A Timeless Design – The History of the Vespa

The Vespa (which is Italian for Wasp) is a diminutive little vehicle that has had a huge impact on scooter design and culture alike. The simple scooter is easy to maintain, stylish, and cheap to run and has been produced since the 1940s by the millions. Here is a quick history of the world’s most famous motor scooter’s genesis.

Inspiration That Fell From the Sky

Italy was a warzone during the Second World War. Civil strife between fascists and communists, an invasion by the Nazis, and an invasion by the Allied Powers shaped Italian design history in some unexpected ways. One of these ways was the introduction of the motor scooter. The first motor scooters in Italy literally fell from the sky. The Cushman Airborne scooter was designed to be dropped alongside American paratroopers so they could zip around capturing towns. Some of these ugly little scooters were indeed dropped in the northern Italian industrial heartlands, and many were abandoned and adopted by locals.

The Ruins of War

The war devastated Italian industrial areas. Factories were routinely attacked by Allied bombers looking to cripple the fascist government’s ability to wage war. The aeronautical factory of the Piaggio company was completely destroyed. When the factory was rebuilt after the war, Enrico Piaggio could no longer rely on Aeronautical contracts and commissioned the aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascanio to create a new product: a motorcycle that could help cash strapped Italians navigate crowded, war-damaged cities.

The Problem of the Motorcycle

D’Ascanio, however, was not very keen on motorcycles at all. He identified several problems with traditional bikes that meant they would be unsuitable for a country recovering from war. Motorcycles are gas-guzzling, complex, need specialist parts, and can be cumbersome at low speeds. He set about creating a vehicle that solved these problems. His design – inspired by the Cushman Airborne – was cheap to manufacture, simple to maintain, and excellent at handling in crowded spaces. It also had an elegance that had its genesis in D’Ascanio’s experience as an aircraft designer. All of these traits are still present in modern Vespas sold by companies like bmgscooters.com.

Roman Holiday

The classic 1953 film Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn, cemented the Vespa as an icon representative of sophisticated postwar European urbanism. Hepburn glides through the busy streets of Rome on what was, as it turned out, the 3rd Vespa ever produced. The very same scooter was recently sold at auction for over a quarter of a million dollars.

The Mods and Cultural Immortality

Outside of mainland Europe, the Vespa found a great deal of popularity in the United Kingdom. Youths that were part of the mod subculture fetishized postwar Italian design: slick suits, sunglasses, and of course, scooters. Mods were a common sight: racing along seaside promenades on their rasping Vespas. The film Quadrophenia immortalized the place of the Vespa in mod culture – forever cementing the little vehicle as an icon of the age. Original scooters from the era now sell for thousands.