Part 15: Vespa – Happy 70th Birthday!
By David Cavaliere
I couldn’t allow the 70th birthday of Italy’s iconic scooter to pass without writing a short article. Born from the ashes of a war-worn aircraft manufacturer, the beloved scooter was (at least in a legal sense) born at noon on April 23, 1946, when in the central office for inventions, models and makes of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, Piaggio e C. S.p.A. took out a patent for a “moto di una complessità razionale di organi ed elementi combinati con un telaio con parafanghi ed un involucro che copre tutta la parte meccanica.” Which translates as a motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part. I can think of no more impersonal way to describe a scooter that has always been known for its personality!
Piaggio e C. S.p.A., the company that created the Vespa, was founded by Rinaldo Piaggio in 1884. The location was originally in Sestri Ponente, an industrial suburb of Genoa in northwest Italy. The company originally made fittings for ships and carriages. It then expanded into railway construction and the manufacture of aircraft. By the end of the 1930’s, Piaggio was building not only trains, ship fittings, aircraft engines and aircraft, but also trucks, trams and buses. During the Second World War, most of the company’s manufacturing plants were destroyed or severely damaged. Enrico Piaggio was looking for an all-new business idea, and dreamed of helping Italy solve its post-war transport problems. Enrico Piaggio entered the complex business of restructuring Italy with a precise idea – he wanted to build a simple means of transport that would be cheap, consume very little gasoline and could be ridden by everyone, women included. His technicians and engineers had been experimenting with a small scooter, technically called the MP5, but which the workers themselves christened Paperino, or Donald Duck, for its strange shape. Piaggio liked the idea of a small vehicle and after some refinement and redesign, the nimble, multi-use vehicle was born. It was christened the Vespa. It got its name, which means “wasp” in Italian, from the fact that early versions sounded like an insect buzzing, such was the nature of its early engine. The very first Vespa was in production for two years. It had a 98 cc engine and could reach up to 60mph.
Vespa played a key role in re-booting (pardon the pun) Italy’s economy after the war and helping the country get back on its economic feet. Piaggio sold 2,500 Vespas in 1947. It sold over 10,000 in 1948, doubled those sales in 1949, and sold over 60,000 Vespas in 1950. The biggest sales promotion ever took place in 1952. It was in that year that Audrey Hepburn rode side saddle on a Vespa with Gregory Peck in film Roman Holiday. That cinematic ride through Rome helped to propel sales of Vespas to over 100,000 in that year.
The original advertising campaign for the scooter asserted that Vespa was not a motorcycle, but rather a small car with two wheels. In the 1950s, the slogan ‘for your work, for your leisure, Vespa yourselves’ created a verb – “vespizzare” meaning “to Vespa oneself.” In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of car maker Fiat S.p.A..
Vespa’s largest market is still Italy. Vespas became a cult phenomenon during the 1960’s in the United Kingdom and at one point surpassed Italy as the company’s largest market. The UK is still Vespa’s second largest global market. After years of absence in North America, in 2004, the PX was introduced to meet market demands for the classic Vespa design.
Like the yellow cabs of New York, or the red double-decker buses of London, the Vespa is now an obligatory feature for any movie that is set in the Eternal City. It has become as much a fashion icon as it is a means of transportation.