The Vespa line of scooters is one of the most popular personal transportation devices to ever hit the market. The history of Vespa scooters is one that is as unlikely as it is fascinating. The Vespa line started out as a single scooter model in 1946. The brand was created then and is still manufactured by Piaggio & Co. S.P.A. Of Pontedera, Italy. It has quickly become the most widely recognized and popular scooter brand in all of Europe and the fourth largest selling scooter brand in the world in total units sales. Today Vespa is a freestanding brand plate and is one of seven family companies owned and operated by the Piaggio Corporation. So how did one humble scooter model, designed for the working class housewife and teenage turn into the best known two wheeled vehicle name in the world?
Following WWII The economy of Italy was in as bad a shape as the infrastructure of the country. The Piaggio Company, which had been previously one of the largest companies in the countries aviation industry. The restriction placed n the country by the cease fire with the allies to limit military activities greatly reduced the nation’s ability to produce aircraft. This along with the completely destruction of the company’s primary manufacturing plant due to bombings led the ownership to reevaluate their business model.
The companies president Enrico Piaggio, the oldest son of the original founder, Rinaldo Piaggio, decided that he could best help his company, his family and his nation by moving the firm into a position to address a dire need Italy was facing, low cost, reliable and modern transportation. This was going to be vital to the rebuilding of the nation. He decided that due to the horrible state of Italy’s roads and the large number of people who would be needing a way to get around, the best option would be a 2 wheel vehicle similar to a motorcycle but with a more practical design and easier to ride.
Piaggio actually borrowed the original concept for the Vespa from the Cushman Company of Nebraska, USA. The Unibody construction was a perfect match for the vehicle that he envisioned. The Cushman Scooter had been brought into the country as field transportation for the United States Marine Corp by Washington and was very common place to see after the war. Piaggio was inspired by the sweeping front, the flat foot board and the large chair style seat. His concept made a few changes such as moving the headlamp up above the cowling and enclosing the engine inside of a dust shield to keep it out of view.
The original Vespa was a huge success right from the start, despite the fact that everyone thought Piaggio was crazy for building them. Soon cities all over Italy seemed to be overrun with the brightly colored pressed metal scooters. They were economical and easy to ride and they made getting around for the daily chores more efficient. With the roads still in a sorry state, the 2 wheel design was able to go places that a car could not and they were able to be parked in alleyways and enclaves.
Within a few short years the Vespa was everywhere. The single model grew into a wide variety of formats some geared to working men, some to housewives and some to college students. By the late 1960’s, the Vespa had become a major export for Italy and the unique and fun little scooters were starting to show up in more European and Asian countries. By 1970 it was estimated that one out of every four households in Italy owned a Vespa, over 40% of the population of Paris had one, they were the largest selling form of transportation in Bangkok, and more than 1/3 of the college age people of London either owned a Vespa themselves or regularly used one owned by a friend.