Two Italian Icons – Vespa & Lambretta

Written by on December 22, 2020 in Heritage & Traditions, Italy Stories

lambretta and vespa scooters - Two Italian Icons-Vespa & Lambretta

Vespa & Lambretta – the Italian scooter twins

Vespa and Lambretta, the iconic Italian born scooters that helped to shape the post-war world are not quite twins, as they were born a year apart. In 1947 and 1948 respectively.

But they share the same DNA. A revolutionary design initially commissioned by industrialist, Signore Ferdinando Innocenti, owner of a bombed-out steelworks on the outskirts of Milano.

According to legend, when surveying the ruins of his factory at the end of the 2nd World War, Sig. Innocenti had a vision. To build a new factory dedicated to the production of a low cost mode of transport to help mobilise his recently liberated but impoverished Italian countrymen. A scooter that would be cheap to buy and maintain. That would use far less fuel than a car, petrol rationing being in place at the time. And be more practical, comfortable and easier to drive than a traditional motorbike.

the German motorbike that the army used

Inspired by the Cushman Airborne

Something along the lines of the extraordinary Cushman Model 53. A pre-war, light weight scooter from Nebraska, USA, known as the Cushman Airborne. These little scooters were used extensively by US troops during the Italian campaigns of WW2. Often being dropped into the battlefield by parachute.

The Lambretta design brief – General Corrardino D’Ascanio

Signore Innocenti gave the design job for his new scooter to a renowned aeronautical engineer, General Corrardino D’Ascanio. It was to be called the ‘Lambretta’, after the Milanese district of Lambrate, where the factory was located.

The innovations that D’Ascanio came up with were all revolutionary at the time, as well as ingenious. Namely the engine mounted directly onto the rear wheel. A front protection shield to keep the rider dry and clean. A flat floorboard and the pass-through leg area for women wearing skirts. The front fork, like an aircraft’s landing gear, that allows for easy wheel changing. The internal mesh transmission replacing the standard motorcycle chain, a source of oil and dirt. And a covering for the entire engine area.

green old lambretta

Piaggio enters the game

And that would have been game set and match for the Lambretta. If it hadn’t been for a dramatic falling out at this point between Signore Innocenti and General D’Ascanio.

As it was, D’Ascanio packed up his drawing board and took his project to Signore Enrico Piaggio, another well-known Italian industrialist who owned a destroyed bomber aircraft factory in the town of Pontedera, near Pisa.

Piaggio – originally from Genova, Liguria

The now world famous Piaggio company has its roots in Liguria. It started life in the ship building industry at a factory in Sestri Ponente, on the edge of Genova. In 1916 it entered the aviation business. And in 1924 moved its plant to Pontedera, adding trains, cable cars, trucks and busses to its product line.

Paperino scooter

Arrivederci Paperino – benvenuta La Vespa

Like Innocenti, Signore Piaggio also had the dream of rebuilding his ruined factory, turning his industrial expertise towards producing a cheap new scooter. He had got as far as designing one nicknamed the Paperino (Donald Duck), which he was unhappy with.

On seeing D’Ascanio’s design, Signore Piaggio knew it was what he was looking for. He immediately took it to the patent office. And in exclaiming ‘sembra una vespa’ (‘it looks like a wasp’) he accidently christened his new baby.

1946 – the first Vespa comes off the production line

In 1946 the first two-stroke, 3.2 horsepower, 3 speed, Vespa 98 came off the new production line in Pontedera. Top speed 60 Kmh, price somewhere around euro 150. It made its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair after which sales started to slowly take off.

riding on the vespa in Roman Holiday Gregory Pack and Audrey Hepburn lcome to Hollywood – the little red Vespa conquers our hearts in ‘Roman Holiday’

When in 1953, Audrey Hepburn side-saddled Gregory Peck’s red Vespa 125 V30T – ‘Farobasso’ in the film Roman Holiday, sales rocketed to 100,000 a year. Over-night the Vespa had become a fashion icon and a lifestyle choice. How else do you end up in New York’s MoMA?

Vespa appreciation clubs quickly popped up throughout Europe and around the world. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under license in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain. In the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia.

logo of the Lambretta scooter - Two Italian Icons-Vespa & Lambretta

1947 – The Lambretta is born

Meanwhile back in Lambrate, Milano, Sig Innocenti had commissioned some new designs. And in 1947 he launched production of his Lambretta scooter.

Sales of Lambrettas over the early years virtually matched those of the Vespa. Like the Vespa, Lambrettas were soon being manufactured under licence abroad. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India and Spain. Sometimes under other names, like the Serveta in Spain. But always to the recognizable Lambretta design.

And so was established the rivalry for our affections between these two technically and functionally very similar machines.

Beatles and Rolling Stone in the 70s

The Beatles v The Rolling Stones

During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, to their devotees these two heart throbs, Vespa and Lambretta, were as distinctive as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. You were either in love with one or the other.

The early Lambretta models were slightly more robust and powerful. A bit faster and more expensive compared with the Vespas of the same vintage. Lambrettas were regarded in Italy as the more serious and workmanlike machine, in keeping with the Northern Italian character. Whereas in Britain Lambrettas were seen as more edgy and contemporary. Vespas, on the other hand, being lighter in body and on the pocket, and coming from the more ‘sunny’ Central Italy, are seen in Italy as being more stylish and youthful.

Whichever tribe you belonged to however, your Italian scooter was a much-loved friend. As well as a style statement and an emblem to newfound personal freedoms. It is easy to see why they were so popular with the teenagers of the day.

The 1950’s to the 1970’s

The heyday for the scooter in Europe was probably the mid-50’s. The Vespa GS150 and Lambretta LD150 the most popular models during this period. Nowadays they are both highly sought-after collector’s items.

Intrepid scooter riders were always in the news. Making the headlines for antics such as driving across the Andes, to the Arctic and around the world.

In Britain, Mod culture came along in the early 1960’s, with Vespas and Lambrettas at the centre of it all.

Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s lots of new cheap cars appeared on the market. Like the Mini in Britain and the Fiat 500 in Italy to name just two. Scooter sales started to decline in Europe.

Serveta scooter produced in Spain

Piaggio saved by FIAT – Innocenti sold out by British Leyland

Ironically, seeing as it was the success of the 500 and other affordable FIAT cars that was shrinking the scooter market, Piaggio was effectively saved in the early 70’s by investment from FIAT’s owners, the Agnelli’s.

Innocenti weren’t so lucky. Having briefly relied upon British Leyland for support, which didn’t work out well, the Lambretta factory closed in Italy in 1972. The company was bought by an Indian group and production was shifted to India. Production of the Serveta continued in Spain until the late 1980’s. The last original Lambretta was made by the Indians in 1997.

Piaggo and the Vespa still going strong today

Piaggio on the other hand is still going strong. With a large range of Vespa and other models, including one with two wheels at the front called the MP3. And an electric version. The company claims to have sold more than 16 million Vespa scooters worldwide. Piaggio Group is these days listed on the Milan stock exchange.

the old and new vespa - Two Italian Icons-Vespa & Lambretta

Resurgence in European scooter demand since 2020

There has been a resurgence in scooter ownership in Europe since 2020 although many new players have entered the market. Particularly from Japan. But new Vespas, as well as vintage Vespas and Lambrettas are still much in demand. A new, latest model Vespa these days will set you back between euro 3,500 – 6,700. A really good, fully restored 50’s or 60’s one could cost as much as euro 10,000.

La Dolce Vita

Between them the Piaggio Vespa and the Lambretta have done so much to shape modern Italy since the war. As well as to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. On top of that they are important symbols of the excellence of Italian design and innovation. They are the embodiment of the Mediterranean lifestyle and La Dolce Vita!.

sightseeing on the vespa

Have your own Italian scooter riding experience

When you are next in North West Italy on holiday, why not think about hiring a scooter for a few days? I wouldn’t suggest it necessarily in the big and hectic cities of Milan, Torino or Genova. Unless you are very confident and experienced. But for gentle touring along the Ligurian coast for instance I can’t imagine a better way to go. Or around Lake Como and Lake Garda. Along the valleys and over the high passes in the Aosta Valley. Or through the Langhe vineyards. No parking worries, feeling like a local. The sun on your face and the wind in your hair. Thrilling!

Most of the more touristy areas have well established and reliable scooter rental companies. Eager to provide you with your new (‘ish’) Vespa for around euro 70 per day. All you need is your normal driving license for anything up to a 125cc model. Helmets are usually included. So renting a scooter couldn’t be easier.

If you want to have someone to show you around and maybe meet some new people you can join a guided scooter tour, of which there are many.

ape piaggio ciao and aprilia - Two Italian Icons-Vespa & Lambretta

The Piaggio Museum in Pontedera and the Lambretta Museum in Rodano, Milano

Both these museums are well worth visiting. The Lambretta museum is close to Linate airport on the east side of Milan. The Piaggio museum is on part of the factory site in Pontedera, close to the famous city of Pisa in Tuscany. If you are visiting the Cinque Terre in Liguria, its about 1 hour away.

The Piaggio museum receives 600,000 visitors every year and has 250 exhibits over an area of 5,000m2. As well as Vespas it houses Piaggio’s other vehicles, including the wonderful three wheeled Ape (bee) truck, the Piaggio Ciao velo bike and also Moto Guzzi, Aprilia and Gilera motorbikes. All makes that have been acquired over the years by the Piaggio Group.

The Lambretta museum is the largest scooter museum in the world. It has 160 scooters on display from all over the world, including Italy of course.

Find out about more about another Italian “icon” the “moka“.

Find more information about The Piaggio Museum and the Lambretta Museum.

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