Vespa: The origins
Founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio, Piaggio initially undertook luxury ship fitting before going on to produce rail carriages, goods vans, luxury coaches and engines, trams and special truck bodies.
World War I brought a new diversification that was to distinguish Piaggio activities for many decades. The company started producing aeroplanes and seaplanes. At the same time, new plants were springing up. In 1917 Piaggio bought a new plant in Pisa, and four years later it took over a small plant in Pontedera which first became the centre of aeronautical production (propellers, engines and complete aircraft, including the state-of-the-art Piaggio P108 in passenger and bomber versions). Before and during World War II, Piaggio was one of Italy’s top aircraft manufacturers. For this reason, its plants were important military targets and the Piaggio factories in Genoa, Finale Ligure and Pontedera were irrevocably damaged by the war.
The 1946 invention
Rinaldo Piaggio’s sons Enrico and Armando began the process of re-starting industrial production immediately after the war. The hardest task went to Enrico, who was responsible for the destroyed Pontedera plant. He arranged for part of the machinery transferred to Biella in Piedmont to be brought back. Enrico Piaggio opted for an industrial reconversion, focusing on personal mobility in a country emerging from war. He gave shape to his intuition, building a vehicle destined to become extremely famous, thanks to the extraordinary design work of the aeronautical engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio (1891-1981).
The birth of a legend
The Vespa (which means “wasp” in Italian) was the result of Enrico Piaggio’s determination to create a low cost product for the masses. As the war drew to a close, Enrico studied every possible solution to get production in his plants going again — starting from Biella, where a motor scooter was produced, based on a small motorcycle made for parachutists. The prototype, known as the MP 5, was nicknamed “Paperino” (the Italian name for Donald Duck) because of its strange shape, but Enrico Piaggio did not like it, and he asked Corradino D’Ascanio to redesign it.
The aeronautical designer did not like motorcycles. He found them uncomfortable and bulky, with wheels that were difficult to change after a puncture. Worse still, the drive chain made them dirty. However, his aeronautical experience found the answer to every problem. To eliminate the chain he imagined a vehicle with a stress-bearing body and direct mesh; to make it easier to ride, he put the gear lever on the handlebar; to make tyre changing easier he designed not a fork, but a supporting arm similar to an aircraft carriage. Finally, he designed a body that would protect the driver so that he would not get dirty or dishevelled. Decades before the spread of ergonomic studies, the riding position of the Vespa was designed to let the rider sit comfortably and safely, not balanced dangerously as on a high-wheel motorcycle.
Corradino D’Ascanio’s drawings had nothing to do with the Paperino: his design was absolutely original and revolutionary compared to all the other existing means of two-wheeled transport. With the help of Mario D’Este, his trusted designer, it would only take Corradino D’Ascanio a few days to fine tune his idea and prepare the first Vespa project, manufactured in Pontedera in April of 1946. Enrico Piaggio himself named the scooter. Standing in front of the MP 6 prototype, with its wide central part where the rider sat and the “narrow” waist, he exclaimed: “It looks like a wasp!” And so the Vespa was born.
The first Vespa patent
On 23 April 1946 Piaggio & C. S.p.A. filed a patent with the Central Patents Office for inventions, models and brand names at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, for “a motor cycle with a rational complex of organs and elements with body combined with the mudguards and bonnet covering all the mechanical parts”. In a short space of time the Vespa was presented to the public, provoking contrasting reactions. However, Enrico Piaggio did not hesitate to start mass production of two thousand units of the first Vespa 98 cc. The new vehicle made its society debut at Rome’s elegant Golf Club, in the presence of the U.S. General Stone who represented the Allied military government. The event was filmed by the American newsreel Movieton: Italians saw the Vespa for the first time in the pages of Motor (March 24, 1946) and on the black and white cover of La Moto on April 15, 1946. They saw the actual vehicle at that year’s Milan show, where even Cardinal Schuster stopped to take a look, intrigued by the futuristic vehicle.
From scepticism to “miracle”
Two versions of the Vespa 98cc went on sale with two prices: 55,000 liras for the “normal” version and 61,000 liras for the “luxury” version with a few optionals including a speedometer, lateral stand and stylish white-trim tyres. Manufacturers and market experts were divided: on one side the people who saw the Vespa as the realisation of a brilliant idea, and on the other the sceptics, who were soon to change their minds.
The initial problems led Enrico Piaggio to offer Count Parodi, who manufactured Moto Guzzi motorcycles, distribution rights for the Vespa so as to get his vehicle into the retail network of the better-known brand. Count Parodi refused outright, estimating that the Vespa would flop, and the scooter was therefore initially sold through the Lancia network.
In the last months of 1947 production exploded and the following year the Vespa 125 appeared, a larger model that was soon firmly established as the successor to the first Vespa 98.
The Vespa “miracle” had become reality, and output grew constantly; in 1946, Piaggio put 2,484 scooters on the market. These became 10,535 the following year, and by 1948 production had reached 19,822. When in 1950 the first German licensee also started production, output topped 60,000 vehicles, and just three years later 171,200 vehicles left the plants.
Foreign markets also watched the birth of the scooter with interest, and both the public and the press expressed curiosity and admiration. The Times called it “a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot”. Enrico Piaggio continued tenaciously to encourage the spread of the Vespa abroad, creating an extensive service network all over Europe and the rest of the world. He maintained constant attention and growing interest around his product, with a number of initiatives that included the foundation and spread of the Vespa Clubs.
The Vespa became the Piaggio product par excellence, while Enrico personally tested prototypes and new models. His business prospects transcended national frontiers and by 1953, thanks to his untiring determination, there were more than ten thousand Piaggio service points throughout the world, including America and Asia. By then the Vespa Clubs counted over 50,000 members, all opposed to the “newborn” Innocenti Lambretta. No less than twenty thousand Vespa enthusiasts turned up at the Italian “Vespa Day” in 1951. Riding a Vespa was synonymous with freedom, with agile exploitation of space and with easier social relationships. The new scooter had become the symbol of a lifestyle that left its mark on its age: in the cinema, in literature and in advertising, the Vespa appeared endlessly among the most significant symbols of a changing society.
In 1950, just four years from its debut, the Vespa was manufactured in Germany by Hoffman-Werke of Lintorf; the following year licensees opened in Great Britain (Douglas of Bristol) and France (ACMA of Paris); production began in Spain in 1953 at Moto Vespa S.A.
of Madrid, founded on 1952, now Piaggio España, followed immediately by Jette, outside Brussels. Plants sprang up in Bombay and Brazil; the Vespa reached the USA, and its enormous popularity drew the attention of the Reader’s Digest, which wrote a long article about it. But that magical period was only the beginning. Soon the Vespa was produced in 13 countries and marketed in 114, including Australia, South Africa (where it was known as the “Bromponie”, or moor pony), Iran and China. And it was copied: on June 9, 1957, Izvestia reported the start of production in Kirov, in the USSR, of the Viatka 150 cc, an almost perfect clone of the Vespa. Piaggio had begun very early on to extend its range into the light transport sector. In 1948, soon after the birth of the Vespa, production of the three-wheeler Ape van (the Italian for “bee”) derived from the scooter began, and the vehicle was an immediate success for its many possible uses.
Numerous imaginative versions of the Vespa appeared, some from Piaggio itself, but mainly from enthusiasts – for example, the Vespa Sidecar, or the Vespa-Alpha of 1967, developed with Alpha-Wallis for Dick Smart, a screen secret agent, which could race on the road, fly, and even be used on or underwater. The French army had a few Vespa models built specially to carry arms and bazookas, and others that could be parachuted together with the troops. Even the Italian army asked Piaggio for a parachutable scooter in 1963.
Vespa: over 17 million units produced
While the Lambretta was starting to enjoy some success, the Vespa was being copied and imitated in a thousand ways: but the uniqueness of the vehicle ensured Piaggio a very long period of success, so much so that in November 1953, the 500,000th unit left the line, followed by the one millionth in June 1956. In 1960 the Vespa passed the two million mark; in 1970 it reached four million, and over ten million in 1988, making the Vespa — which has sold over 17 million units to date — a unique phenomenon in the motorised two-wheeler sector. From 1946 to 1965, the year Enrico Piaggio died, 3,350,000 Vespas were manufactured in Italy alone: one for every fifty inhabitants.
The boom of the Vespa, and the different business prospects of the Piaggio brothers, with Enrico concentrating on light individual mobility in Tuscany and Armando on the aeronautical business in Liguria, led the company to split. On February 22, 1964, Enrico Piaggio acquired the share in Piaggio & C. S.p.A. held by his brother Armando, who then founded “Rinaldo Piaggio Industrie Meccaniche Aeronautiche” (I.A.M. Rinaldo Piaggio). The Vespa 50 had appeared the previous year, 1963, following the introduction of a law in Italy making a numberplate obligatory on two-wheelers over 50 cc.
The new scooter was exempt from this law and was an immediate success. In Italy sales of vehicles with numberplates decreased by 28 per cent in 1965 compared to the previous year. On the other hand, the Vespa, with its new “50” series, was a great success. The light Vespa was a successful addition to the Piaggio range and this displacement is still in production. To date almost 3,500,000 Vespa 50s have been built in different models and versions. The Vespa ET4 50, launched in autumn 2000 (and replaced in 2005 by the new Vespa LX) was the first four stroke Vespa 50cc, and established a record distance range of over 500 km with a full tank.
The story of the Vespa PX is truly unique and exceptional in the “two wheeled” world as the single most successful model in the entire history of the Vespa: created in 1977 and still in production in the 125 and 150 cc versions, to the joy of its faithful supporters, it has exceeded three million units sold.
In 1996, the fiftieth anniversary year of the most famous scooter in the world, the Vespa ET4 and ET2 range was created. The ET4 was the first Vespa in history powered by a 4-stroke engine.
There was another twist to the unending story of the Vespa in 2003 with the launch of the Granturismo 200L and 125L: with these two models, Vespa reached unprecedented size and power levels. In 2005 two new and very significant products were added to the range: the Vespa LX (50, 125 and 150) replaced the Vespa ET (over 460,000 units sold since 1996) while, 50 years after the launch of the legendary Vespa GS Gran Sport, the Vespa GTS 250 i.e. took over as the fastest, most powerful and high-tech Vespa ever. With an avant-garde, extremely powerful 250cc, four-valve, liquid cooled electronic injection engine and it is stopped by two disc brakes with an optional ABS and brake servo. Three exclusive models were presented to celebrate Vespa’s 60th anniversary in 2006, interpreting the original Vespa look in a modern, elegant key. These were the Vespa GTV, Vespa LXV and Vespa GT 60°. The Vespa S , inspired by the elegant model from the Seventies, was presented in 2007 as heir to the legendary 50 Special and 125 Primavera for the new millennium. In May 2008 the Vespa GTS 300 Super arrived: the 145th model, GTS 300 Super was once again the highest performing Vespa with the largest engine ever manufactured. In November 2011, at the EICMA motor show in Milan, Vespa astonished the world with the Vespa Forty-six. Distilling the purest essence of the traits which made Vespa unique and enhancing the purity of the lines, the Pontedera Style Centre projected Vespa into a future where tradition and innovation come together. Once again Vespa showed its capability to be ahead of the times projecting itself into a future marked by creativity, technology and unique styles.
Records, sports and long distance travel: around the world with the Vespa
The Vespa also has a racing career behind it. In Europe back in the Fifties, it took part, often successfully, in regular motorcycle races (speed and off-road), as well as unusual sporting ventures.
In 1952 the Frenchman Georges Monneret built an “amphibious Vespa” for the Paris-London race and successfully crossed the Channel on it. The previous year Piaggio itself had built a Vespa 125cc prototype for speed racing, and it set the world speed record for a flying kilometre at an average of 171.102 km/h.
The Vespa also scored a great success at the 1951 “International 6 Days” in Varese, winning 9 gold medals, the best of the Italian motorcycles. That same year saw the first of innumerable rallies with the Vespa: an expedition to the Congo, which was to be the first of a series of incredible journeys on a scooter that was intended primarily to solve the problems of urban and intercity traffic.
Giancarlo Tironi, an Italian University student, reached the Arctic Circle on a Vespa. The Argentine Carlos Velez crossed the Andes from Buenos Aires to Santiago del Chile. Year after year, the Vespa gained popularity among adventure holiday enthusiasts: Roberto Patrignani rode one from Milan to Tokyo; Soren Nielsen in Greenland; James P. Owen from the USA to Tierra del Fuego; Santiago Guillen and Antonio Veciana from Madrid to Athens (for the occasion their Vespa was decorated personally by Salvador Dalì and it is on exhibit to this day in the Piaggio Museum); Wally Bergen on a grand tour of the Antilles; the Italians Valenti and Rivadulla in a tour of Spain; Miss Warral from London to Australia and back; the Australian Geoff Dean took one on a round-the-world tour.
Pierre Delliere, Sergeant in the French Air Force, reached Saigon in 51 days from Paris, going through Afghanistan. Swiss rider Giuseppe Morandi rode 6,000 km, mostly across the African desert, on a Vespa he had bought in 1948. Ennio Carrega went from Genoa to Lapponia and back in just 12 days. Two Danish journalists Elizabeth and Erik Thrane, a brother and sister, reached Bombay on a Vespa. And it is impossible to count the many European scooter riders who have reached the North Cape on their Vespas.
Few know that in 1980 two Vespa PX 200s ridden by M. Simonot and B. Tcherniawsky reached the finishing line of the second Paris-Dakar rally. Four-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Henri Pescarolo helped the French team put together by Jean-François Piot.
The Vespa continues to travel: in July 1992 Giorgio Bettinelli, writer and journalist, left Rome on a Vespa and reached Saigon in March 1993. In 1994-95 he rode a Vespa 36,000 km from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. In 1995-96 he travelled from Melbourne to Cape Town – over 52,000 km in 12 months. In 1997 he started out from Chile, reaching Tasmania after three years and eight months, having travelled 144,000 km on his Vespa and crossed 90 countries across the Americas, Siberia, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. All in all, Bettinelli has travelled 250,000 km on a Vespa.
Vespa, the cinema and the USA
Stylish and unmistakably Vespa, exceptionally comfortable to ride with low-environmental-impact engines and disk brakes, the new-generation Vespa models are now also sold in numerous “Vespa Boutiques” in the US (over 100 from California to Florida and from Hawaii to New York).
Having returned to the US in 2000 after exiting the market in 1985 because of new emissions legislation that targeted two stroke engines, the Vespa was an immediate success all over again. Piaggio U.S.A. has achieved a market share of 18 per cent of the growing scooter sector in terms of sales over the last five years.
But the Vespa isn’t just a market phenomenon. It forms part of social history. In the “Dolce Vita” years the Vespa became a synonym for scooter, foreign reporters described Italy as “the country of the Vespa” and the Vespa’s role in social history, not just in Italy but abroad, can be seen from its presence in hundreds of films. And it’s a story that continues to be told today.
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday” (1953) were only the first of a long series of international actors and actresses to be seen on the world’s most famous scooter in a filmography that goes from “Quadrophenia” to “American Graffiti”, from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to “102 Dalmatians”, not to mention “Dear Diary” and more recent productions like “Alfie” with Jude Law, “The Interpreter” with Nicole Kidman, and the blockbuster “Transformers”.
In photo shoots, films and on the set, the Vespa has been a “travel companion” for names like Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, Geraldine Chaplin, Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Virna Lisi, Milla Jovovich, Marcello Mastroianni, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Anthony Perkins, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Nanni Moretti, Sting, Antonio Banderas, Matt Damon, Gérard Depardieu, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.
This extraordinary relationship between Vespa and the cinema was celebrated by the “Vespa and the Cinema” exhibition. The exhibition traced the fortunate marriage between the seventh art and the most famous scooter in the world through a vast iconographic and document wealth of more than 200 film images (posters, brochures, set photos and actors on Vespas). After opening at the Piaggio Museum in Pontedera at the end of 2010, the exhibition was successful in Turin and Taormina on the occasion of Nastri d’Argento 2011 and, in the Autumn of the same year, it also went to Russia in St. Petersburg, evidence of Vespa’s universal values.