The motor scooter is a design and style icon. It is post-WW2, it is urban, modernist, 1960s. It represented bohemian chic in Paris, and gritty violent realism in Britain — with the Mods (versus the Rockers).
These machines are still popular the world over — from India to Brazil — but it was the Italians who created the market and it was the rivalry between two Italian manufacturers that drove the design forward from the original British Military machine to the Vespas and Lambrettas instantly recognised everywhere.
As a wealthy and successful entrepreneur and businessman, Fernando Innocenti saw the potential in vehicles dropped in Rome by British parachuters. He arranged a meeting at Guidonia with the famous aeronautical engineer, Colonel Corradino D’Ascanio, who was responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter by Agust.
The two did not develop the motor scooter together, but apart — creating two rival brands; Col. D’Ascanio developed the Vespa range with Enrico Piaggio, while Innocenti developed his Lambretta range with Col. Torre.
The Vespa scooter design was patented in 1946 by Piaggio. It was stylised from the outset, being unveiled to the world’s press at Rome Golf Club in a range of pastel colours. It was considered very modern and even futuristic at the 1946 Milan Fair launch.
The body is an integral part of the chassis (a so-called ‘monocoque’ construction).
It was considerably more manoeuvrable and comfortable to ride than a motor cycle even though it had a rigid rear suspension and the engine (2-stroke and almost a litre in capacity) was horizontally mounted through a 3-speed transmission onto the rear wheel without cooling.
The principle was a large padded seat mounted on an engine that was then mounted on (and drove) a wheel. This arrangement was attached to a wind-shield-cum-steering wheel by a wide floor-plate. The rear pillion was a seat for a passenger, or optionally a storage compartment, and the petrol cap was sited under the hinged seat.
The pop-riveted sheet steel construction reveals the dependency on wartime aero-technology familiar to Col. D’Ascanio — and the front wheel with lamp was a landing gear with fork on only one side and the engine was the landing gear engine used in aircraft.
The wind-shield panel design developed into a more rigid twin skin affair that allowed additional storage similar to the glove compartment in a car. A fan was later attached to the transmission to blow air over the cylinder’s cooling fins. The mixture of oil in the fuel produced high amounts of smoke, and a high buzzing sound like a wasp — which gave the scooter it’s brand name of wasp (Vespa).
The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper Spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit. Then came the 50cc of 1963, and in 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all.
By the end of October 1948, nearly 10 thousand Type A Lambretta motor scooters had been made. The type B design was being developed while the Model M production was increased to cover the USA and Argentina. The Type B looked like the first model and essentially kept the same engine, but a new suspension system was developed for the front and rear wheels and a hand gear instead of the foot gear shift and the wheels enlarged from 175mm to 200mm diameter.
- http://www.lcgb.co.uk/scooters/story.html — tells the fascinating story of Fernando Innocenti — from his Dad’s shop in Grossetto to designing scaffolding for work on the Sistine chapel and for the Rome World Cup, as well as his development of pipes and tubes with Mannesman etc.
The design should be seen in wider contexts. Primarily, perhaps, as part of the general and concurrent development of transport machines — ships, submarines, aircraft, cars, trains, subways, trams, motor cycles, hovercrafts, lorries and more. Possibly in the context of developing a post-war economy, utilising factories and war-time methods and materials — the Italian and German steel and aluminium partnerships, the new world envisaged by Mussolini and Hitler — draining the Maremma marshes, and so forth.
Back then, Catholic, fascist newly-united Italy had a good reputation for engineering and mechanics while Protestant, Nazi newly-united Germany had a reputation for bad, cheap engineering (Gerry-built), but great design – Bauhaus, Dada etc.
Many have discussed the social impact of the motor scooter on society — particularly on newly-emancipated women, on the liberation of the working class, and on the emergence of the youth market — the teenager. At a time when people were getting used to motorised and mechanised transport in general, the motor scooter offered a personal mode of transport. It has obvious advantages over the motor cycle — especially for skirted women. The freedom to go where you want when you want was incredibly important — but in the post-war baby-boom, and where passengers, goods and the weather are considerations, the motor scooter began to lose out to the new affordable small car – the Mini, the Fiat 500 and so on.
Today, the motor scooter is as much hassle to park as a small car, but a safety helmet is not required in a car, and a car offers air conditioning, a radio, as well as storage and room for passengers. Still very popular in poorer countries, the death of the motor scooter in developed countries is probably down to the laws regarding the wearing of a safety helmet, putting it almost on a par with the motor cycle as a niche market.