Back in 1946, a company called Piaggio launched a motor scooter called the Vespa. At the time, there was a possibly a minority of people in the UK that had heard of Piaggio, but I’d wager that the news of an Italian mechanical wasp made no impact at all in Great Britain.
But why would people have heard of Piaggio in the first place? What did they do, how and when, and where did the Vespa come from anyway?
Planes, trains, boats and things
In 1884, Rinaldo Piaggio, son of Enrico, signed the Article of Association of Societa Rinaldo
Piaggio which, after parting from his father three years later, became Piaggio & Co, a limited partnership.
Based in Sestri Ponente, Piaggio gained a reputation for crafting interiors of boats employing cabinetmakers and other craftsmen to install the elegant fittings to passenger ships as well as more sober jobs for military vessels.
Italian railways were nationalised in 1905 and by 1908 Piaggio had set up a new company at Finale Ligure to construct and repair railway rolling stock. Here they manufactured railway carriages of all kinds, from postal wagons toe royal train, the latter again employing the talents of the company’s talented craftsmen.
During WWI aircraft became the transport of the future and Rinaldo Piaggio, not a man to sit around and let others steam ahead, decided to take over the nearly bankrupt Officine Aeronautiche Francesco Onelo company. Their order books however were pretty healthy due to the war, and the first aircraft to come out of Piaggio’s factory appeared in 1915, flying boats built under licence from Franco-British Aviation.
After the war Piaggio continued to develop the company, redefining Piaggio & Co in 1920 with a share capital of 10 million lire divided between Rinaldo Piaggi and Attilio Odero, and purchasing new headquarters in Pontedera. It was from here that Piaggio were to make their name in the aeronautical industry. Indeed, until just a few years ago there was still over a kilometre of runway at the factory which was used as a test track for all scooters produced by Piaggio in Italy until it was replaced by a new purpose built track.
At Pontedera Piaggio produced the, 400hp Jupiter aircraft engine, under a French licence. They also set over 20 records up until the outbreak of WWII, thanks no doubt in part to a certain Mr Mussolini, as their radial aeroplane engines claimed awards such as the upside-down flight, speed, and high altitude piston-engined flight, a record which apparently Piaggio still holds.
With prototypes flying (sic) out from Pontedera, advances were common. A double radial, 18-cylinder engine developing 1750hp anyone? Or how about the single-sealer fighter aircraft, or the variable pitch airscrew that allowed planes to take off from shorter land-based runways rather than miles of ocean?
It was the aeronautical side of things that bought our hero into the picture too, Corradino D’Ascanio, who came up with the airscrew idea that was ‘put on paper’ in 1932. It was also around now that D’Ascanio perfected Piaggio’s wind tunnel, a truly innovative piece of kit at the time, and even today to a certain extent.
Back in 1925 D’Ascanio had applied to patent a ‘helicopter with two coaxial rotors and an automatic slow-descent device’. After a couple of false starts he eventually got a ‘helicopter’ to fly for a total of 8 minutes and 34 seconds, but despite acclaim from people such as Fiat giant, Giovanni Agnelli, the project floundered until D’Ascanio met Piaggio. His helicopters however didn’t fly again until 1942, however due to the war the project was sidelined immediately, and then a US Sikorsky helicopter made a long-distance flight in the USA which dealt a heavy blow to the Italian effort. D’Ascanio however soldiered on, chairing a meeting with Sikorsky in 1948 of the Congress of the American Helicopter Society in the USA, and Piaggio continued too until 1952 when the third prototype from Pontedera the PD4 (Piaggio D’Ascanio) unexpectedly crashed.
During the war
Having crafted themselves a rather good reputation when it came to building aeroplanes and engines, it should of come as no surprise that as tensions in Europe rose, Piaggio became more and more involved with the military.
In 1938 Rinaldo died, his sons Enrico and Armando Piaggio taking control of the company, together with long-standing partner, Attilio Odero. In the same year the four-engined P108 bomber was produced, rivalling America’s Flying Fortress. As hostilities accelerated so did Piaggio’s production with the Pontedera plant peaking at around 12,000 employees in a site of 70,000 square metres before it all started going wrong. Late in 1943 German mines destroyed the factory’s landing strip and just a few months later in 1944 Allied bombers targeted the factory itself. If that wasn’t enough, retreating German forces stripped the factory of assets then blew parts of it upon their way back home.
By 1945 the workshops were almost totally destroyed, machinery removed, the work force decimated and the railway lifted. Pontedera was certainly not high on the places to visit for a holiday that year. Indeed the whole of Italy was suffering as the productivity boom that was a result of the war had suddenly disappeared and now each and every company in the country was trying to find a way to rebuild itself.
Piaggio, obviously not allowed to be building fighter planes or bombers, had to find something to manufacture. Producing aluminium cooking utensils was one plan, but it seems that the evacuation of some of the designers and Enrico Piaggio himself to Biella was to provide the solution to secure their future.
Enrico stayed with Count Trossi in Biella, a textile entrepreneur who allegedly had at his mansion a number of motor vehicles, one of which apparently being a Velta scooter—designed by Vittorio Belmondoand produced in Turin between 1938 and Aga. There may also have been a Cushman scooter here, although there were undoubtedly examples in use by USA soldiers throughout Italy after the war, and these are said to have inspired Enrico towards manufacturing a scooter to get his fellow country back on the move after nearly six destructive years.
Entrusted to an engineer named Spolti and a chap named Casini, project MP5 (Moto Piaggio 5) was born in 1995, and powered by a 98cc engine the ‘Paperino’ was born. Despite being a certain improvement upon the scooters on which it was allegedly based, Enrico wasn’t happy with the ‘ugly duckling’ and summoned his top engineer, one Corradino D’Ascanioto Sidle to sort things out. D’Ascanio aesthetically and mechanically redesigned the scooter; significant alterations included making it a step through and shifting the gear change from foot operation to a handlebar twist-grip. The result of all this was the MP6 prototype, the first scooter to look like the Vespa we all know and love today…