Vespa Scooter isItalian for Wasp

Vespas were created by fighter jet designers and championed by film stars, Mods and Italian youth. They remain an absolute design classic.
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Vespas were created by fighter jet designers and championed by film stars, Mods and Italian youth. They remain an absolute design classic.

There’s nothing like speeding past stationary traffic on a Vespa to instill in you a twin sense of freedom and schadenfreude. Whipping through the streets on this simple, elegant and robust piece of automotive engineering is the only way to negotiate a modern city with dignity, liberty and style.

In a car you are at the mercy of gridlock, parking restrictions and bendy buses. But on a Vespa you never wait in line; you speed to the front of queues and weave seamlessly through the automotive hoards with impudence and glee. You park for free and cock a snoop at congestion charges.

Ever since its invention, riding a Vespa has been synonymous with freedom, with agile exploitation of space and with easier social relationships. It is, as it always was, the ultimate tool for the streetwise come-on.

Like all great Italian inventions, it was conceived with aesthetics in mind. The bodywork was designed to cover the engine and shield the legs from rain, mud and oil. This appealed to the style-obsessed Italian populace when the bike was first released in 1947 and has since made it the first choice of sartorially-conscious commuters across the globe. Piaggio, an Italian manufacturer of fighter planes, first produced it in 1946.

"In a car you are at the mercy of gridlock, parking restrictions and bendy buses. But on a Vespa you never wait in line."

With the Italian economy in turmoil, company boss Enrico Piaggio realised that people needed a cheap and utilitarian means of transport. He commissioned Corradino D’Ascanio – the designer of the first modern helicopter – to devise a solution. But the designer did not like motorcycles, finding them uncomfortable and bulky. So he came up with the revolutionary scooter design that was based on his aeronautical experience – an airplane on wheels, so to speak. For Piaggio it resembled something else entirely. ‘It looks like a wasp!’ he said. The name Vespa (Italian for wasp) was born.

It was immediately embraced by the Italian public, but remained unknown elsewhere until 1953, when Audrey Hepburn rode side-saddle on Gregory Peck’s Vespa in the film Roman Holiday. The following year, 100,000 were sold worldwide. Later that decade, John Wayne, Dean Martin and Marlon Brando were photographed nipping around film sets on Vespas.

In 1960s Britain, they became the preferred transport of the Mods, keen on their suit-preserving qualities. Fleets of smart young men swarming to Brighton aboard gleaming Vespas (as depicted in the 1979 film Quadrophenia) cemented the bike’s design-icon status.

Today, you needn’t be a teenager in dark glasses and a parka to pull off the Vespa look. A new generation of commuters has been seduced by the bike’s liberating qualities. Now, Piaggio has revisited its roots, with an updated version of the 1947 GTV original in aircraft grey. With a 250cc engine, it’s fast and robust enough to take you beyond the city onto the open road. Take someone with you.