Historic Motorcycle Brands
Before Vespa there was Piaggio, founded in 1884 by Rinaldo Piaggio, a 20-year-old entrepreneur, to supply components for ships, locomotives and railway carriages. The Vespa scooter brand was born in 1946 and had its 75th birthday in 2021.
During World War I Rinaldo Piaggio began aircraft production, building new factories in Pisa and then in Pontedera. Between the First and Second World Wars, Piaggio became one of the most prominent Italian aviation manufacturers.
After World War II the Piaggio factory was in ruins. Rinaldo Piaggio’s son Armando was focused on the aviation business, but Enrico believed Italy really needed basic transportation and came up with the MP5 prototype scooter.
Dr Corradino D’Ascanio, Piaggio’s aerospace engineer, was part of the team that built Italy’s first helicopter. His post-War job was to redesign Piaggio’s MP5 two-wheeled vehicle, turning it into a vehicle that was more accessible and utilitarian than a motorcycle and able to cope with rough Italian roads.
D’Ascanio thought a motorised scooter would work and drew a unitised steel chassis/body. The engine/transmission/final-drive was combined in a ‘power egg’ that fitted under the seat.
1946 Vespa prototype
The front of the vehicle was a one-piece floorboard that curved up to become a leg shield. This pressing was stiffened with a central backbone section that also braced the steering axis.
The MP6’s bulbous rear section also inspired the new scooter’s name: Vespa. When Enrico Piaggio first saw it, he thought it looked like a wasp.
A single-sided trailing-link front suspension mounted an offset eight-inch front wheel, making it easy to fix flat tyres and at the rear the engine was offset to the right of the swingarm-rear-wheel assembly. On the left side, a removable cowl covered the spare wheel.
Piaggio was granted Vespa patents on April 23, 1946 and went into production just a few months later. The original version was powered by a 3.3bhp, 98cc, two-stroke single cylinder engine. A hand selector and clutch lever on the left handlebar controlled the three-speed transmission.
A 1950 Vespa streamliner set world speed records at Montlhéry, France, over 100-mile, 500-mile and 1000-kilometre distances.
The early engines sometimes overheated and seized, so D’Ascanio introduced a forced ventilation cooling fan and added cylinder-head finning.
Production was just 2484 units in 1946, but Enrico Piaggio risked his company on the Vespa. The next year, 10,535 Vespa 98s rolled off the line and a year after that, 50,000.
Piaggio then introduced a 125cc version with improved suspension and expanded production internationally, signing licensing contracts with Hoffman-Werke in Germany and Douglas in the UK. More licenses followed in France and Spain, then Indonesia, India and Brazil.
1953 Roman HolidayVespa
By 1953 the 125cc engine was delivering 5bhp and sales exceeded 170,000 units. Also, in 1953, the film Roman Holiday, starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, who tore around the streets of Rome on a green Vespa. The whole world watched and millions fell in love with the little ‘Wasp’.
Vespa succeeded purely because of its functionality and reliability. Thousands of Vespa fans started Vespa clubs and enthusiasts all around the world took their Vespas over vast distances: Milan to Tokyo, Copenhagen to Bombay, USA to Tierra del Fuego and London to Sydney.
Vespa’s innovations through the 1950s included the Vespa 150 GS that was derived from the 10 special Vespas that had taken part in the 1951 International Six Days Trial endurance event (now the ISDE).
Like previous Vespa engines, the 150 GS had a two-stroke engine, with cylinder-port induction and forced-air cooling. However, its 148cc displacement came from ‘square’ 57mm bore and stroke dimensions and a high-turbulence head and flat-topped piston helped it deliver 8bhp at 7500rpm.
It had a four-speed gearbox and 10-inch wheels replacing the previous eight inchers. Top speed was 100 km/h.
The 150 GS had a broader, more stylish front shield and rounder rear bulges. A cast-aluminium handlebar replaced the steel-tube element and incorporated the headlight in its design.
Enthusiasts promptly called the Vespa 150 GS ‘Vespone’ – ‘larger wasp’.
‘Bazooka’ Vespa designed for the French Army
In 1964, D’Ascanio developed the tiny Vespa 50 that took advantage of a new traffic law allowing 14-year-olds to ride motorised two-wheeled vehicles up to 1.5bhp and capable of speeds up to 40km/h.
This little engine was canted at 45 degrees and featured crankcase induction, with one crankshaft counter-weight acting as a rotary valve. Its lubrication system was so efficient that the premix ratio dropped to 50:1.
A new 125cc Vespa went into production in 1966, with the 50’s engineering cues and the 150 GS grew to 180cc and then to a thirsty and unsuccessful 200cc.
In 1968 Vespa put a more compact 125cc engine into slightly modified Vespa 50 bodywork and the popular Vespa Primavera was born.
Competition from other scooters bikes and even small cars, like the Fiat 500 were making it tough for Piaggio, which had acquired Gilera that didn’t bring in much cash. Fiat’s Agnelli family bought in and Umberto Agnelli became Piaggio’s new CEO.
In 1976, chief project engineer Dr Lucio Masut refined the Primavera ET3 with a three-transfer-port cylinder and electronic ignition. Two years later came the PX 125, 150 and 200cc models. The 200 had a separate lubrication system, obviating the need for premix.
In 1983 came the Vespa junior PK, with 50cc and 125cc engines that were the last two-strokes.
Vespa’s first four-stroke, the ET4 125, arrived in 1996 and was followed by the 2000 ET4 50 that set records for ultra-low fuel consumption, going 500 kilometres) on a single tank.
By 2003, Masut added to the four-stroke lineup with the Granturismo 200L and 125L models. These scooters had a much stiffer unibody structure that greatly improved handling and combined a front disc brake with anti-dive front suspension.
The liquid-cooled SOHC, four-valve, 200cc, 18bhp engine featured highly over-square 72mm bore and 48.6mm stroke dimensions.The hand-shifted four-speed box was replaced by an automatic CVT.
In 2006 the Vespa GT 200L was replaced by the GTS 250, with the 72mm bore of the 200, but with a longer 60mm stroke. In addition, it featured electronic fuel injection and a marginal power increase to 21bhp at 8,500 rpm.
Also in 2006, Piaggio took over Aprilia.
The GTS 250 and 300 also featured 12-inch wheels, a rear disc brake, traction control and two-channel ABS.
The Vespa junior series was re-engineered in 2014 with a new air-cooled, SOHC, three-valve 125/150cc engine, producing up to 13bhp. The junior models also got front and rear disc brakes and ABS. The classy 946 derivative arrived in 2015.
The latest evolution of the Vespa is the 4kW battery-electric Elettrica that’s based on the Primavera. The powertrain was developed by Piaggio, including the air-cooled 4.2kWh lithium-ion battery.
At the time Vespa celebrated its 75th anniversary, it also topped a sales record of 19 million total units.
The 75th Special Editions were available as Primavera and GTS, in gold paint and with distinctive ’75’ badging.