Better than a thousand words is a picture from the 2003 Pirelli Calendar. Alessandro Gassmann and the splendid Jessica Miller in the image shot by Bruce Weber: a “handsome stud” with a winning smile, the magical surroundings of the Cilento region, and a Vespa. And the Italy that we know so well, that we love to see again, and above all that fascinates foreigners. And the Vespa comes onto the scene in just the right gear: the symbol of a country emerging devastated by the Second World War, or during the economic boom, resisting the cyclical economic crises and returning to greatness during its best moments. A link between the different generations, interacting between social surroundings differing markedly between each other, generating cultural phenomena, becoming the costume which everyone could wear without the need for it to adapt itself. And with nearly 19 million scooters sold, Vespa gave the world an extra gear by spreading out along the roads of every nation, bringing together in a common passion the youth of far-distant and differing cultures.
Corradino d’Ascanio on Pirelli magazine cover, n. 2, 1955 (courtesy Fondazione Pirelli)
FROM NECESSITY TO SUCCESS
Today Vespa is more than ever a global brand, manufactured in three locations: Pontedera where it has been built without interruption since 1946, destined for Europe and Western markets, including the Americas; Vinh Phuc, in Vietnam, which serves the local market and the Far East; in India, in the factory at Baramati, opened in 2012, where the models for the local market are produced. Vespa is a global product, whereas 75 years ago it was simply the response to the urgent requirement to get about in a country with very few roads in good condition, carrying people and the occasional not too bulky piece of luggage. The manufacturer Enrico Piaggio had the flash of inspiration that in order to create something truly innovative he would need to choose a designer whose mind would be free of every concept linked to the motorbike.
This led to the choice of the aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, a designer of helicopters and a man who “detested motorbikes”, and thus the ideal person to invent something completely new.
In the “Pirelli” magazine of 1955 Corradino D’Ascanio recounted his idea for the Vespa: “I asked myself: what motorbike would be suitable for me? What are its characteristics? My answer was: it must be similar to a woman’s bicycle from which it is easy to dismount”.
He succeeded in this, with technical solutions of great impact, starting with the load-bearing chassis, devoid of tubular structures in steel and, thanks to this, without any central console. It was the first motorcycle in the world to adopt this, powered by a two-stroke 98cc cylinder engine which made it capable of reaching 60 km/h. It was fitted with a three-speed gearbox and was started up with a magnetic flywheel. During the first year, their sales reached 2484 units. Initially, each one cost 68 thousand Lire, which at that time corresponded to several months of an employee’s salary. But it was possible to pay for it in instalments, another novelty of the post-War years. Foreigners too were pleasantly surprised by the Vespa. The Times immediately defined it as “an entirely Italian product, such as has not been seen for centuries since the Roman chariot”.
The company which equipped Vespa with a vast assortment of dimensions and types of tyre for motor scooters was Pirelli, the first manufacturer in Italy to have contributed to the success of this most modern of vehicles. As is quoted in the advertisement from 1952, “the company continues to perfect its manufacturing, such that the majority of motor scooters which are driven around the country are equipped by Pirelli.”
Advertising for motoscooter Pirelli tyres, 1952 (courtesy Fondazione Pirelli)
FROM MUSEUMS TO THE CINEMA
As for the origin of the name, which subsequently became famous at a planetary level, this is not entirely clear. According to the most famous version, it came from an exclamation by Piaggio that when he saw the first prototype he cried “it’s like a wasp!”, as a result of the sound of its engine and the shapes of its bodywork which when seen from above renders it similar to that of the insect (“vespa” is Italian for “wasp”), with a wide and bulbous central part for the comfort of the driver and a narrow “waistline”. Rarely has a means of transport been able to bring together the charm of an object of design (and which is held in the permanent collections of the Triennale museum in Milan and of the MoMA in New York) and a practicality which has won over the public, everywhere. This is thanks to ongoing product development – you just need to note that around 150 versions of it have been made – both from a technical point of view and a stylistic one, with eyes on sport as much as on fashion. Making it popular and keeping it top favourite has been thanks to books and especially to the cinema: it was a Vespa carrying Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953) and Hugh Grant in About a Boy (2002) not to mention Nanni Moretti in the episode of Dear Diary (1993) during which he roams around the capital, during a semi-deserted summer. Colossal rallies (those of the Vespa Clubs), cross-Continental journeys, competitive challenges: nothing has been left out.
In the long history of the Vespa has also appeared the electric version, launched in 2017 and which made its market début the following year. It is a vehicle designed and built for the mobility of today, with a TFT display through which it is possible to manage many functionalities of the smartphone. It has a range of around 100 km, which for commuting is quite sufficient and represents further progress. And for those who require it there is the X version, which by fitting a generator alongside the electric motor doubles this range. The electric Vespa is a synonym of advanced connectivity and quiet performance, personalisation and accessibility for the widest public, respect for the environment and uniqueness of style. Pirelli could not miss out on being present on such an avant-garde machine, and provides its two tyres on a factory-fitted basis. Besides, an Italian icon deserves an Italian icon.
All the materials form part of the company's historical heritage which is now preserved in the Historical Archive of the Pirelli Foundation www.fondazionepirelli.org