It was April 23, 1946 when the Piaggio company patented the Vespa scooter.
1955 Vespa 125 sidecar
75 years and millions of Vespas later, the marque still remains as one of the most popular scooters in the world. Piaggio has sold 1.8-million new Vespas in just the last 10 years.
Vespa: The origins
The Vespa brand was founded in Genoa, Italy in 1884 by 20-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 airplanes and seaplanes. 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 center of the production of propellers, engines, and complete aircraft, including the state-of-the-art Piaggio P108 plane in passenger and bomber versions.
In the years leading up to World War II, Piaggio was one of the largest Italian airplane manufacturers. For this reason, the Piaggio plants in Genoa, Finale Ligure, and Pontedera were destroyed by Allied bombing during the war.
1946: Birth of the Vespa
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 some 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).
The Vespa, as we know it, was the result of Enrico Piaggio’s determination to create a low-cost product for the masses. As the end of the war drew near, Enrico studied every solution possible to relaunch production in his plants, beginning with the one in Biella, where a “motor scooter” was created, modeled after the small motorcycles created for parachutists.
The prototype, known as MP5, was nicknamed “Paperino” (the Italian name for Donald Duck) due to its strange shape, but Enrico Piaggio did not like it. He asked Corradino D’Ascanio to redesign it.
Vespa designer, Corradino D’Ascanio
The aeronautical designer was not a fan of motorcycles, which he considered to be uncomfortable and bulky vehicles with tires that were too difficult to change in the event of a puncture and dirty, especially due to the drive chain. This engineer found the solution to every problem by drawing from his aeronautical experience.
The 1945 Vespa MP6 prototype
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 tire changing easier, rather than a fork, he designed a supporting arm similar to aircraft landing gear. Finally, he designed a body that would protect the driver and keep him from getting dirty. Thus was born its famous front shield.
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.
1946 Vespa 98
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 Mario D’Este, his trusted designer, it would only take Corradino D’Ascanio a few days to fine-tune his idea and prepare the first Vespa project, manufactured in Pontedera in April of 1946.
Enrico Piaggio himself named the scooter. Standing in front of the MP6 prototype, with its wide central part where the rider sits and the “narrow” waist, he exclaimed: “It looks like a wasp!” And so the Vespa (which means wasp in Italian) was born.
Modern Vespa GTS
Vespa today still nods to its distinctive design while still integratring the cutting-edge of technology. Modern Vespas feature an advanced bearing body concept, built entirely out of steel, as opposed to plastic used by other motorcycle brands today.
Over the years, Vespa marked the evolution of individual mobility, offering accessible transport for any individual. Best of all, thanks to D'Ascanio's aversion to getting dirty, it offered a practical way for many to get around. It's this very concept that has led to the success of brands like Honda, wanting to transition from conventional motorcycles with niche appeal, to vehicles like scooters with more mass appeal.
In fact, the scooter, with its distinctive front shield, step through floor, and hidden engine compartment has changed very little since Vespa first pioneered the design.
Today, the latest Vespa vehicles, equipped with engines and technical solutions to support modern riding, represent the style synthesis of an evolution that has made Vespa design immortal, ensuring it is an icon of Italian elegance the world over.