When Sue and I came to Europe on the Grand Tour in ‘72, these little 3-wheeled Piaggio Apes were ubiquitous in Italy and Greece. We had seen them nowhere else in Europe but they were clearly the go-to vehicle for plumbers, builders, craftsmen, and deliveries of all types in Italy. We assumed it was an Italian vehicle for Italians. But when we got to Greece we found exactly the same situation; a significant percentage of road traffic was comprised of these tiny, buzzy, flimsy contraptions. They have miniscule, single-cylinder 2-stroke engines that smoke like chimneys and propel the vehicle to a top speed of maybe 25 mph. And one look is all it takes to convince you Ralph Nader missed his target when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. My brother and his Navy pals on Crete referred to them as Souvlaki Wagons.
Fresh from university, after 4 years of Latin and 4 years of French, I looked at the swarms of these little rattletraps and wondered (to myself, mercifully), “Why do they call these things Apes? They want us to think they’re big and strong? That’s hilarious!” Obviously the laugh was on me for it was almost 4 decades later I suddenly realized that, of course, they hadn’t given the vehicle an English name, they gave it an Italian name, and that Ape is Italian (and Latin) for “bee.” And it’s a perfect name it: light, small, buzzy, and prone to travel in swarms.
These days, Apes are becoming as rare as apes in Greece but, because they apparently live forever, you do occasionally run into a hardy if superannuated soul piloting one these jobs around town. A toothless fishmonger in the next village sells fish from the back of a pungent example, and I spotted this one, apparently collecting recyclable trash, in central Athens. They may be too slow for today’s roads and too uncomfortable for today’s Europeans but they were obviously well designed for their intended purpose and era, which is rapidly drawing to a close. My appreciation of the Ape ends there but whenever I see one it gives me fresh pause to consider just how much Greece has changed since 1972… and just how useful is a university education.