The year was 1946. The World War had just ended, and not too well for Italy. And Italy needed a modern and affordable vehicle that could transport the country’s people along roads and byways decimated by war.
Industrialist Enrico Piaggio took up the challenge and had his engineers construct a new kind of motor bike. When he first saw the prototype, commissioned from Corradino D’Ascanio, a distinguished aero-engineer, Piaggio had apparently exclaimed, “It looks like a wasp!” The design that captured his imagination featured a complete engine cowling that shielded the rider from dirt and grease, a flat floorboard on which you could rest your feet, and a large front fairing that provided significant wind protection.
“Vespa” – that’s “wasp” in Italian, and the name stuck.
A Legend is Born
D’Ascanio’s Vespa was cheap and reliable, while its step-through frame meant that women could ride it in skirts, and its concealed engine – tucked under the seat or over its small back wheel – kept oil, grease and dirt from chic Italian clothes. More than this, the Vespa was fun. Especially so in a post-war Italy still recovering from the Allied bombings and that now turned to the production of modest machines for a domestic market longing for entertainment but with precious little to spend.
Women certainly loved the Vespa. Its appearance in Roman Holiday, the 1953 romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, is said to have been worth 100,000 sales. Perhaps it was. The glamorous Hollywood couple spun carefree around Rome on one of the scooters, aimlessly and stylishly. Audiences wanted to do the same.
Other stars and films followed, providing more free advertising campaigns for Piaggio’s mechanical wasp. From Angie Dickinson, fulsomely gorgeous on her Vespa in Jessica, a Sicilian romp from 1962, to Gwen Stefani, racing one in the 2007 video for Now That You Got It, women have been as important to the myth and success of Piaggio’s bestseller as men.
The male part has been played, variously, by moody Mods in 1979’s Quadrophenia, a disturbing Matt Damon in 1999’s The Talented Mr Ripley and by the whimsical Italian film director Nanni Moretti in Caro Diairio in 1993.
As fuel prices soared worldwide, and as urban commuting has become ever busier and parking spaces fewer, more people took to scooters in Europe. And, despite ambitious rivals over the years, the Vespa has been top of the polls since it first turned a pair of tiny pressed-steel wheels.
Although thought of as essentially Italian, the idea for the motor scooter came to former Italian aero-engineers from watching US military aircraft drop tiny, olive green Cushman Airbornes to troops in the industrial heartlands of Milan and Turin fighting fierce German resistance. Made in Nebraska, the Cushman Airborne – a skeletal steel motor scooter – allowed troops to nip about deftly as never before.
Using skills and materials drawn from the aircraft industry, D’Ascanio transformed the idea of this basic, yet brilliant easy-ride motorbike into the Vespa.
In 2013, Piaggio launched its 946 model, a beautifully made scooter that harks back in terms of styling to D’Ascanio’s original. It has four times the power and sturdy ABS braking as well as traction control. While the 946 pays homage to Vespa’s history, it definitely feels modern and tad bit futuristic. For the first time ever, Vespa has used aluminum in one of their designs. As a plus, from the stitching on the leather handle grips to the final polish, every premium component is assembled by hand. From rear side panels that tap the art deco style for inspiration, to the full LED headlamp (another first!), the Vespa 946’s modern approach to the iconic scooter is truly well done.
The Design journey is beautifully shown in this short video
Focus on User Experience
Piaggio CEO Roberto Colaninno recently described how the company’s marketplace continues to evolve. With a worldwide and culturally diverse customer base, understanding the consumer on both a regional and global basis is important to Piaggio. That’s why the company is now using the SAP HANA platform and predictive analytics software across the group to analyze customer and sales data to gain greater insight into consumer preferences – from color choices to favorite options.
“The digital marketing strategy of Piaggio is to think passions, not products,” remarks Davide Zanolini, Piaggio Group’s executive vice president of marketing and communications.
This insight says a lot about customer loyalty.
“We want to know our customers as people, understanding in real time what they like and want in a vehicle,” adds Chiara Ugozzoli, the company’s senior vice president of global digital marketing and CRM. “The concept of loyalty today has changed. People are loyal to companies not just because they like a product. They are loyal because companies are delivering great brand experiences.
More than 16 million Vespa motor scooters have been made to date in thirteen countries and sold around the world. A design that exudes Italian charm and styling, the Vespa will be buzzing through the world’s city streets for many years yet. These days, there are a full line of Vespa scooters, and Vespa is one of seven companies owned by the larger Piaggio Group. The Piaggio Group remains Europe’s largest manufacturer of two-wheel motor vehicles with products that include scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles marketed under various brands such as Piaggio, Gilera, and Moto Guzzi. The group also operates in the three- and four-wheeler light transport sector.