Line of Vespa scooters

Vespa scooter - blueprint for the classic moped

Find out why the Vespa motor scooter is a design classic.

The world’s most recognisable motor scooter, the Vespa, was born out of the ashes of the Second World War in Italy. With the nation’s aircraft-building facilities lying in ruins after being bombed by the Allies, manufacturers were looking for new markets. Post-war Italy was a mess, with its road infrastructure in tatters and a barely functioning economy. Industrialist Enrico Piaggio, son of the owner of the aircraft engineering company of the same name, decided it was time to create an affordable mode of two-wheeled transit to get his fellow countrymen back to work.

Piaggio drafted in the talents of engineers Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini, but quickly realised that their efforts weren’t producing the goods, with their early model called the MP5 (a direct ancestor of the Vespa) falling short of the design brief. This led Piaggio to hire Corradino D’Ascanio who, despite being an aircraft designer and having a pronounced dislike for motorcycles, was considered the man for the job. D’Ascanio’s prototype – the MP6 – laid down the design principles for the Vespa in that it was a genuine ‘scooter’, which was later to be defined as a two-wheel motorised bicycle with a ‘step through’ frame, floorboards and an enclosed engine to the rear. When Piaggio first saw the MP6 he is said to have exclaimed “sembra una vespa” (‘it looks like a wasp’).

By the spring of 1946, patents were filed for a ‘model of a practical nature’ constituting ‘a rational, comfortable motorcycle’. The essence of the design was that it would be easy to manufacture and that its frame would allow for new models to be rapidly put into production. It would also be affordable.

Yet the world’s favourite motor scooter got off to a sticky start. The official press launch was held in the Rome Golf Club before a group of mystified journalists who were thrown by the now familiar aerodynamic fairing profiles that drew so much on aeroplane design. Early sales were frustratingly slow, and in 1947 Piaggio shifted only 2,500 units.

Product placement in movies is nothing new, and when Audrey Hepburn drove off rather unconvincingly on Gregory Peck’s Vespa in ‘Roman Holiday’, the world went Vespa mad. Experts at motorcycle.com reckon that the fleeting glimpse of the young starlet on the scooter boosted sales by 100,000 and made the Vespa practically a de rigueur prop in the movie industry (the model she drove was one of the originals and not the phenomenally popular 125, as illustrated here). Motorcycle.com says that by 1962 there were more than 60 movies featuring the Italian scooter. Even big- screen tough guys Marlon Brando, Dean Martin and Charlton Heston were seen riding Vespas off screen.

By 1970, Piaggio laid claim to the production and sale of over four million Vespas worldwide. The scooter had become more than economical, functional and efficient transport; it had come to represent freedom and imagination. It was to have another heyday as cultural marker of the Mod movement.

While evolving in a series of ever-popular models including the 125, 150GS and the Primavera, the Vespa line has had more than its fair share of ups and downs since its Golden Age in the 1960s. Changes in ownership, cheaper competition and changes in emissions legislation have all had a negative impact on the scooter’s ability to penetrate the market. Yet it has bounced back dramatically in the 21st century, having been marketed as a premium product and, as a result, gaining popularity in the celebrity world.

Vespa scooter

Facts and figures

Date: 1946

Designer: Corradino D’Ascanio

Unit cost: 1950s models sell today for up to £10,000

‘Vespa’ is Italian for wasp

Designer Corradino D’Ascanio disliked motorbikes

18 million units have been sold since 1946

Range of 245 miles on one tank of fuel

Features heavily in the Who rock opera ‘Quadrophenia’

There have been 34 different versions of the Vespa to date

 

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