Viva Vespa

Janice Kirkpatrick does the traditional Bank Holiday thing and wheels out her bike to celebrate the history of the Vespa, a design classic now in its 50th year

My mate Franco’s dad had the first Vespa in Glasgow. John Lizzeri was a second generation Italian whose family had moved to Scotland after World War II. It was the Fifties and John was the handsome young Scots-Italian with the Jimmy Dean gear and the grooviest two-wheeler in town.

The other weekend I went to see Oasis play at Loch Lomond and was smacked in the face by two 15 metre-high screens showing a film of Liam and Noel slicing through town on their scooters. This year is the anniversary of the world’s most famous scooter, one of the most enduring statements of two-wheeled style and functional fun ever to grace our roads.

The Vespa was born in Italy just after World War II. It was created by Enrico Piaggio, an aircraft manufacturer whose factory at Pontedera, near Pisa in Tuscany, had been reduced to rubble by the Allied bombers. Piaggio was struggling to find a future in manufacturing and he turned to the problem of designing low-cost transportation for the masses. His designer was Corradino D’Ascanio, the talented aeronautical engineer who created the modern helicopter.

Corradino’s first sketch proposals were rejected by Piaggio because they resembled Paperino, the Italian Donald Duck. Early scooter manufacturers worked very hard to correct the disparaging comic image evoked by earlier models. Piaggio asked Corradino to return to his drawing board, where he created the product we hold in fond affection today.

Piaggio thought that the new design had an abdomen like an insect so he called it Vespa, the Italian word for wasp. Like its four-wheeled predecessor, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Vespa’s distinctive shape owed more to functional principals than to historic precedent or wilful styling. Indeed, it’s strange that two such legendary vehicles created with similar aspirations have both been named after stylish insects.

The early Vespa borrowed much from aircraft design (eat your heart out SAAB). The single-sided front forks were based on aircraft landing gear and the very first engines were actually used as starter motors for the prop-shaft planes. In fact, the very first generation of pre-war scooters developed out of an idea to drop motorised scooters by parachute behind enemy lines, allowing foot soldiers to progress to the frontline at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

This post-war, second generation of scooters was led by the Italians; Lambretta and Vespa. The two marques used very different engineering solutions but shared many common characteristics, notably that they were colourful, cheap and reliable.

The first Vespas rolled from the Piaggio factory in April 1946. They must have appeared playful and desirable to viewers of The Movietone newsreel who watched the new 98cc model being launched at Rome’s exclusive Golf Club under the admiring eye of US General Stone, who attended under the auspices of the Allied military government. Ten years on, Vespas were being sold in 114 countries throughout the world and were produced in 13 countries under license.

Vespas reached the UK in 1949. They were first shown at Earl’s Court and could be purchased for the grand price of 100 0s 4d. More than 100 scooters were ordered directly from the show, and The Times described it as “a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot”. The Vespa was one of the first of many modern products which would be perceived throughout the world as having a distinctive but indefinable Italian “quality”.

Two years after the Earls Court debut, Douglas of Bristol manufactured its own version of the 125cc Vespa with some minor changes from the original model, including moving the front headlight from the mudguard to the front apron, in order to satisfy British legislation which stipulated that the light should be at a particular height. Today, more than 15 million Vespas in 90 different models, incorporating more than 20 000 changes, have been produced.

The mass appeal of Vespa is not simply the clean and sweeping lines, or that familiar cherry red which splashed colour on to the streets of Britain in the Fifties and Sixties. The Vespa is a vessel for personal expression with a universally recognised badge which stands for freedom, style, quality and youthful rebellion. Because of its universal appeal, the Vespa has been customised in more diverse ways than any other vehicle. Mods added chrome, lights and aerials with flags, others have created noisy racers with carbon fibre exhausts and slick tyres. There are even off-road versions. Scooters have travelled to the Arctic Circle, climbed to the top of Ben Nevis and floated across the English Channel. Does anybody remember the Vespa-Alphis sidecar used underwater by silver screen special agent Dick Smart in 1967?

Famous scooterists include Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, The Who in Quadrophenia and Blur’s Damon Albarn. They all helped ensure that the Vespa would have a bright future. Scooter superstars have supercharged the Vespa with a potency which rivals that of the motorbike and the car. And the legend continues to grow with today’s music and fashion industries. They rekindle the aspirations of a bygone generation of scooterists, promoting Neo-Mods and Rockers like Oasis and Blur, Galliano’s New Look and Patrick Cox with his Wannabee limited edition scooter with snakeskin seat. Even Formula One racing drivers Alessi and Berger ride new Piaggio Typhoons in the paddock.

Every scooterist I asked said their favourite Vespa was the T5 Classic 125cc model, sporting manual gear change, four speed gearbox and storage space for a spare wheel. A quick flick through Scootering International magazine reveals that this model most closely resembles the original, with its signature silhouette and lots of nice flat body work which is perfect for customising.

In spite of their classic appeal, innovations of half a century ago won’t last forever. It is rumoured that new model Vespas will be four- stroke, to satisfy future EU emissions laws. So that waspish buzz will be supplanted by a quiet Japanese-sounding whine. And there is some speculation about the future of Vespa’s monocoque steel stress-bearing body. Surely they won’t adopt the tubular frame structure of arch rivals Lambretta and replace steel body work with plastic?

In the past few years, two-wheeled machines have been enjoying growing popularity, with 150 000 Vespas sold annually in Italy alone. Like many design classics, Vespas look awesome in large numbers. A hundred Vespas are more than a 100 times more impressive than one! Two-wheeled motor scooters are now considered a practical and stylish option for the army of commuters who soldier to work through our increasingly congested cities – and the Vespa stands out as the rebel leader of the pack.

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