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Vespa: Hot Wheels

2 minute read
James Scully

WHEN RINALDO PIAGGIO founded his factory in 1884 at the height of the Belle Epoque, world travel was booming, so ocean-liner fittings naturally were a no-brainer. Soon Piaggio was outfitting luxury trains and car engines too. But when World War II began, he shifted his business to passenger airplanes and bombers—a risky move, because the military importance of his factory made it a prime target. Piaggio’s outfit was bombed, and the family lost everything. It wasn’t until Rinaldo’s son Enrico took over after the war that the Vespa was born.

Concerned about Italy’s decrepit highways and bad economy, Enrico Piaggio refocused the family company on the future transportation needs of the Italian masses. He built a prototype of a small motorcycle used by parachutists and known as the MP5, or “Paperino” (Italian for Donald Duck). But Piaggio was not satisfied with the design, so he asked Corradino D’Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer who had designed one of the first modern helicopters, to overhaul it. D’Ascanio hated motorcycles and quickly transformed the MP5 into a revolutionary scooter based on airplane technology. The vehicle had a single steel chassis with a front fork modeled to look like landing gear. When Piaggio saw the first one in 1946, he exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa! [It looks like a wasp].”

Although manufacturers feared that the Vespa’s popularity would be short-lived, within 10 years Piaggio had sold more than 1 million. The sexy little scooter was immortalized in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday as the vehicle of choice of the dolce vita set. And two decades later, it became the symbol of disenfranchised youth in Quadrophenia. Today it’s still the low-cost, high-status alternative to cars in big cities and on college campuses. —By James Scully

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