Simon de Burton
In 1946, Enrico Piaggio filed a patent for ‘a motorcycle of a rational complexity of organs and elements combined with a frame with mudguards and a casing covering the whole mechanical part’. Nowadays we call it a Vespa – and this year the marque celebrates 75 years of production with close to 20 million sold around the world.
It all dates back to the day Piaggio saved his father Rinaldo’s Piaggio saved his father Rinaldo’s bombed-out aero factories from demolition by converting them into production lines to make cheap transport for the masses. A prototype produced by engineer Corradino D’Ascanio and designer Mario D’Este was unveiled at the Rome golf club in 1946, and Enrico played the masterstroke of likening its narrow waist to that of a wasp, naming it ‘Vespa’.
Despite a lukewarm reception, he decreed a run of 2,000 units. And by the time Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn had ridden a Vespa in Roman Holiday (1953), annual sales had topped 170,000. John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Dean Martin posed on Vespas, too – and Charlton Heston was snapped on one while filming Ben Hur in 1959.
In their heyday, Vespas were also raced competitively and, in 1980, the French entered a team of four into the gruelling Paris-Dakar rally. And in drizzly old Britain, the Vespa found its niche in Mod culture as an antidote to the Rockers’ dirty, oil-stained Triumphs and Nortons.
But enthusiasm waned in the 1970s, and the machine once considered chic and practical no longer seemed quite so cool, leading to thousands being abandoned in sheds and garages all over Europe.
But the new millennium saw Vespa offering trafficweary commuters cleaner, more user-friendly models that rejuvenated sales, soaring, in the past decade alone, to more than 1.8 million. And to mark this year’s anniversary, Vespa pulled the wraps off a special ‘Giallo 75th’ model in a shade of metallic yellow based on ‘hues in vogue during the 1940s’ (from £4,900). Special features include a nubuck leather saddle, grey wheel rims and a rear luggage rack that holds a leather bag in the shape of a vintage Vespa spare wheel carrier. Each comes with a ‘welcome kit’ comprising an Italian scarf, a vintage steel Vespa plate, a personalised owner’s book and a set of historical postcards. So if you’ve never tried a Vespa, now could be the time. And with a starting price of £3,550, you won’t even get stung.