First published February 18th, 2006
The Vespa is the world's most famous scooter. First manufactured in Italy by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. in 1946, it has been described by the Times newspaper as the most completely Italian product since the Roman chariot. This epitome of 20th century Italian style was visibly born from aircraft technology and was named Vespa (Italian for wasp) because of its wasp-like appearance with its rounded rear, narrow 'waist', and antennae-like handlebars. The "Dolce Vita" heyday of the Vespa scooter was the 1950s and 60s when - helped by the American film industry - it became a symbol of carefree youth as well as a cheap and practical means of transport, especially in the city.
Over 16 million Vespas have been produced worldwide and it remains in production in modernised form available with a four-stroke engine, automatic transmission, electric starter, and other refinements, though the vintage Vespa is a thriving industry in many countries.
The origins of the Vespa scooter
The Piaggio company has been in the transportation business since 1884, producing aircraft and aircraft parts from the early part of the 20th century. Its factory at Pontedera was destroyed by the allies during World War II and Enrico Piaggio turned his attention to the post-war mass market for personal transport. Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer and helicopter inventor working for Piaggio, produced an innovative design for a new type of motorcycle scooter built not from the usual open frame but from a monocoque shell with an enclosed engine and front protection for the rider.
Instead of the standard front forks D'Ascanio's aeronautically-inspired design had one-sided stub axles on a wheel assembly derived from aircraft landing gear. Both the front and rear wheels were identical and the one-sided axles allowed them to be easily removed and replaced with a spare. The scooter's step-through entry and the comfortable upright riding position protected from the front meant that women could easily ride it, even wearing a skirt or dress. It gave the modern Italian woman a fresh sense of mobility and freedom, and it was just as attractive to young men, buzzing around the crowded streets of Rome, spiriting their girls away to more intimate places.
The Vespa's enclosed, horizontally mounted 2-stroke 98cc engine acted directly on the rear drive wheel through a three-speed transmission. The twistgrip-controlled gear change involved a system of rods. The early engine had no cooling, but a blower was soon attached to the transmission to push air over the cylinder's cooling fins (the modern Vespa engine is still cooled this way). It had rigid rear suspension and small 8-inch wheels that allowed a compact design and plenty of room for the rider's legs.
Piaggio filed a patent for the Vespa scooter design in April 1946. The application documents referred to a "model of a practical nature" for a "motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts", of which "the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance". The patent was approved the following December.
The company was aiming to manufacture the new Vespa in large numbers, and their longstanding industrial experience led to an efficient Ford-style production line. The scooter was presented to the press at Rome Golf Club, where journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like object on display. But the road tests were encouraging and even with no rear suspension the machine was more manoeuverable and comfortable to ride than a motor cycle. The first fifty sold slowly, then with the introduction of payment by installments, sales took off.
The Vespa's rise in popularity
Piaggi sold some 2,500 Vespas in the first year, over 10,000 the next, then 20,000, and over 60,000 in 1950 by which time they were also being manufactured in Germany. Sales and service networks were set up in the rest of Europe and in the United States and other parts of the world. Manufacturing plants sprang up from Brazil to Bombay. By 1956 one million had been sold, then two million by 1960, four million by 1970, and ten million by the late 1980s.
Improvements were made to the original design and new models were introduced. The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit (illustrated above). The 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all. By 1984 automatic transmission had appeared. In 1996 the new generation 125cc Vespa ET4 was launched on the 50th anniversary - the first Vespa powered by a 4-stroke engine. And there were many other models in between.
During this time the Vespa established itself as a symbol of Italy and the 'continental' lifestyle of young people with a spirit romance, riding carefree in wide sunlit boulevards or buzzing busily amongst ancient shadowed alleyways. But there was a deeper meaning for Italians. Like Ferrari, Vespa signified their country's regeneration into a major industrial power out of the devastation of World War II, and it demonstrated to the world the unique Italian sense of style and innovation. It also happened to meet a basic need for economic personal transportation. Little wonder the Vespa scooter was such a success.