Founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio, Piaggio initially undertook luxury ship fitting before going on to produce rail carriages, goods vans, luxury coaches and engines, trams and special truck bodies.
World War I brought a new diversification that was to distinguish Piaggio activities for many decades. The company started producing aeroplanes and seaplanes. At the same time, new plants were springing up.
In 1917 Piaggio bought a new plant in Pisa, and four years later it took over a small plant in Pontedera which first became the centre of aeronautical production (propellers, engines and complete aircraft, including the state-of-the-art Piaggio P108 in passenger and bomber versions).
Before and during World War II, Piaggio was one of Italy’s top aircraft manufacturers. For this reason, its plants were important military targets and the Piaggio factories in Genoa, Finale Ligure and Pontedera were irrevocably damaged by the war.
The 1946 Invention
Rinaldo Piaggio’s sons Enrico and Armando began the process of re-starting industrial production immediately after the war. The hardest task went to Enrico, who was responsible for the destroyed Pontedera plant. He arranged for part of the machinery transferred to Biella in Piedmont to be brought back.
Enrico Piaggio opted for an industrial reconversion, focusing on personal mobility in a country emerging from war. He gave shape to his intuition, building a vehicle destined to become extremely famous, thanks to the extraordinary design work of the aeronautical engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio (1891-1981).
Vespa: The Birth of a Legend
The Vespa (which means "wasp" in Italian) was the result of Enrico Piaggio’s determination to create a low cost product for the masses. As the war drew to a close, Enrico studied every possible solution to get production in his plants going again – starting from Biella, where a motor scooter was produced, based on a small motorcycle made for parachutists.
The prototype, known as the MP 5, was nicknamed "Paperino" (the Italian name for Donald Duck) because of its strange shape, but Enrico Piaggio did not like it, and he asked Corradino D’Ascanio to redesign it.
The aeronautical designer did not like motorcycles. He found them uncomfortable and bulky, with wheels that were difficult to change after a puncture. Worse still, the drive chain made them dirty. However, his aeronautical experience found the answer to every problem.
To eliminate the chain he imagined a vehicle with a stress-bearing body and direct mesh; to make it easier to ride, he put the gear lever on the handlebar; to make tyre changing easier he designed not a fork, but a supporting arm similar to an aircraft carriage.
Finally, he designed a body that would protect the driver so that he would not get dirty or dishevelled. Decades before the spread of ergonomic studies, the riding position of the Vespa was designed to let the rider sit comfortably and safely, not balanced dangerously as on a high-wheel motorcycle.
Corradino D’Ascanio’s drawings had nothing to do with the Paperino: his design was absolutely original and revolutionary compared to all the other existing means of two-wheeled transport. With the help of his favourite designer Mario D’Este, Corradino D’Ascanio took only a few days to prepare his first sketches of the Vespa, first produced in Pontedera in April 1946.
It got its name from Enrico Piaggio himself who, looking at the MP 6 prototype with its wide central part where the rider sat and the narrow "waist", exclaimed, "It looks like a wasp!" And so the Vespa was born.
The First Vespa Patent
On 23 April 1946 Piaggio & C. S.p.A. filed a patent with the Central Patents Office for inventions, models and brand names at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, for "a motor cycle with a rational complex of organs and elements with body combined with the mudguards and bonnet covering all the mechanical parts". In a short space of time the Vespa was presented to the public, provoking contrasting reactions.
However, Enrico Piaggio did not hesitate to start mass production of two thousand units of the first Vespa 98 cc. The new vehicle made its society debut at Rome’s elegant Golf Club, in the presence of the U.S. General Stone who represented the Allied military government.
Italians saw the Vespa for the first time in the pages of Motor (March 24, 1946) and on the black and white cover of La Moto on April 15, 1946. They saw the actual vehicle at that year’s Milan show, where even Cardinal Schuster stopped to take a look, intrigued by the futuristic vehicle.
From Scepticism to Reality
Two versions of the Vespa 98cc went on sale with two prices: 55,000 liras for the "normal" version and 61,000 liras for the "luxury" version with a few options including a speedometer, lateral stand and stylish white-trim tyres. Manufacturers and market experts were divided: on one side the people who saw the Vespa as the realisation of a brilliant idea, and on the other the sceptics, who were soon to change their minds.
The initial problems led Enrico Piaggio to offer Count Parodi, who manufactured Moto Guzzi motorcycles, distribution rights for the Vespa so as to get his vehicle into the retail network of the better-known brand. Count Parodi refused outright, estimating that the Vespa would flop, and the scooter was therefore initially sold through the Lancia network.
In the last months of 1947 production exploded and the following year the Vespa 125 appeared, a larger model that was soon firmly established as the successor to the first Vespa 98.
The Vespa "miracle" had become reality, and output grew constantly; in 1946, Piaggio put 2,484 scooters on the market. These became 10,535 the following year, and by 1948 production had reached 19,822. When in 1950 the first German licensee also started production, output topped 60,000 vehicles, and just three years later 171,200 vehicles left the plants.
Foreign markets also watched the birth of the scooter with interest, and both the public and the press expressed curiosity and admiration. The Times called it "a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot".
Enrico Piaggio continued tenaciously to encourage the spread of the Vespa abroad, creating an extensive service network all over Europe and the rest of the world. He maintained constant attention and growing interest around his product, with a number of initiatives that included the foundation and spread of the Vespa Clubs.
The Vespa became the Piaggio product par excellence, while Enrico personally tested prototypes and new models. His business prospects transcended national frontiers and by 1953, thanks to his untiring determination, there were more than ten thousand Piaggio service points throughout the world, including America and Asia.
By then the Vespa Clubs counted over 50,000 members, all opposed to the "newborn" Innocenti Lambretta. No less than twenty thousand Vespa enthusiasts turned up at the Italian "Vespa Day" in 1951. Riding a Vespa was synonymous with freedom, with agile exploitation of space and with easier social relationships.
The new scooter had become the symbol of a lifestyle that left its mark on its age: in the cinema, in literature and in advertising, the Vespa appeared endlessly among the most significant symbols of a changing society.
In 1950, just four years from its debut, the Vespa was manufactured in Germany by Hoffman-Werke of Lintorf; the following year licensees opened in Great Britain (Douglas of Bristol) and France (ACMA of Paris); production began in Spain in 1953 at Moto Vespa of Madrid, now Piaggio España, followed immediately by Jette, outside Brussels.
Plants sprang up in Bombay and Brazil; the Vespa reached the USA, and its enormous popularity drew the attention of the Reader’s Digest, which wrote a long article about it. But that magical period was only the beginning. Soon the Vespa was produced in 13 countries and marketed in 114, including Australia, South Africa (where it was known as the "Bromponie", or moor pony), Iran and China.
And it was copied: on June 9, 1957, Izvestia reported the start of production in Kirov, in the USSR, of the Viatka 150 cc, an almost perfect clone of the Vespa. Piaggio had begun very early on to extend its range into the light transport sector.
In 1948, soon after the birth of the Vespa, production of the three-wheeler Ape van (the Italian for "bee") derived from the scooter began, and the vehicle was an immediate success for its many possible uses.
Numerous imaginative versions of the Vespa appeared, some from Piaggio itself, but mainly from enthusiasts – for example, the Vespa Sidecar, or the Vespa-Alpha of 1967, developed with Alpha-Wallis for Dick Smart, a screen secret agent, which could race on the road, fly, and even be used on or underwater.
The French army had a few Vespa models built specially to carry arms and bazookas, and others that could be parachuted together with the troops. Even the Italian army asked Piaggio for a parachutable scooter in 1963.
While the Lambretta was starting to enjoy some success, the Vespa was being copied and imitated in a thousand ways: but the uniqueness of the vehicle ensured Piaggio a very long period of success, so much so that in November 1953, the 500,000th unit left the line, followed by the one millionth in June 1956.
In 1960 the Vespa passed the two million mark; in 1970 it reached four million, and over ten million in 1988, making the Vespa – which has sold over 16 million units to date – a unique phenomenon in the motorised two-wheeler sector.
From 1946 to 1965, the year Enrico Piaggio died, 3,350,000 Vespas were manufactured in Italy alone: one for every fifty inhabitants.The boom of the Vespa, and the different business prospects of the Piaggio brothers, with Enrico concentrating on light individual mobility in Tuscany and Armando on the aeronautical business in Liguria, led the company to split.
On February 22, 1964, Enrico Piaggio acquired the share in Piaggio & C. S.p.A. held by his brother Armando, who then founded "Rinaldo Piaggio Industrie Meccaniche Aeronautiche" (I.A.M. Rinaldo Piaggio).
The Vespa 50 had appeared the previous year, 1963, following the introduction of a law in Italy making a numberplate obligatory on two-wheelers over 50 cc. The new scooter was exempt from this law and was an immediate success.
In Italy sales of vehicles with numberplates decreased by 28 per cent in 1965 compared to the previous year. On the other hand, the Vespa, with its new "50" series, was a great success. The light Vespa was a successful addition to the Piaggio range and this displacement is still in production.
By 2007 almost 3,500,000 Vespa 50s had been built in different models and versions. The Vespa ET4 50, launched in autumn 2000 (and replaced in 2005 by the new Vespa LX) was the first four stroke Vespa 50cc, and established a record distance range of over 500 km with a full tank.
The Vespa PX (125, 150 and 200cc) is the biggest sales success in the entire history of the Vespa. It is the "original vintage" – launched in 1977, it has sold over two million units, and as such is a favorite among those with a sense of nostalgia but also with the younger market.