Heading into this week I had thoughts of biker gangs, Indian cycles, Steve McQueen, and all the American pride that goes along with that, but as I’ve started to dig into these posts, I’ve been preoccupied with something from the other side of the Atlantic. It could be the summer heat or just the seemingly unflappable popularity of Italian style, but the Vespa just seems to fit right into my current state of mind.
Post-war Italy was in disastrous shape, with most of their industries left all but gutted, and Piaggo & Co. had taken one of the biggest hits. During World War Two the company had been a major producer of fighter planes for the Italian military, but the allies bombed their factories to oblivion over the course of the campaign. After the dust settled Enrico Piaggo, who’s father Rinaldo had founded the company, decided it was time to start anew, leaving the aviation industry behind, he began to steer the company in a new direction. Enrico had a vision for a contemporary and affordable invention that would revolutionize the way the Italian’s lived their lives as they rebuilt their country.
Always searching for that edge, the U.S. was constantly sending over new technologies from the states throughout the war. Once such vehicle was the Cushman scooter, a vehicle small and maneuverable enough to bypass the Nazi’s attempts at bombing out roads and bridges. It was that scooter that gave the company their inspiration to create a vehicle never before available to the Italian people. The first attempt was led by designers, Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini in 1944, they dubbed their invention the Paperino, or Donald Duck in Italian, but their design was closer to a typical motorcycle than something revolutionary and Enrico instantly rejected it.
Dissatisfied with the work of his in-house team, he decided to call in an outsider, aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, who delivered the first Vespa in 1946. D’Ascanio hated motorcycles, proclaiming them bulky and impractical, so he aimed for something compact and lightweight. What he developed was a two-wheeled, step through scooter, with the engine in the rear, and an enclosed chain mechanism. Upon seeing the scooter, Enrico emphatically proclaimed “Sembra una vespa!,” or ”it looks like a wasp!” and the name just stuck. Piaggo promptly patented the vehicle, began cranking them out using “Ford-style” mass manufacturing and promptly launched it to the public during the 1946 Milan Fair.
At first people were a bit confused, the design was unlike anything they’d seen before and they didn’t exactly know how to respond to it, but nonetheless they began to sell, and slowly but surely the Vespa began to take over the streets of Italy. The Italian people were starving for something to get excited about and the inexpensive, agile scooter was exactly what they needed. In just a few years Piaggo’s sales had climbed to over fifty thousand Vespas annually. From the businessman riding to work in his unstructured Navy suit, to the teenager cruising around in a half buttoned dress shirt and scuffed up loafers, the Vespa became an integral part of Italian life.
The international push came in 1952 with the release of Roman Holiday, as Gregory Peck rolled through the Roman streets with Audrey Hepburn at his side sales skyrocketed. With interest piquing Vespa expanded production and sales throughout the world, marketing the scooters as a paragon of that incredibly desirable laid-back Italian attitude. With new markets came even greater success and by 1956 Vespa sales reached into the millions. Over the years the Vespa has gone beyond it’s Italian roots, taking on new meaning for each generation. During the sixties it was the mods in England, for whom the inexpensive vehicles meant freedom. The young Mod rocker, riding around in a kitted out Vespa all decked out in a slim fitting suit and matching wingtips was a common sight throughout London for years. Beyond that everyone from the Japanese, to Hollywood stars, to American urbanites have had a love affair with the Vespa at one time or another, drawn in by that uniquely appealing Italian design.