It looks like a wasp – a narrow waist and a rounded butt. Perfect for the times in more than one way in 1946. The shape suited La Dolce Vita style popularized by American movies in the 1950s and 60s. Many consider it the apex of Italian design. It became a symbol of carefree youth.
Think about the Vespa ride in Roman Holiday, the story of a royal princess out to see Rome on her own bumping into a discreet expatriate reporter. Audrey Hepburn seemed to have the time of her life. It was her career debut role and she took home an Academy Award for Best Actress. They say it won Vespa 100,000 sales. Women played a big part in its success.
Vespa became the symbol of Italian fashion, design, art and architecture of the mid-20th century. But it was born as a practical means of transport… and a way to rebuild after the war.
Skirting the rubble between point A and B, with ease
After World War II, many Italian factories and cities were in shambles. The Piaggio company’s factory in Pontedera had been destroyed by the allies. Piaggio had been in the transportation business since 1884. The company produced aircraft and aircraft parts.
Enrico Piaggio asked aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to come up with a cheap scooter that would help people move around the city in the post-war. He was eyeing the mass market that was left with little means for personal transport.
In fact, legend has it that the scooter idea came from employees who needed to move from point A to point B skirting around the rubble. D’Ascanio was a helicopter inventor, he did not like scooters at all. Found them uncomfortable, heavy, and their tires difficult to replace.
He set out to solve his own problems with existing models – a monocoque shell as a body to enclose the direct drive engine, merged the shift in the handlebar, and designed the tire attachment to look like those of airplanes, easier to detach and replace.
The design inspiration came to him from watching US military aircraft drop tiny, olive green Cushman Airbornes to troops in Milano and Torino. Troops could move in an out of areas quickly thanks to the skeletal steel motor scooter.
A fresh sense of mobility
The scooter had a step-through entry and a comfortable upright riding position. Protection in the front was a plus for women who could ride it even with a skirt or dress. The encasing kept grease from the engine off chic Italian clothes. After D’Ascanio unveiled the design, Enrico Piaggio himself noted, “It looks like a wasp!” (hence Vespa)
Piaggio filed a patent for the practical model that did not sacrifice appearance and elegance
and began production in earnest. At launch, the media panned it – joking it looked like a toy. But the public loved it.
Italian women and men were attracted by its design, smooth ride, and ease of use. They could buzz about the city quickly – it soon turned necessity into a fun experience. The feedback – and sales figures – encouraged Piaggio. In 1956, the company produced 1 million Vespa.
Vespa clubs and the freedom lifestyle
This gets the attention of the foreign press. The Times calls it the most completely Italian product since the Roman chariot.
Enrico Piaggio plans to engage with all the attention to generate more interest. In the early 1950s the first Vespa Clubs are born. A Vespa Calendar – a precursor and likely inspiration for the famous Pirelli Calendar – and then Italian Vespa Day. Twenty thousand people participated.
Vespa sold 2 million units by 1960.
Apple wasn’t the first company to use the apple successfully. Gilberto Filippetti did for Piaggio in 1968. He was taking bus number 17 in Firenze to get to work and thinking about the slogans floating around at the time. Outside he sees young long haired hippies on the other boring adults.
Someone is spraying on a wall, “don’t trust anyone older than 30.” Kaboom! He’s got the slogan that made Italian ad history – “Chi Vespa mangia le mele. Chi non Vespa no.” The message is Vespa is cool. No Vespa, uncool. Adults tended to be in the second category.
Literally it means that people who own/drive/use a Vespa – the genius was making the name a verb – gets to eat the apple, or prize. The others don’t.
Iconic status in culture
The ad gave Vespa instant iconic status in Italian culture. Popular actor-playwright and comedian Dario Fo writes a song, “Mangia le mele al padrone” (eat the master’s apples.) Renown Italian businessman Luca di Montezemolo talks about new life for Italian advertising.
Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani says it was a genius’ stroke creatives are still trying to follow. Toscani became known for his controversial Benetton ads. Writer Alberto Moravia on the other hand finds it horrible.
Whatever you think of the campaign, it got attention in spades – and started a new conversation. A fruit used to communicate the effects of technology advancements. Filippetti used Pop Art to communicate the message, personalizing it.
Sales shot up to 4 million 1970, and 10 million by the late 1980s. More than 16 million Vespa motor scooters have been made to date in thirteen countries and sold around the world.
All along, Piaggio made product improvements and introduced new models. The 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable. Automatic transmission was available in 1984. On its 50th anniversary, Piaggio introduced the new generation 125cc (popular in 1948) with a 4-stroke engine.
Vespa has been a symbol of Italy and young people’s lifestyle – evoking freedom, mobility, and a promise of romance and adventure. For Italy, Vespa has been a symbol of regeneration, of becoming a major industrial power once again.
It was an innovative solution to a big problem – how to provide reliable personal transportation at low cost. Vespa has been exhibited in the Guggenheim in New York, in Bilbao, at the Louvre, and it’s been entered in the collection at the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) in New Work.
Substance with style, made in Italy. Repeat after me, “Chi Vespa mangia le mele,” and you’re ready to zig when everyone else zags.
- Vespa: An Illustrated History, Eric Brockway
- Vespa: The Colour Family Album, Andrea & David Sparrow
- Piaggio nella Storia was produced in 2006. It’s a promotional narrative in Italian but has many great visuals. (Ads and movie parts after minute 5’. Enjoy!)