Johnny Starke Knows How to Ride

Why he keeps the classic culture and spirit of Vespa alive in Kansas City.

Dashing Johnny Starke zips down Rockhill Road on a vintage Italian Vespa. Vespas date back to 1946 when Piaggio designed and manufactured the first model in post-war Pontedera, Italy. They first gained popularity in the Fifties when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode one through Rome in “Roman Holiday.” However, Starke, owner of ten vintage Vespas that he rebuilt himself, more closely associates himself with Mods – the Sixties subculture of young, style-conscious London men that rode the Italian scooters and exhibited a taste for modern jazz and later, ska.

Starke, a freelance assistant director on local and national films and commercial projects, describes his lifelong love for Vespas and the rich culture surrounding them. “I grew up listening to Jamaican music from the Fifties and Sixties. My dad played it around the house,” says Starke, who was born in New York and now lives with his fiancé in a home near UMKC.

Johnny Starke built this Vespa house out of reclaimed materials from Habitat Restore. Photography by David Allison.

As a teen, he researched ska’s musical migration from Jamaica to England and discovered the Mods that favored the music during that era. “They were working class youth, 14 to 18-years-old, that couldn’t afford expensive cars. They were poor but dressed fashionably to express their style. People took pride in how they looked and what they did.”

At 19, Starke purchased his first four-speed Vespa and achieved an ultimate dream he had nurtured for six years. When he desired another model with a larger frame, Starke found a seller in Iowa with two Vespas, traveled there and bought them both. “I spent my time rebuilding and maintaining three scooters in my little apartment,” he says.

The silver and white Vespa models are Starke’s most treasured scooters in the collection.

During the Nineties, Kansas City had a large, vintage Vespa community with annual rallies modeled after London Mod culture. The community also revolved around the local music scene, where owners drove Vespas to see local ska bands like The Gadjits. Music, fashion and Vespas were once again intertwined. Starke says, “Vespa culture was tied into my fashion sense. I made decisions about what I wore based on when I rode.”

 In time, the community shrank and Starke became a go-to resource. “Every time someone wanted to sell their Vespa, they gave it to me cheap,” he says. Starke began collecting them by period and model. “I’ve owned up to 26 scooters at one time and 75 over the past decade.”

Today, he has divested himself of all but 10 scooters and maintains a deep affinity for them. He even used reclaimed materials to build a small structure in his backyard to house them. Punk, ska and Vespa artwork hangs on the walls as a nod to past and present Mod culture.

“Vespas are more refined than motorcycles. They are well crafted with beautiful curves. I see myself as having Vespas as a hobby until I am retired.”

Much like Starke’s wardrobe of fine suits and extensive record collection of classic soul, ska and punk music stored in an upstairs room at home, Vespas represent a fundamental, conscious part of Starke’s identity and aesthetic. “We live in a throwaway society. Sixties suits were meant to last forever,” he says. Along the same lines of enduring quality, “Vespas are designed to be rebuilt using only four tools by the side of the road.”

Starke admits an emotional attachment to the scooters that he’s acquired over the years. He points to a 1966 silver, large-frame Vespa and a white, small-frame model, the first one he ever bought. He says, “I looked for this silver model forever. I found it in Chicago in pieces and put it back together.”

Starke surveys his collection parked around the yard. “I grew up in a strict Italian family. My mother was from Italy,” says Starke. “Vespas are a bit of heritage that I can hold onto.”