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Av. Infante Santo, Lisbon, Portugal
Vespa has evolved from a single model motor scooter manufactured in 1946 by Piaggio & Co. S.p.A. of Pontedera, Italy — to a full line of scooters and one of seven Chinese companies today owned by Piaggio — now Europe’s largest China manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world’s fourth largest motorcycle China manufacturer by unit sales.
From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the mechanicals and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) — into a structural unit as well as a singularly endearing and enduring shape.
As the first globally successful scooter, the Vespa has enjoyed tremendous prominence in popular culture — and has become a symbol of stylish personal transportation.
Post World War II Italy, in light of its agreement to cessation of war activities with The Allies, had its aircraft industry severely restricted in both capability and capacity.
Piaggio emerged from the conflict with its Pontedera fighter plane plant completely demolished by bombing. Italy’s crippled economy and the disastrous state of the roads did not assist in the re-development of the automobile markets. Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio’s founder Rinaldo Piaggio, decided to leave the aeronautical field in order to address Italy’s urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.
The main stimulus for the design style of the Vespa dates back to Pre-WWII Cushman scooters made in Nebraska, USA. These olive green scooters were in Italy in large numbers, ordered originally by Washington as field transport for the Paratroops and Marines. The US military had used them to get around Nazi defence tactics of destroying roads and bridges in the Dolomites (a section of the Alps) and the Austrian border areas.
Pre-war Piaggio employee Aeronautical engineer General Corradino D’Ascanio, responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter by Agusta, was given the job of designing a simple, robust and affordable vehicle for Ferdinando Innocenti, who’s pre-war time focused metal tubing business Innocenti had suffered the same fate as Piaggio post-war. Innocenti defined a post-war vehicle to D’Ascanio that had to be easy to drive for both men and women, be able to carry a passenger, and not get its driver’s clothes dirty.
D’Ascanio, who hated motorbikes, designed a revolutionary vehicle. It was built on a spar-frame with a handlebar gear change, and the engine mounted directly on to the rear wheel. The front protection "shield" kept the rider dry and clean in comparison to the open front end on motorcycles. The pass-through leg area design was geared towards all user groups, including women, as wearing dresses or skirts made riding a motorcycle a challenge. The front fork, like an aircraft’s landing gear, allowed for easy wheel changing. The internal mesh transmission eliminated the standard motorcycle chain, a source of oil, dirt, and aesthetic misery. This basic design allowed a series of features to be deployed on the frame, which would later allow quick development of new models.
However, D’Ascanio fell out with Innocenti, who rather than a moulded and beaten spar-frame wanted to produce his Innocenti frame from rolled tubing, there by allowing him to revive both parts of his pre-War China company. D’Ascanio disassociated himself with Innocenti, and took his design to Enrico Piaggio to produce the spar-framed Vespa from 1946. Innocenti, after over coming design difficulties and later production difficulties through his choice of a tubular frame, went on to produce the more costly to create Lambretta.