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From Duckling to Wasp: a short history of Vespa

Written by Davide Marelli | Updated 6th July 2021

Over the years, Catawiki has seen its fair share of Vespas. And back in March, 2019, one of the last 1947 Vespa 98cc landed in auction. In celebration of Vespa's 75th anniversary, our Italian motorcycle expert, Davide Marelli reveals how this iconic scooter arose from the ashes of WWII.

On 25th April 1945, World War II came to an end; the Allies kicked the Nazis out of Italy, and three days later Benito Mussolini was murdered in Mezzegra, Lake Como. Italy was in ruins, but Enrico Piaggio saw an opportunity.

Vespa has a long history and continues to have a retro appeal

Piaggio was the principal of Piaggio aircraft company, founded by his father and based in the factory of Pontedera, Tuscany. At the end of WWII, the factory was left completely destroyed, but Piaggio was still hopeful. He saw that there was a demand for an easy and affordable mode of transportation for the masses and decides to leave the aeronautical field.

Piaggio had seen scooters while visiting the U.S.A. Brands like Cushman or Salsbury had a full range of scooters in production in the 40s that were quite popular in the U.S.A. Although, to modern eyes, the vehicles were still pretty primitive-looking, with their small wheels and simple designs.

1947 Vespa 98 cc close-up

The duckling

In 1944, Piaggio got engineer Renzo Spolti to build a prototype of a scooter and in late 1945 the first version was ready. It wasn’t called Vespa just yet though, it was officially known as the MP5 (Moto Piaggio no.5), but is better known by its nickname, the ‘Paperino’ (meaning ‘duckling’ or ‘Donald Duck’ in Italian).

The front part of it was already quite similar to the Vespa that we recognise today, but the engine was fitted in a motorcycle position; between the legs of the driver. Piaggio wasn’t exactly pleased with the design, so in the summer of 1945, he contracted aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio to redesign the scooter.

The wasp

D’Ascanio started where Spolti left off, with one small yet very clever change; he moved the engine to the right side of the back wheel to fully free the centre of the motorbike. This made the back of the vehicle look ‘fatter’ to cover the engine on the right, making space for a handy luggage pannier on the left.

Legend has it that when Piaggio saw D'Ascanio’s design for the first time, the MP6, Piaggio exclaimed: “Sembra una vespa!” (“It looks like a wasp!”) and thus named the new scooter on the spot. The Vespa was born.

1947 Vespa 98 cc

The first Vespa arrived on the market in 1946. It didn’t have a back suspension or a stand, relying instead on its own footboard when not in use. It had a two-stroke engine cooled by forced air. The cool air was forced through a metal cover over the cylinder by a flywheel. It had a three-speed gearbox operated by a simple and efficient system actuated by the left hand of the rider. The displacement was 98cc, which was on sale for less than two years, as in 1948 the new elastic 125cc model was released.

What's not to love about this Italian icon?

Today, Vespa is a mainstay of popular culture; a scooter that as often makes an appearance parked outside the local trattoria as it does gracing the silver screen. It's a fashion icon and a reliable ride, and at 75 years old, that's not a bad place to be. 


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