Every Italian city has a central area, usually crisscrossed with winding, narrow roads at impossibly steep angles, reminders of a medieval past when cars were very far from being dreamt of. Adding to that the seemingly unruly, chaotic traffic of an average South European city and there is no wonder that motorcycles have been the favoured means of transportation for Italians in general.
Enter Enrico Piaggio. Having inherited the family’s Piaggio business, centred in aeronautics, trains and heavy duty trucks, he was befallen by a stroke of genius and his creation would become an image of our time. By the end of WWII, with most of Italy’s infrastructures reduced to rubble and most roads in dire conditions, Enrico wanted to design a motorcycle that was light, affordable, easy to manoeuvre and practical for the daily use.
The resulting product was the Vespa, Italian for «wasp». It turned out to be a scooter dotted with an original frame allowing for the engine to be mostly covered, sheltering the rider and the passenger from oil, dirt and grease. The front was also widened and, with the controls all readily placed at the handlebars, a floorboard was introduced, eliminating the need to straddle the bike.
The sales went through the roof, proving Enrico Piaggio’s vision to be correct. With increasing demand for the Vespa, Piaggio kept on producing new versions of its star product, with different engines and sizes and small adjustments in shape, but essentially keeping the original unchanged, harvesting the fruits of his idea.
The rest of Europe followed suit, and sales seemed unstoppable through the 60 s. Not only a practical vehicle, the Vespa was also a status definer, in no small measure thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s ride across Rome on a Vespa in the much seen movie “Roman Holiday”. Soon becoming an iconic image of Italy, the Vespa motorcycle has reached modern times as a collector’s article and a defining object of the past century.
Today Vespas are still produced in a variety of models and even as hybrids or totally electric, and for all sorts of budgets. Older versions are much sought for, with a fair amount of restored ones buzzing around modern cities as a reminder of their past glory.