Inexpensive personal transportation has never been cooler or more stylish. Which explains why the Vespa motor scooter has been ruling the streets of Italian cities since its debut at the 1946 Milan Fair. Product placement in movies wasn’t the phenomenon it is now, but the sight of a young, handsome Gregory Peck taking a beautiful, elegant Audrey Hepburn for a spin around the Colosseum in the 1953 film Roman Holiday spurred Vespa sales (from 60,000 in 1950 to over 100,000) and did wonders for its image throughout the world.
The Vespa comes from a company called Piaggio, named after a family of industrialists whose aircraft-making facilities in Tuscany were bombed during the Second World War. On Enrico Piaggio’s initiative, it went into making low-cost two-wheelers. Although it seems so gloriously European, the Vespa’s design was influenced by the Cushman Army scooter, made in Lincoln, Nebraska. These came over with the American troops during World War II. They had smaller wheels than a motorcycle and a step-through area above a flat floor space, rather than requiring the rider to swing a leg over.
Whereas the Cushmans were purely utilitarian, Piaggio added some Italian flair. A prototype, designated the MP5 (Moto Piaggio number five), was styled by engineers Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini. It had an enclosed engine, but no step-through area. And its looks inspired the nickname “Paperino” by the workforce. “Paperino” is the term Italians use for Donald Duck (they call Mickey Mouse “Topolino”). The factory made 100 examples, which are now highly prized by collectors.
Back then, though, Enrico was less than happy with the Paperino. So he called on aero engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to make some revisions. D’Ascanio came up with what we now recognize as a Vespa. The MP6 had a rounded rear that housed the engine, a step-through design and a wide front fairing that protected the rider from a certain amount of wind, water and mud. Because of this shape, along with the handlebar controls that resembled an insect’s antennae, Enrico pronounced that it looked like a wasp. Turns out “vespa” is Italian (and Latin) for wasp.
The name might also have referred to the buzzy noise made by its single-cylinder, 98cc two-stroke engine, mounted horizontally and driving the rear wheel through a three-speed transmission. However, it proved easier to ride and more comfortable than a normal motorbike, finding buyers first in its domestic market and then spreading out to various parts of the globe. Early adopters had to wait eight months for their rides, creating a black market where the original price doubled.
One of the classic variants was the 1968 125 Primavera, which had a 121cc engine that made a mere 5.5 horsepower. But the body only weighed about 160 pounds and its top speed was a fairly spry 52.8 mph. The Vespa finally received a more emissions-friendly four-stroke engine in 1996.
Vespa scooters have been made under license in other countries including India, Brazil, Indonesia and the USSR. They have evolved along the way, gaining a rear suspension, more power and a locking compartment on the inside of the fairing. They also gained some high-profile owners, including Marlon Brando (who had made his name as a tough guy riding a Triumph motorcycle in The Wild One), Dean Martin and famed bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín (friend of Pablo Picasso, lover of Ava Gardner and inspiration for Ernest Hemingway). People even raced them at events like the Naples Grand Prix and the Rocca di Papa Hill Climb just outside Rome.
In Britain, Vespas (and their Italian rivals, Lambrettas), were part of a youth culture in the mid-’60s to the early ’70s called Mods. Short-haired, stylishly dressed and wearing parkas to protect themselves from the elements (this is Britain, remember, the place that seems to have invented miserable weather), they would often get into running battles with their sworn enemies, the Rockers. Rockers would have long, greasy hair, wear black leather and ride around on old Brit motorbikes like Triumphs and Nortons. For an impression, and to see how Mods would customize their scooters, watch the cult film Quadrophenia, starring a very young Sting. There’s also a soundtrack from The Who (a favorite band among Mods).
A modern Vespa, which is still made in Italy, starts at around $3,400.