During and after WWII, the bicycle was the main – if not only – means of transportation for poor and not so poor Italians, in other words, the majority of the population. My grandfather was a baker during the World War II and he used to cycle 57 miles from our hometown Grosseto, in Tuscany, to the small village of Acquaviva in order to visit his family, who had taken refuge there, and bring them bread. At the German checkpoint he would always answer the questions with the only words he knew in German: “Brot-Famile-bringen” [bring bread family].
Fast forward 20 years to after the economic boom when even my dad, a mechanic, was able to afford a Fiat 500. The Italian bicycle remained popular during this wave of economic enthusiasm and was finally able to shake off the sad old image that had represented it in the past decades.
In 1964 the “bicicletta Graziella” – or simply “la Graziella” – as people called it, was born. This ingenious folding bike was designed by Rinaldo Donzelli and produced by in Vittorio Veneto in northern Italy. The Graziella is an icon of the Made in Italy products of the 60s and 70s. Back then it was so popular that it became synonymous for all bicycles. People would say “I’m going to take Graziella and go to the market” which meant that they were taking their bicycle to the market, not that they were taking a girlfriend named Graziella with them. The name made you think of something small and pretty, like a sweet little girl.
Thanks to Graziella it was suddenly cool to have 2 wheels. An ad slogan called it “Brigitte Bardot’s Rolls Royce” because it had a young carefree style, but was also a quality product. It was very practical since the frame didn’t have a top tube, but did have a hinge which made it collapsible. It had small wheels and the seat and handlebars were removable, so it could easily be loaded into a car.
Gone for good was the image of the bike as a poor person’s product. Well, not entirely. I had a Graziella when I was a child. My mom didn’t drive, so we would share it when we rode dangerously and unsteadily to my ballet class. My mom, poor thing, would do the pedaling and I, poor thing, would sit behind her, my feet hanging in mid-air so they wouldn’t touch the ground and my arms desperately clutching her waist. My behind would hurt for hours afterwards and looking at the other girls being driven to class by their parents I honestly didn’t feel as carefree as the young and fashionable kids in the Graziella ad.