Italian style, Sicilian girls, Brighton mods and an icon called Vespa

The Vespa still remains a symbol of la dolce vita 61 years after it first spluttered out of Enrico Piaggio’s factory. Andy Round hits the high road with an Italian style icon.

So, I’m sat at a Sicilian café in the chic and cheerful medieval town of Taormina when two Vespas pull up. The female riders both wearing white suits, switched off their ignitions, dismounted with synchronised harmony, pulled off their helmets with a shampoo advert swoop of freshly cut dark hair and scissor-walked off down the cobbled street in a blur of blood-red lipstick and Versace gold.

In the golden sunlight, it looked like the opening of a film. Those women must have spent hours rehearsing that entrance. Actually they probably had, it was Sicily after all. In the café every man was looking at wonder after them, expressos suspended in disbelief.

Would the scene have been better with Harley Davidsons? Nope. Would a Maserati Spyder have been an improvement? You’re joking. The whole key to the vision was the girls’ mode of transport. The Vespas, at least to western European eyes, just looked so achingly cool. You couldn’t have worn a well-cut white suit on anything else. And, this April on the 60th anniversary of the first Vespa to roll out of Piaggio’s factory, the cool currency of this little design classic is higher than ever.

Visionary old Enrico Piaggio. He struggled to get his father Rinalado’s business back on track after the Allied troops had bombed the living daylights out of their sea and aircraft factory. Piaggio Senior had started the family firm in 1884 at the height of the glamorous Belle Époque and made a fortune from outfitting luxury cars, planes and ocean-liners. Sadly, Second World War wiped out any dreams of future luxuries.

Post war, son Enrico refocused the company’s attentions on getting Italy moving again. He moved the operation to Pontadera in Tuscany and set about creating a new type of motorbike similar to the collapsible scooters used by US paratroopers. Dissatisfied with the first designs he saw, Piaggio called in Corradino D’Ascanio an aeronautical engineer. D’Ascanio had established an admirable reputation as the designer of one of the first modern helicopters. Fortunately he hated everything about motorbikes.

Using aircraft technology, D’Ascanio pinched the planned shape, added a front fork similar to landing gear, created a single steel chassis and added a shield that would protect finely tailored Italian clothes from the most obstinate of road debris. When the little prototype icon was wheeled out before Piaggio in 1946, the factory owner famously exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa!” (It looks like a wasp). It was not since the Roman chariot that Italians had made a set of hot wheels that were proudly their own.

By 1950, the 43 mph, 65-inch, 100 mpg, 185lb, four-and-a-half horsepower scooter had become Italy’s biggest manufacturing seller. The 517,000 Vespas spluttering along Italy’s roads outnumbered Italian cars. “The best way to fight Communism in this country is to give each worker his own form of transport,” Piaggio said, “have something valuable of their own and have a stake in the principal of private property.”

Many Italian industrialists took him at his word and bought Vespas on a sort of pre-contemporary company fleet plan, selling them to employees via salary deductions. Naturally, even at Piaggio’s own plant, more than 60 per cent of the 3,500 workers owned one of the scooters.

Internationally the quirky little beast had universal appeal and spread to 45 other countries through licence agreements or as a result of over-stretched export orders. When Vespa tentatively appeared in the US in 1952 the original order for 1,000 by Sears, Roebuck & Co was immediately stepped up to 5,000 (with a further 2,000 every following month) as demand scootered past supply.

In an inspirational piece of 1953 product placement, the curvaceous shape of the Vespa proved to be the transportation of choice for a young Audrey Hepburn and rather older Gregory Peck as they zigzagged through the streets in Roman Holiday towards the inevitable carabiniere welcoming committee. Audrey, with her cropped hair, looked great, but the star was definitely D’Ascanio’s little creation.

Understandably, the Vespa inspired the world’s philosophers. Author of The Name Of The Rose, Umberto Eco, took time out to pen the equally worthy tome The Cult Of The Vespa. For him, “The Vespa came to be linked in my eyes with transgression, sin and temptation.” He’d probably witnessed the same women I’d seen in Sicily.

In reality, however, the Vespa was simply a great way to carry the whole family as they raced through heavy traffic balancing the shopping. But for non-Italians it was greater than the sum of its pressed steel parts. The Vespa represented dreams, freedom and fun all wrapped up in an exotic culture of la dolce vita and warm summer’s evenings.

It’s no wonder the razor-sharp suited style warriors of the 1960s British Mod movement took a liking to the self-consciously designed Vespa. What was the point of wearing your best Savile Row if nobody could see you as you flew down to Brighton beach for a weekend fight? Admittedly, the cold climate of South England was not as romantic as the Italian coast, (just see the scooter film Quadrophenia) but at least you could look good as you escaped those pesky rockers on their dirty looking Enfields.

Still, the Mods were not the only ones to park their stylishly well-tailored bottoms on Vespa’s trusty seat. Celebrity Vespa fans include Audrey Tatou, Joan Collins, Jamie Oliver, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Milla Jovovich, Jayne Mansfield, Britt Ekland, Jude Law, Sophia Loren, Antonio Banderas, Ursula Andress and even Mr Macho himself John Wayne.

There has also been a fair share of eccentrics. In 1952, Georges Monneret adapted an amphibious version which he used to cross the English Channel while Giorgio Bettinelli used his unmodified version to travel from Rome to Saigon and then from Chile to Tasmania. It took Bettinelli a total of four years to enjoy the two trips which started in 1992 and saw him being attacked in the Congo and sprayed with capsicum in Moscow.

Today, dreams of the open road atop a Vespa are keeping more than 6,000 Piaggio Group employees in gainful two-wheel employment in 50 countries. At the end of 2005 more than 16 million scooters had been produced since 1946.

This 60th anniversary year marks the celebration of a new Vespa on to the world’s busy streets. The GTS 250 Granturismo may be as smart looking as the original little ‘wasp’ but its now necessarily more environmentally friendly and under its redesigned tail light, sporty lines and vintage-style rear rack is a monster (in Vespa terms at least) 250cc engine.

It’s a long way from its four-and-a-half horse powered predecessor, but you can be sure that when either model is ridden with true Italian style the appeal will always be timeless. Just ask those two girls in Sicily.

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