Vespa Anniversary – the first 70 years | FEATURE
A True Design Icon
No matter what your allegiance, there are few scooterists in the world that have not been touched by a Vespa in one way or another – even if that was only getting run over by one on the streets of Naples while on holiday!
Piaggio as a company can trace its history back to 1884 and Genoa, Italy, when a 21-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio opened for business, initially undertaking luxury ship-fitting before going on to produce rail carriages and other coach building ventures.
During World War I (Italy were on our side in that one!) Piaggio diversified into aeroplanes and seaplanes and expanded, with a new plant opening in Pisa in 1917, and taking over a small plant on Pontedera a few years later, which subsequently became their centre of aeronautical production.
Producing propellers, engines and complete aeroplanes – including the state-of-the-art Piaggio P108 bomber – up to and during World War II, as one of Italy’s top aircraft manufacturers, Piaggio’s premises were military targets for the Allies.
As the war ended, so Italy need to both remobilise and its industry rebuild itself. On the losing side this time, Piaggio were not allowed to continue building military aeroplanes, even if they had the infrastructure left to do so. Rinaldo’s sons, Enrico and Armando, began the process of re-starting industrial production immediately after the war, Enrico responsible for the destroyed Pontedera plant. He focused on personal mobility and thanks to the design work of the aeronautical engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio (whose earlier efforts had reportedly been rejected by Milanese firm Innocenti), the Piaggio name was to continue into the 21st century as producers of the Vespa scooter.
From Ugly Duckling to Record Breaker
Piaggio’s first scooter was known as the MP5, aka ‘Paperino’ (the Italian name for Donald Duck). This first scooter bore a striking resemblance to an earlier Italian scooter, the Volugrafo made in Milan. The story goes that allegedly Count Trossi offered accommodation to fellow aeronautical family during the war and on seeing the Count’s Volugrafo so Piaggio saw a future idea.
Around 100 examples of this were allegedly produced and sold before Enrico Piaggio pulled the plug on it and asked Corradino D’Ascanio to design something more aesthetically pleasing. Famously the aeronautical designer did not like motorcycles, both with regards to style, cleanliness and practicality. He apparently sat down with a blank sheet of paper and drew what he thought was solution to all the motorcycles problems, eliminating the chain drive, improving the seating position and covering all the areas that caused a mess while protecting the rider from the elements too. This project was named MP6 and in March 1946 Piaggio introduced it to the world as the Vespa scooter.
Today known as the Vespa 98 thanks to its engine capacity, the patent for Piaggio’s creation was filed on 23 April 1946 and the rest, as they say, is history.
The base model of the Vespa 98 was fairly basic; you got a chassis, engine, wheels, lights and a seat and that was just about it. Later an optional speedometer and even a side stand could be added (you simply abandoned your scooter on its side against a kerb to begin with!), and as sales improved so a new model was the crated; 1948 seeing a Vespa 125 hit the market.
From just 2,484 scooters in 1946, by 1950 the first German licensee also started production and output topped 60,000 vehicles.
There were still plenty of people who doubted these funny little scooters had a place in the world of motorcycles though, despite the fact that by now Innocenti had begun production of their Lambrettas and countless other manufacturers throughout Europe had also seen the light of small wheels.
Piaggio’s solution was to join the motorcycle arms race of speed. They set out to develop a scooter that was capable of breaking not only top speed records but others for longevity too, as well as regular and endurance races. With Innocenti having a similar point to prove, the two firms soon became rivals on both the showroom and the tracks and they both took turns in grasping the laurels. The theoretical crown passed back and forth, cumulating in Piaggio setting a record for 125cc and 175cc two-wheelers with their Siluro scooter in 1951 at 171.102kmh (about 107mph) on the Rome to Ostia motorway.
The Vespa Siluro an amazing piece of kit, and by that I mean both the clever opposed-twin-cylinder engine, and also the hand-beaten body with trick doors opened by the rider as he slows. Now might be a good time in fact to remind you (and inform those who don’t know) about the Piaggio Museum at the factory in Pontedera that features Vespas from the rare prototypes right up to the modern day machines, as well as various paperwork and advertising, along with a few items from Piaggio’s history as well as that of Gilera too.
Later in 1951 Lambretta took the record back with their super-charged 201kmh Siluro, then sadly a rider was killed while attempting a record for a motorcycle firm, so all the manufacturers made a gentleman’s agreement to cease their battle before more people died.
From Piaggio’s (and Innocenti’s) point of view though, the battle had been won – scooters were now accepted as equals by most in the world of motorcycles.
Licensed to Thrill
Piaggio’s battle in the showrooms continued, however, and they achieved great success worldwide with licences of their products to be produced overseas. Douglas of Bristol began British production of Vespas in 1951, for example, which was to continue on these shores with selected models produced in the West Country until 1965, at which time Douglas reverted to solely being an importer of Piaggio scooters.
Other countries that produced Vespas, either wholly or from Complete Knock-Down (CKD) kits, over the years included France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, India, Taiwan, Indonesia, Iran and Malaysia. Meanwhile in the USSR they simply decided to steal the Vespa design and make their own unlicensed version – the Vjatka – during the 1950s, safe from prosecution while hidden behind their Iron Curtain.
Grand Sport Model
If you venture into a Vespa dealership today the range consists of various models which at first glance might seem excitingly different from each other. Unfortunately, aside from engine capacity, monikers such as ‘Super Sport’ are simply exercises in marketing. While bedecked in different decals from the regular model in the range, underneath the engine sadly remains the same…
This was not always the case however; Piaggio having a long and impressive reputation that they proudly recall today of offering truly sporting models for the more discerning or enthusiastic owners.
During the 1950s the base 125cc and 150cc models were undistinguished with a similar line to many other manufacturers. That changed in 1954 when the Vespa Gran Sport 150 was premièred. The GS was inspired by their limited-edition sporting Sei Giorno (Six Day Racer). While the Sei Giorni was exclusively built and sold to Italian dealers solely to promote Vespa at regional and international trial and races, the GS was sporting scooter that was available for anyone to buy. By today’s standard the ‘magical’ 100kmh top speed isn’t much to shout about, but compared to a 3-speed 125cc model that peaked at 45mph on its 8” wheels, the 4-speed GS on 10” tyres and svelte, swept back legshields was the very essence of performance.
The Gran Sport evolved over the years, benefiting from a complete redesign in 1961 when it became the GS 160. The 160 continued to go down a storm from 1962 until its demise in 1964. This was superseded by the SS180 (rumours suggest this was originally to be named the Gran Sport 180 but the Super Sport name was eventually decided upon) in 1964/5, then the Rally 180, the Rally 200, and when the P-range arrived in 1977, this too came with a 200cc engine option.
All the time Piaggio continued to provide for the regular rider, offering basic 125 and 150cc Vespa scooters with less performance, but with economy, reliability and the famous Vespa name. Even during the lean years of the early 1970s, the basic models with 6v points ignition and lighting, some still with 8” wheels, were complemented in the show rooms by the faster, sportier looking Rally with electronic ignition, speed stripes, and performance that no other scooter of the time could match.
Arguably the last true sporting scooter in the range – by which we mean a Vespa designed and built as stand alone model – was the famous 125cc T5 model. The T5 arrived in 1985 and managed to survive almost 15 years before poor sales and EU regulations finally killed it off. At the time of its launch the T5’s modern looking dashboard, square headlight, box rear section that had been added to P-range chassis and excess of plastic made it initially unpopular to the fans… until they rode it!
In the UK at the time you could ride a 125cc model on a provisional licence, and if wearing Learner plates on the scooter – you could even carry a passenger if they had a full licence. Coinciding with the scooterboy boom of the era, thousands of scooterists suddenly discovered that compared to the rather sedate 3-port iron-barrelled Vespa PX125 with a top speed in its 50s, the Nicasil lined aluminium 5-port barrel of the T5, together with redesigned exhaust and larger 24mm carb was a veritable rocket, easily exceeding 60mph. In the right conditions 70mph was achievable – especially crouched low, with the wind behind you and any excess metal cut down off of your Vespa and thrown away!
The T5 engine was later used in a P-range frame and dubbed the T5 Classic for the British market only, before its threatened demise and a swansong of 400 models, again for the UK market, named the T5 Millennium produced in 1999. Other European countries got a PX150 finished in a special colour together with a leather tool-bag to celebrate the millennium their way. The Brits definitely got the better deal there.
Small is Beautiful
In Italy you can still ride a moped at the age of 14, as indeed you can in a few other European countries. At the dawn of the 1960s, as previous scooter riders started families, so they began buying the new affordable breed of small cars like the Austin Mini and Fiat 500. Motorcycle manufacturers turned to the youth market of these post-war baby-boomers as a way to continue their success. Of the big two, a 50cc Lambretta was first to be presented at the Milan motorcycle exhibition back in 1962, but Piaggio managed to not only get their smallframe Vespa to market first, but got the concept nailed first time. By this time ‘Vespa’ had become a byword for ‘scooter’ in some cultures. Incidentally, the Vespa 50 was the last model designed by D’Ascanio before he died.
Easily identifiable as a version of their sibling Vespas, the smallframe range soon expanded to cover 50, 75, 80, 90, 100 and 125cc models, depending on market legislation and demands around the world. Piaggio really were that clued up. For example, in Germany 80cc was the minimum required capacity to ride on the autobahns there so in the 1980s Piaggio produced 80cc versions of the PK smallframe and PX large-frame to meet this criteria. Clever, hey?
Vespisti soon realised that these smallframe scooters were not just compact sized versions of their larger siblings, but equally fine scooters. In fact, they soon had a reputation as the scooter of choice for certain sporting occasions, thanks in no small part to Piaggio producing high-end sporting versions. The most famous is probably the 90 Super Sprint, which was almost a unique model regarding its components; from narrow handlebars, slimmed legshields, 4-speed sports engine (the regular 90 only had three gears) and the infamous dummy centre tank – with spare wheel mounted below it – that stiffened the frame allowing riders to get around corners even faster!
Again, the sports models continued over the decades; the Vespa 90 Racer introduced the 1970s before the 125cc ET3 version of the stock Primavera took over the mantle, finally handing the baton to the PK 125 ETS in the 80s; a model unfortunately overshadowed by the T5.
R&D to P
As all around them began to fail, Piaggio managed to continue with products like the commercial 3-wheeled Ape, Ciao pedal moped and, following their purchase of Gilerain 1969 , motorcycles too, meaning they weren’t simply relying on just one product sector.
Having said that, other manufacturers also had alternatives.
Innocenti for example didn’t just produce Lambretta scooters but also had a joint venture car production with BMC as well as their original steel manufacturing too. Maybe Piaggio were simply more dedicated to the scooter than others around them?
Whatever the reason, the Vespa continued into the 1970s; with Piaggio bravely doing its best to resist industrial action in Italy. Corner-cutting during this decade saw most vehicles produced there dissolve into rust within months (Alfa Sud anyone?), while Piaggio also had to battle the Japanese invasion that had decimated the British and Italian motorcycle industries.
Without doubt one of Piaggio’s crowning glories has to be the P-range that was introduced in the 1970s and ushered in a new breed of Vespa to the masses. Slightly squarer around the edges than previous Vespas, the new P-Range could actually trace it’s mechanical enhancements to the final models of the previous 125 TS and Rally 200 models, the latter boasting 12v electronic ignition since it’s launch in 1972, which by now utilised a Ducati system. The P-range also boasted an improved front end suspension set up, larger legshield toolbox, lockable seat and a few plastic parts that both saved weight but also made maintenance easier. Yes it’s true; for those who’ve not owned an earlier Vespa than a P-range, most had a single piece all-aluminium headset and a horncasting that was a welded part of the frame.
The first models launched were the P125X, P150X and P200E. For the home-market at least, direction indicators were optional on some of these at the very beginning. As the P-range evolved, so more improvements were introduced. Soon all 125, 150 and 200 versions featured 12v electronic ignition. Electric starting was an option, and then later fitted as standard, as was autolube oil injection. It’s a little know fact that Piaggio actually offered this back in 1967 (then named Automatic FuelMix) as an optional accessory. Vespa Automatic Fuel Mix predates Innocenti’s version for their Lambretta Cometa. While it remained an option on some models throughout the 1970s, like the Rally 200, it was only in the P-range that autolube eventually became commonplace, around the time of the PX125, PX150 and PX200EFL models.
Today, commonly known at the PX, the 2016 models offered are the last 2-stroke Vespas with 125 and 150, 4-speed engines. The 200 version was sadly another victim of EU regulations. Very little has changed since the first model from 1977, the major difference being a catalytic converter on the exhaust that meets emissions regulations but which does nothing for performance. There’s also a hydraulic front disc brake that, when launched around 1997, saw Vespa riders able to perform stunt stoppies for the first time on a production scooter!
Automatic for the People
Back in the 1980s Piaggio produced an automatic versions of their PK range of smallframe Vespa scooters. These were named the Automatica, Roma or Plurimatic depending on the markets. Available in 50cc and 125cc capacities they were probably a victim of both being ahead of their time and the PK range not being particularly handsome either. Later models were treated to a Cosa inspired makeover from around 1992 onwards, but that was never going to help much.
Let’s face it, any kid buying a Vespa 50 PK Speedmatic with all of 2.5hp is never going to be happy while riding such a slow scooter that’s fitted with an ironic ‘speed’ badge! Between 1989 and 1991 less than 5,000 examples were produced compared to almost 43,500 of the regular 4-speed PK50N. The PK 125 FL2 Plurimatic even boasted a aluminium barrel and reed valve induction, yet it produced 1hp less than the standard geared PK. As such it was no surprise that both models quietly disappeared in 1996 to make way for what was to be the ‘next big thing’ for Vespa.
Having mentioned the Cosa, we’d better say a little more about the generally unloved model within the company history. Despite all of its problems, the large frame Cosa really did pave the way for the modern Vespa as we know it today. Designed in a wind tunnel, underseat storage, hydraulic linked brakes, ABS as an option, it was another example of a scooter being ahead of its time. Oh and the fact the first version was usually slower than the cheaper, arguable more stylish Vespa PX200. By the time the Mk2 Cosa arrived with improved performance and other upgrades, it was too late – the Cosa name was tarnished. They are a lovely scooter to ride, though…
In 1996 the 125cc Vespa ET4 was announced, the first production Vespa to feature a 4-stroke engine, and an automatic one at that. It was also the first Vespa not to have interchangeable wheels. While we’ve not mentioned spare wheels until now, as most Vespisti take them for granted, for those who’ve not had the pleasure, well, that was one of the many sales points of this great scooter. If you had a puncture it’s a simple case of undoing a few nuts to fit the spare and you’re back on your way again – like a car, the one spare wheel fitting either front of back end. This was a feature motorcyclists were both envious of back in the day and still are now in the 21st century, so surely it should still be a feature of what is supposed to be a convenient everyday form of transport?
Anyway… The ET4 rocked the world of Vespa and soon became the sight on every street corner in Italy, and in every motorcycle parking bay in London. Ironically, while some at Piaggio quietly predicted the demise of the PX at this point, the renewed interest in the brand created by the ET4 saw sales of the range as a whole increase.
A 50cc 2-stroke auto version (ET2) was also produced, as well as a 4-stroke 50, until the range was replaced in 2005 by the redesigned Vespa LX with similar engines. Then in 2013 the Primavera name was drawn from the archive for the latest version of their automatic smallframe scooters. As a rule engine development has generally targeted increased fuel efficiency and reduced emmissions more than performance. The latest Vespa Primavera 125 can achieve an impressive mpg even at reasonable speeds.
The Primavera and the latest GTS models also feature an all-new front suspension set up, arguably the first on a Vespa really since the P-range was launched in the 1970s. While many overlooked this feature, those of us who have ridden with it reckon it works brilliantly, it reduces dive dramatically, yet cleverly Piaggio’s engineers have made it look almost like the original system.
In 2003 the Gran Turismo 125 and 200 were launched, a new breed of large frame Vespa scooters boasting liquid cooled, automatic 4-stroke engines that have evolved into the GTS 125 and 300 models enjoyed by many today. At full bore you can expect to see over 80mph on the (highly optimistic) speedo, even while riding with pillion and/or luggage. Compared to the old Vespas, they’re a lot more comfortable too. As for whether they have the style and personality of a geared, 2-stroke Vespa, well it seems that the masses are divided on that one…
This GT also inspired the smallframe LX when it was launched, although the latest Primavera has taken design cues from the limited-edition 946 Vespas that were launched in 2013 which suggests that the next GTS may also receive a facelift based on 946 styling.
Look at the Vespa PX produced today and you can obviously trace its roots back to the first Vespa 98 of 1946. The scooter retains the family silhouette. It is still built around a monocoque steel chassis, with a single sided fork, hand gear change air-cooled two stroke engine mounted in its unique way, and of course with the conveniently interchangeable wheels.
Even the devout fans of rival Lambretta have to admit that there are not many vehicles that can claim a heritage like this over so many years – the Lambretta Model A looking nothing like Innocenti’s final new model, the Grand Prix – surely a sign that Piaggio pretty much got it right from the start, don’t you think? Simple maybe, but ever so effective. That’s what makes a good scooter for the masses.
The days are numbered sadly for the PX as we know it. EU emissions legislation will see it outlawed after 2016 (despite of course big gas guzzling 4×4 monstrosities still being allowed to clog up the streets of cities throughout Europe!). Piaggio, like every other major motorcycle and scooter manufacturer, over the last 15 years or so, has abandoned 2-stroke. Instead they have concentrated their development on 4-stroke technology so the chances of an affordable 2-stroke replacement being offered are slimmer than a supermodel on a diet.
The PX is of course part of the Vespa range for 2016 and to celebrate 70 years of the Vespa scooter, Piaggio have also produced a limited run of special Vespas for the occasion.
There is a model in each of the Primavera, PX and GTS range, all finished in either special blue or silver paint and with a badge on the toolbox door and specially embossed seat and tool/luggage bag too, amongst other features, to mark the occasion.
These models arrived in dealers mid-way through May 2016. If you want one you’ll need to contact your local Vespa shop quickly as we understand production has already finished, so if you miss out there won’t be any more.
Additional photos courtesy of the Piaggio Archive.