The Italian Almanac


a classic Vespa scooter

Vespa by Piaggio

Vespa has not only given its stamp to an entire epoch, it even became the symbol of a Europe struggling to rise from the catastrophe of the Second World War.

Vespa's timeless design comes from an equally timeless company - Piaggio has been a distinguished innovator in the field of transportation for nearly 120 years. Piaggio was founded in Genoa, Italy in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio. Rinaldo's business began with luxury ship fitting. But by the end of the century, Piaggio was also producing rail carriages, luxury coaches, truck bodies, engines, and trains.

With the onset of World War I, the company forged new ground with the production of airplanes and seaplanes. In 1917 Piaggio bought a new plant in Pisa, and four years later it took over a small plant in Pontedera in the Tuscany region of Italy. It was this plant in Pontedera which became its new center for aeronautical production (propellers, engines and complete aircraft).

During World War II, the Pontedera plant built the state-of-the-art P 108 four-engine aircraft, in both passenger and bomber versions. However, the plant was completely destroyed by Allied bombers due to its military importance. Piaggio came out of the conflict with its Pontedera plant completely demolished by bombs.

At the company's helm was Enrico Piaggio, having taken over from his father Rinaldo. Enrico decided to leave the aeronautics field and pay his attention to problems of personal mobility. Italy's broken economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not lend to fast developments in the automobile markets. But hunger for mobility required immediate answers. From an intuition of Enrico Piaggio's, in the spring of 1946 the Vespa was born.

Enrico Piaggio

Corradino D'Ascanio undertook to design a simple vehicle, robust and economic but comfortable and elegant, one which could be driven easily by anyone, women too, and which would not dirty the driver's clothes and would permit carrying a passenger. D'Ascanio, a genial aeronautics engineer, had been with Piaggio since 1934 and was responsible for the project and construction of the first modern helicopter. D'Ascanio, who could not stand motorbikes, dreamed up a revolutionary vehicle. Dipping into his knowledge of aeronautics, he imagined a vehicle built on a frame and with a handlebar gearchange. He mounted the engine on the rear wheel. The front fork, like an aircraft's landing gear, allowed easy wheel changing.

In April of 1946, the first 15 Vespas left the Pontedera works. The first Vespa had a 98cc two-stroke engine giving 3.5 hp at 4,500 revs. It reached 60 kilometres per hour and had 3 gears. This was a real two-wheeled utility vehicle. But it did not resemble an uncomfortable and noisy motorbike; it emanated class and elegance at first glance.

Vespa's success was a phenomenon never to be repeated again. By the end of 1949, 35,000 units had been produced. Italy was getting over its war wounds and getting about on Vespas. In ten years, one million were produced. By the mid-fifties, Vespa was being produced in Germany, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and, of course, Italy. And only a few years later, in India and Indonesia too.

The 125 of 1948, the legendary 150 GS of 1955, the 50cc of 1963, 1968's Primavera, the PX, born in 1978 and still today produced in the classic 125, 150 and 200cc versions are just some of the steps that have distinguished the technical and stylistic evolution of the world's most famous two-wheeler.

But Vespa is not just a commercial phenomena. It is an event that has involved the story of social custom. During the "Dolce Vita" years, "Vespa" meant "scooter"; foreign newspaper correspondents described Italy as "Vespa country", and the role Vespa played in Italian society is shown by its appearance in dozens of films.

One is struck by Vespa's ability to live on from one generation of youngsters to a different one, subtly modifying its image each time. The first Vespa offered mobility to everyone. Then, it became the two-wheeler for the time of economic boom. And during the sixties and seventies, it was the vehicle for the propagation of the revolution of ideas that the kids of those years were establishing. Advertising campaigns like "Who Vespas gets to eat the apple" have symbolised an era in our history.

In over 50 years of history, Vespa has fascinated millions of people, giving the whole world a unique image of Italian style and remaining the irreplaceable means of personal transport, synonymous with freedom.