Simon de Burton
Anyone who chooses to ride a scooter at 106 miles per hour must be a few gnocchi short of a picnic – but it was all in a day’s work for diminutive Italian speed freak Dino Mazzoncini back in 1952. He saw complete sense in being shoe-horned face down into a glass-fibre tube with a two-stroke motor wailing between his thighs – that way he could rip along the autostrada and claim the world “flying kilometre” record in what must have been the longest 21.4 seconds of his life.
But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that Mazzoncini’s low-flying torpedo was based on a utilitarian machine launched just five years earlier in a bid to get Italy’s workforce back on the road so the country’s then war-ravaged economy could be kick-started into life.
The machine in question was the Vespa scooter – and 2021 marks 75 years since its design was patented by Enrico Piaggio who had the bright idea of adapting his father Rinaldo’s bombedout aero factories in order to produce cheap transport for the masses.
His plan was to do away with the oil and grime associated with motorcycling by making a runabout with an enclosed engine, no chain and protective bodywork. Engineer Corradino D’Ascanio and designer Mario D’Este came up with the goods, and the prototype Piaggio two-wheeler was given its first airing at the Rome golf club in 1946. It was Enrico himself who played the masterstroke by likening the scooter’s narrow-waisted appearance to that of a wasp and calling it a ‘Vespa’.
What was intended to be a ‘revolution on wheels’ initially met with a lukewarm reception, but Enrico decreed a run of 2,000 units – and by the time Gregory Peck had thrown his leg over a Vespa while squiring Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 film Roman Holiday, annual sales were topping more than 170,000.
John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Dean Martin were just some of the other Hollywood stars happy to bask in the Italian sun astride Vespas – and Charlton Heston even took a break from filming Ben Hur in 1959 in order to be snapped riding one while wearing a toga.
But in drizzly old Britain, with its paucity of piazzas and where cappuccino was yet to replace a good, strong cup of builder’s tea, the streamlined Vespa found its niche in Mod culture as an antidote to the rival Rockers’ dirty, oil-stained Triumphs and Nortons.
The seaside resorts of Margate and Brighton became as awash with Vespas as Milan and Bologna – and, by the mid-1960s, all of England’s seafront cafe owners had attuned themselves to the buzz of the engines that signalled potential trouble from the warring factions.
Within a decade, however, enthusiasm for the Vespa began to wane in Britain and Europe as the machine once considered chic, practical and fun no longer seemed quite so cool – leading to thousands of them being abandoned in sheds, garages and barns the length and breadth of the continent.
By 1990, fewer than 170 new Vespas were being sold in the UK each year. As for secondhand ones – you could hardly give them away.
But with the new millennium seemed to come a road congestion tipping point. Suddenly, many commuters could no longer bear being trapped in traffic and, once more, a Vespa provided a way out.
New four-stroke models with electric starters, automatic gearboxes and quieter, less fussy four-stroke engines increased the appeal to novice riders and annual production numbers soared to 58,000 in 2004, 100,000 in 2006 and passed the 200,000 mark in 2018 – amounting to 1.8 million new Vespas sold in the past decade alone.
The now legendary marque has celebrated its 75th birthday with the launch of a special Giallo 75th model in a shade of metallic yellow based on ‘hues in vogue during the 1940s’.
The machine’s side panels and front mudguard carry a subtle number 75, with other special features being a nubuck leather saddle, grey-painted wheel rims and a plethora of chromed parts.
The rear luggage rack, meanwhile, holds a leather bag in the shape of a vintage Vespa spare wheel holder (a sure-fire target for the light-fingered) and there’s “anniversary special” badging behind the leg shield. Each one is supplied with a “welcome kit” comprising an Italian scarf, a vintage steel Vespa plate, a dedicated owner’s book and a set of postcards charting the marque’s history.
And if you want to future proof your scootering, there’s now the option of the battery-powered Vespa Elettrica available in versions capable of 45kph for those who only hold a category AM licence or 75kph for A1 holders.
Offering a 60-mile range on a four-hour battery charge, the Elettrica even has a multimedia system that pairs with a smartphone and Bluetooth headset while displaying information on a 4.3-inch TFT digital instrument panel. Combined with the Vespa Mia app, the set-up makes it possible to answer calls, read messages, activate voice commands and even manage music playlists while on the move.
It all works through a purpose-designed helmet that stores beneath the scooter’s seat, along with the charging cable that works with both a normal three-pin socket or a public charging point.
Enrico would never have believed it.
The Vespa Elettrica from £6,300, less the government’s 20-per-cent plug-in grant. 50cc, petrol-engined Primavera, £3,550, the Giallo 75th anniversary editions start from £4,950 (125cc) to £6,690 (300cc); vespa.com