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Classic Vintage Motorcycles: Vespa Motor-Scooters

Vintage 1964 Vespa Motor-Scooter

Piaggio & Co. SpA and Vespa Scooter History

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The Vespa line of motor-scooters was first manufactured by Piaggio & Co. SpA of Pontedera, Italy in 1946. The Piaggio company was founded by Rinaldo Piaggio (1864—1938) in 1884, started out manufacturing locomotives and railway carriages in Genoa, Italy. By the start of WWII, Piaggio's company, Industrie Aeronautiche e Meccaniche Rinaldo Piaggio SpA, was one of Italy's leading suppliers of fighter aircraft.

During the allied bombing campaign against Italy's military industrial infrastructure, Piaggio's Costruzione Meccaniche Nazionali di Pontedera factories in Finale Ligure, Genoa and Pontedera were completely destroyed. In the post-war reconstruction period of the mid 1940s, Rinaldo Piaggio's son Enrico decided that the Piaggio firm would abandon the aeronautical field, and instead, focus on manufacturing inexpensive transportation that was urgently needed to help rebuild Italy's devastated economy.

The Vespa MP6 'Wasp' Prototype

The task of designing a new, cheap mode of transportation was assigned to engineers' Vittoria Casini and Renzo Spolti. In 1943, Piaggio introduced their first scooter built at a factory in Biella (Piemonte), the "Moto Piaggio 5" (MP5 Paperino), nicknamed "Pato Donald" (Donald Duck) by the factory workers. The Paperino used a 98 cc Sachs two-stoke motor made in Germany.

1947 Vespa 98 Scooter
1947 Vespa 98

Enrico Piaggio was not particularly thrilled with the look of the MP5, so he turned the design work over to Corradino D'Ascanio (1891—1981), who was previously an aeronautical engineer for Costruzioni Aeronautiche Agusta SpA aviation. D'Ascanio design requirements were to create a two-wheeled vehicle that was affordable, easy to operate, and accessible to a broad range of drivers by utilizing a step-through design which would appeal to both men and women.

1957 Vespa Super Cruisaire 125
1957 Vespa Super Cruisaire 125

D'Ascanio's new creation was launched in 1945, under the code-name MP6 "Vespa," meaning "Wasp" in Italian. The "Vespa" name was coined by Enrico Piaggio, who remarked upon first seeing the MP6 prototype: "Sembra una vespa," or "It reminds me of a wasp." The Vespa was distinctly non-motorcycle in design and appearance, further adding to its appeal with the fairer sex.

Origin of the 'Step-Through' Scooter (Auto-Fauteuil)

The "step-through" motor-scooter was certainly not a new concept, tracing its roots back to 1902 France, with the introduction of the 3hp "Auto-Fauteuil." Although the Vespa's basic design layout was loosely based on the Auto-Fauteuil principle, the primary influence came from the contemporary looking "50-Series Auto-Glide" step-through motor-scooter, which was produced by the Cushman Motor Works of Lincoln, Nebraska, since 1936.

Another similarly-designed step-through scooter called the "Motor Glide" was designed by E. Foster Salsbury of Oakland, California, starting in 1936.

The Vespa 98

The first Vespa model to roll off the assembly line was called the "Vespa 98," which was launched in 1946. Although the Vespa 98 was featured on the covers of La Moto and Motorciclismo magazines in early 1946, the initial reaction was mixed, so only fifty were produced at the new factory located in Pontedera, Tuscany.

1964 Vespa GS160 MK2
1964 Vespa GS160 MK2

Initially, the new Vespa was marketed through Lancia car dealerships, and sales steadily climbed to over 2,400 units in the first model year. The 98 had an external drive shaft between the rear wheel and the air-cooled 2-stroke motor with a top speed of 75 km/h. In 1948, Piaggio came out with the V1T - V15T with a 125 (124.8 cc) motor.

The next improvement came in 1947, with the Series 2 which was redesigned to make wheel and tire changing easier. There was even a sleek, racing version called the Vespa 98 Corsa, which had a top speed of 80 km/h! There was also the Vespa 98 "Racing Circuit" which was used as a rolling laboratory for future design innovations.

Vespa's Racing Heritage

In 1948, Vespa began to steadily increase the displacement of its two-stroke motors, with the introduction of the Vespa 125. By 1949, Vespa was actually beginning to place well on the racing circuit, with its 125 Corsa "telaio in lega" (alloy chassis) GP racer. In 1950, Vespa placed first and second at the Bologna Grand Prix, riden by Giuseppe Cau and Dino Mazzoncini.

Vintage Vespa Racers
Vintage Vespa Racers

By the early 1950s, Vespa was building several innovative racers, setting all kinds of records for their displacement classs. The Vespa "Monthery" was a streamlined endurance/land-speed scooter that broke over seventeen world records including a 1-hour run with an average speed of 134km/h; a 100-mile run with an average speed of 129.7km/h; and a 1,000-mile run with an average speed of 124.3km/h!

One of Vespa's only forays into the world of multi-cylinder vehicles was with D'Ascanio's super-streamlined Vespa "Siluro," which used a 124.5 cc horizontally-opposed twin, producing over 17 hp @ 9500 rpm. In 1951, the Siluro broke the standing kilometer record at 21.4 seconds with an average speed of 171.1 124.3km/h.

Vespa takes on the World

Throughout the late 1940s, Vespa began to penetrate foreign markets throughout Europe, cementing its dominance in the step-through scooter market.

1958 Vespa GS150 VS4
1958 Vespa GS150 VS4

The Vespa GS150 (Gran Sport) models VS1 was introduced in 1955, featuring a 150cc motor that produced 8 hp at 7000 rpm. The Gran Sport VS1 through VS5 are known for their graceful lines, and rounded sheet-metal work, and were built between 1955 and 1961.

Vespa Design and Construction

The Vespa was designed around a unibody chassis made from stamped sheet-metal, with cowlings that covered the engine, and a contoured lower fairing that acted as a mud guard. The engine was a single-cylinder two-stroke 'wide frame' motor. Optional accessories included front and rear racks and spare-tire 'continental' kits.

During its first ten years in production, the Vespa sold over a million units. Deciding to expand on their success in the scooter arena, Piaggio introduced the Vespa 400 automobile in 1957.

Unrestored Vespa
Vespa awaiting restoration at Tim Stafford's shop in San Diego

In 1959, Piaggio was purchased by Fiat SpA, owned at the time by the Agnelli family. During the 1960s, Vespa was sold under the models VBB, VBC, and VLB; which used a 4 speed manual transmission and 150 cc two-stroke engine. In 1968, Vespa discontinued its 'piston-ported' 2-stroke motor, last used on the 180 SS SuperSport. Piaggio & C. S.p.A. has owned several Italian marques over the years, including Aprillia, Gilera, Laverda and Moto Guzzi.

Roman Holiday Vespa
(left) Parents on the 'Roman Holiday' Vespa 125 - Palm Springs, CA 1954,
(center & right) Roman Holiday Production Still & Poster 'fair-use' Paramount Pictures

Our family owned the original Vespa used in the 1953 romantic comedy 'Roman Holiday' staring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. The scooter was a gift from director Billy Wilder, who was co-producer of the film with my grandfather, Don Hartman.

Vintage Vespa Models (1944 to 1980)

Vespa MP5 & MP6 Prototypes - 1944 to 1945
Vespa 98 - 1946
Vespa Corsa - 1947
Vespa 125 - 1948
Vespa GS 150 - VS1 to VS5 Gran Sport - 1955 to 1961
Vespa GS 160 - MK1 to MK2 - 1962
Vespa GT Gran Turismo & Sportique - 1962 to 1967
Vespa 125 Super & 150 Super VBC - 1965 to 1979
Vespa Sprint & Sprint Veloce VLB - 1969 to 1979
Vespa SS 180 SuperSport - 1964 to 1968
Vespa Rally - 1968 to 1972
Vespa 50 & 50 Special - 1964 to 1973
Vespa Primavera - 1968 to 1976
Vespa PX - 1980 to 1982

Vespa Today

Piaggio and Vespa successfully re-entered the US market in 2001, under the ownership of Roberto Colaninno, and the Aprilia brand was added to the scooter line.

Like the Volkswagen Beetle, or the Mini Cooper, Vespa has an immediately recognizable form that is steeped in nostalgia and romance, giving it near cult status. Vespas are exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Today, Piaggio is a publicly traded company that is sold in the US equities market under the ticker symbol: PIAGF.


Vespa USA

Vespa Club of America

Classic Vespas

Classic Vespas - Model Differences

Restored Vintage Vespa Scooters

Preservar as Vespas - Galeria de Vespas

Vespa General Engine Work

Piaggio & Vespa History

Cushman Motor Scooters

Cushman Club of America


Vintage Vespa Fascination

Restored Vintage Vespas from Vietnam

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