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For decades, the Vespa remains an icon unmatched by other scooters.
From the earliest editions to the present-day electric-powered ones, the Vespa is an icon cherished by many.
 
Just mention its name, and even people who don’t know anything about scooters know what a Vespa looks like. In many languages, the name is even synonymous with “scooter.”
But as iconic as it is, the history of the Vespa isn’t as well known.
 
In this blog, you’ll learn:
  • Why Piaggio built it in the first place – and why it’s called a “Vespa”
  • The differences between a Vespa and a Lambretta
  • About the special Vespa built for war

The History of the Vespa – The Beginning

Not too surprisingly, the history of the Vespa begins in Italy, just after WWII. Like Germany and Japan, Italy was in pieces.

In the city of Pontedera, Tuscany, there was a little company called “Piaggio.” During the war, this company built fighter planes.
 
But peace treaties restricted the manufacturing of weapons (which included fighter planes). As a result, Piaggio had to reinvent themself.

Just like many businesses in Germany and Japan, Piaggio went into the building transport for the masses.

The timing was just right – despite the austerity and terrible roads of post-war Italy, people needed and wanted transport.

That’s where Enrico Piaggio had the brilliant idea to create a cheap yet reliable 2-wheeler for hard-up Italians to get around on.

According to a common (but often disputed) rumor, Corradino D’Ascanio – a designer at Piaggio pieced together the Vespa from some old airplane parts scavenged from the bombed-out factory.

D’Ascanio also set up 6 basic principles for the scooter:

  1. Easy to ride
  2. It had to be as lightweight as possible
  3. Easy to mount
  4. For easy handling, the gearshift must be on the handlebars
  5. It must have leg shields and floor panels to protect the rider from water and dirt
  6. The design must make room for a spare tire – and the tire changing process must be easy

The very first Vespa saw the light of day in 1946 and featured:

  • A 98cc engine
  • 8″ wheels
  • Pressed steel frame

Airplane parts or not, the Italians fell in love with the Vespa – as did Audrey Hepburn’s character in Roman Holiday from 1953.

By 1956 – Piaggio had sold over 1 million Vespas in Europe alone – 11 years after introducing the first one.

The millionth Vespa received an official blessing on an altar from Pope Pius XII, who viewed them as a way for people to get to Mass on time.

Time magazine also remarked that more people were baptized and took Communion in 1955 than any year before it, and credited the motor scooter for this change.

Even Giovanni Angelli, the future owner of FIAT and Piaggio, once said the following thing about Piaggio’s success:

I’m profoundly convinced that the history and successes of Piaggio – along with its failures and less happy times – are intimately tied to Italian exuberance that is part of our genetic makeup.

– Giovanni Angelli

How did the Vespa get its name?

When the scooter was new, many people thought that the engine sounded like a wasp – hence why the scooter got its name “Vespa” – from the Italian word for “wasp.”

Lambretta vs. Vespa – What’s the Difference?

The most obvious difference is that Piaggio built Vespas, while a completely different company called Innocenti built Lambrettas.

Originally a building company, Innocenti built their first motor scooter in 1947 – the “Lambretta” (named after the river Lamrate that ran alongside their factory).

Innocenti’s past as a building company influenced the design of the Lambretta, which had every component bolted onto its steel frame.

Some claim that Innocenti even built the frames for the first Lambrettas out of old scaffolding tubes.

 

The Vespa 150 T.A.P – A Vespa Built for Warfare

Yes – this is real – and it wasn’t built by an insurgency group, either (although appropriately enough, it was used against such groups).

Between 1956 and 1959, the France-based ACMA built 600 special Vespas for warfare use – completely under license from Piaggio.

This special Vespa got the name 150 T.A.P.

The 150 T.A.P (short for “Troup Aéro Portées” – which translates to “airtroops carrier”) was an anti-tank scooter used by French paratroopers and members of the French Foreign Legion during conflicts in Indochina and Algeria.

The scooter had a 146cc 2-stroke engine, and most notably, a 75mm M20 anti-tank gun attached to it.

For more information about the 150 T.A.P, watch this video from the YouTube channel Simple History:

But most people don’t associate the Vespa as the transport of choice for war, but rather as the transport of choice of sharp-dressed young people in 1960s Britain.

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Quadrophenia & “My Generation” – The Vespa & The Mods

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Britain entered an era of prosperity.

British people now had more cash to spare – and one such group were the “modernists” – or “mods.” These were young men and women who took inspiration from fashion for Europe, and particularly Italy.

Dick Hebdige described them in Subculture using the following statement:

“He [the Mod] is English by birth, Italian by choice”

Even though the Mods were more about their love of music and high-end Italian fashion than two-wheeled-transport, the Vespa came to play a key part in the Mod movement.

While some Mods rode scooters that were completely factory-fresh – some wanted to add their individual touch by fitting things like:

  • Lights
  • Car emblems (sometimes acquired through not-so-legal means)

And most notably – mirrors – lots and lots of mirrors.

The image of the Vespa with far too many mirrors to count became as iconic to the Mod movement as the green parka.

It’s no coincidence that the cover of The Who’s classic 1973 album Quadrophenia displays an image of the main character Jimmy sitting on top of a decked-out motor scooter.

Because of the strong history of the Vespa, its legacy remains strong, and it’s not hard to see why:

At first, it was a cheap mode of transport to get Italy mobile again and for the people to get to Catholic Mass on time.

It was also used as a mobile anti-tank weapon for French troops.

And its status as also a fashionable accessory for the “Ready, Steady, Go!” crowd in Swinging 60s Britain is undeniable.

Its appeal transcends borders – both national and cultural.

The Vespa isn’t just any scooter. It’s not just a mode of transport – it’s a hobby.

 

Read more about the Vespa and its history: