An Italian history: Vespa

Believe it or not, most successful style icons became famous accidentally. And the most popular two-wheeled vehicle has proved this. Vespa was launched after a change in product was needed, but it immediately became world-famous, revolutionising the way of life of millions of people and fascinating celebrities and film sets from the 1950s to present days. A timeless icon, shaping Italy’s history and Made in Italy’s cream of the crop.

The world before Piaggio

Piaggio Factory in Finale Ligure
Piaggio & co. factory in Finale Ligure

The firm was founded in 1884, in Genoa, by Rinaldo Piaggio to produce luxury ships. Later the company expanded into producing rail coaches and carriages, engines, trams and goods vans. First World War saw a change: the company went into the production of aircraft and seaplanes. During the years that preceded the Second World War, and during the conflict, Piaggio was the Italian top producer of aircraft. So, Genoa, Finale Ligure and Pontedera plants became strategic military targets and were soon demolished.

Fast-moving consumer goods production

Vespa prototype named “Paperino MP5”

In the aftermath of the war, Enrico and Armando, Rinaldo’s children, took charge of the new industrial production. Enrico had to reopen the Pontedera big plant but needed to temporarily stop aircraft production to adapt it to new products that could meet the post-war demand. This is the reason why Enrico opted for industrial reconversion and invested in personal mobility: he was determined to start a low-price, fast-moving consumer goods production.

And he did it. At Biella’s plant they created a prototype taking inspiration from parachutists motorcycles and nicknamed it “MP5 Paperino” because of its looks. Enrico was not happy with the result, so he decided to ask Corradino D’Ascanio (1891-1981), the aircraft engineer who invented the first helicopter, to review the whole project.

The engineer had never designed motorcycles before, he wasn’t keen on them, for sure he wasn’t keen on this one either: to him, it was uncomfortable and bulky, you had to struggle to fit wheels and you easily got your hands dirty. A good start, isn’t it? Well, it was, because his dislike of the two-wheeled vehicle was the key to its success. D’Ascanio wanted to design a means of transport that could give safety and comfort to everybody. That’s why the engineer worked with Mario D’Este, his trusted draughtsman, and on April 23, 1946, he was ready to go with the project.

When Piaggio debuted

1968 Vespa Ad campaign
1968 Vespa Ad campaign

When Piaggio & C. S.p.A. filed the patent, it described Vespa as “a motorcycle with a rational complex of organs and elements with body combined with the mudguards and bonnet covering all the mechanical parts”; Enrico Piaggio began mass production and 2,000 units of the new Vespa 98 were produced; Vespa was given its public debut at Rome Golf Club. They couldn’t know at the time that the two-wheeled vehicle would be a symbol of Italian design, so popular that it would make part of the Milan’s Triennale Design Museum and New York City’s MoMA collection.

The first units went on sale for 55,000 or 66,000 lire depending on the model. Since sales expanded from 1947, Piaggio had to open new plants in 13 countries to meet the global demand.

When Vespa becomes myth

With the passing of time, Vespa has become the most popular and fascinating scooter of the world, with over 140 evolutions of the different versions and over 16 million units produced. The Italian two-wheeled vehicle has changed people’s lives, for sure. Films love it and made the glamour style icon a success. Everybody recalls Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn riding a white Vespa in Roman Holidays, it was 1953. But Vespa was not only featured in the eternal city: it made part of over 80 films. And played a part in Caro Diario, by the Italian director Nanni Moretti (1993), who has recently celebrated it, and in the American film sets of Alfie (2004) and The Interpreter.

Cinema loves it, but real life too. The celebrities who were spotted alongside a Vespa include Stefano Gabbana, Lapo Elkann, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, Anthony Perkins, Anne Hathaway and Tom Hanks, Ana Ortiz, Owen Wilson, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Uma Thurman and Andre Balazs and Zac Efron, but also comedian Zach Galifianakis and rapper Puff Daddy. These are few of the many celebrities who rode one.

Did you know that?

The reason for the name, which has become world-famous, is still uncertain. It seems that Enrico Piaggio exclaimed “That reminds me of a wasp (Vespa)!”, because of the two-wheeled vehicle buzzing sound and narrow waist.