How Vespas Work

Vespa History
Model AMCA Troupes Aeról Portées Mle. 56 used by the French military in World War II.
Model AMCA Troupes Aeról Portées Mle. 56 used by the French military in World War II.
Photo courtesy of M. Huwyler

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.

An original Vespa with a sidecar attached.
Photo courtesy of M. Huwyler
A 1969 Vespa Rally 180, a rare vintage scooter.
Photo courtesy of Dave Lewis

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].