"They'll take your eyeballs and come back for your eyelashes," quips Claudia Agius as she hangs up a call chasing a repair job to greet LAW the first time we set foot in her father's shop, R. Agius Scooters. A gem of a premises hidden half way up London's Edgware Road, the family business has occupied the same unit for over seventy years where it began life trading in push bicycles and invalid carriages. Currently owned and managed by Claude Agius, the son of the company's namesake and - clocking up sixty-odd years of experience - somewhat of a veteran within the scooter trade, the establishment boasts one of the longest standing contracts in the country with Italian manufacturer Piaggio. A shrewd business move, the deal to import the brand's wares was secured just as it was gaining notoriety for a scooter model that is as synonymous with being a British icon as it is a foreign import - the Vespa.
Although Claude's involvement in his father's business began at the age of seven - "We're a continental family," he offers by way of explaining his early foray into employment - working in the scooter trade wasn't always an ambition of his. "I was working from a young age sweeping up and making tea," he remarks as we sit in his make-shift first floor office, a tightly packed but meticulously organised space that is lined with shelves of scrapbooks, photo albums and small boxes labelled by hardware part name and retail price. "But I didn't want to get my hands dirty or greasy," he continues over the somewhat ironic clattering of partially dismantled mechanics coming from the on-site workshop below.
Setting his sights on a career that accommodated a more dapper daily uniform, Claude quickly found himself a position at what was then one of Britain's most established fashion houses: "I went to work at Dunn & Company, the hat manufacturers, as an office boy when I was fifteen, loathe to my father's disapproval." As the reality of an office job began to lose its shine and London's Mod scene found its feet, he turned back to the family fold: "I was there 'til I was eighteen and then - a bit more mature by then, I was - I came back to work here full time. And that was quite a few years ago."
IT KEEPS YOUR SUIT CLEAN.
During those years, scootering and style have become evermore intertwined. A Mod in the sixties when the look was first taking off, Claude tips us off about some of the essential kit: "Your parka is number one. Apart from keeping you dry and keeping your clothes dry, you've got your badges on it which is good. But number one; it keeps your suit clean." It wasn't all about practicality though. Leafing through some of his old scootering photographs it's clear to see that Claude knows a thing or two about self-styled fashion. A sharp slim-cut suit complements his gleaming cream and red 1962 Vespa DS, the same scooter that he rides on rallies to this day. "And handmade shoes with buckles," Claude points out, tapping the polished fastenings that are as shiny as his wheels' chroming and as broad as the shoes themselves. "Big buckles," he grins.
The smart and snappy style of the Mods was revisited in 1979's Quadrophenia, a film that evolves around the supposed rivalry between the Mods and Rockers of the sixties that was frequently the talk of the town back in the day. "It was always blown up - always skinheads - teddy boys or skinheads - against the mods, and it was a load of rubbish that," counters Claude. "We always met in the coffee bars - it was coffee bars, not pubs that we used to go to - or the Wimpy bars which were number one, and we had drinks together. Of course there were always a couple of fights but they were all exploded for obvious reasons." Often it was the scene's own pride and vanity that quashed brawls: "First of all, we don't want to damage our scooters or our suits. We were very smart in those days, proper bespoke." But as the saying goes, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
Quadrophenia's release spurred on a revival in scooter culture almost twenty years after the Vespa first reached British shores. Classic Lambretta Lis and early model Vespas were pushed back into the limelight but due to scooter manufacturing moving out of European factories and into Indian and Asian production facilities, many of the first Mod generation saw their successors being lumped with lesser quality kit. The approach to scooter styling was different too, updated with a 'more is more' mentality that was given a helping hand by cheap labour reflected in low-cost parts: "In the first phase, we had our mirrors and that but when the second ones came along they had even more mirrors, more lights. Which is all very nice but you see, it was more affordable - they had a bit more money and they did it the way they did it. They copied but they added a bit of their style."
SCOOTER IN THE WORLD
The chances are that you have seen Claude's classic Vespa before. Asides from being its owner's pride and joy for fifty years this year, it also holds the self-professed accolade of "the most photographed scooter in the world bar none." Borrowed by the likes of fashion photographer Mario Testino, Manchester's finest music export Oasis and London shopping landmark Harrods, it's been splashed across the pages of Vogue and appeared in a handful of pop music videos as the archetypal sixties icon. With the original paintwork intact and the badges polished to perfection, the only tell-tale sign of its adventurous past is the well-worn faux leopard fur seat. "A lot of young ladies had been sitting on it in those days! Not now though," Claude dutifully adds; a charming reference to his wife Barbara who as another integral part of the R. Agius team is never out of earshot.
Working so closely together as a family is part and parcel of the shop's service. Anecdotes about longstanding friends or tricky customers are ten a penny and the shop's diverse daily clientele prove to be entertainment enough in itself. "We get such an interesting, eclectic mix of people in there, which is exciting for me," explains Claudia over a cigarette in the shop's doorway. "From street cleaners to politicians to popstars; just everybody and anybody." As the bubbly front of house for the firm, Claudia bears the brunt of most of the chatter, delivering square-shooting service with a smile and the odd good-natured jeer if you're fortunate. "I'm quite lucky I can be so straight forward and honest," she remarks, something that might not have always been the case in her previous roles working for high-end fashion retailers. "Maybe sometimes I'm too honest but that's how I am. I'm a sales person who's honest, if you ever can be!"
Like the few family-owned businesses left on England's high streets, R. Agius Scooters has grown up with its clientele, celebrating marriages and changing hairstyles with its customers as the years pass by. Claude cheerfully mentions several eighty and ninety year old scooter aficionados who still attend the larger rallies in the city that reach up to two thousand participants. A handful of the older generations are still riding the same model they purchased from the shop when it first opened its doors, a concept that seems foreign by today's throw-away standards. "There's still some of them, like elderly people, who want a scooter done up their way just like it was back then," he recounts, going on discuss the lifelong attachment to one brand-name or another. "A lot of people like Lambrettas better [than Vespas] because they've had a Lambretta and that's what they believe in. All their life they've been on a Lambretta."
Old enough to be eligible for its state bus pass, LAW wonders what the secret is that has kept the Agius dealership afloat through rising rent prices, changing sub-cultures and two recessions. "People do come back, always, always. We get people who came in here when they were sixteen or twenty, people who were Mods back in the fifties and sixties and they're like, "I bought my first scooter off you when I was sixteen," Claudia assures me, stressing the importance of providing a consistent, reliable service across the decades. "A lot of people go abroad or move out of the country and when they come back, we're still here. Just!" she cracks with a tense optimism.
"There's a lot of places they can go to other than this scooter shop," concludes Claude by means of reinforcing the importance of the personal touch that keeps custom constant. Then, as if talking as much about the shop as he is his fine-tuned Vespa, he adds with a quiet assurance, "I've got it as I want it. It's going to stay like that."
R. Agius Scooters, 363 Edgware Road, London