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 discover:

  • 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 weapons manufacturing (including fighter planes). As a result, Piaggio had to reinvent themself.

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

The timing was just right – despite post-war Italy’s austerity and terrible roads, 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.

Did you know there’s a special way to tell the difference between a Vespa and a Lambretta?

Read more about it and some more things you didn’t know about Lambretta scooters.

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

Perhaps it sounds too bizarre to be real, but it’s true – there really was a Vespa that was built specifically for warfare.

The Vespa 150 T.A.P was a two-stroke 150 cc scooter designed for the French Airborne troops (“T.A.P” actually stands for “Troupes aéroportées,” which translates to “Airborne troops”) – completely under license by Piaggio.

While the engine specs weren’t too different from a standard civilian model, the most noteworthy feature of the 150 T.A.P is an M20 75mm anti-tank rifle built into the frame. 

If you’d like to know more about this truly remarkable Vespa, check out this video from the Simple History YouTube Channel:

Quadrophenia, My Generation, and The Mods

Of course, when most people think of a Vespa, they don’t think of a war machine.

Instead, it usually brings up memories of Swinging Sixties Britain and a subculture known as “Modernists” – later to be known as “Mods.”

But why was the Vespa such a hit with them?

To understand that, consider this quote by Dick Hebdige in the magazine Subculture:

He [the mod] is English by birth, Italian by choice.

Since the Vespa was Italian, and the Mods dressed in Italian-style suits, it only made sense why the two would go hand in hand.

And although some Mods rode stock scooters, it wasn’t rare to see one with an absurd amount of mirrors and lights put on them, like the one below:

image of mod scooter
Image by Phil Riley from Pixabay

This look became “The Mod Look” – so much so, in fact, that the cover for The Who album Quadrophenia from 1973 features an image of a Mod sitting on top of one of these scooters (although it’s unclear if it’s a Vespa or not).

Of course, during the 1970s, Vespas (and scooters, in general, for that matter) had entered something of a dark age.

Contrary to the song My Generation exclaiming, “I hope I die before I get old,” the 1960s Mods eventually grew old.

And instead of scooters, they were buying cars like Minis.

Indeed, it seems like Piaggio would have gone belly-up. After all, in 1971, Innocenti stopped producing Lambrettas altogether.

But fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

When the movie Quadrophenia premiered in 1979, it triggered a new Mod-revival in the UK.

Furthermore, scooters became popular again, with scooter rallies being held all over the country on a regular basis.

Discover more:

  • Dregni, E. (2018). The Life Vespa. Motorbooks International.

  • Owen, S. (2022a). Scootering in the 1970s. Mortons Media Group.

  • Owen, S. (2022). Scootering in the 1980s. Mortons Media Group.
  • Owen, S. (2019). Vespa and Lambretta Motor Scooters. Shire Publications.