The Vespa has evolved from a single model motor scooter manufactured in 1946 by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. of Pontedera, Italy—to a full line of scooters and one of seven companies today owned by Piaggio—now Europe's largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world's fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer by unit sales.
From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the engine mechanism and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) into a structural unit.
Post World War II Italy, in light of its agreement to cessation of war activities with the Allies, had its aircraft industry severely restricted in both capability and capacity.
Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera fighter plane plant demolished by bombing. Italy's crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets. Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio's founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy's urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.
The inspiration for the design of the Vespa dates back to Pre-WWII Cushman scooters made in Nebraska, USA. These olive green scooters were in Italy in large numbers, ordered originally by Washington as field transport for the Paratroops and Marines. The US military had used them to get around Nazi defense tactics of destroying roads and bridges in the Dolomites (a section of the Alps) and the Austrian border areas.
In 1944, Piaggio engineers Renzo Spolti and Vittorio Casini designed a motorcycle with bodywork fully enclosing the drivetrain and forming a tall splash guard at the front. In addition to the bodywork, the design included handlebar-mounted controls, forced air cooling, wheels of small diameter, and a tall central section that had to be straddled. Officially known as the MP5 ("Moto Piaggio no. 5"), the prototype was nicknamed "Paperino"
Enrico Piaggio was displeased with the MP5, especially the tall central section. He contracted aeronautical engineer Corradino D'Ascanio, to redesign the scooter.D'Ascanio, who had earlier been consulted by Ferdinando Innocenti about scooter design and manufacture, made it immediately known that he hated motorcycles, believing them to be bulky, dirty, and unreliable.
D'Ascanio's MP6 prototype had its engine mounted beside the rear wheel. The wheel was driven directly from the transmission, eliminating the drive chain and the oil and dirt associated with it. The prototype had a unit spar frame with stress-bearing steel outer panels. These changes allowed the MP6 to have a step-through design without a centre section like that of the MP5 Paperino. The MP6 design also included a single sided front suspension, interchangeable front and rear wheels mounted on stub axles, and a spare wheel. Other features of the MP6 were similar to those on the Paperino, including the handlebar-mounted controls and the enclosed bodywork with the tall front splash guard.
Upon seeing the MP6 for the first time Enrico Piaggio exclaimed: "Sembra una vespa!" ("It resembles a wasp!") Piaggio effectively named his new scooter on the spot.Vespa is both Latin and Italian for wasp—derived from the vehicle's body shape: the thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist, and the steering rod resembled antennae. The name also refers to the high-pitched noise of the two-stroke engine.
On 23 April 1946, at 12 o'clock in the central office for inventions, models and makes of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Florence, Piaggio e C. S.p.A. took out 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".
The basic patented design allowed a series of features to be deployed on the spar-frame which would later allow quick development of new models. The original Vespa featured a rear pillion seat for a passenger, or optionally a storage compartment. The original front protection "shield" was a flat piece of aero metal; later this developed in to a twin skin to allow additional storage behind the front shield, similar to the glove compartment in a car. The fuel cap was located underneath the (hinged) seat, which saved the cost of an additional lock on the fuel cap or need for additional metal work on the smooth skin.
The scooter had rigid rear suspension and small 8-inch (200 mm) wheels that allowed a compact design and plenty of room for the rider's legs. The Vespa's enclosed, horizontally-mounted two-stroke 98 cc engine acted directly on the rear drive wheel through a three-speed transmission. The twistgrip-controlled gear change involved a system of rods. The early engine had no cooling, but fan blades were soon attached to the flywheel (otherwise known as the magneto, which houses the points and generates electricity for the bike and for the engine's spark) to push air over the cylinder's cooling fins. The modern Vespa engine is still cooled this way. The mixture of two-stroke oil in the fuel produced high amounts of smoke, and the engine made a high buzzing sound like awasp.
The MP6 prototype had large grilles on the front and rear of the rear fender covering the engine. This was done to allow air in to cool the engine, as the prototype did not have fan cooling. A cooling fan similar to that used on the MP5 "Paperino" prototype was included in the design of the production Vespa, and the grilles were removed from the fender.
Piaggio filed a patent for the Vespa scooter design in April 1946. The application documents referred to a "model of a practical nature" for a "motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts", of which "the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardizing requirements of appearance and elegance". The patent was approved the following December.
The first 13 examples appeared in spring 1946, and reveal their aeronautical background. In the first examples, one can recognize the typical aircraft technology. Attention to aerodynamics is evident in all the design, in particular on the tail. It was also one of the first vehicles to use monocoque construction (where the body is an integral part of the chassis).
The company was aiming to manufacture the new Vespa in large numbers, and their longstanding industrial experience led to an efficient Ford-style volume production line. The scooter was presented to the press at Rome Golf Club, where journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like object on display. But the road tests were encouraging, and even with no rear suspension the machine was more manoeuvrable and comfortable to ride than a traditional motorcycle.
Following its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first fifty sold slowly—then with the introduction of payment by installments, sales took off.
In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of car maker Fiat SpA. Vespa thrived until 1992 when Giovanni Alberto Agnelli became CEO, but Agnelli was already suffering from cancer and died in 1997. In 1999 Morgan Grenfell Private Equity acquired Piaggio, but a quickly hoped-for sale was dashed by a failed joint venture in China.
In 2003, the company found itself close to bankruptcy. Continual management changes and millions spent on many different plans and products had saddled Piaggio with crushing debt and left it vulnerable to competition from cheaper Asian rivals.
Then came Roberto Colaninno: A lot of people told me I was crazy. Piaggio wasn't dying. It just needed to be treated better. Piaggio's finances were in a bad shape, but its brand was still well-known and its products were featuring in more Hollywood films thanks to the Vespa ET4. In October 2003 Colaninno made an initial investment of 100 million euros through his holding company Immsi SpA in exchange for just under a third of Piaggio and the mandate to run it. Chief executive Rocco Sabelli redesigned the factory to Japanese principles so that every Piaggio scooter could be made on any assembly line.
Colaninno laid down some rules and made quick changes; all bonuses for blue-collar workers and management were based on the same criteria: profit margins and customer satisfaction. He didn't fire a single worker—a move which helped seduce the company's skeptical unions. Air conditioning was installed in the factory and he gave the company's engineers, who had been idled by the company's financial crisis, deadlines for projects. They rolled out two world firsts in 2004: a gas-electric hybrid scooter and a scooter with two wheels in front and one in back which grips the road better.
One of Piaggio's problems Mr. Colaninno couldn't fix from the inside was its scale. Even though Piaggio was the European market leader, it was dwarfed by rivals Honda and Yamaha. A year after rescuing Piaggio, Colaninno decided to salvage another Italian brand: scooter and motorcycle maker Aprilia. On July 11, 2006, shares of Piaggio & Co., became available to the general public through listing on the Milan [Italy] Stock Exchange or Borsa Italiana. Piaggio share prices, converted to US Dollars, may be found under the trading symbol: PIAGF.