if not future LeMons events?

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Is there a diesel version??
    Is navigation and infotainment available?
    How about heated leather power seats, rearview camera, sunroof?

  • avatar

    What does the “steal your face” control do?

  • avatar

    The Japanese 4 wheel kei trucks are impossible to register unless they fall outside the 25 year exception, because they are treated as cars.

    3 wheel vehicles are treated as motorcycles in every state, so this should be very easy to register as a motorcycle/scooter.

  • avatar

    Why do you get to be a judge?

  • avatar

    Did somebody put FENDER SKIRTS on that Infinity SUV ?

  • avatar

    I remember the Cushman 3 wheelers. I recall that Harley-Davidson made 3 wheelers in the 50s and 60s that were used by a number of police departments. Made sense, you could jump out of one of these and chase a perp and not worry about it falling over like a motorcycle.

  • avatar

    These are much loved in bella Italia, perhaps more in nostalgia than in fact. Piaggio also makes the Vespa (“wasp”) so the provenance of the Ape (“bee”) is clear.

  • avatar

    Ape racing is big in europe and on you tube. Power slide , drifting – it’s a wonderful world.

  • avatar

    The Ape is road legal in the US, like just about all 3-wheelers, it can be licensed as a motorcycle.

    Interesting you bring up Reliant. When they gave up building their own cars in 2001, the company turned to a variety of other business, one of which was the Ape – Reliant were the factory-authorized UK importers/distributors for the Ape and also built custom bodies for them for use as box trucks or espresso carts, etc. I think the deal ended in around 2005 or 2006.

  • avatar

    This is the one to get:

  • avatar

    The APE comes in diesel over here. A 400cc 84 mpg diesel.

    Calling this thing a car is a biiiiiiit of a stretch… but it’s awesomely cool and freaking cheap.

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