The Vespa motor scooter is emblematic of all that is romantic and carefree about the Continental lifestyle, a virtual symbol of Italy, and a stylistic icon readily connected with youth and adventure. For many parts of the world, Vespa scooter are also a workhorse of basic transportation, a ubiquitous urban presence in European and Asian nation – the buzzing of motor scooter is still heard throughout ancient alleys and wide boulevard. With more than 15 million sold in a half-century of production, Vespa models are far and away the best-selling motor scooter of all time.
For Italians, the Vespa scooter has a broader meaning, symbolic of their country’s reemergence as a major industrial power from the shambles of World War II. It shows how a complex economic problem can be reduced to the elegant simplicity of a motor scooter. And Vespa designs serve to demonstrate the Italian sense of style and innovation.
From its roots of providing basic transportation and the bare beginnings of economic survival for the people of Italy devastated by World War II, to its role as treed-setting fashion accessory during the turbulent 1960s, the Vespa motor scooter has retained its general design and overall mission. The style and culture fit in well with today’s youth, who appreciate the retro charm and post-industrial. Old scooters fauns parked in garages and basements are being resurrected, restored, and ridden by a new generation.
Piaggio, the company that developed and produces the Vespa scooter, goes back more that a century, founded in Genoa by Rinaldo Piaggio in 1884 as Societa Anonima Piaggio. Originally dedicated to producing woodworking machinery, the company was soon engaged in building railroad cars for the booming rail industry. Latter, the company built commercial vehicles, automobiles, and boats. During World War I, Piaggio began to take part in the fledgling aviation industry by making airplane parts in 1914, and the following year, entire airplane. Piaggio’s innovative bent soon emerged as he developed such advances as as pressurized cabins and retractable landing gear. An aviation engine designed by Piaggio set 20 word records during the 1920s.
In 1938, Rinaldo Piaggio died, leaving the company’s two factories in Tuscany to Enrico Piaggio, 33, and his younger brother, Armando, 31. The timing for two young industrialist to take over their father’s business couldn’t have been worse, as fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had cemented his power in Italy and was poised to enter a pact for world conquest with Germany’s Nazi leader, Adolph Hitler.
During the war, the factories cranked out aircraft for the Axis war effort, developing several fighters and Italy’s only heavy bomber. Naturally, the factories became prime targets for Allied bombing raids. They were hit again and again, and at war’s end, the factory lay in ruins, and more than 10,000 Piaggio employees were out of work. But then, much of Italy was a shambles, all its industries bombed and destroyed, its people poverty stricken and demoralized. Under terms of the Allied peace agreement, Piaggio was banned from producing aircraft, which left Enrico Piaggio, who by then had taken over the business, casting about for a new product once he had rebuilt a factory in which to produce it.
Necessity, The Mother of Vespa
Transportation was a struggle in post-war Italy. Automobiles were expensive and in extremely short supply, even if people could find enough gasoline to run them. Most of Italy’s workforce depended on a scant number of bicycles to fulfill modest transportation needs. Piaggio, with his background in transportation, saw the need of the people and a way to get his factories humming again with a product that would be relatively easy to produce and allowed under terms of the peace agreement. And as it turned out, it was a product that would boost the morale of a defeated nation. Soon, he was devising a new kind of basic vehicle so innovative that it would forge his mark on the second half of the twentieth century.
Piaggio didn’t invent the motor scooter. It had been tried before, but without much real success. The earlier scooter were mired in bicycle and motorcycle technology, failing to move beyond the tried and true, and turned out to be heavy, clumsy, and slow. Piaggio’s vision of a scooter was absolutely unique, more like a two-wheeled auto-mobile than a bicycle—a clean, comfortable vehicle that a could be driven by anyone with ease.
Piaggio had observed a failed effort by the Italian army to provide small scooters for paratroopers. Called the Aeromoto, it was produced by the Turin company, Societa Volugrafo, and design to be parachuted out of airplanes along with the soldiers, who would use them to buzz their way over to the battle front more quickly. Perhaps a good idea, but the Aeromoto was so poorly designed, underpowered, and unstable that the plan was quickly abandoned, along with the scooters.
In 1945, two of piaggio’s design engineers, Vittorio Casini and Renzo Spolti, produced a scooter based on a small motorcycle being built at his Biella plant. They had taken an earlier scooter design, the peculiar SIMAT designed by Vittorio Belmondo in the late 1930s, and built on the basic idea. What they produced was an ungainly contraption, nicknamed Paparino, the Italian derivative of Donald Duck, which mockingly reflected its odd, ducklike shape. Piaggio himself described it as “a horrible-looking thing,” and it was soundly ridiculed by the press and public.
But from those humble efforts, Piaggio saw the spark of genius. Paparino had fired his emplotees back to work and Italy back on wheels. Piaggio wanted to build a new kind of scooter that would be inexpensive, economical, light-weigh and maneuverable, and able to be ridden comfortably by women as well as men. He wanted the rider of his scooter to be shielded from dirt, pudled, and the bike’s mechanical parts, the same as a person driving a car. And he wanted it to be the soul of simplicity, easy to build, easy to understand, and easy to repair.
To help realize his vision, Piaggio in 1945 enlisted the help of his head designer, engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, the inventor of the helicopter, who took his vast knowledge of automobile and aircraft design and narrowed its complexities down to the most basic of terms.
D’Ascanio disliked traditional motorcycles and felt that they had more defects than attributes—uncomfortable seating position, exposure to puddles and road debris, dangerous drive chain, and difficulty in repairing flat tires, among other faults. So he set out to create something that would take Paparino a giant step further along, and well away from motorcycle technology. A major part of D’Ascanio’s innovative work came from his understanding of stressed-skin body-work, used extensively in aircraft, in which the body serves double duty as an outside frame, eliminating any sort of separate supporting structure. Today, we know this as monocoque, or unibody, design, with essentially every passenger vehicle based on the concept. But in 1945, it was radical thinking.
In just three months, D’Ascanio delivered his assignment. When the engineer returned with his take on scooter design, Piaggio was impressed with the result. D’Ascanio’s scooter was smooth and aerodynamic, with an overall shape that looked strikingly modern. As Piaggio looked at the scooter’s narrow waist and wide, rounded rear aspect, and heard the buzzing of the little 98-cc engine, he remarked, “Semba una vespa,” which in Italian meant, “It seems like a wasp.” Of course, “Vespa” is the name that stuck, and remains still, all around the globe.
It became the prototype Vespa motor scooter. It was constructed without a supporting frame, instead using a sheet-metal fuselage. It has a broad shield to deflect splashes and debris from the rider, who sat upright gripping wide handlebars. The front fork was substituted with a one-sided wheel assembly and suspension much like the tail-dragger wheel of an airplane. A drive chain or drive shaft was unnecessary because the unitized engine and drive train were hidden within the bodywork of the scooter, shielding the rider from grease, dirt, and oil. D’Ascanio had taken elements of motorcycles, bicycles, automobiles, and aircraft to create something new altogether.
One obvious advantage over the motorcycle was the ease of repairing a flat tire. When motorcycle riders suffer a flat, they are stuck with the daunting job of dismantling the tire and tube from the wheel—which is difficult to remove from the bike—patching the tube and putting it all back together. It’s a dirty job that requires tools and skill. But with the Vespa design, both the front and rear wheels are identical, mounted on one-sided stub axles that allow them to be removed easily and replaced with a spare, which is carried on the back of the scooter or, in later years, behind the legshield or under the left cowl.