In today’s current climate, scooters are arguably the easiest, safest, cheapest and most convenient mode of powered transport there is, especially around town. You can easily filter through traffic, they’re kind on the wallet thanks to their fuel efficiency, you can park in the tightest of spaces and they boast superior storage space over other motorcycles as standard. Most modern scooters follow a standard blueprint and do a similar job, but there’s one particular scooter that leads the class in terms of popularity.
The most famous name in the scooter class is undoubtably the Vespa, built by Italian giant Piaggio. Even non-motorcyclists know what a Vespa looks and sounds like, and consider the model iconic thanks to global superstars of the 1950s pictured nipping around on them. The 1953 film Roman Holiday featured Audrey Hepburn and George Peck on one propelling the Vespa to cool status, helping sales figures reach 100,000 in 1954. When the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston were seen on Vespas, that status was cemented.
The early days
Rinaldo Piaggio founded the company in 1884 and began building aeroplanes and became the largest plane builder in the world. Its plane factory was then destroyed during World War Two, so once the war ended, the firm needed to change its direction. So, Piaggio decided to create something for the masses to help people get around cheaply.
In April 1946, Piaggio filed for a patent with the Central Patents Office at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, describing the 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”.
The design as described in the patent is thanks to former aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio. He found motorcycles bulky, dirty, uncomfortable, and too difficult to change wheels on them after a puncture. D’Ascanio solved all of these problems with his design for the Vespa, using direct mesh drive to eliminate the need for a chain, enclosed bodywork to keep riders away from working parts and providing weather protection. He even designed a supporting arm instead of front forks to make wheel changes easier too.
The Vespa was first revealed to the public at a golf club in Rome, a year ahead of its main competitor Lambretta. The innovative scooter was received with intrigue and excitement, and it went into production powered by a 98cc engine producing a little over 3bhp. In the Vespa 98’s first year on sale, 2,484 people put orders in, making it an immediate success.
In 1947, Vespa built 10,353 models and a further 9,500 by the end of 1948. The sales of the Vespa continued to grow and, in June 1956, the one millionth scooter rolled off the production line. Just four years later in 1960, the number of Vespas produced rose to two million as popularity and demand just kept on raising, paving the way for the scooter to go down in history as an icon.
The Vespa’s popularity transcended the cobbled streets of Italy’s towns and cities, and took the UK by storm and integrated itself firmly in the Mod culture in the 1960s, captured by The Who’s Quadrophenia album in 1973. Outside of Italy, the UK was the biggest market in the world for the Italian manufacturer.
Vespas are still considered a design icon today, and you will see plenty parked in motorcycle bays or zipping along streets all over the world. In recent years, commuters have bought new and restored Vespas to get around towns and cities because of their legendary status and perfect combination of style and practicality.
The biggest change in modern Vespas over the historic models is that they all use four-stroke engines now due to regulations pretty much deeming two-strokes redundant, so the classic sound and distinctive smell has unfortunately been lost. Options for engine capacity in the latest models also range from 50cc all the way to 300cc, with some models like the GTS 300 even coming with ABS! It goes without saying that the modern engine, brakes and suspension components are far superior to those used in the early years. Much like the Mini car, the today’s Vespa is a modern interpretation of a classic design, using classic design elements together with the latest technology.
Popularity has maintained mainly due to the styling staying consistent with the bikes that have been rolling off of the production line for over 70 years, and in 2020, there are 20 model variations to choose from. A true icon in the history of motorcycling, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Vespa’s scooter range are still being produced for another 70 years!
Did you know?
The name Vespa is Italian for ‘wasp’. Enrico Piaggio (son of Piaggio founder, Rinaldo) came up with the name after seeing the Vespa MP6 prototype for the first time. He thought the wide back end, joined to the front end by a narrow mid-section, looked like the body of a wasp, with the steering column resembling antennae.