One of the most recognisable types of transportation is the Vespa. What began in 1946 as manufacturing company Piaggio's modest notion to make it easier and more affordable for Italians to travel following the second world war quickly grew into a motor industry titan. The Vespa's amazing design has become ingrained in our collective consciousness. Who hasn't fantasised of riding a Vespa through the Tuscan hills? Learn about the history of this Italian luxury scooter brand.
Piaggio factory in Italy. Photograph: via Flickr (Vespamore).
The year is 1946. The second world war is over, and Italy's aviation sector is severely hindered in terms of competence and capability. Piaggio emerged with the destruction of its Pontedera bomber plane factory in Tuscany and, with the war now behind them, the company was able to focus on new, ambitious urban mobility plans. At the time, the state of Italy's roadways were less than ideal, making the vehicle market's rehabilitation difficult. Enrico Piaggio, the owner of the company, saw this as an opportunity and decided to leave the aviation industry in order to satisfy the pressing demand for a contemporary, low-cost form of private mobility in Italy.
Piaggio (on whom Rai created a film in 2019) commissioned this vehicle for solo travels in 1944, at the end of the second world war. The MP1 (Moto Piaggio), dubbed "Donald Duck", is the first project to see the light. Nevertheless, this did not persuade the entrepreneur, who was imagining his product as inexpensive and accessible to everyone. The idea was to create a means of transport for all workers who could not afford a car and for housewives, who, to move, had to use their husband’s vehicle. The brief was eventually handed over to Corradino D'Ascanio, an aviation engineer who is now known as "the father of Vespa" (he was famous at the time because he had designed the prototype of the first production helicopter). Corradino included various ergonomics techniques into the new MP6 design. For example, instead of a chain, he envisaged a vehicle with a stress-bearing body and direct mesh. To make tyre change easier, the gear lever was moved to the handlebar. The body was meant to keep the driver clean by shielding them from the other elements. Overall, he produced a well-thought-out design. The MP6 prototype was completed in 1945, and Enrico Piaggio was instantly enthralled by it, exclaiming, "It looks like a Vespa!" or, ”It looks like a wasp" (thus the iconic name Vespa, which means "wasp" in Italian).
Vespa, Piaggio blueprint, 1946.
Enrico Piaggio and Corradino D'Ascanio, who was the designer of the first helicopter and original Vespa.
In 1946, the 98, the Vespa's very first model, was unveiled at the exclusive Golf Club di Roma. A new logo was imprinted on the shield, replacing the former Piaggio Aircraft insignia. Vespa was an instant hit, attracting widespread media attention as well as popular curiosity. The vehicle retailed for 55,000 lire, with the "luxury" variant going for 61,000 lire.
The Vespa was expensive, given the average wage in Italy at the time was 10,000 lire, but it was a useful vehicle for workers. The initial sales were modest, but they rapidly picked up when Vespa introduced instalment payments, which was another significant step Vespa made to make it easier for Italians to travel. Because of the high demand, Piaggio then decided to remove the economical model from the market and only offer the most costly one. According to the history Vespa, the film "Vacanze Romane,” (Roman Holiday) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn and set in Rome, played a significant impact in Vespa's commercial success. In the aftermath of the second world war, the Vespa scooter influenced the development of consumer culture, women's emancipation, and adolescent identity, among other things, and is now seen as a global model for both cultural value and design. This magnificent narrative has also served to define the "Made in Italy" trademark, making it globally recognised for its elegance, creativity and ambition.