"Hmm, looks like a wasp," said Enrico Piaggio, looking at the prototype standing in front of him, "with that thin bit in the middle and the bulbous rear." And in fact, from then on – 1946 – it became the Vespa. It changed Italy and the world, and it's still with us today.
1946 wasn't a great time to launch a new type of motorcycle in Italy. A year after the end of the war, cities were still being cleared of rubble by horses and carts. Petrol was rationed, and rubber tyres were scarce. Transport was so difficult that bicycles became the most commonly-stolen form of property.
But Enrico Piaggio had a problem. His company, founded in 1884 by his father Rinaldo, had begun by manufacturing railway carriages, trams, and then aircraft, building factories in Pisa, Genoa, and two other Ligurian cities. Three of the four plants were destroyed by WW2 bombing. By 1945, Enrico's 12,000 employees were out of work, and he wanted to give them a job. He rebuilt the factory in Pontedera near Pisa, and looked around for an idea. Given the circumstances, he opted for personal mobility. A method of transport that would be cheap, economic, and accessible to all – men and women alike.
His designer Corradino D'Ascanio had a precedent on which to work, a miniature motorcycle built by Piaggio during the war, launched with paratroops to facilitate their mobility on the ground. D'Ascanio's first attempt at the new vehicle, the MP5, probably looked something like one of those tiny mopeds, but Piaggio didn't like it, and so D'Ascanio went back to the drawing board.
Not before he had done some serious thinking. Motorcycles were uncomfortable, large, with wheels that were difficult to change if a tyre was punctured. The chain sprayed oil around and it got on the rider's clothes. Getting on was difficult for women. So D'Ascanio used his aeronautical background to think up something new. He created a streamlined shell for the engine, and placed the power-plant directly over the rear wheel, eliminating the chain. He used small wheels, so that a spare could be carried, easy to change as a result of the axle brackets, based on an arrangement used in aircraft undercarriages. He moved the gear change to the handlebars, and created bodywork that would protect the rider's clothing. A long saddle for two, on which the seated position was more like that of a car than a motorbike. Easy to mount for both men and women. The engine was small, self-lubricating, and had a very low fuel consumption – 50 km with just a litre.
The result was the MP6, patented in April 1946. And Piaggio's initial reaction was not only positive, but also produced the name, "Vespa." It was presented at the Rome Golf Club, in the presence of Allied commander, General Stone, and later at the Milan Trade Fair. In that first decisive year, the company sold 1,200 scooters of the 2,484 that it had built. Enrico Piaggio initially utilized the Lancia car company's distribution network to market the Vespa all over Italy. Sales increased rapidly: 10,000 in 1947, 60,000 in 1950, 170,000 three years later.
Competition immediately appeared, in the form of the Lambretta built by Innocenti, Milan. Enrico Piaggio was indefatigable in finding methods to keep his product in the limelight. He developed an international network of service stations, and encouraged the foundation of Vespa Clubs all over the world. Even The Times took notice, reporting on "a wholly Italian product the likes of which has not been seen since the Roman chariot."
The scooter was not just a means of transport, but a social revolution. It appeared in films – who could forget Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday"? – and the stars of the day were photographed seated on a Vespa saddle. Young people loved it: a man with his girl on a Vespa was tantamount to a motorized embrace. At last, they had a way of going places together quickly. It has been written that Enrico Piaggio didn't just invent the scooter, he also created the weekend.
The ongoing success of the Vespa shows that the world was waiting for the product. Already in the 1950s, it was manufactured under licence in Germany, Britain, France, Spain, India and Brazil, and soon it would be available in 114 countries worldwide. The millionth Vespa was built in June 1956. The company diversified and began production of the "Ape," a three-wheeled van. Like the Vespa, it was an original concept, with a motorcyle-type handlebar. The name Ape confirms its close relationship to the scooter: in Italian it means "bee." A sidecar version of the Vespa was built, and in 1963 there was a curious return to the origins, when the Italian army commissioned a scooter that could be launched by parachute.
The Italian government could not help noticing the massive success of the scooter, and in 1963 it became obligatory for two-wheeled vehicles of 50 cc and over to have number plates (meaning extra taxes). Piaggio was not slow to react: they launched the new Series 50, small enough to be exempt from number plates, and once again the market proved the validity of the concept with incredible sales.
Enrico Piaggio died in 1965, but the Vespa story continued. The Vespa ET4 50 was launched in 2000, as the first Vespa 50cc to have a four-stroke engine, and with record-breaking range: 500 km with a tank of petrol. Over the decades, Vespa enthusiasts have done some extraordinary things with this little vehicle designed for city traffic. The Australian Geoff Dean went around the world on a Vespa. Giuseppe Morandi from Switzerland travelled for 6,000 km in the African desert on a Vespa that he had bought in 1948. Two Danish journalists, brother and sister Erik and Elizabeth Thrane, travelled from their home country to Bombay. In July 1992, Italian journalist Giorgio Bettinelli left Rome on a Vespa and reached Saigon in March 1993. This was just the first of his journeys on a Vespa: to date, he has travelled 254,000 km.
Today, Vespa goes from strength to strength. It is as much as a social phenomenon as it ever was, in Italy just as abroad. Second-hand Vespas are very hard to find because their owners generally hang on to them for their utility and reliability. New models feature trendy colours and cool accessories, such as the chromed luggage racks. Sixty-plus years old, the legendary wasp doesn't show its age.
The Museo Piaggio
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