The Vespa has evolved from a single model motor scooter manufactured in 1946 by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. of Pontedera, Italy—to a full line of scooters and one of seven companies today owned by Piaggio—now Europe’s largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world’s fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer by unit sales.
From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the engine mechanism and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) into a structural unit.
Post World War II Italy, in light of its agreement to cessation of war activities with the Allies, had its aircraft industry severely restricted in both capability and capacity.
Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera fighter plane plant demolished by bombing. Italy’s crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets. Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio’s founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy’s urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.
The inspiration for the design of the Vespa dates back to Pre-World War II Cushman scooters made in Nebraska, USA. These olive green scooters were in Italy in large numbers, ordered originally by Washington as field transport for the Paratroops and Marines. The US military had used them to get around Nazi defense tactics of destroying roads and bridges in the Dolomites (a section of the Alps) and the Austrian border areas.
In 1944, Piaggio engineers Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini designed a motorcycle with bodywork fully enclosing the drivetrain and forming a tall splash guard at the front. In addition to the bodywork, the design included handlebar-mounted controls, forced air cooling, wheels of small diameter, and a tall central section that had to be straddled. Officially known as the MP5 (“Moto Piaggio no. 5”), the prototype was nicknamed “Paperino” (either ‘duckling’ or Donald Duck in Italian).
Enrico Piaggio was displeased with the MP5, especially the tall central section. He contracted aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, to redesign the scooter. D’Ascanio, who had earlier been consulted by Ferdinando Innocenti about scooter design and manufacture, made it immediately known that he hated motorcycles, believing them to be bulky, dirty, and unreliable.
D’Ascanio’s MP6 prototype had its engine mounted beside the rear wheel. The wheel was driven directly from the transmission, eliminating the drive chain and the oil and dirt associated with it. The prototype had a unit spar frame with stress-bearing steel outer panels. These changes allowed the MP6 to have a step-through design without a centre section like that of the MP5 Paperino. The MP6 design also included a single sided front suspension, interchangeable front and rear wheels mounted on stub axles, and a spare wheel. Other features of the MP6 were similar to those on the Paperino, including the handlebar-mounted controls and the enclosed bodywork with the tall front splash guard.
Upon seeing the MP6 for the first time Enrico Piaggio exclaimed: “Sembra una vespa!” (“It resembles a wasp!”) Piaggio effectively named his new scooter on the spot. Vespa is both Latin and Italian for wasp—derived from the vehicle’s body shape: the thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist, and the steering rod resembled antennae. The name also refers to the high-pitched noise of the two-stroke engine.
On 23 April 1946, at 12 o’clock in the central office for inventions, models and makes of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, Piaggio e C. S.p.A. took out a patent for a “motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part”.
The basic patented design allowed a series of features to be deployed on the spar-frame which would later allow quick development of new models. The original Vespa featured a rear pillion seat for a passenger, or optionally a storage compartment. The original front protection “shield” was a flat piece of aero metal; later this developed in to a twin skin to allow additional storage behind the front shield, similar to the glove compartment in a car. The fuel cap was located underneath the (hinged) seat, which saved the cost of an additional lock on the fuel cap or need for additional metal work on the smooth skin.
The scooter had rigid rear suspension and small 8-inch (200 mm) wheels that allowed a compact design and plenty of room for the rider’s legs. The Vespa’s enclosed, horizontally-mounted two-stroke 98 cc engine acted directly on the rear drive wheel through a three-speed transmission. The twistgrip-controlled gear change involved a system of rods. The early engine had no cooling, but fan blades were soon attached to the flywheel (otherwise known as the magneto, which houses the points and generates electricity for the bike and for the engine’s spark) to push air over the cylinder’s cooling fins. The modern Vespa engine is still cooled this way. The mixture of two-stroke oil in the fuel produced high amounts of smoke, and the engine made a high buzzing sound like a wasp.
The MP6 prototype had large grilles on the front and rear of the rear fender covering the engine. This was done to allow air in to cool the engine, as the prototype did not have fan cooling. A cooling fan similar to that used on the MP5 “Paperino” prototype was included in the design of the production Vespa, and the grilles were removed from the fender.
Piaggio filed a patent for the Vespa scooter design in April 1946. The application documents referred to a “model of a practical nature” for a “motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts”, of which “the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance”. The patent was approved the following December.
The first 13 examples appeared in spring 1946, and reveal their aeronautical background. In the first examples, one can recognize the typical aircraft technology. Attention to aerodynamics is evident in all the design, in particular on the tail. It was also one of the first vehicles to use monocoque construction (where the body is an integral part of the chassis).
The company was aiming to manufacture the new Vespa in large numbers, and their longstanding industrial experience led to an efficient Ford-style volume production line. The scooter was presented to the press at Rome Golf Club, where journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like object on display. But the road tests were encouraging, and even with no rear suspension the machine was more manoeuvrable and comfortable to ride than a traditional motorcycle.
Following its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first fifty sold slowly—then with the introduction of payment by installments, sales took off.
Sales and development
Piaggio sold some 2,500 Vespas in 1947, over 10,000 in 1948, 20,000 in 1949, and over 60,000 in 1950.
The biggest sales promo ever was Hollywood. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn side-saddled Gregory Peck‘s Vespa in the feature film Roman Holiday for a ride through Rome, resulting in over 100,000 sales. In 1956, John Wayne dismounted his horse in favor of the two-wheeler to originally get between takes on sets. By the end of the fifties, Lucia Bosé and her husband, the matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, as well as Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and the entertainer Abbe Lane had become Vespa owners. William Wyler filmed Ben Hur in Rome in 1959, allowing Charlton Heston to abandon horse and chariot between takes to take a spin on the Vespa.
Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe, and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain; in the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia. By 1956, one million had been sold, then two million by 1960. By the 1960s, the Vespa—originally conceived as a utility vehicle—had come to symbolize freedom and imagination, and resulted in further sales boosts: four million by 1970, and ten million by the late 1980s.
Improvements were made to the original design and new models were introduced. The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150 cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit. Then came the 50 cc of 1963, and in 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all.
Vespas came in two sizes, referred to as “largeframe” and “smallframe”. The smallframe scooters came in 50 cc, 90 cc, 100 cc, and 125 cc versions, all using an engine derived from the 50 cc model of 1963, and the largeframe scooters in 125 cc, 150 cc, 160 cc, 180 cc, and 200 cc displacements using engines derived from the redesigned 125 cc engine from the late 1950s.
The largeframe Vespa evolved into the PX range in the late 1970s and was produced in 125, 150 and 200 cc versions until July 2007. The smallframe evolved into the PK range in the early 1980s, although some vintage-styled smallframes were produced for the Japanese market as late as the mid 1990s.
1990s and beyond
The ET model range stuck true to the wasp/aero design principles. It was lighter, more aerodynamic, had an automatic gearbox and could take a series of engines from a 50 cc in either two-stroke or four-stroke, up to a 150 cc four stroke.
When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide. Other companies vied with Piaggio for market share, but none came close to emulating the success—or romance—of Vespa.
Under new ownership
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In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of car maker Fiat SpA. Vespa thrived until 1992 when Giovanni Alberto Agnelli became CEO, but Agnelli was already suffering from cancer and died in 1997. In 1999 Morgan Grenfell Private Equity acquired Piaggio, but a quickly hoped-for sale was dashed by a failed joint venture in China.
By 2003, the company found itself close to bankruptcy. Continual management changes and millions spent on many different plans and products had saddled Piaggio with debt and left it vulnerable to competition from cheaper Asian rivals. Despite this, the brand was still well-known and products such as the Vespa ET4 were gaining positive publicity. In October 2003 Roberto Colaninno made an initial investment of 100 million euros through his holding company Immsi SpA in exchange for just under a third of Piaggio and the mandate to run it. Chief executive Rocco Sabelli redesigned the factory to Japanese principles so that every Piaggio scooter could be made on any assembly line. The company rolled out two world firsts in 2004: a gas-electric hybrid scooter and a scooter with two wheels at the front and one at the back.
Re-entry to North America
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Piaggio first came back into the market in 2001 with the ET2 (two stroke 50 cc) and ET4 (four stroke 150 cc). In 2004, the PX (model year 2005) was re-introduced to North America to meet market demand for the classic Vespa design. Growth in the US market and worldwide environmental concerns meant a need for larger and cleaner engines, so Vespa developed the LEADER (Low Emissions ADvanced Engine Range) series of four-stroke engines. The larger Granturismo frame, with larger 12-inch (300 mm) wheels, was introduced to handle the additional power. The bike in 2006 spawned the iconic GTS-250ie version, with an upgraded suspension and the new QUASAR (QUArter-liter Smooth Augmented Range) 250 cc fuel-injected engine, capable of 80+ mph. As of the end of 2010 the GTS 250 has been replaced by the GTS 300 which has a 278cc fuel – injected engine. In 2005, the ET was withdrawn from Europe and North America and replaced by a new small-frame scooter, the LX range. These were available in the USA in 50 cc and 150 cc versions, while Europeans could choose a 50 cc, 125 cc and 150 cc.
In recent years, many urban commuters have purchased new or restored Vespas. A shortage of available parking for automobiles in large urban areas and the Vespa’s low running costs are two reasons for the increase in Vespa (and other scooter) popularity. The cultural use of the scooter as a recreational vehicle with a sub-cultural following in the USA/Canada and parts of Europe & Japan has also contributed to the rise in Vespa ownership. In contrast, the Vespa is considered a utilitarian vehicle for hauling products and sometimes up to 5 family members in much of Asia and Mexico
This resurgence in interest in vintage motor scooters has also spawned a scooter restoration industry, with many restored Vespas being exported from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia to the rest of the world.
There is a Piaggio Museum & Gift Shop adjacent to the plant in central Pontedera, near Pisa, Tuscany. The permanent exhibition includes those items which toured venues such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Also on display is a model personally customised by Salvador Dalí in 1962.
The 1959 Vespa N was also the styling inspiration for the Neco Italia.
Vespa’s largest market by all measures globally is still Italy, but as a result of the mod subculture that developed in the 1960s, the United Kingdom is still Vespa’s second largest global market—and at one point in the 1960s, its largest. The appeal of the Vespa to the style-conscious mods was the weather protection. Their counterparts, the rockers rode classic British motorcycles such as Triumph Bonneville and BSAs, and needed to wear leathers against the elements. Mods would modify their Vespas, adding lights, mascots, accessories, various racks and crash bars. A new lifestyle evolved in the UK, with thousands attending scooter rallies.
The dominance of the Vespa declined through the 1970s, as small car ownership increased and cheap and reliable commuter bikes like the Honda Super Cub hit sales. Despite the introduction of the more modern ‘P’ range in the 1970s, the lack of development cost Vespa, and like other markets, the sales fell off drastically in the economic boom of the 1980s. Then Vespa introduced the trendy automatic ET2, London introduced the congestion charge and—partly with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver‘s indirect help from his BBC2 series—sales suddenly leapt.
Much as Vespa had used the Cushman Army scooter as inspiration for its original design, Vespa in turn made scooters for Sears and Cushman after World War II.
Imported by Morton Colby of Colby General Tire Company, 662 E. Fordham Road, Bronx, New York, the Sears models were 3- and 4-speed 125 cc Vespas rebadged as Sears Allstate Cruiseaires. Innocenti also distributed their Lambretta brand via Montgomery Ward’s catalogue during this post-World War II period. These were the premier brands of scooters, bringing premium pricing to many, including farmers, whose link to the outside world was via purchases made in these catalogues. Cushman sold rebadged Vespa scooters as Cushmans, but many Cushman dealers refused to market a “foreign” machine. However, collectors prize the Cushman Vespa because it is relatively rare.
Bankruptcy of Vespa’s American importer due to two expensive product-liability lawsuits, increased competition from Japanese manufacturers, and certain states’ passing so-called “green laws” caused a withdrawal from the US market in late 1981.
During 1981-2001, despite an absence of United States domestic sales, Vespas continued to have a core group of enthusiasts who kept vintage scooters on the road by rebuilding, restoring, and adding performance-enhancing engine parts as the stock parts would wear out.
Vespa returned to the US market in 2001 with a new, more modern style ET series, in 50 cc two and four stroke, and 150 cc four-stroke. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, U.S. scooter sales increased fivefold over six years, swelling from 12,000 units in 1997 to 69,000 units in 2002. Vespa sales in the U.S. increased 27 percent between 2001 and 2002. The 65 “Vespa Boutiques” scattered throughout the U.S. gave scooterists a place to buy, service, and customize Vespa scooters, and outfit themselves in everything from Vespa watches and helmets to Vespa jackets, T-shirts, and sunglasses. Vespa restarted its American sales effort, opening its first boutique on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
In light of vastly-increasing US sales, Vespa developed the GT, offered as a 200 cc four-stroke and a 125 cc variant in Europe. In 2004 Vespa reintroduced a modernized PX 150 to the US. In the fall of 2005, Piaggio offered their largest-selling Vespa scooter ever, the 250 cc-engined GTS250, available in Europe with ABS.
Production outside Italy
Vespa scooters were sold beyond Europe and North America. When expanding into these markets it was common for Vespa to partner with, or license certain models to, existing manufacturers.
Piaggio first licensed the production of Vespa scooters in India to Bajaj Auto in the 1960s. In 1971, Piaggio’s license was not renewed as a part of Indira Gandhi’s privatization programs. After the collaboration ended, Bajaj continued to produce scooters based on the Vespa design, namely the Chetak.
Another Vespa partner in India was that of LML Motors. Beginning as a joint-venture with Piaggio in 1983, LML, in addition to being a large parts supplier for Piaggio, produced the P-Series scooters for the Indian market. In 1999, after protracted dispute with Piaggio, LML bought back Piaggio’s stake in the company and the partnership ceased. LML continues to produce (and also exports) the P-Series variant known as the Stella in the U.S. market and by other names in different markets.
In the 2012 Auto Expo held in New Delhi, the iconic Vespa re-entered the Indian Market. Piaggio unveiled its range of scooters at the Expo. The range of Vespa sport 125cc engines and will be available in the market from March 2012. This will be the first such venture of Piaggio in India without a local partner.
On April 26, 2012, Piaggio India launched the Vespa LX125 model specifically designed for brand conscious Indian customers, it is simply named Vespa (LX125 is lifted off).
Danmotor Vespa Indonesia (DMVI) was a joint venture between Indonesian interests and the East Asiatic Company, which was based in Denmark. Between 1972 and 2001 it produced Vespas under licence for the Indonesian market. In 1976 approximately 40,000 units were produced giving DMVI the third biggest share of the Indonesian scooter market. Government tax incentives allowed these scooters to be exported to Thailand at less than the domestic market price, so that they would be economically competitive. DMVI only built 90 and 150cc models. From 1972 onwards the company was located at a purpose-built factory in Pulo Gadung. This was greatly expanded in 1977 to also manufacture sub-components, following a government decree that a higher domestically-built proportion of these should be used. Sub-components were also bought from other Indonesian manufacturers after their quality had been approved by Piaggio.
Vespa has had various partnerships and presence in Taiwan. In 1965 Taiwan Vespa Co. Ltd was licensed for Vespa scooter production. From 1972 to 1982 Vespa entered into a collaboration with manufacturer PGO. In 1978 Vespa entered into a collaboration with TGB, which to some extent, continues to this day (namely with CVT transmission production).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Vespa and Lambretta scooters were raced competitively against motorcycles, often winning the races. In the mid 1960s, motorcycle engines became larger and faster, and a gap was created—along with varying cc classifications. Since the 1980s, Vespa and Lambretta racing has grown into a serious sport in the United States. There are various classes in the United States, depending on the racing association. They are generally:
- Small Frame Class: Open class up to 152 cc
- Automatics Class
- Specials Class
- Stock Class: Large-frame Vespa and Lambretta 180 & 200 cc scooters.
- Paperino – the original prototype made in 1945 at Biella
- Vespa 150 TAP – A Vespa modified by the French military that incorporated an antitank weapon.
- VNC Super 125
- VBC Super 150
- VBA 150
- VB1 150
- VBB 150
- 125 GT
- VNB 125
- Vespa U – U is for utilitaria (English – economic). 1953 model with a price of 110,000 Italian Lira (about US$175), 7,000 were produced
- GS 150
- GS 160
- SS 180
- Vespa 90 (3 spd)
- Vespa 50 (3 spd)
- SS50 (4 spd)
- SS90 (4 spd) – 90 SS Super Sprint
- 150 GL
- 90 Racer
- 125 TS
- 100 Sport
- 125 GTR
- VLB 150 Sprint
- VLB 150 Sprint Veloce (Vespa Sprint)
- 180 Super Sport
- Rally 180
- Rally 200
- 125 Nuova (VMA-1T) – Prelude to Primavera
- Primavera 125 also ET3 (3 port version)
- PK 50
- PK 50 XL
- PK 50 Roma (Automatic)
- 50 S
- 50 Special
- 50 Special Elestart
- 50 Sprinter / 50 SR (D)
- 50 Special Revival (Limited to 3,000 Italy-only numbered units, released in 1991)
- COSA 1 – 125 cc, 150 cc, 200 cc
- COSA 2 – 125 cc, 150 cc, 200 cc
- P 80 / P 80 E (France)
- P 80 X / PX 80 E (France)
- PK 80 S / Elestart
- PK 80 S Automatica / Elestart
- PK 100 S / Elestart
- PK 100 S Automatica
- PK 100 XL
- PK 125 XL / Elestart
- PK 125 S
- PK 125 E
- PK 125 Automatica (automatic transmission)
- P 125 X
- PX 125 E/Electronic
- P 200 E
- PX 200 E FL
- PX 200 Serie Speciale (Limited to 400 UK-only numbered units)
- T5 / Elestart (5 port engine 125 cc P series)
- T5 Classic (5 port engine 125 cc P series)
- T5 Millennium (5 port engine 125 cc P series) (Limited to 400 UK-only numbered units)
- ET2 50 – 2-stroke
- ET4 50 – 4-stroke
- ET4 125 (Euro Model)
- ET4 150 (Euro Model)
- ET4 150 (US model)
- ET8 150 (Eastern model)
- GT 125 (Granturismo 125)
- GT 200 (Granturismo 200)
- GTS 250ie
- GTS 250 Super – Only briefly sold in the US where the 278cc engine as used in the 300 Super had not yet been approved for use. Quickly replaced by the GTS 300 Super.
- PX 125
- PX 150 (reintroduced to US and Canadian Markets in 2004)
- PX 200
- LX 50
- LX 125
- LX 150
- LXV 50 (60th anniversary variant of LX50)
- LXV 125 (60th anniversary variant of LX125)
- GT 60° 250 cc Limited Edition. 999 produced worldwide in unique colours and each one receiving a commemorative badge, personalized with the owner’s initials. Features the front-fender-mounted headlight, shared only with the GTV 250.
- GTS 125
- GTS 250ie
- GTS 250 i.e. abs
- GTS 300 (2010)
- GTS 300 Super (2008)
- GTV 125 (60th anniversary variant of GTS 125)
- GT60 (60th anniversary limited run variant of GTS 250) Features the fender mounted headlight as a tribute to the original Vespas.
- GTV 250 Standard model based on the GTS250ie. Physically similar to the GT60, but available in a choice of colours.
- PX 30 125 (A limited edition, only 1000 produced to celebrate the 30 years of the P range)
- New PX 2011 150 (and later also 125); not just a limited edition: in 2011 the PX series restarted to be produced in Italy after a 3 years absence because of the EU restriction about Euro III engines emissions not followed. In occasion of the 150th anniversary of Italian union, Piaggio has proposed this special version, with a re-designed saddle but with the same “Vespa experience”.
- S 50 and S 125 new model 2007, introduced at Milan Motorshow November 2006
- S 150 (2008)
- Zafferano 50 cc and 125 cc (A limited edition, only 200 produced)