Piaggio was founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio. The first activity of Rinaldo’s factory was luxury ship fitting. But by the end of the century, Piaggio was also producing 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) and then, after World War II, witnessed the birth of the iconic Vespa.
From aeronautics to individual mobility: the transformation of 1946 The war, a radical watershed for the entire Italian economy, was equally important for Piaggio. The Pontedera plant built the state-of-the-art four-engine P 108 equipped with a 1,500-bhp Piaggio engine in passenger and bomber versions. However Piaggio’s aeronautical plants in Tuscany (Pontedera and Pisa) were important military targets and on August 31, 1943 they were razed to the ground by Allied bombers, after the retreating Germans had already mined the pillars of the buildings and irrevocably damaged the plants.
To rebuild the Pontedera plants, Enrico Piaggio asked the Allies, who then occupied part of the grounds and of the buildings still standing, to arrange for the machinery transferred to Germany and Biella in northern Italy to be brought back. This was done rapidly and Armando and Enrico Piaggio then began the process of rebuilding. The hardest task went to Enrico, who was responsible for the destroyed plants of Pontedera and Pisa.
Enrico Piaggio’s decision to enter the light mobility business was based on economic assessments and sociological considerations. It took shape thanks to the successful co-operation 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. 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.
But 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 you sit comfortably and safely, not balanced dangerously as on a high-wheel motorcycle. Corradino D’Ascanio only needed a few days to refine his idea and prepare the first drawings of the Vespa, first produced in Pontedera in April 1946. It got its name from Enrico Piaggio himself who, looking at the MP 6 prototype with its wide central part where the rider sat and the narrow “waist”, exclaimed, “It looks like a wasp!” And so the Vespa was born.
On April 23, 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 U.S. General Stone who represented the Allied military government. 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.
From scepticism to “miracle”
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. 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 of Madrid, 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.
1956: the Vespa crosses the one million mark
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 it a unique phenomenon in the motorised two-wheeler sector it has sold over 16 million units to date. 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 latest being the ET4 50 launched in autumn 2000. It is the first four stroke Vespa 50cc, and has a record range of over 500 km with a full tank.
The Vespa PX (125, 150 and 200cc) is the biggest sales success in the entire history of the Vespa. It is the “original vintage” – launched in 1977, it has sold over two million units, and as such is a favourite among those with a sense of nostalgia but also with the younger market.
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 motor cycle 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; 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. The Swiss Giuseppe Morandi travelled 6,000 km, much of it in the desert, on a Vespa he had bought in 1948. Ennio Carrega went from Genoa to Lapland and back in 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 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 150,000 km on his Vespa across the Americas, Siberia, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. All in all, Bettinelli has travelled 254,000 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 ET models are now also sold in numerous “Vespa Boutiques” in the US (over 60 from California to Florida and from Hawaii to New York, with the latest two boutiques in SoHo and Queens).
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, and has achieved a market share of 20 per cent of the small (40,000 units a year) but growing scooter sector. 6,000 Vespas were sold in the first year, 2001, and over 7,000 in 2002. 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 ” 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 ”.
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, Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.
Over half a century of Vespa: The models that have made history
Ever since the very first 98cc model was manufactured in 1946, Vespa has been in the forefront of technology and design, a trend that continues with the introduction of the Vespa Granturismo, the first totally new Vespa since the 1996 Vespa ET4. It is the latest chapter in the story of the world’s best known scooter that has given us 138 models, versions and variants (marked by different chassis codes) from 1946 to today.
Since production of the Vespa Primavera ceased the Vespa range has had only three different models, each with its specific technical specifications, performance and target clientele.
The Vespa Granturismo will be the flagship of the existing range consisting of ET and PX models and creates a new product type between large-displacement GT scooters and traditional scooters. It is designed to cater to the high expectations of performance and comfort of those who want not just a scooter, but a vehicle that represents a specific lifestyle choice.
It is difficult to pick out the most representative Vespas in an evolution that has lasted over half a century. Some Vespas are sought after by collectors because they belong to a special series, or because they were rapidly replaced by subsequent versions, and are highly priced in the period scooter market, which is extremely active all over the world. Others, which were produced in greater numbers or stayed on the market longer, are classic models that have left their mark in the history of two-wheeled mobility.
Vespa 98, 1946 – The first Vespa.
- The first Vespa 125 cc. It differed from the 98 not only in engine size, but also for the introduction of rear suspension; the front suspension was also modified. Vespa 125, 1953 – This marked the first important change to the engine: bore, stroke and timing gear were modified. Power output increased to 5 bhp at 5,000 rpm, and top speed to 75 km/h. The design of the fairing at the rear was also new. Vespa 125 U, 1953 – The “Utility” version with spartan styling, which sold at 20,000 lire less than the more modern 125. The headlamp appeared high up on the handlebar for the first time in Italy (it had already been introduced on a number of exported models). Vespa 150 GS, 1955 – Experts called it “the most popular, imitated and remembered model”. There were numerous innovations: the 150 cc engine, 4-speed gearbox, standard long saddle, “faired” handlebar-headlamp unit, wheels with 10” tyres. This Vespa could reach 100 km/h.
The design also changed, with a much more aerodynamic body. Vespa 160 GS, 1962 – This was born to continue the market success of the first GS, with a completely new design. The exhaust silencer, carburettor and suspension were also new. The power output was 8.2 bhp at 6,500 rpm. Vespa 150 GL, 1963 – Another new design for what has been called “one of the best-looking Vespas produced by Piaggio designers”. The handlebar, trapezoid headlamp, front mudguard and trimmed-down rear lids were all new. Vespa 50, 1964 – The first Vespa 50 cc, created to exploit the new Italian Highway Code which made a number plate obligatory on larger engines. Extremely versatile and reliable, the engine featured a new layout, with the cylinder inclined 45° instead of horizontal. It was the last design to leave Corradino D’Ascanio’s drawing board. Vespa 180 SS, 1965 – It marked a new milestone in the growth of the engine (181.14 cc), with 10 bhp for a top speed of 105 km/h. The 180 SS (Super Sport) replaced the glorious GS 150/160 cc. Piaggio modified the front cowling, making it more aerodynamic and significantly improving comfort, handling and roadholding. Vespa 125, 1966 – Unofficially known as the “new 125”, it featured radical innovations in the design, frame, engine (inclined 45°) and suspension. Vespa Super Sprint 90, 1966 – A special series derived from the Vespa 50/90 cc and the “new” 125, the hold-all was positioned between the saddle and the handlebar for a more “laid-back” riding style. The handlebar was narrow and low, and the mudguard and cowling were streamlined. With an engine capacity of only 90 cc, it could do 93 km/h. Vespa 125 Primavera, 1968 – Together with the subsequent PX version, it was the most durable version of the Vespa. It derived from the “new” 125, but with considerable differences in the engine, which raised the top speed by 10 km/h. Great attention was paid to details, which included the classic, practical bag hook. Vespa 180 Rally, 1968 – With this new vehicle, Piaggio extended the rotary timing fuel feed system to its entire production.
The engine was new, the front headlamp new and more powerful, the frame, derived from the Vespa 150 Sprint, narrower and more aerodynamic than that of the Super Sport. Vespa 50 Elestart, 1970 – It featured the great novelty of electric ignition, but the design was also completely revised and embellished compared to the 50 Special. Vespa 200 Rally, 1972 – The Vespa with the largest engine. This model, with 12.35 bhp at 5,700 rpm, could reach 116 km/h. Vespa 125 Primavera ET3, 1976 – The name stood for “Electronic 3 intake ports”, and included important changes to the engine, which had more power and sparkle.
Even the styling was changed from the standard Primavera (which remained in the range). Vespa P 125 X, 1978 – The “PX” marked a new step forward in styling (the bodywork was completely redesigned) and performance. The hold-all was positioned behind the cowling. The same year the P 200 E also appeared, which could be equipped with separate lubrication and direction indicators incorporated in the body.
Three years later the PX 150 E was launched, with performance halfway between the two models. Vespa PK 125, 1983 – This replaced the Vespa Primavera (standard and ET3) which remained in production with the “Classic” body for the Japanese market, where it was the best-selling Western two-wheeler vehicle. The styling was new, and the PK body was completely different from that of previous scooters, because the welds of the body no longer overlapped but were integral. Vespa PK 50, 1983 – Substantially identical to the PK 125, it appeared in two models, PK 50 and PK 50 S, both with 4-speed gearbox and electronic ignition. Vespa PK 125 Automatic, 1984 – An automatic transmission was introduced on the Vespa, probably the most radical change (at least for the driver) since 1946. The presence of the automatic transmission was emphasised by the absence of the brake pedal, which was replaced by a lever on the left handlebar (which did not have to control the clutch as that was automatic). It was also available with automatic oil-petrol mixer and electric ignition.
The following year the Vespa PK 50 Automatic was launched. Vespa T 5 Pole Position, 1985 – The T 5 was the “extra-sporty” version of the PX series. With a new engine, aluminium cylinder and 5 intake ports, but the design was also new, particularly at the rear and around the front headlamp which incorporated an aggressive dome with a small Plexiglas windscreen. A spoiler was added on the cowling. Vespa 50 N, 1989 – The changes to the Italian Highway Code meant that 50 cc vehicles were no longer bound by the 1.5 bhp limit, and Piaggio presented a new small Vespa with improved performance (over 2 bhp at 5,000 rpm), and new, smoother styling. A “Speedmatic” automatic version was also launched. Vespa ET4 125cc, 1996 – The “new generation Vespa” launched on the 50th anniversary. A completely new project, it is the first Vespa ever powered by a 4-stroke engine. The Vespa ET is equipped with a front disk brake and an automatic CVT gearbox. Vespa ET2 50cc, 1997 – Same as the ET4 125, but with a 50cc 2-stroke catalysed engine. Vespa ET4 150cc, 1999 – First Piaggio scooter equipped with the new generation 4-stroke Leader engine, now on the 125cc model too. Vespa ET4 50cc, 2000 – The first small Vespa with a 4-stroke engine, combining lively performance that will make no one regret the 2-stroke with quiet running and the reduction of polluting emissions.
Fuel economy is outstanding:
The Vespa ET4 50 has the highest range in the 50 cc class, with approx. 500 km on a full tank. New Vespa PX, 2001 – Classic design and unique features such as a four-speed gearbox have made the Vespa PX a cult scooter, a symbol of Italian style everywhere in the world. The 2-stroke 125, 150 and 200cc engines (displacements vary according to markets) with forced air cooling have electronic CDI ignition and electric start with a kick starter. The new PX now sports a powerful stainless steel front disc brake, 200 mm in diameter, guaranteeing prompt, safe and efficient braking. A reliable 150 mm rear drum modulates braking. Vespa Granturismo 200L and 125L, 2003 -
History turns into current affairs…
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.
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.
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 gear change. 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 symbolized an era in our history.
And the story goes on today with the new generation of Vespa ET.
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.