On the 23rd April, the Piaggio Vespa will celebrate 75 years in production. After seven decades it has emerged from humble beginnings to selling more than 18 million bikes across six continents.
After the second World War, the Italian aeronautical industry was heavily shackled by the Allied victors, and the economy in general was in tatters. The country was also looking down the barrel of serious metal shortages.
Piaggio had up to that point been a leading producer of planes for the war effort, but with its main factory having been destroyed by bombing, Enrico Piaggio decided to focus on producing cheap transportation for the masses, using as much aeronautical expertise as he could in the process.
The first Piaggio Vespa, named after the wasp that it was thought to resemble, was launched in 1946. An ingenious design and advanced for the time, the company’s expertise had clearly been poured into the design of the MP6, which was a masterstroke of form and function.
A monocoque structure made of pressed steel, the design of the frame used the bodywork as an integral part of the structure and allowed for the ‘step through’ nature of the bike. The simple bodywork featured front-faring that kept the rider protected from the worst of the weather. The front design was shaped with aerodynamics in mind and it matched the enclosed rear fender which encased the engine and rear wheel. The effect was streamlined, and achingly pretty.
As practical transport for the masses, the mechanics of the Vespa were kept as simple as possible. The robust, horizontally mounted 98cc engine was air-cooled, assisted by a flywheel-driven fan. To save on chains and associated mechanical parts, the engine and gearbox were bolted directly to the rear wheel, which was interchangeable with the front. This use of identical rims allowed for cheaper manufacturing, and an easy supply of spares. A simple three-speed gearbox was operated from the handlebars and, once in top, the tiny Vespa could cruise all day (on the flat) at just above 40mph.
As ubiquitous as scooters have become in today’s cities, the concept was not an overnight success. The introduction of a stage-payment process helped shift some initial 2500 scooters in the first year, which rose to 60,000 by 1950, but with a little help from some Hollywood glamour, the Vespa took off in 1952. The sight of Audrey Hepburn riding through Rome on a Vespa in the 1952 Hollywood blockbuster Roman Holiday provided the ultimate stylish endorsement, and sales soared.
Over the next six decades the model continued to evolve. Engines enlarged, the manual transmission gave way to a CVT gearbox, and eventually the two-stroke engine was replaced by a four-stroke unit; but the essential ingredients remained the same. The little Vespa is, to this day, a cheap and stylish means of transport which, for millions of people the world over, represents their first foray on to two wheels and it always provides a buzz.
Do you have an original Vespa? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.