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Bike Review - Posted 27th April 2016
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Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters

Seventy years ago this week the iconic Vespa scooter was born. Martin Gelder looks back at the origins of the definitive classic scooter. He used to own one, you know...

I have a confession to make. The first vehicle I owned that had a manual clutch and a choice of gears was a ten year old Vespa 180SS. There; I've said it. I feel better now.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters Vespa 180 SS, 1965 - It marked a new milestone in the growth of the engine (181.14 cc), with 10 bhp more for a top speed of 105 km/h (65mph). The 180 SS (Super Sport) replaced the popular GS 150/160

My parents were disapproving when at the age of 16 I announced that I wanted – needed! - a moped, and as my 17th birthday approached and my thoughts started to turn towards proper motorbikes, they were determined to divert me towards something they thought was safer. Somehow, a scooter seemed the obvious answer, although I'm pretty sure neither of them had ever ridden one. A son of a mate of a colleague of my dad was selling one and, keen to get my bottom on anything with an engine bigger than 50cc, I scraped together the money and the deal was done.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters
Scooters on Now...

It was bright red, it had white-wall tyres, and sometimes it even started and ran. Not for long, mind, which was probably just as well. The clutch was grabby, the tickover was non-existent, the throttle cable was slack and frayed... you can imagine how my first few goes on it went.

I grew fond of that Vespa as I got to know it though, with its weird front suspension, droning but torquey two-stroke engine, and authentically period Italian electrics. It got traded in for a proper (ie, reliable) bike when I got my first job but I'm sure in some ways it set me up for the 'enjoyment' of various Italian classics later in life. It certainly had character and, I now realise, came from a solid background of Italian engineering and design.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters

The company that went on to become Vespa was founded in Genoa in 1884 by twenty-year-old Rinaldo Piaggio. They initially made luxury ship fittings before going on to produce railway carriages, goods vans, luxury coaches and engines, trams and special truck bodies.

After the end of the second world war, Rinaldo Piaggio’s sons Enrico and Armando began the process of re-starting industrial production. Enrico Piaggio focused on cheap personal transport in a country emerging from war. His first prototype, known as the MP5, was nicknamed “Paperino” (the Italian name for Donald Duck) because of its strange shape: but Piaggio didn't think it was quite right and he asked aeronautical engineer and inventor Corradino D’Ascanio to redesign it.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters

D’Ascanio did not like motorcycles. He found them uncomfortable and bulky, with wheels that were difficult to change after a puncture and a drive chain made them dirty. He designed a vehicle with a stress-bearing body and direct drive; to make it easier to ride, he put the gear change on the handlebar; to make tyre changing easier he designed a trailing arm front suspension similar to an aircraft undercarriage. Finally, he designed a body that would protect the rider so that he (or she) would not get dirty or dishevelled.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters Vespa 98, 1946 - The first Vespa. It was powered by a 98 cc engine that delivered 3.2 bhp at 4,500 rpm with a top speed of 60 km/h (38mph)

D’Ascanio’s design was revolutionary compared to other existing means of two-wheeled transport. With the help of Mario D’Este, his trusted designer, it only took D’Ascanio a few days to fine tune his idea and build the first Vespa project, in April of 1946. Enrico Piaggio himself named the scooter; standing in front of the MP6 prototype he decided it looked like a wasp. And so the Vespa was born.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters

Two versions of the 98cc Vespa went on sale: 55,000 lira (about £22) bought you the basic version and 61,000 lira (£24) the “luxury” version with a few options such as a speedometer, side stand and stylish white-wall tyres. It was a huge success; the right product, at the right time and the right price.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters Vespa 150 GS, 1955 - Experts called it “the most popular, imitated and remembered model”. There were numerous innovations: the 150 cc engine, 4-speed gearbox, standard dual saddle, handlebar-headlamp nacelle, wheels with 10” tyres. This Vespa could reach 100 km/h (60mph)

By 1950, just four years after its debut, the Vespa was being manufactured in Germany by Hoffman-Werke and the following year licensees opened in Great Britain (by Douglas of Bristol) and France; production began in Spain and Belgium in 1952, and soon Vespas were being manufactured in India, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Iran and China. The Russians even produced their own unlicensed Vespa clone, the Viatka 150.

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters By appointment to H.R.H The Duke of Edinburgh

By the early 1960s Vespas (and their Lambretta cousins) had become the choice of transport for Mods in Great Britain, and the rest, as they say, is history....

Vespa – 70 Years of Scooters

Images: Piaggio Archive

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