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  • Writer's pictureKanhaiya Maheshwary

How a weird looking Italian scooter became a style icon - The brand story of Vespa

To many, it may just look like a stylish scooter, but you will be surprised to know the amount of cultural and historical lines Vespa crosses. It was the by-product of a post-World War II Italian manufacturing, when their economy was almost in ruins and a lot of their factories destroyed in the aftermath of the war. This story begins in 1884 when Rinaldo Piaggio founded the Piaggio, a company which did luxury ship fittings. Slowly, the company expanded into manufacturing rail carriages and luxury coaches, and by the time the World War I was about to end, they had already setup a center in the Italian city of Pontedera where the company manufactured aeronautical parts like propellers, engines, and soon enough entire aircrafts!

Source: BBC Culture

From aircrafts to a small scooter

World War II brought with itself destruction for the Italian economy and on August 31, 1943, Piaggio's 2 manufacturing units in Tuscany were razed to the ground as a result of attacks by the Allied forces. The German soldiers had carefully planted mines before returning and in due course of time they brutally damaged Piaggio's aeronautical manufacturing plants.

By this time, Rinaldo Piaggio had already passed away and the task of rebuilding the entire business went to the sons Armando and Enrico. Enrico was the one who shouldered this much more, and was almost in two minds whether the company should in fact even get back to manufacturing airplanes and aerospace parts. After a careful consideration of the economic and societal situation of Italy, he hired Corradino D’Ascanio, an Italian aerospace engineer, in order to design a motorcycle.

D'Ascanio was a prodigy who had made his own glider when he was all of 15, and also Italy's first helicopter! However, despite all his accomplishments, for some reason he was very averse to motorcycles. And Piaggio's brief was to model it around the American Cushman, a light-weight scooter which could be dropped using a parachute without any issues. D'Ascanio got to work, and created something which was very different from a motorcycle. He moved the gears to the clutch, and put the engine below the seat. The body was carefully prototyped to be comfortable, save the clothes from getting dirty, and be extremely ergonomic at a time when that term wasn't even in use.

The moment Piaggio looked at D'Ascanio's prototype and noticed the wide body and narrow rear, he immediately compared it to a Wasp. Hence, the name Vespa (Vespa = Italian for Wasp)

Finally launched in April 1946, Piaggio's Vespa actually helped Italy navigate the economic uncertainties after World War II, much like how the scooter navigated the busy streets of Rome. Also, coincidentally the name Vespa suited the scooter because of how people buzzed through the streets on it.

Vespa - The Style Icon

Several associations turned Vespa into a true style icon, both from an aesthetic as well as a cultural stand point. It became an icon of quirky design, an icon of women's emancipation, and a Hollywood cult too!

Vespa and Women

Vespa's design was very conducive for women to sit and ride without letting their clothes get dirty from the grease / oil. The scooter's very first ad showed a women riding it, thereby sending out a strong message. It also helped that Vespa's launch year coincided with the year when Italian women voted for the first time. It was a time for women empowerment. And with women riding the scooters, the tone was being a style icon was already set.

Vespa and Hollywood

Hollywood played a huge role in popularizing this scooter and making it a global style icon. In today's digital day and age, we all talk about 'earned media' and how effective it is. Well, Vespa's earned media was the movie "Roman Holiday" in 1953. In the movie, legends Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were seen scooting around Rome on a Vespa. It create a frenzy, and everyone wanted a piece of this unique scooter.

Over the years, Vespa has made an appearance in many more movies such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Ratatouille.

Vespa and knockoffs

First: Japanese Fuji Rabbit. Second: Britain's Triumph Tigress

It is said that imitation is the best form of flattery. In that case, one of the biggest testimonies to Vespa's iconic style were the various knockoffs that it inspired. In countries from Britain to Japan, and Germany to Russia, brands started producing their own lookalikes of Vespa under local brand names. However, none were as successful. Also, as more countries got to know about the original Vespa, they started importing them.

Over the years, Vespa managed to sell over 16 million units in over 13 countries. And since a decade or so, it has become the stuff of nostalgia. Recently in 2015, a Vespa World Way was organized in Biograd, Croatia. At least 5,000 Vespa owners from over 32 countries came for the meetup. And in several countries like India, the brand actually made a come back. In fact, my uncle purchased one a few years ago.

Next year Vespa will turn 75. However, after all these years, it manages to remain as youthful as ever, like an evergreen style icon.

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