Vespa: the coolest thing on two wheels is 60 years old

It has been through 20,000 mechanical changes, 120 different models - and clocked up global sales of 16 million. As Vespa celebrates its 60th birthday, Peter Popham pays tribute to an Italian brand that refuses to go out of fashion
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No other product in history has taken humiliation, destruction and poverty and made them the stuff of dreams. The Vespa, the original and best Italian motorino(scooter) has just turned 60, and despite 20,000 mechanical changes, 120 different models and total sales of more than 16 million, it is still recognisably the same machine as the one that made its debut in April 1946.

Inside, though, everything has changed: the old two-stroke engine, as responsive and peppy as it was noisy and polluting, has given way to a clean, quiet four stroke; the transmission is automatic. But the look is essentially unchanged. For one new model, the makers are even putting the headlamp back on the mudguard, as it was on the original.

They can't tamper with the look too much - they can only tease and titivate it, adding leather seats, fiddling with the shape of the handlebars - because the Vespa is much more than just another two-wheeler:

In one clean, sleek piece of machinery it says Italy, with all the sweet connotations that word has acquired: sunshine, speed, voluptuous olive-skinned women, casually impeccable men. It says Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, breezing through the city in Roman Holiday. More than the Mini, the Jaguar, the Aston Martin or the Ferrari, the Vespa is the ultimate cool machine.

But is also, in much of the world, the poor man's saloon car, the simplest and cheapest family vehicle. What the sit-up-and-beg bicycle was in Mao's China, the Vespa was, and to a large degree remains, in the teeming cities of India, carrying husband, wife, nursing baby, two children and luggage on family excursions.

When the Vespa came into being, Italy, too, was a poor country. Enrico Piaggio, the son of the founder of the company of the same name, was an aeroplane builder. His designer, Corradino D'Ascanio, was an aeronautical designer who built the first modern helicopter. But in the spring of 1946, ravaged by war and invasion, this country did not need more planes and helicopters. Italy needed to get out of the rubble of its bombed cities and on to the potholed road.

The country had no money and no work, no place to go and nothing to do when it got there, and its whole future to invent from scratch. The Vespa was the product of desperation, and the answer to desperation.

One reason it did so well, from the day it launched, was that it was the ultimate anti-motorcycle motorcycle. What makes motorbikes irresistible to the minority of the population that finds them so is precisely what makes them obnoxious to everybody else. They are intimidating, noisy and dangerous looking. They go much too fast. You have to lie almost flat to ride them, wearing heavy protective clothing, and you look as if you are going to die. It is almost impossible to ride them and not get dirty.

Piaggio's good fortune was that Corradino D'Ascanio belonged to that segment of the population that really hates motorbikes. So he produced a two-wheeler radically different from any that had been previously thought of, as if the classic motorcycle had never existed.

Yet if Piaggio had given the nod to D'Ascanio's last prototype but one, the whole project might have sunk without trace - and Italy's reputation for elegance, style, sexiness etc with it. Because that prototype, the MP5, stank. It was nicknamed "Paperino", the Italian for Donald Duck, because of its ugliness.

The fundamental ideas of the scooter were already present, the notion of hiding the engine and protecting the rider behind a curving sweep of steel that culminates in the handlebars. But a crucial final step had yet to be taken: the engine's bulk was still throbbing between the rider's splayed legs. Piaggio told D'Ascanio to have another try.

With the MP6, the breakthrough was achieved. D'Ascanio slices out the engine, as if with a sweep of a butter knife, and banishes it to the hubs of the back wheel where it sits like a bulbous growth either side of the chassis. Nothing but air separates the seat and the handlebars, and the rider can place his or her feet on the spacious, empty platform with knees together as if sitting at the table of a cafe eating a gelato.

Piaggio took one look at that revolutionary design, with the bulbous yet aerodynamically curving engine housing and exclaimed: "Sembra una vespa!" - "It looks like a wasp!" The name stuck, and was soon being applied to the infernal whining of the machine's two-stroke engine as the swarms took over Italy's cobbled lanes.

The 1950s were the beginning of the heyday of the Vespa: one million scooters were produced in its first decade, and factories opened in Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Indonesia and India as well as Italy.

Italy's transformation from a picturesque but rather ridiculous place, the home of spaghetti and Fascism, to the epitome of Mediterranean chic, was well under way. It was incarnated in figures such as Gianni Agnelli, the elegant boss of Fiat, who had A-list friends across the world; in products such as the Olivetti typewriter and modern Italian furniture; in the burgeoning film industry and its extraordinary directors, Fellini, Pasolini, Visconti. But nothing captured the spirit of that transformation better than the Vespa.

It epitomised the way that - in the teeth of American cultural hegemony and although profoundly influenced by America - Italy managed to plot its own postwar course, to create its own icons of style. American cars sprouted absurd fins and ballooned ever larger. Yet no American in a Chevy ever looked cooler than Gregory Peck squiring his princess past the Colosseum on the Vespa. That was 1953, and sales of the machine went through the roof. And American celebrities came flocking. Marlon Brando, Ben Hur director William Wyler, Charlton Heston and John Wayne were among the Americans who succumbed.

It was on the coat tails of Roman Holiday that the Vespa charisma crossed the Channel and, in the mid-60s, became the defining element in the Bank Holiday wars between Mods and Rockers. The Rockers, like the Hells Angels they anticipated, were greasy, dirty and hairy; obviously trouble. The Mods were more ambiguous; nicely turned out in their Fred Perry sports shirts and tight-fitting, three-button, Italian-style suits, sharp hair cuts and these domesticated Italian two-wheelers. But they were no pushovers. They listened to ska and soul music, the Action and the Who; they took pep pills and fought the Rockers on the sands of Margate and Brighton with chains and flicknives. They did what no Italian would have thought of and loaded their Vespas with mirrors and redundant waving antennas. With Mafia chic somewhere in the mix, the Mods reinvented the Vespa as a war machine. They took it as far as it would go. But they couldn't kill it off.

Mods morphed into skinheads and some of them still rode scooters, but the Vespa on the Italian cobbles - with stucco and marble, wisteria and umbrella pines in the background - sailed on regardless.

The Eighties was the most difficult decade for the Vespa, because it signaled the arrival of the Japanese. But thanks to a mixture of protectionism and patriotism, the Vespa did not suffer the fate of Britain's bike brands. Italy's roads today are full of Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis, but the Vespas hold their own: Piaggio, the company, has refused to concede the fight, bringing in supercharged models while keeping the retro market fully supplied. After being banned from the US in the 1980s because the dirty two-stroke engines failed to meet emission standards, it has returned with cleaner four-stroke models.

Further developments are in the offing. Piaggio tested a zero-emission, hydrogen-fuel-cell scooter this year. The company's president, Roberto Colaninno, said "On 11 May, at Campidoglio in Rome, we will present Vespa with a brilliant heir. We are talking about a real revolution." Rumour has it that Piaggio will unveil the first Vespa three-wheeler.

The Vespa's extraordinary longevity - it has far outstripped other cult motoring object such as the Mini and the Beetle - owes much to its revolutionary design; but also to Italian cities, many of which are impossible to negotiate by any other means. There is nowhere to park a car, even if one has the patience to sit out the interminable snarl-ups. In ancient cities such as Rome, the building of new subway lines is permanently embroiled in financial and archeological challenges. The bicycle is only for those with unusual courage. The scooter, however is just right.