#1130. Celebrating a wasp which does not sting

By Pascal Ollier | Opinion

Aug 03

Among the icons that define the Italian peninsula, one which was developed shortly after World War II definitely stands high, the Vespa Scooter.

Its inception recently featured in a Netflix movie as the famous motorcycle celebrates its 75th birthday this year; that has prompted the AutoWorld center in Brussels to put up a spectacular exhibition over the Summer.

Featuring no less than 75 different vehicles, it displays models of different vintages, colours….

Italy is just coming out of World War II and is on its knees. People need to be able to get around easily and cheaply, and this vehicle must accomodate men and women just as easily; this is the spec sheet on which Enrico Piaggio worked.

If we are to believe the Netflix scenario, the reception received by the Vespa was not as warm as anticipated (hoped?) after its launch.

The decision taken by Piaggio to make Vespas available to Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn while shooting the movie Roman Holiday in 1953 put his two wheeler firmly on the map.

It is said that as a consequence of this advertisement, one hundred thousand motorcycles were sold shortly thereafter.

What struck me most during my various visits was the sheer variety of shapes etc. produced around the original concept.

First and foremost comes the Bee (Ape), a three wheeler based on the Vespa design, launched as early as 1951.

It is still quite popular on Italian roads, as it is an easy way to carry large payloads and two people in the cabin on short haul. It was also made under license in numerous other countries such as in India as a for example.

If the first version had a low sitting light (Faro Basso), it became compulsory to have a light on the handlebar to improve lighting. Faro Basso models as you can imagine are very sought after as a consequence, and there are a couple on display at AutoWorld.

Then came a flurry of different versions, single seaters, two seaters.…

Some models displayed deserve a special mention, such as this 1968 Cowboy, sort of Harley Davidson Wannabee.

Vespas became the jack of all trades for many delivery people in big cities as a for example.

The exhibition features some well worn copies demonstrating that a Vespa can be as everlasting as they come.

Another sample attracted my attention, one that says US Army. Not sure whether the US Army ever did use the Italian scooter but in preparation for this article, I stumbled upon a version dating from 1956 equipped with a cannon, made under licence for the French Army!

Wanting to promote the Vespa as a larger than life vehicle, a version was developed with a sidecar, à la German BMW for example. Not sure I’d want to sit on the Vespa or as a sidekick though.

Finally, also on display is another Italian wheeled icon, in Summer attire as another nod nod wink wink to Italian-style dolce vita, a special roofless, doorless Fiat Cinquecento in its rare “Spiaggina” ie beach version.

Today, the story goes on, with an electric motor version and a special 75th anniversary edition.


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  • Doug Shoemaker says:

    Thank you, Pascal, for more Italian Eye Candy! Growing up in the stifling dullness of American suburbia, my introduction to the Vespa was in the movie Quadrophenia. Back then in ’79 I felt like a such a sophisticate, traveling to the Arthouse Cinema an hour away in the Big City, my Nikon FM2 loaded with Tri-X 400 slung over my neck. I still recall Sting on his Vespa with, like, a hundred mirrors. I walked out of that film into the poorly-lit district (where arthouses could afford the rent), and felt edgy snapping photos of street life so unlike what I knew, none of which turned out well. Great memories brought up by this photo-essay.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Doug, thank you for the kind words, I am glad that you enjoyed this presentation of the Vespa anniversary exhibition. By the way, do you still have/use that Nikon FM2 ?? Thanks again!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think it’s about time I assembled a selection of photos of exotic and weird vehicles I’ve seen parked within 50 metres of my front door! everything from a rickshaw, to half a million dollars worth of Bentley or Rolls Royce!

    My brother had one of these scooters and it damn near killed me. If you examine the front wheel, you’ll see there’s no suspension on one side – a good hard whack on the front wheel, and they go all over the place! When I spent 3 months in Italy [NOT answering any questions – LOL], we rode round on a couple of scooters that were more like a motorino – a miniaturised and simplified mo’bike. No guts, a top speed of around 50 kph, but I felt a lot safer on them. No offence to Vespa – I just had a bad experience.

    The AutoWorld exhibition is stunning. I never realised that Vespa got off to such a slow start, I always imagined they’d been extremely popular. The Ape was a gem – perfect for small farmers, and about the only form of “truck” you can get along some of the narrower back roads around rural Italy. On the one hand – the autostrada network! On the other, tracks that have been in use since Roman times or earlier – DEFINITELY incapable of taking a camion, let alone a TIR! Those famous “roman roads”, for example, -for much of the time they weren’t much wider than two legionnaires, walking side by side! But these little Ape’s had no trouble dealing with them.

  • DL Manning says:

    You can catch some Vespa action in “The American” movie including George Clooney fixing an Ape for the local priest. I need a 75th anniversary issue as it’s my 75th in 3 days and in 1962 it was my first 2-wheeled moto experience…accidentally pulled a wheelie, dumping my dad off the back…yee haw!

  • Pascal, this brings back memories for me being an old motorcyclist. I must admit I never ridden a Vespa nor should I say want too. The sidecar would have been interesting to ride slightly underpowered I would image. Enough of my dribble, you images are soooo good and life like. The colours and tones you’ve achieved indoors is superb. Cheers Dallas

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you Dallas! Most pics are taken with my now faithful CV 21, Laowa 9mm (!) as well as the latest to join the party, CV 35mm F2 APO which I find to be a brilliant performer. Again many thanks, your compliments are much appreciated.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    fascinating collection , well photographed , thanks

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Gorgeous collection, Pascal!
    Too bad I can’t be back in Bruxelles now, but your pictures compensate a lot… so perfect it’s nearly unreal 🙂
    When I am in Asia, half of the year – well, pre-Covid, since I’m now “stuck” in Quebec 🙁 -, I live of course amongst dozens of millions of scooter, drive ours daily… and yes, Vespa exhibits there, they are the “high-end” scooters for Asian, an “exotic” purchase 😀
    And the 3-wheelers are everywhere too, the truck guys used one when we moved to our next apartment in Saigon last year, just between our door and the big truck 🙂
    Our local post office uses both scooters and 3-wheelers, and many scrap collectors use them…

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you, Pascal ! I have to say I am very impressed with the way AutoWorld manages to have so many quality exhibitions. In parallel, they are also commemorating the 60th birthday of the E type Jaguar ;-). British eye candy if ever there was one.
      Take care.

  • philberphoto says:

    What a collection!! Incredible eye-candy, a feast for the eyes! And you manage so well to capture -and render- the gestalt of this icon despite the exposition setting…. bravo bravissimo! Now if could only found outwhere they have all gone… la Magnani, Anita Ekberg, and of course, Marcello Mastroianni…

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you Philippe, always a pleasure to read your kind comments. The rendering is quite possibly helped by a newcomer to the stable, the Voigtlander 35mm APO which I like a lot. Some will dislike it because it is “only” an F2 lens when Laowa promises to soon deliver an F 0,95 but the colors come out so well and I simply love the close to creamy way CVs operate.

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