Buzzing around town – the Italian wasp

Vespa means wasp in Italian. And the comparison between the little buzzing insect that has no notion of not being able to fly and so does it anyway and the cool Italian retro scooter is a good one.

The Vespa was originally designed back in 1946 by Italian engineering company Piaggio. Naturally back then it wasn’t retro but a super modern mode of transport.

Piaggio actually produced warplanes, but after the Second World War the world was facing a different reality and many companies needed to explore new business avenues. Especially the car industry itself had been decimated, and at the same time the Italian roads were in such a bad state that cars could hardly drive on them. Today not many of us really contemplate what Europe looked like when it woke up after the war. Especially maybe Italy, which of course was a fascist-ruled country and as such on the losing side.

Italy had been ravaged – both physically and psychologically – and a complete reconstruction was needed after the war. This is also one reason for the complete revitalization of design, industry and research after 1945 – everything had to be built up from new. And what was needed was new design and a new aesthetic to put the past firmly to rest.

This gave Piaggio the idea for the little scooter. It could transport the average Italian from A to B, and this quite cheaply. And the Vespa was nippy too. In both the 1950s and 1960s the Vespa could compete with motorbikes on speed. In motorcycle races it was often the Vespa that won over the much bigger bikes.

In the first year Piaggio sold 2,599 Vespas. Only three years later sales reached 60,000 scooters a year. And sales shot in the air when the hottest star of the time –Audrey Hepburn – in the film Roman Holiday in 1953 enjoyed a tour of Rome on a Vespa. 100,000 Vespas flew off the forecourts that year. The fame factor should never be underestimated – as recent sales numbers show UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver too has had some effect driving a Vespa!

The little scooter gained popularity in much of the world. In the 1960s it became a symbol of freedom and free fantasy, like on the British Mod scene.

Today it’s become retro and super hip, especially with young, trendy city dwellers, where it’s definitely not always terribly practical with a big car and nowhere to park.

There are many collectors of the old, original Vespas from the 1940s and 50s too though. And there are Vespa clubs around the world where enthusiasts meet to share their love of the little, aerodynamic scooter.

Today Piaggio has become one of the world’s largest producers of scooters and motorcycles.

See whether there are any Vespas at auction at right now. You might be lucky!

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