The Vespa has evolved from a single model motor scooter manufactured in 1946 by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. of Pontedera, Italy — to a full line of scooters and one of seven companies today owned by Piaggio — now Europe's largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world's fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer by unit sales.
From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the engine mechanism and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) — into a structural unit as well as a singularly endearing and enduring shape.
As the first globally successful scooter, the Vespa has enjoyed prominence in popular culture and has come to symbolize stylish personal transportation.
Post World War II Italy, in light of its agreement to cessation of war activities with The Allies, had its aircraft industry severely restricted in both capability and capacity.
Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera fighter plane plant completely demolished by bombing. Italy's crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets. Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio's founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy's urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.
Pre-war Piaggio employee Aeronautical engineer General Corradino D'Ascanio, responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter by Agusta, was given the job of designing a simple, robust and affordable vehicle for Ferdinando Innocenti, whose pre-war time focused metal tubing business Innocenti had suffered the same fate as Piaggio post-war. Innocenti defined a post-war vehicle to D'Ascanio that had to be easy to drive for both men and women, be able to carry a passenger, and not get its driver's clothes dirty.
However, D'Ascanio fell out with Innocenti, who rather than a moulded and beaten spar-frame wanted to produce his Innocenti frame from rolled tubing, thereby allowing him to revive both parts of his pre-War company. D'Ascanio disassociated himself with Innocenti, and took his design to Enrico Piaggio to produce the spar-framed Vespa from 1946. Innocenti, after overcoming design difficulties and later production difficulties through his choice of a tubular frame, went on to produce the more costly Lambretta line of motorscooters.
On 23 April 1946, at 12 o'clock in the central office for inventions, models and makes of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, Piaggio e C. S.p.A. took out a patent for a "motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part".
The basic patented design allowed a series of features to be deployed on the spar-frame which would later allow quick development of new models. The original Vespa featured a rear pillion seat for a passenger, or optionally a storage compartment. The original front protection "shield" was a flat piece of aero metal; later this developed in to a twin skin to allow additional storage behind the front shield, similar to the glove compartment in a car. The fuel cap was located underneath the (hinged) seat, which saved the cost of an additional lock on the fuel cap or need for additional metal work on the smooth skin.
The scooter had rigid rear suspension and small wheels that allowed a compact design and plenty of room for the rider's legs. The Vespa's enclosed, horizontally-mounted two-stroke 98 cc engine acted directly on the rear drive wheel through a three-speed transmission. The twistgrip-controlled gear change involved a system of rods. The early engine had no cooling, but fan blades were soon attached to the flywheel (otherwise known as the magneto, which houses the points and generates electricity for the bike and for the engine's spark) to push air over the cylinder's cooling fins. The modern Vespa engine is still cooled this way. The mixture of two-stroke oil in the fuel produced high amounts of smoke, and the engine made a high buzzing sound like a wasp.
When the second prototype called MP6, was shown to Enrico Piaggio and he heard the buzzing sound of the engine he exclaimed: "Sembra una vespa!" ("It resembles a wasp!") The name stuck.
Vespa is both Latin and Italian for wasp—derived from both the high-pitched noise of the two-stroke engine, and adopted as a name for the vehicle in reference to its body shape: the thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist, and the steering rod resembled antennae.
Piaggio filed a patent for the Vespa scooter design in April 1946. The application documents referred to a "model of a practical nature" for a "motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts", of which "the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance". The patent was approved the following December.
The first 13 examples appeared in spring 1946, and reveal their aeronautical background. In the first examples, one can recognize the typical aircraft technology. Attention to aerodynamics is evident in all the design, in particular on the tail. It was also one of the first vehicles to use monocoque construction (where the body is an integral part of the chassis).
The company was aiming to manufacture the new Vespa in large numbers, and their longstanding industrial experience led to an efficient Ford-style volume production line. The scooter was presented to the press at Rome Golf Club, where journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like object on display. But the road tests were encouraging, and even with no rear suspension the machine was more manoeuvrable and comfortable to ride than a traditional motorcycle.
Following its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first fifty sold slowly—then with the introduction of payment by installments, sales took off.
Piaggio sold some 2,500 Vespas in 1947, over 10,000 in 1948, 20,000 in 1949, and over 60,000 in 1950.
The biggest sales promo ever was Hollywood. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn side-saddled Gregory Peck's Vespa in the film Roman Holiday for a ride through Rome, resulting in over 100,000 sales. In 1956, John Wayne dismounted his horse in favor of the two-wheeler to originally get between takes on sets. By the end of the fifties, Lucia Bosé and her husband, the matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, as well as Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and the entertainer Abbe Lane had become Vespa owners. William Wyler filmed Ben Hur in Rome in 1959, allowing Charlton Heston to abandon horse and chariot between takes to take a spin on the Vespa.
Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe, and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain; in the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia. By 1956, one million had been sold, then two million by 1960. By the 1960s, the Vespa—originally conceived as a utility vehicle—had come to symbolize freedom and imagination, and resulted in further sales boosts: four million by 1970, and ten million by the late 1980s. Between 1957 and 1961 a reverse-engineered and partially redesigned version of the Vespa was made in USSR under the name Vjatka-VP150.
Improvements were made to the original design and new models were introduced. The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150 cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit. Then came the 50 cc of 1963, and in 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all.
Vespas came in two sizes, referred to as "largeframe" and "smallframe". The smallframe scooters came in 50cc, 90cc, 100 cc, and 125 cc versions, all using an engine derived from the 50 cc model of 1963, and the largeframe scooters in 125cc,150cc,160cc,180cc and 200 cc displacements using engines derived from the redesigned 125 cc engine from the late 50's.
The largeframe Vespa evolved into the PX range (produced in 125 and 150 cc versions until July 2007) in the late 70's. The smallframe evolved into the PK range in the early 80's, although some vintage-styled smallframes were produced for the Japanese market as late as the mid 1990's.
The ET model range stuck true to the wasp/aero design principles. It was lighter, more aerodynamic, had an automatic gearbox and could take a series of engines from a 50 cc in either two-stroke or four-stroke, up to a 150 cc four stroke. Plus, it was launched when traffic congestion in major European cities was on the increase, so the smaller wheel size didn't matter. It was a complete success, and allowed Vespa to re-enter the North American market in 2001 with a new, more modern style.
When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide, making it the most successful scooter of all time. Other companies vied with Piaggio for market share, but none came close to emulating the success—or romance—of Vespa. The nostalgic image of Vespa, however, could not hide the fact that Vespa was making a loss.
In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of car maker Fiat SpA. Vespa thrived until 1992 when Giovanni Alberto Agnelli became CEO, but Agnelli was already suffering from cancer and died in 1997. In 1999 Morgan Grenfell Private Equity acquired Piaggio, but a quickly hoped-for sale was dashed by a failed joint venture in China.
Then came Roberto Colaninno: A lot of people told me I was crazy. Piaggio wasn't dying. It just needed to be treated better. Piaggio's finances were in a bad shape, but its brand was still well-known and its products were featuring in more Hollywood films thanks to the Vespa ET4. In October 2003 Colaninno made an initial investment of 100 million euros through his holding company Immsi SpA in exchange for just under a third of Piaggio and the mandate to run it. Chief executive Rocco Sabelli redesigned the factory to Japanese principles so that every Piaggio scooter could be made on any assembly line.
Colaninno laid down some rules and made quick changes; all bonuses for blue-collar workers and management were based on the same criteria: profit margins and customer satisfaction. He didn't fire a single worker—a move which helped seduce the company's skeptical unions. Air conditioning was installed in the factory and he gave the company's engineers, who had been idled by the company's financial crisis, deadlines for projects. They rolled out two world firsts in 2004: a gas-electric hybrid scooter and a scooter with two wheels in front and one in back which grips the road better.
One of Piaggio's problems Mr. Colaninno couldn't fix from the inside was its scale. Even though Piaggio was the European market leader, it was dwarfed by rivals Honda and Yamaha. A year after rescuing Piaggio, Colaninno decided to salvage another Italian brand: scooter and motorcycle maker Aprilia. On July 11, 2006, shares of Piaggio & Co., became available to the general public through listing on the Milan [Italy] Stock Exchange or Borsa Italiana. Piaggio share prices, converted to US Dollars, may be found under the trading symbol: PIAGF.
Piaggio first came back into the market in 2001 w/ the ET2 (two stroke 50cc) and ET4 (four stroke 150cc). In 2004, the PX (model year 2005) was re-introduced to North America to meet classic market demand. Growth in the US market and worldwide environmental concerns meant the need for larger and cleaner engines, so Vespa developed the LEADER (Low Emissions ADvanced Engine Range) series of four stroke engines. The larger Granturismo frame, with larger wheels, was introduced to handle the additional power. The bike in 2006 spawned a GTS250ie version, with an upgraded suspension and the new QUASAR (QUarter-liter Smooth Augmented Range) 250cc fuel injected engine, capable of 80+ MPH. In 2005, the ET was withdrawn from Europe and North America and replaced by a new small-frame scooter, the LX range. These were available in the USA in 50 cc and 150 cc versions, while Europeans could choose a 125 cc.
Vespa enthusiasts can visit the comprehensive Piaggio Museum & Gift Shop adjacent to the plant in central Pontedera, near Pisa, Tuscany. The permanent exhibition includes those items which toured prestigious venues such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Also on display is, perhaps, the most famous Vespa of them all - the one personally customised by Salvador Dalí in 1962.
The appeal of the Vespa to the style conscious Mods was the weather protection - as opposed to their counterparts the Rockers, who rode classic British oily twins like Triumph Bonneville and BSAs, and needed to dress up in leather against both the elements and their oily bikes.
Mods would modify their Vespas, adding lights, mascots, accessories, various racks and crash bars (profusions of mirrors were NOT a 60's fashion it became one after the release of the quadrophenia album and film which featured scooters customised this way in the 70's). The whole phenomenon was dramatised with varying degrees of accuracy in Quadrophenia,the film based on The Who album of the same name.
The dominance of the Vespa declined through the 1970s, as small car ownership increased and cheap and reliable commuter bikes like the Honda Super Cub hit sales. Despite the introduction of the more modern 'P' range in the 70's however, the lack of development cost Vespa, and like other markets the sales fell off drastically in the economic boom 1980s. Then Vespa introduced the trendy automatic ET2, London introduced the congestion charge - and partly with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's indirect help from his BBC2 series - sales suddenly leapt.
Much as Vespa had used the Cushman Army scooter as inspiration for its original design, Vespa in turn also made scooters for Sears and Cushman post World War II.
Imported by Morton Colby of the LLM Group , the Sears models were 3 and 4 speed 125 cc Vespas rebadged as Sears Allstate Cruiseaires. Innocenti also distributed their Lambretta brand via Montgomery Wards catalogue at this post WWII period. These were the premier brands of scooters, bringing premium pricing to many, including farmers, whose link to the outside world was via purchases made in these catalogues. Cushman sold rebadged Vespa scooters as Cushmans, but many Cushman dealers refused to market a "foreign" machine. However, collectors prize the Cushman Vespa because it is relatively rare.
Bankruptcy of Vespa's American importer due to two expensive product liability lawsuits, increased competition from Japanese manufacturers, and certain states passing so-called "green laws" caused a withdrawal from the US market in late 1981.
During 1981-2001, despite an absence of United States domestic sales, Vespas continued to have a core group of enthusiasts who kept vintage scooters on the road by rebuilding, restoring, and adding performance enhancing engine parts as the stock parts would wear out.
Vespa returned to the US market in 2001 with a new, more modern style ET series, in 50 cc two and four stroke, and 150 cc four stroke. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, U.S. scooter sales increased fivefold over six years, swelling from 12,000 units in 1997 to 69,000 units in 2002. Vespa sales in the U.S. increased 27 percent between 2001 and 2002. The 65 "Vespa Boutiques" scattered throughout the U.S. gave scooterists a place to buy, service, and customize Vespa scooters, and outfit themselves in everything from Vespa watches and helmets to Vespa jackets, T-shirts, and sunglasses. Vespa restarted its American sales effort, opening its first boutique on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
In light of vastly increasing US sales, Vespa developed the GT, offered 200 cc four stroke and a 125 cc variant in Europe. In 2004 Vespa reintroduced a modernized PX 150 to the US. In the fall of 2005, Piaggio offered their largest Vespa scooter model ever, the 250 cc engined GTS250 available in Europe with ABS.
Vespas acquired popularity beyond Europe and North America. In India, Piaggio transferred Vespa technology to Bajaj Auto. Bajaj used to sell in North America in the early 1980s but later withdrew from the market due to litigation threats from Piaggio.
Another Vespa clone producer in India was LML Motors. They were a large Piaggio parts provider and licensed to manufacture for the P series of Vespa scooters to the Asian markets. LML had manufactured a range of Vespa P series clones using their Piaggo/Vespa molds and machinery. Production of LML scooters has ceased after worker strikes and discontent at the LML factory progressed to a management lockout on March 7, 2006.
Though dominated by Honda and Japanese makes, Vespas are also widespread throughout Southeast Asia. Motor scooters remain economical forms of transport in the congested cities of Asia and there is a large manufacturing base of parts and accessories. The resurgence in interest in vintage motor scooters has also spawned the scooter restoration industry, with many restored Vespas being exported from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia to the rest of the world. This has created controversy amongst scooter enthusiasts as the quality of the restorations vary greatly.
The first fictional character highly associated with Vespa to have mass public attention was American newspaper reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), in the Hollywood film Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn's character rode in Italian side-saddle style as a passenger. The Vespa featured highly in publicity for the film, and in the original poster, assisting greatly in marketing of the brand globally.
Other media featuring Vespa riders have included: