In 1946, Italy was attempting to find its place in a post-WWII Europe. One target of Allied bombing raids were the plants of the Italian company Piaggio, who’d built bombers for the Axis forces. Now that peace had returned, the company and one of its young owners, Enrico Piaggio, began thinking about ways to rebuild the company – and perhaps benefit the unhealthy economy at the same time. He could create a low-cost form of transportation for the masses – a lightweight motorcycle, perhaps?
Aeronautical engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio designed a prototype called the “Paperino” (Italian for Donald Duck”,) but Piaggio was unimpressed. Riders would have to straddle the bike, leaving women in skirts at a disadvantage, and the tires were difficult to change in the event of a flat.
D’Ascanio went back to the drawing board and returned soon thereafter with the MP6 prototype. It featured a step-through body, upright seating position, direct mesh engine, integral stress-bearing body, gear lever on the handlebar, legshield to protect the rider from mud and dirt, and a one-sided supporting arm rather than a front fork, making flats easy to change. Piaggio took one look at the narrow waist and rounded rear end of the scooter and remarked, “Sembra una vespa!” It looks like a wasp!
Following its high society debut at Rome’s elegant golf club, Piaggio almost immediately began selling Vespas as fast as they could build them. Fifteen million scooters later, Vespa is today just as much a timeless example of youthful, economical independence, as it was 60 years ago. To me it’s a picture of perfect design, rooted in the stripped-down design sense of the 1940’s and ’50’s, but every bit as meaningful in today’s world. It represents freedom and ease of mobility in a way that no other mode of transportation can compare with.