Rebuilding from the ashes of WW2, the Italian aeronautical company Piaggio—with founder Rinaldo Piaggio‘s son Enrico at its helm—understood the need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses. Inspiration came from the Cushman scooters made in Nebraska, and used by American Paratroops and Marines during the war in Italy.
Because of its strange shape, Piaggio’s first attempt in 1946 (known as the MP5) was unfavorably nicknamed “Paperino,” the Italian name for Donald Duck. Back to the drawing board: Enrico asked Corradino d’Ascanio, a well know aeronautical engineer, to redesign it.
Corradino d’Ascanio disliked motorcycles, believing them to be bulky, dirty and unreliable. His aeronautical background, however, found an answer. He consequently designed a vehicle easier to ride, with a pressed steel unibody that protected the rider from dirt and untidy arrivals, a flat floorboard that provided foot protection, and a front fairing for wind protection. Aerodynamic consideration is obvious throughout the design. Long before ergonomic studies were standard procedure, d’Ascanio’s design allowed the rider to sit safely and comfortably with a lower center of gravity than found on the high-wheeled motorcycles he disdained.
D’Ascanio’s prototype, known as MP6, was brilliant in design, functional, practical and refreshing. On seeing its narrow waist for the first time, Enrico Piaggio exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa!” (“It resembles a wasp!”). Piaggio effectively named his new scooter on the spot: the Vespa was born.
By the 1950s, the Vespa had become a recognized symbol of freedom and easy-living style in the movies, advertising, and literature of a changing post-war society. By the 60s, millions had been sold, with one of the Vespa’s biggest sales reps being Hollywood, both in and out of the cinema. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were the first of a long list of celebrities—including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Raquel Welch, Marlon Brando, Sting, Matt Damon, Eddie Murphy, and Owen Wilson—who all rode Vespas.
The Vespa is as popular as ever with a whole new generation of fans worldwide. Since its inception in 1946, over 20 million Vespas have been manufactured. Restored vintage Vespas are at a premium, as are parking spaces and the ever-increasing price of gas. At 75-100 miles per gallon, how can you lose? The Wasp is here to stay!