The Vespa has evolved from a single model motor scooter manufactured in 1946 by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. of Pontedera, Italy—to a full line of scooters and one of seven companies today owned by Piaggio—now Europe's largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world's fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer by unit sales.
From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the engine mechanism and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) into a structural unit.
Post World War II Italy, in light of its agreement to cessation of war activities with the Allies, had its aircraft industry severely restricted in both capability and capacity.
Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera fighter plane plant demolished by bombing. Italy's crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets. Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio's founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy's urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.
LaunchPiaggio filed a patent for the Vespa scooter design in April 1946. The application documents referred to a "model of a practical nature" for a "motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts", of which "the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance". The patent was approved the following December.
The first 13 examples appeared in spring 1946, and reveal their aeronautical background. In the first examples, one can recognize the typical aircraft technology. Attention to aerodynamics is evident in all the design, in particular on the tail. It was also one of the first vehicles to use monocoque construction (where the body is an integral part of the chassis).
The company was aiming to manufacture the new Vespa in large numbers, and their longstanding industrial experience led to an efficient Ford-style volume production line. The scooter was presented to the press at Rome Golf Club, where journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like object on display. But the road tests were encouraging, and even with no rear suspension the machine was more manoeuvrable and comfortable to ride than a traditional motorcycle.
Following its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first fifty sold slowly—then with the introduction of payment by installments, sales took off.
Sales and Development
Piaggio sold some 2,500 Vespas in 1947, over 10,000 in 1948, 20,000 in 1949, and over 60,000 in 1950.
The biggest sales promo ever was Hollywood. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn side-saddled Gregory Peck's Vespa in the feature film Roman Holiday for a ride through Rome, resulting in over 100,000 sales. In 1956, John Wayne dismounted his horse in favor of the two-wheeler to originally get between takes on sets. By the end of the fifties, Lucia Bosé and her husband, the matador Luis Miguel Dominguín,as well as Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and the entertainer Abbe Lane had become Vespa owners. William Wyler filmed Ben Hur in Rome in 1959, allowing Charlton Heston to abandon horse and chariot between takes to take a spin on the Vespa.
Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe, and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain; in the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia. By 1956, one million had been sold, then two million by 1960. By the 1960s, the Vespa—originally conceived as a utility vehicle—had come to symbolize freedom and imagination, and resulted in further sales boosts: four million by 1970, and ten million by the late 1980s. Between 1957 and 1961 a reverse-engineered and partially redesigned version of the Vespa was made in USSR under the name Vjatka-VP150.
Improvements were made to the original design and new models were introduced. The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150 cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit. Then came the 50 cc of 1963, and in 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all.
The largeframe Vespa evolved into the PX range in the late 1970s and was produced in 125 and 150 cc versions until July 2007. The smallframe evolved into the PK range in the early 1980s, although some vintage-styled smallframes were produced for the Japanese market as late as the mid 1990s.
1990's and Beyond
The ET model range stuck true to the wasp/aero design principles. It was lighter, more aerodynamic, had an automatic gearbox and could take a series of engines from a 50 cc in either two-stroke or four-stroke, up to a 150 cc four stroke.
When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide.Other companies vied with Piaggio for market share, but none came close to emulating the success—or romance—of Vespa.
Under New Ownership
In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of car maker Fiat SpA. Vespa thrived until 1992 when Giovanni Alberto Agnelli became CEO, but Agnelli was already suffering from cancer and died in 1997. In 1999 Morgan Grenfell Private Equity acquired Piaggio, but a quickly hoped-for sale was dashed by a failed joint venture in China.
In 2003, the company found itself close to bankruptcy. Continual management changes and millions spent on many different plans and products had saddled Piaggio with crushing debt and left it vulnerable to competition from cheaper Asian rivals.
Then came Roberto Colaninno: A lot of people told me I was crazy. Piaggio wasn't dying. It just needed to be treated better. Piaggio's finances were in a bad shape, but its brand was still well-known and its products were featuring in more Hollywood films thanks to the Vespa ET4. In October 2003 Colaninno made an initial investment of 100 million euros through his holding company Immsi SpA in exchange for just under a third of Piaggio and the mandate to run it. Chief executive Rocco Sabelli redesigned the factory to Japanese principles so that every Piaggio scooter could be made on any assembly line.
Colaninno laid down some rules and made quick changes; all bonuses for blue-collar workers and management were based on the same criteria: profit margins and customer satisfaction. He didn't fire a single worker—a move which helped seduce the company's skeptical unions. Air conditioning was installed in the factory and he gave the company's engineers, who had been idled by the company's financial crisis, deadlines for projects. They rolled out two world firsts in 2004: a gas-electric hybrid scooter and a scooter with two wheels in front and one in back which grips the road better.
One of Piaggio's problems Mr. Colaninno couldn't fix from the inside was its scale. Even though Piaggio was the European market leader, it was dwarfed by rivals Honda and Yamaha. A year after rescuing Piaggio, Colaninno decided to salvage another Italian brand: scooter and motorcycle maker Aprilia. On July 11, 2006, shares of Piaggio & Co., became available to the general public through listing on the Milan [Italy] Stock Exchange or Borsa Italiana. Piaggio share prices, converted to US Dollars, may be found under the trading symbol: PIAGF.
Vespa's largest market by all measures globally is still Italy, but as a result of the mod subculture that developed in the 1960s, the United Kingdom is still Vespa's second largest global market—and at one point in the 1960s, its largest. The appeal of the Vespa to the style-conscious mods was the weather protection. Their counterparts, the rockers rode classic British motorcycles such as Triumph Bonneville and BSAs, and needed to wear leathers against the elements. Mods would modify their Vespas, adding lights, mascots, accessories, various racks and crash bars. A new lifestyle evolved in the UK, with thousands attending scooter rallies.
The dominance of the Vespa declined through the 1970s, as small car ownership increased and cheap and reliable commuter bikes like the Honda Super Cub hit sales. Despite the introduction of the more modern 'P' range in the 1970s, the lack of development cost Vespa, and like other markets, the sales fell off drastically in the economic boom of the 1980s. Then Vespa introduced the trendy automatic ET2, London introduced the congestion charge and—partly with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's indirect help from his BBC2 series—sales suddenly leapt.
North AmericaWorld War II.
Imported by Morton Colby of Colby General Tire Company, 662 E. Fordham Road, Bronx, New York, the Sears models were 3- and 4-speed 125 cc Vespas rebadged as Sears Allstate Cruiseaires. Innocenti also distributed their Lambretta brand via Montgomery Ward's catalogue during this post-WWII period. These were the premier brands of scooters, bringing premium pricing to many, including farmers, whose link to the outside world was via purchases made in these catalogues. Cushman sold rebadged Vespa scooters as Cushmans, but many Cushman dealers refused to market a "foreign" machine. However, collectors prize the Cushman Vespa because it is relatively rare.
Bankruptcy of Vespa's American importer due to two expensive product-liability lawsuits, increased competition from Japanese manufacturers, and certain states' passing so-called "green laws" caused a withdrawal from the US market in late 1981.
During 1981-2001, despite an absence of United States domestic sales, Vespas continued to have a core group of enthusiasts who kept vintage scooters on the road by rebuilding, restoring, and adding performance-enhancing engine parts as the stock parts would wear out.
Vespa returned to the US market in 2001 with a new, more modern style ET series, in 50 cc two and four stroke, and 150 cc four-stroke. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, U.S. scooter sales increased fivefold over six years, swelling from 12,000 units in 1997 to 69,000 units in 2002. Vespa sales in the U.S. increased 27 percent between 2001 and 2002. The 65 "Vespa Boutiques" scattered throughout the U.S. gave scooterists a place to buy, service, and customize Vespa scooters, and outfit themselves in everything from Vespa watches and helmets to Vespa jackets, T-shirts, and sunglasses. Vespa restarted its American sales effort, opening its first boutique on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
In light of vastly-increasing US sales, Vespa developed the GT, offered as a 200 cc four-stroke and a 125 cc variant in Europe. In 2004 Vespa reintroduced a modernized PX 150 to the US. In the fall of 2005, Piaggio offered their largest-selling Vespa scooter ever, the 250 cc-engined GTS250, available in Europe with ABS.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Vespa and Lambretta scooters were raced competitively against motorcycles, often winning the races. In the mid 1960s, motorcycle engines became larger and faster, and a gap was created—along with varying cc classifications. Since the 1980s, Vespa and Lambretta racing has grown into a serious sport in the United States. There are various classes in the United States, depending on the racing association. They are generally:
- Small Frame Class: Open class up to 152 cc's
- Automatics Class
- Specials Class
- Stock Class: Large-frame Vespa and Lambretta 180 & 200 cc scooters
There have been 138 different versions of the Vespa. Today five series are in production: the classic manual transmission PX and the modern CVT transmission S, LX, GT, and GTS.
- Paperino – the original prototype made in 1945 at Biella
- Vespa 150 TAP – A Vespa modified by the French military that incorporated an antitank weapon.
- VNC Super 125
- VBC Super 150
- VLB Sprint 150
- VBA Standard 150
- VBB Standard 150
- 125 GT
- VNB 125
- Vespa U - U is for utilitaria (English - economic). 1953 model with a price of 110 mila Lire (about US$175), 7,000 were produced
- GS 150
- GS 160
- SS 180
- Standard 90 (3 spd)
- Standard 50 (3 spd)
- SS50 (4 spd)
- SS90 (4 spd)-90 SS Super Sprint
- 150 GL
- 90 Racer
- 125 TS
- 100 Sport
- 125 GTR
- 150 Sprint
- 150 Sprint Veloce (Vespa Sprint)
- 180 SS Super Sport
- Rally 180
- Rally 200
- 125 Nuova (VMA-1T) - Prelude to Primavera
- Primavera 125 also ET3 (3 port version)
- PK 50
- PK 50 XL
- PK 50 Roma (Automatic)
- 50 S
- 50 Special
- 50 Special Elestart
- 50 Sprinter / 50 SR (D)
- 50 Special Revival (Limited to 3,000 Italy-only numbered units, released in 1991)
- COSA 1 - 125 cc, 150 cc, 200 cc
- COSA 2 - 125 cc, 150 cc, 200 cc
- P 80 / P 80 E (France)
- P 80 X/PX 80 E (France)
- PK 80 S / Elestart
- PK 80 S Automatica / Elestart
- PK 100 S / Elestart
- PK 100 S Automatica
- PK 100 XL
- PK 125 XL / Elestart
- PK 125 S
- PK 125 E
- PK 125 automatica (automatic transmission)
- P 125 X
- PX 125 E/Electronic
- P 200 E
- PX 200 E FL
- PX 200 Serie Speciale (Limited to 400 UK-only numbered units)
- T5 / Elestart (5 port engine 125 cc P series)
- T5 Classic (5 port engine 125 cc P series)
- T5 Millennium (5 port engine 125 cc P series) (Limited to 400 UK-only numbered units)