Viva Vespa! Celebrating 75 years of the scooter that changed two wheels forever

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Seventy-five years ago this spring, motorcycling – or, to be precise, powered two-wheelers – changed forever when the very first scooter was launched.

Spawned from the rubble of post-WW2 Italy, produced by an aircraft company banned from making planes, designed famously by a motorcycle-hating helicopter engineer and intended to mobilise a population with a devastated transport network, that scooter was the very first Vespa.

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And, despite a slightly stuttering start, it proved so successful that within a handful of years it was being produced in its tens of thousands around the globe.

By the 1960s it was a cultural icon in movies and fashion. By the ’80s it was a stand-alone brand reigning over the whole scooter sector and today is one of the most recognisable two-wheelers of all with almost 20 million sold.

Not bad for an initially misunderstood utility vehicle whose prototype’s ‘pinched waist’ step-thru’ design prompted company boss Enrico Piaggio to exclaim: “It looks like a wasp!” (Vespa being Italian for wasp). Little did he know then how it would transform the world…

Italy looks to the future

The first Vespa 98 prototype

That first Vespa owes its creation – like many other motorcycle firms launched in the post-WW2 era – to a unique set of circumstances. Until 1939, Italian company Piaggio was a diverse transportation manufacturer with no history of powered two-wheelers.

Founded in Genoa in 1884 by Rinaldo Piaggio, it initially undertook ship fitting before going on to produce rail carriages and trams. World War One saw it start to make aircraft.

By WW2, Piaggio was one of Italy’s largest aeroplane manufacturers which is exactly why its plants became targets and were destroyed during the war.

With Italy signing an armistice in September 1943, however, Italian business could begin looking to the future. Rinaldo’s successors, sons Enrico and Armando, started restructuring Piaggio and Enrico, being responsible for the destroyed aeronautic plant but with aeroplane manufacture banned, decided to use the company’s aircraft manufacturing facilities to instead create low cost personal transport for the masses.

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A first prototype known as the MP5 surfaced in 1944, featuring small wheels and bodywork enclosing the central engine. However, Piaggio was unconvinced by its awkward, tall central section and the machine gained the unflattering nickname ‘Paperino’ (Italian for Donald Duck) due to its ungainly form.

Around the same time another Italian industrial giant was thinking along similar lines. Innocenti, based in Milan’s Lambrate suburb which specialized in seamless tubular steel, was also looking to affordable two-wheelers.

Founder Ferdinando Innocenti had noticed the US Army’s military Cushman machines during the war and was inspired to create his own utility vehicle. Innocenti hired Corradino D’Ascanio, a highly experienced aeronautical designer, and asked him to design a powered two-wheeler that would be easy to ride for both men and women, able to carry a passenger and not get its rider’s clothes dirty.

Falling out with Innocenti

D'Ascanio (right) with Piaggio

For D’Ascanio, who reportedly hated the mess and awkwardness of motorcycles, it was the perfect brief – and the design he came up with was revolutionary. To be easy for all to get on board, it had a ‘step-thru’ layout with a single spar U-shaped frame, while the novel handlebar gear change helped it be easy to ride.

To keep the rider’s legs clean a protective ‘leg shield’ was also adopted, while mounting the engine onto the rear wheel eliminated the dirt of a chain.

Unfortunately for Innocenti, however, D’Ascanio also favoured a pressed steel frame where Innocenti, hoping to revive his pre-war business, prescribed a tubular steel one.

The pair duly fell out, D’Ascanio took his ideas to Piaggio where his design was welcomed with open arms and the first Vespa was quickly finished, patented on April 23, 1946 and entered production shortly after.

What would result in the first Lambretta, meanwhile, had to go back to the drawing board, only finally entering production a year later. And the rest, as they say, is history – well, almost…

That very first Vespa, today referred to as the Vespa 98 due to its 98cc two-stroke engine, wasn’t an immediate success. Its public debut was at the prestigious Rome Golf Club; the Italian public saw it for the first time in Motor magazine (March 24, 1946); while its public unveiling came at the later Milan Fair.

Despite all that publicity initial sales were slow. Fortunately, when an option to pay by instalments was introduced, interest took off.

Some 2500 were sold in 1947, over 10,000 in 1948 and by 1950 – by which time the 98 had been succeeded by a more powerful 125cc version – production was over 60,000.

Fashionable freedom

1946 Vespa 98

A key factor in the early Vespa’s success was not just its popularity on the domestic market but also burgeoning sales abroad. Enrico Piaggio was a skilled marketeer and worked tirelessly to spread the word about Vespa abroad.

As a result, The Times in the UK reported on “A completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot.” Another initiative was the creation of Vespa enthusiast clubs and events.

A third was early ‘product placements’ which saw a Vespa ‘star’ in 1952 Hollywood movie Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. All had a huge influence in generating sales.

Nor was the then Vespa yet the finished article. It wasn’t until 1955, for example, that the 150 GS introduced the faired-in headlamp unit and 10-inch tyres which are such a part of its modern silhouette.

It was, however, already enough for it to be identified as an affordable, fashionable ‘freedom machine’. This was capitalised on by the growing popularity of scooter clubs, with some later evolving, in the UK at least, into the scooter-based ‘Mod’ scene of the late 1950s and ’60s.

The emergence of cheap, small cars such as the Mini and Fiat 500, drove some rival scooter firms to the wall. Piaggio, since 1959 under the ownership of Fiat, had the financial muscle to survive.

2003 Vespa Gran Turismo

Vespa also had the design and marketing savvy to stay on top. In the 1970s, after Lambretta, whose designs had long been viewed as less fashionable, ‘working man’ machines, had ceased trading, Vespa came up with the PX – a scooter which appealed to enthusiasts and commuters alike. With over three million sold it went on to be Vespa’s best-ever seller.

In the 1990s Vespa came up with the ET4 four-stroke, also a best seller. While in the early 2000s, after weathering another financial crisis, Vespa came up with the Granturismo (GT), a blend of retro styling, modern tech and quality detailing which quickly became the most fashionable, desirable and definitive scooter of all.

The GT and its descendants, available in 125, 200, 250 and 300 guises, and with the latest liquid-cooled, injected, four-valve engines and more, remains the most aspirational scooter of today and the transport of choice for fashionable things around town.

In short, in 2021, if you want a scooter, with very few exceptions, you want a Vespa – indeed, most non-enthusiasts now refer to ALL scooters as Vespas. Not a bad 75th birthday present for a machine born out of the ruins of war, created by a man who disliked bikes…

‘The father of the scooter’ – Corradino D’Ascanio

Corradino D'Ascanio

There’s more than a touch of irony that the designer responsible for the original Vespa – Corradino D’Ascanio – was also largely responsible for its chief rival, Innocenti’s ‘Lambretta’.

But more telling still is that D’Ascanio also famously hated motorcycles – it was his dislike of a conventional bike’s awkwardness and mess that dictated and shaped his scooter concept.

Born in 1891 in Popoli, Pescara, D’Ascanio’s lifelong passion was aeronautics. A mechanical engineer with a speciality in helicopters, he joined then aircraft company Piaggio in the 1930s after Mussolini drove his own company out of business.

Post-WW2, with Italy banned from building planes, D’Ascanio welcomed an approach by Ferdinando Innocenti to develop a new two-wheeler, even though he had no interest in motorcycles.

The result, using D’Ascanio’s aero industry influences and techniques, formed not just the basis of Innocenti’s Lambretta but, after the two fell out, Piaggio’s Vespa, too, which ended up being the quicker into production.

Although his design became the template for all scooters to come, D’Ascanio returned to his first love – aeronautics, first at Piaggio then, in 1964, at Italian helicopter specialist, Agusta.

There he designed a small training helicopter, the ADA, while he also became a respected scientific author, a professor of design and was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for his services to aeronautical development.

For two-wheeled fans, however – and no doubt much to his own annoyance – he’ll always be known as ‘the father of the scooter’.