Only in Italy could an ugly U.S. military motorcycle be the catalyst that led to the creation of a style icon. With over 16 million scooters sold, the Vespa has become synonymous with style, freedom and all things Italian. The name alone conjures up images of beautiful people in beautiful places, an image that was further propagated by Fellini, who had the sultry Anita Ekberg ride one in his cinematic masterpiece La Dolce Vita.

The Vespa was inspired by the small olive-coloured Cushman Airborne motorcycles that were dropped by parachute during WWII into the Italian industrial heartlands of Milan and Turin to be used by troops in the fight against the Germans.

Two wars are highly important features on the Vespa timeline. Built by Piaggio, the factory founded in Genoa in 1884 by Rinaldo Piaggio to fit out luxury ships saw the First World War facilitate a change in product and the company who was now manufacturing rail carriages and coaches went into the production of aircraft, including seaplanes.

In 1917, Piaggio built a new plant in Pisa and, four years later, took over another in Pontedera to build high-tech P-180 engines for bombers. During the Second World War, Piaggio’s aeronautical plants became strategic military targets and suffered many attacks, until August 31, 1943 when they were razed to the ground.

With Allied help, the factories were rebuilt and, remembering the small motorcycle made for parachutists, Enrico Piaggio assigned Corradino D’Ascanio the task of designing a motorcycle suitable for getting around the bomb-damaged Italian cities.

The aeronautical designer, however, was not keen on motorcycles, thinking them too cumbersome, difficult to repair and dirty. Using his expertise he overcame these problems to create a scooter that would not only win the hearts of so many but was a marvel of design and practicality. The gear lever was moved onto the handlebar for easier access; to eliminate the tyre changing problems motorcycles had, he used a supporting arm, similar to those in aircraft rather than a fork, and, using his aeronautical knowledge, made the body to absorb stress in the same way as an aircraft would. The seat position was designed to give both safety and comfort while the workings were hidden behind panels to keep the rider’s clothes in pristine condition and the step-through frame meant it was an ideal machine for skirt-wearing women to ride.

It is said that in 1946 when D’Ascanio showed the prototype, it was Enrico Piaggio, who, because of its narrow waist and buzzing sound, named it la Vespa, meaning the wasp.

The Debut

On April 23, 1946 Piaggio applied for a patent with the Central Patents Office at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, describing the Vespa as “a motorcycle with a rational complex of organs and elements with body combined with the mudguards and bonnet covering all the mechanical parts”.

The first glimpse of the Vespa the public saw was on the cover of the popular Italian magazine La Moto on April 15, 1946 and, following this, it was launched at the 1946 Milan design fair, a year ahead of its competitors, Lambretta. The reaction to the machine led to many copy-cat designs coming from overseas; Japan produced the Fuji rabbit, Germany produced several rival scooters with even Great Britain producing what it saw as a competitor, however in truth no rival company managed to match the beauty and charm of the little Italian scooter.

Piaggio propelled by the positive reactions to the scooter went into production with the Vespa 98, which sold well with the first years’ output being 2,484. This led to the larger 125 cc model being launched in 1947. In its second year, the production had gone up to 10,353 and further increasing by 9,500 by the end of 1948. The sales of the Vespa have continued to grow and, in June 1956, the millionth scooter rolled off the production line; 1960, a mere four years later, the number would rise to two million, paving the way for the scooter to go down in history as a unique phenomenon in the worlds’ motorised travel history.

Lights, Camera, Action!

With its popularity and innovative design, it didn’t take long before the sexy little scooter started to appear in stylish magazines being photographed alongside models wearing the couture of the day.

Soon just the name, Vespa, was linked with high fashion and images of handsome men zipping along narrow Italian streets or beautiful girls with their hair billowing behind them as they rode along coastal roads, creating a link with style that remains today.

Hollywood has always had a love affair with the Vespa: in the 1953 film Roman Holiday, it could be argued that the scooter should have also received star billing after Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, as it’s the images of them riding it through Rome that have helped the film endure.

Even today, it seems, if a movie is set in Italy, it must have a Vespa featured: recent films have included The Talented Mr Ripley and American Graffiti; glamorous celebrities who’ve been photographed alongside a Vespa include Joan Collins, Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch, Henry Fonda, Antonio Banderas, Jude Law, and Gwen Stefani can be see riding one in her 2007 pop video Now That You Got It.

With the exception of Roman Holiday, probably one of the most famous movies to feature the Vespa is Quadrophenia, the rock opera written by The Who and set in the 1965 world of British Mod culture.

Outside of Italy, the second largest market for the Vespa was Britain. Style was important to the Mods in their sharp suits and fish-tailed parkas, and they adopted the Italian scooter as part of their look and went on to customise it with extra lights and mirrors added to its tiny frame. During the 1960’s bank holidays, Britain’s seaside resorts were swamped by Vespa riding mods, some looking for trouble due to the unwritten vendetta with the Rocker culture, but most to preen and show off on their scooters.

The Vespa continues to sell worldwide and the little wasp-waisted scooter has been elevated from a simple machine to a concept that is recognised internationally. The image is now big business with the company selling millions in merchandising, everything from sunglasses to shirts and wall clocks to calendars. The Vespa remains one of the fashion industry’s enduring members of royalty, and it has no intention of giving up its crown just yet.