Vespa has not only left its mark on an entire era, 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.
Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio's founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy's urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation. The idea was to design a vehicle for the masses that could get post war Italy moving again.
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.
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).
An aeronautical engineer named Corradino D’Ascanio, responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter, was given the job of designing a simple, robust and affordable vehicle. The vehicle had to be easy to drive for both men and women, be able to carry a passenger, and not get its driver’s clothes dirty.
D’Ascanio, who could not stand motorbikes, dreamed up a revolutionary vehicle. Dipping into his knowledge of aeronautics, he designed a vehicle built on a frame with a handlebar gear, with the engine mounted on the rear wheel. The front fork, like an aircraft’s landing gear, allowed for easy wheel changing.
From an intuition of Enrico Piaggio’s the Vespa was born, in April of 1946, when 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, and Spain, and of course, Italy. And just a few years later, in India and Indonesia.
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 phenomenon. 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.
For more than 50 years, Vespa has fascinated millions of people and given the world an irreplaceable icon of Italian style and a means of personal transport that has become synonymous with freedom.