Find out why the Vespa scooter is a design classic.
The world’s most recognizable scooter, the Vespa, was born out of the ashes of WWII in Italy. With the country’s aircraft building facilities in ruins after being bombed by the Allies, manufacturers were looking for new markets. Postwar Italy was a mess, with its road infrastructure in tatters and a barely functioning economy. Industrialist Enrico Piaggio, son of the owner of the aeronautical engineering company of the same name, decided it was time to create an affordable two-wheeled mode of transport to get his compatriots back to work.
Piaggio called on the talents of engineers Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini, but quickly realized that their efforts were not producing the goods, with their first model called the MP5 (a direct ancestor of the Vespa) not responding to the notebook. charges. This led Piaggio to hire Corradino D’Ascanio who, despite being an aircraft designer and having a strong aversion to motorcycles, was seen as the man for the job. D’Ascanio’s prototype – the MP6 – defined the design principles of the Vespa in that it was a true “scooter”, which was later to be defined as a two-wheeled motorized bicycle with a “step by step” frame, floors and a closed motor at the back. When Piaggio first saw the MP6, he would have exclaimed “sembra una vespa” (“it looks like a wasp”).
In the spring of 1946, patents were filed for a “model of a practical nature” constituting “a rational and comfortable motorcycle”. The essence of the design was that it would be easy to manufacture and its frame would allow new models to be brought into production quickly. It would also be affordable.
Yet the world’s favorite motor scooter got off to a rough start. The official press launch took place at the Rome Golf Club in front of a group of mystified journalists who were bowled over by the now-familiar aerodynamic fairing profiles that were so inspired by aircraft design. Early sales were desperately slow, and in 1947 Piaggio moved only 2,500 units.
Product placement in the movies is nothing new, and when Audrey Hepburn left unconvincingly on Gregory Peck’s Vespa in “Roman Holiday” the world went Vespa mad. Experts at Motorcycle.com believe that the fleeting glimpse of the young starlet on the scooter boosted sales by 100,000 and made the Vespa practically a must-have accessory in the film industry (the model she drove was the ‘one of the originals and not the phenomenally popular 125, as pictured here). Motorcycle.com says that in 1962 there were over 60 films featuring the Italian scooter. Even big-screen toughs Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and Charlton Heston have been seen riding off-screen Vespas.
By 1970 Piaggio claimed the production and sale of over four million Vespas worldwide. The scooter had become more than an economical, functional and efficient means of transport; he had come to represent freedom and imagination. He was to experience another heyday as a cultural marker of the Mod movement.
While evolving into a series of ever popular models including the 125, 150GS and Primavera, the Vespa line has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs since its heyday in the 1960s. Changes in ownership , cheaper competition and changes in emissions laws have all negatively impacted the ability of the scooter to enter the market. Yet it has rebounded considerably in the 21st century, having been marketed as a premium product and, as a result, gaining popularity in the celebrity world.
Facts and figures
Designer: Corradino D’Ascanio
Unit cost: 1950s models today sell for up to £ 10,000
‘Vespa’ is Italian for wasp
Designer Corradino D’Ascanio didn’t like motorcycles
18 million units have been sold since 1946
245-mile range on a single tank of fuel
Strongly featured in the Who’s rock opera ‘Quadrophenia’
There have been 34 different versions of the Vespa to date
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