Vespa: The origins
Founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio, Piaggio began life as a producer of ship fittings before expanding into the construction of rail carriages and goods vans, engines, trams and special truck bodies.
With World War I, Piaggio diversified into aeronautics, a business in which it would operate for a number of decades. It began producing aeroplanes and seaplanes, and acquiring new factories: in 1917 an aircraft factory in Pisa, four years later a small plant in Pontedera which became the heart of Piaggio’s aeronautical production (propellers, engines and complete aircraft, including the state-of-the-art Piaggio P108, in passenger and bomber versions). Before and during World War II, Piaggio was one of Italy’s top aircraft manufacturers. For this reason, its plants were important military targets and the Piaggio factories in Genoa, Finale Ligure and Pontedera suffered severe war damage.
The birth of a legend
The Vespa (which means “wasp” in Italian) was the result of Enrico Piaggio’s determination to create a low-cost product for mass consumption. As the war drew to a close, Enrico studied every possible solution to resume production in his plants — starting from Biella, where a “motor scooter” based on the small motorcycles made for parachutists was developed. The prototype, known as the MP 5, was nicknamed “Paperino” (the Italian name for Donald Duck) because of its strange shape, but Enrico Piaggio did not like it and asked Corradino D’Ascanio to come up with a new design.
Corradino D’Ascanio’s project had nothing to do with the Paperino: his design was absolutely original and revolutionary compared to all the other existing means of two-wheel transport. With the help of Mario D’Este, his trusted draftsman, it took Corradino D’Ascanio only a few days to fine-tune his idea and prepare the first Vespa project, manufactured in Pontedera in April 1946. The idea for the name came from Enrico Piaggio. Standing in front of the MP 6 prototype, with its wide central section where the rider sat and narrow “waist”, he exclaimed: “Sembra una vespa!” (It looks like a wasp). And so the Vespa was born.
The first Vespa patent
On 23 April 1946 Piaggio & C. S.p.A. filed a patent with the Central Patents Office for inventions, models and brand names at the Ministry of Industry & Commerce in Florence, for “a motor cycle with a rational complex of organs and elements with body combined with the mudguards and bonnet covering all the mechanical parts”. Shortly thereafter, the Vespa made its first public appearance, to a mixed response. Nevertheless, Enrico Piaggio did not hesitate to start mass production of two thousand units of the first Vespa 98cc. The new vehicle made its society debut at Rome’s elegant Golf Club, in the presence of the U.S. General Stone representing the Allied military government. The event was filmed by the American newsreel Movieton: Italians saw the Vespa for the first time in the pages of Motor (24 March 1946) and on the black and white cover of La Moto on 15 April 1946. They saw the actual vehicle at that year’s Milan Show, where even Cardinal Schuster stopped to take a look, intrigued by the futuristic vehicle.