The Vespa scooter has been many things to many people. To post-war Italy, it represented an economic resurgence for a struggling industrial family. To British teens of the early 1960s, it was a vital aspect of a cultural and fashion trend. For people in developing countries, Vespas can be an important and affordable means of transportation. And for some, Vespas just represent nostalgic fun.
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In this article, we’ll look at what Vespas are, how they are made, the history behind the scooter and the Vespa style that has made it so popular.
Scooters are two-wheeled vehicles powered by a small engine. Although it’s similar in concept to motorcycles, it has some important differences. The wheels of a scooter are fastened to the end of a short axle, rather than being mounted between a “fork” in the frame. The engine is usually concealed in a cowling of some kind, making them quieter and less likely to get oil or grease on the rider’s clothes. Scooters generally have less horsepower than motorcycles. The overall effect is a more “civilized” vehicle meant for practical daily use. Today, a scooter can be defined as a two-wheeled vehicle built on a monocoque frame with a 250 cubic centimeter (cc) engine or smaller. There are scooters with larger engines, but they essentially represent a subclass of vehicles in between scooters and motorcycles. Many jurisdictions legally consider them motorcycles.
People choose to drive scooters for a number of reasons, not the least of them is the exceptional gas mileage a scooter can provide. Most models can achieve better miles per gallon (mpg) ratings than all cars, but the most eco-friendly hybrid cars are in the 60-70 mpg range--equal to the Vespa.
Scooters are also convenient. Navigating city traffic and tight urban streets is a lot easier on a scooter than in an SUV, and parking is no problem. For those living in rural areas, a scooter is a great way to make relatively short trips. They’re easier to ride than a motorcycle, and the body panels ensure that clothes aren’t likely to be splashed with mud and road dirt.
A scooter is a lot easier on the wallet than a car, as well. A brand new scooter can be as little as $800, with many scooters available for less than $2,000. Of course, a scooter with the legendary Vespa name on it often comes at a premium (prices range from $2,000 to over $6,000), and vintage scooters go for collector’s prices, sometimes fetching thousands of dollars.
For some scooter enthusiasts, it’s a matter of style. The shape of a Vespa evokes a fun retro feeling that many riders enjoy as they cruise around town. Anyone who considers themselves a Mod (which we’ll explain later) simply can’t do without a Vespa.
Inside a Vespa
A Vespa is a fairly simple vehicle. The body of the scooter also acts as the frame, and is made out of pressed steel. Known as a monocoque frame, this gives a scooter a good ratio of strength and rigidity compared to its weight. This differs from motorcycles, which are built on a welded frame made of beams or tubes of metal. The engine is usually rear-mounted (some newer designs have the engine in the front), either beneath or behind the driver’s seat. It is covered by an engine cowling or simply enclosed within the frame/body. The engine may be off-centered, because in most scooter models the engine is connected directly to the rear axle. This eliminates the need for a belt or chain-driven system, reducing complexity and increasing reliability. The first Vespas used two-stroke engines, but today almost all scooters use four-stroke engines for lower emissions and greater fuel efficiency.
Rather than sitting astride the vehicle, a scooter’s driver sits on the seat much like sitting on a cushioned stool, with the feet flat on the floor of the frame directly in front of the driver. This allows women to drive Vespas while wearing a dress or a skirt (a major consideration when the Vespa was first designed, and certainly a factor for some drivers today). The front panel protects the driver’s legs from splashes. Storage space is usually included under the seat or on the front panel.
Part of the original Vespa design specification was the wheels be easy to remove for the average person, and that the scooter carry its own spare. Modern scooters don’t all carry spares, but most of them have kept the stub axle design that allows a scooter’s wheels to be removed much like a car tire. The wheel is fastened to the frame only on one side, as opposed to a motorcycle wheel, which is placed between two frame rails (a fork), and may be connected to the drive system, further complicating removal. Scooter wheels range from eight to 12 inches.
Early Vespa models had manual transmissions controlled by twisting the left handlebar. It was connected to the transmission by a series of rods, giving these models the nickname “Rods.” Twisting the right handlebar controlled the throttle, with thumb controls for the horn and lights. Modern Vespas (except for intentionally retro models) are known as “twist-n-go” scooters, because the transmission is a continuously variable automatic. The driver doesn’t have to worry about shifting gears and can simply twist the throttle control to accelerate. Handlebar mounted squeeze levers control braking, much like you’d find on a bicycle; steering controls are also similar to a bicycle or motorcycle.
Although the use of scooters does predate the introduction of the first Vespa, it popularized and mass produced them on a level not previously seen. Italian industry had suffered severely under Allied bombing during World War II, and many Italian industries were geared for wartime production. With the Italian economy struggling and much of their manufacturing facility in ruins, the Piaggio family sought a way to reinvent their business. They had been producing aircraft, but the demand was greatly reduced in post-war Italy.
Second-generation company owner Enrico Piaggio had an idea for a two-wheeled, inexpensive vehicle that would be cheap and reliable--perfect for financially struggling Italians who still needed a way to get around. There is a legend that Enrico was inspired by his employees, who had trouble getting from one part of the Piaggio facility to another due to large portions of it being bombed out. However, this same tale is told of Vespa competitor Lambretta, so the story is doubtful.
In any case, Piaggio called on aircraft engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to come up with a design. Unfettered by any preconceptions about what a motorcycle or scooter should look like, and aided by his experience designing sturdy, lightweight aircraft frames, D’Ascanio created a prototype from spare parts that fulfilled all of Enrico Piaggo’s wishes for the new vehicle. It just needed a name, and based on its shape and the sound of the engine, Piaggio decided to call it “Wasp.” The Italian word for wasp, of course, is vespa.
Sales in Italy began slowly in 1946, but by 1950 Piaggio was selling more than 60,000 units per year [Source: Patrick Taylor]. By that time, the Vespa name and design was being licensed for production in other countries as well. More than four million Vespas had been sold by 1969 (Brockway, 96), not counting licensed production.
In 1951, British motorcycle company Douglas began producing Vespas under license (they had been importing Piaggio-made models for two years prior). While the sales numbers for Douglas Vespas represent a fraction of overall sales, the cultural influence of the UK Vespa craze is difficult to understate and certainly increased worldwide popularity.
Despite financial difficulties in the 1980s and 90s, and several changes of ownership, the Piaggio Company and the Vespa names still exist. The 21st century has seen the reentry of Vespas into the North American market, the creation of high-end “touring” Vespas suitable for longer distance drives, and major upgrades in engine efficiency and power. In 2007, Piaggio introduced the MP3, a concept vehicle with two wheels in front and one in the rear. An advanced suspension and computer-controlled fuel injection make the MP3 a very futuristic scooter [Source: Piaggio USA].
For all its practicality, the Vespa has always been an icon of style. Its aircraft-heritage shape is considered by some to be the apex of Italian design; at the very least, it is a symbol that encapsulates Italian fashion, design, art and architecture of the mid-20th century. The Vespa’s success depended heavily on that sense of style.
Vespa hit the British market at the perfect time. Rapidly changing, fad-driven youth culture took up scooters as status symbols, incorporating them into the Mod movement, a subculture that favored modern fashions and a select group of rhythm & blues and British rock bands like the Kinks, the Who and the Small Faces. The scooters were easier to obtain by teenagers than cars, and allowed them to get home from concerts and clubs after public transportation had stopped running for the night. Mods liked to customize their Vespas with elaborate chrome frames, footrests and extra rearview mirrors – sometimes dozens of them [Source: Vespa Classics].
While the Mod craze was burning itself out by the mid-60s, it began moving into the mainstream (as youth culture tends to do). British TV and movie stars latched onto the “hip” Mod image, and soon could be seen riding Vespas on screen and off, in advertisements for the latest model and promoting Vespa contests. This popularity soon moved to American celebrities - stars like Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn were pictured on Vespas (Brockway, 25). Once Vespas were associated with celebrities, their popularity spread worldwide.
More than 60 years after they were created, Vespas inspire a devoted following among an international scooter-loving subculture. Vintage Vespas and retro remakes are lined up for club meetings, day-long rides and even long-distance runs. Niche magazines cater to the Vespa enthusiast, and decades-old scooters are sent to restoration experts to be returned to their original glory.
For more information on Vespas, motorcycles and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Brockway, Eric. Vespa: An Illustrated History. Haynes Publishing; Illustrate edition (October 5, 1998). 978-1859604434.
- Sparrow, Andrea & David. Vespa Colour Family Album. Veloce Publishing (December 1995). 978-1874105480.
- Taylor, Patrick. "The Vespa Scooter." http://www.patricktaylor.com/vespa-scooter