I’m the proud owner of a scarlet-red Vespa, though only nominally so. It really belongs to the British food writer Matthew Fort, who bought it under my name a few years ago for bureaucratic reasons—I’m an Italian resident and he isn’t. He needed it to complete the final leg of a journey around Italy that inspired his Voyages on a Vespa trilogy, and christened the machine Nicoletta because, he said, it’s “feminine and elegant of frame.” She currently resides in his garden shed in Gloucestershire.
As a teenager, my dream was to live in Italy. Following certain literary and sporting interests, I chose as my destination Turin, an industrial metropolis (though more beautiful than its reputation as the “Italian Detroit” might suggest). The baroque architecture, the outdoor cafés, the arcades, the wide boulevards pullulating with trams and trucks interspersed by Fiat Cinquecentos and Vespas—it was a far cry from the sleepy provincial town in the North of England where I was born.
Now, after 35 years in Italy, I’ve returned to the sleepy provincial life. Traffic is less intense here in Bra, fifty kilometers from Turin, but the Vespa is the ideal vehicle for negotiating its narrow, cobbled streets. In the summer, I go to the seaside, and the Vespa is ever-present there, too, squeezing in among cars along the promenade and revving up at traffic lights. Nicoletta may be elsewhere, but I can’t deny that Vespas have always been a part of the Italian life that is part of me.
Tongue-in-cheek, Fort says that exploring Italy on a Vespa was his idea, but he knows that isn’t true. Before him, in 1964, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes rode one on forays around Tuscany to admire at first hand the paintings he had previously only ever seen in books. Fast forward to 1993, and the first section of Nanni Moretti’s film Dear Diary shows the director meandering through the empty streets of Rome at the height of summer. “On My Vespa,” it’s called. Six years later, the Bolognese band Lunapop’s song “50 Special,” a paean to the Vespa model of the same name, was a huge hit among teenagers. “How great it is to go about with wings beneath your feet,” went the chorus.
The Vespa, which made its debut over 60 years ago, has never lost its luster in Italian popular culture.
It was in 1946 when, on the lookout for peacetime business opportunities, former military plane manufacturer Enrico Piaggio asked aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to design “a two-wheeled vehicle that isn’t a traditional motorbike and is, above all, cheap.” D’Ascanio, said to detest motorbikes, qualified as the ideal person to invent something completely new. That may sound like a warped logic, but it worked, and D’Ascanio’s brainchild, which, in his own words, “combined the performance of a motorbike with the comfort of a car,” promptly went into production at the Piaggio plant in Pontedera.
Initially, the new creation was to be called Paperino, the Italian name for Donald Duck, echoing Topolino, or Mickey Mouse, the nickname of the Fiat Cinquecento car. But when Piaggio saw D’Ascanio’s sleek machine, he is said to have remarked either “It’s got a thin waist like a wasp” or “The engine sounds like a wasp buzzing”–or maybe both. Versions of the anecdote vary, but what’s certain is that the name Vespa, wasp in Italian, stuck. In 1947 D’Ascanio added the Ape, or bee, a three-wheeled utility vehicle, to the Piaggio bestiary. It’s still popular among Italian farmers for its agility over harsh terrains but, watching it clambering up mountainsides, it’s more reminiscent of a mountain goat than a bee. Whereas, whizzing in and out of city traffic, the Vespa lives up to its name.
The end of the war and the fall of fascism spelled freedom for Italians and, with the Vespa, Piaggio quenched their consequent thirst for mobility. “60,000 lire for a dream of freedom at 60 kilometers an hour” was Piaggio’s promise, and the company kept it. Anyone could drive Vespas and they could travel fair distances, discovering a world beyond the confines of rural villages or urban neighborhoods. They were particularly popular among women, who had played an active, often decisive part in the wartime resistance movement and voted for the first time in the 1946 general election. The first advertisement showing a working woman sitting astride a Vespa was a harbinger of liberation for everyone.
The most effective advert of all was the postcard movie Roman Holiday, in which Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode around Rome on a white Vespa. While Gregory was busy seducing Audrey, the international public fell in love with the Vespa itself, and sales soared worldwide. The 500th Vespa was produced in 1953; by 1956 the figure had topped the million mark. Piaggio’s slogan became, “Ti amo. From Italy with love.”
Piaggio has accompanied the last seventy years of Italian history with a hundred or so Vespa models, one of which, the GS 150, is on display at the MoMA in New York. Anticipating modern merchandising and customer loyalty schemes, the company has promoted all models with a panoply of badges and pennants and other collector’s miscellanea. In 2017 it also stepped up to the environmental plate when it unveiled the Vespa Elettrica, an electric model with a range of 250 kilometers. There’s now a rumor going round Italian bars according to which Piaggio is developing a two-seater Covid-19 model, elongated to respect social distancing.
Today the Vespa enjoys cult status more than ever among Italians, without distinction of age or class or region. Factory workers in Turin, opera-goers in Milan, button men in Palermo–you can see them all riding Vespas. As I write there are three Vespas parked outside the bar below my balcony. One of them belongs to a friend of mine: It’s a white 125 Primavera and in 1979 he rode it all the way to a Patti Smith concert in Bologna, a distance of 300 kilometers. The other day I inadvertently called it a scooter. “A Vespa isn’t a scooter,” he replied. “A Vespa is a Vespa.”
John Irving is a freelance editor and writer based in Piedmont, Italy. He is the author of Pane e Football (Slow Food Editore, 2012).