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If you’ve been reading scooter magazines for many years then you might think that the subjects of Vespa and Lambretta would be fairly complete.

Paolo Zanon’s wonderful limited edition book Piaggio from the Heavens to the Earth burst that particular bubble. New information about the factory that founded the Vespa jumps out of every page, adding to the story and correcting a few common misconceptions along the way.

Paolo has given us exclusive permission to recreate a few images and facts from the book for this article.

How many of these facts did you already know?

Sticky

An original drawing for possible layouts of the Vespa; almost certainly by Corradino d'Ascanio. It got better!
An original drawing for possible layouts of the Vespa; almost certainly by Corradino d’Ascanio. It got better!

1. Piaggio experimented with automatic transmission for the Vespa in 1946. The Vespa could well have been variomatic from the start if the technology of the 1940s was good enough. Instead, Piaggio chose reliable mechanical gears shifted by hand, which Vespa retained exclusively until the 1980s.

2. Piaggio also made a 4-stroke Vespa in 1946. Goffredo De Betta’s design for a 4-stroke Vespa engine was prototyped in the very first year of the Vespa but Piaggio chose the simplicity of the 2-stroke engine for production.

The small steel patch behind the front mudguard was a repair section added to weak Vespa frames made in the USA.
The small steel patch behind the front mudguard was a repair section added to weak Vespa frames made in the USA.

3. Alfa Romeo made parts for the Vespa. No manufacturer produces all the parts for their scooters; often outsourcing things like lights, seats and ignitions. At the start though, Piaggio used Alfa Romeo to produce both engine and chassis parts for Vespa. The famous car manufacturer cast the first 3,000 Vespa cylinders and also pressed the first series production Vespa frames.

4. A thousand Vespa frames were pressed in the USA. Piaggio commissioned an American firm called BUDD from Philadelphia to manufacture the Vespa frame presses and BUDD supplied the first pressings which were built into complete scooters in 1950.

Piaggio's first patented gearchange was the 'rod' system, but they also patented opposed Bowden cables.
Piaggio’s first patented gearchange was the ‘rod’ system, but they also patented opposed Bowden cables.

5. Piaggio patented not only the design of the Vespa in many countries but also d’Ascanio’s original ‘rod’ gearchange system and the subsequent two cable version. It was an extreme frustration to Enrico Piaggio that he was unable to patent the whole Vespa in Italy, but he managed to in the UK, USA and Australia. Piaggio also patented specific technical innovations that d’Ascanio and other engineers developed for the scooter.

6. Piaggio took legal action against Innocenti for breach of patent. The LC125 model of 1950 was the first Lambretta to use opposed Bowden cable gearchange, which was a Piaggio patented system. Previous Lambrettas used foot gearchange or single cable Teleflex gear-shift.

There are clearly several colours of Vespa on display, but what shades were they?
There are clearly several colours of Vespa on display, but what shades were they?

7. Piaggio paid d’Ascanio and several of the other original Vespa designers a small proportion of the sales of each Vespa. This bonus in addition to his wages, made d’Ascanio the most highly-paid employee in Pontedera.

8. Not all of the early Vespas were green. There was a myth that all of the early Vespa models appeared in the light green paint, but black and white photos clearly depict machines of different shades at the Milan fair, however nobody knows conclusively what shades these were.

Vespa display team showing off their Piaggio-made mono-arm sidecars.
Vespa display team showing off their Piaggio-made mono-arm sidecars.

9. Piaggio produced their own sidecars for the Vespa. Most scooter manufacturers left the construction and fitting of sidecars to 3rd-party coach-builders, but such was the popularity of the Vespa as practical transport that Piaggio made their own sidecars during the 1950s.

10. Americans wanted the Vespa front brake to be an accessory! Catalogue company Sears Roebuck & Co. sold the Vespa as an Allstate Cruisaire. They tried to cut every possible production cost to buy Vespa as cheap as possible. Piaggio, quite sensibly, refused many of their requests; including removal of the front brake.

Stripped Vespas being packed in Pontedera for export to the USA for Sears Roebuck.
Stripped Vespas being packed in Pontedera for export to the USA for Sears Roebuck.

  Where can I read more?

Paolo Zanon’s book; Piaggio from the Heavens to the Earth will only be printed in a limited edition of 500 copies. These are rapidly running out and we will stop selling them in the SLUK Shop on December 31st 2017.

If you have a loved one who’s looking to buy you a present then point them to this listing. You won’t be disappointed.

A brilliant book - ask for one for Xmas!
A brilliant book – ask for one for Xmas!

VIDEO | Piaggio factory 1940s (Vespas from 1:58)

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