Iconic Piaggio Vespa turns 75
Happy Birthday, 'Wasp'!
I can't think of any other vehicle, maybe with the exception of the Beetle and its (many) multi-faceted and multi-national variants, that motorized the world in the same way the Piaggio Vespa did. First launched in Pisa 1946 to motorize post-war Italy, the Vespa was a simple, no-nonsense two-stroke scooter that eventually grew to become a worldwide phenomenon, sold in just any about form and shape you can think of, and just about any country in the world.
Piaggio sold around 19 million units so far and the company is still delivering a few hundred thousand units every year, with three major production plants. The main factory in Pontendera, where the brand was created and where the first patent was registered, is still fully operational and used to build Vespas for Europe and Western markets including the Americas. The factory in Vihn Phuc, in Vietnam, is the base of operations for the Middle East, Far East and South East Asia and then the factory in Baramati, opened in 2012 to accommodate the incredible demand from India.
It all began in 1884 in Genoa, Italy where 20-year-old mechanic Rinaldo Piaggio began crafting his skills working in a timber yard before moving to boats, trains, trams and then aircrafts.
During WWI, Rinaldo and his son Enrico (above, and below, left) moved to Pontedera, a stone's throw from Pisa, during WWI to continue building aircraft components for WWI and WWII. In 1946, Italy was just trying to get back on its feet after the war and Enrico, along with aircraft designer Corradino D'Ascanio (below, right), began working on a new project to give war-torn Italy a means of transport for the masses.
D'Ascanio apparently hated bikes and he urged Enrico and Rinaldo to consider every possible alternative but at the end of the day it turned out to be a false dilemma: it had to be a 2-wheel scooter because it had to be simple, small and as cheap as possible to build and run. They built the first prototypes, dubbed MP5 and MP6, and legend has it that Enrico Piaggio accidentally came up with the name 'Vespa'. Apparently he was just looking at it, studying its proportions and angles, and he instinctively said "that actually looks like a Vespa (Italian for Wasp)" and the name stuck.
The first production Vespa was powered by a 98cc engine and sold for 55,000 lire (around €1,770 in today's money) and then about a year later, in 1947, Piaggio unveiled the Vespa 125, powered by a 125 cc.
In a way, the Piaggio Vespa is bit like the Land Rover Defender, they got it right the first time and never really changed much until very recently. The Vespa remained fundamentally unchanged until the mid 1990s when, along with a few more variants of the classic Vespa, Piaggio unveiled the ET4 and ET4, a modern take on the Vespa with revised design and powered by a two-stroke and four-stroke (with fuel injection) respectively.
The list of Vespa-themed regularity and long-distance rallies, desert raids, racing events and adventures is a saga and it includes rallies across the Arctic, Spain, London to Australia and back, North America to Tierra del Fuego, Milan and Tokyo and, par for the course, a world tour.