Ruins to Riches: How Vespa Took Off from Post-WW2 Italy

Ruins to Riches: How Vespa Took Off from Post-WW2 Italy


Vespa: the stylish Italian scooter that can
be found in any corner of the world.
What might surprise you is that Vespa’s
origin comes straight out of Italy’s destruction
during the Second World War.
In this video, we’ll see how Vespa was able
to break through the economic turmoil of its
time to achieve worldwide fame.
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By the end of World War II, Italy had been
left in ruins.
It had surrendered to the Allies in 1943 and
was almost immediately occupied by Germany;
thus, over the next two years the peninsula
became a fierce battlefield that claimed the
lives of hundreds of thousands.
The country had its infrastructure bombed
out and ended up in massive debt.
Come 1946, and Italy’s government was too
weak to restart its industry.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was switching
focus back to normal consumer production,
with the gas-powered automobile being one
of the most popular post-war goods.
During the war, automotive factories had been
converted for wartime military production,
and while the industrialized Allied countries
could afford the switchover back to civilian
production, Italy’s government was in way
too much debt to support such a transition.
Without repaired infrastructure or any government
support, the industrialists of Italy had their
hands tied.
They had to make do with the very limited
resources they had and, more importantly,
they had to adapt.
In comes Enrico Piaggio, who ran the eponymous
Piaggio company.
Prior to the war, the Piaggio family produced
locomotives and train cars, but once war broke
out, their factory had been converted for
military production like most others in Italy.
Piaggio produced some of Italy’s best performing
aircraft during the Second World War, which
of course made it a prime target for Allied
bombing.
By 1945 their factory had been razed to the
ground and Enrico didn’t have the money
to rebuild such an expensive production line.
Suffice to say, he knew that it was time to
shift gears.
Now, with Italy’s roads demolished, Enrico
knew that his fellow countrymen would struggle
to find a usable mode of transportation.
Italy’s infrastructure was in such a bad
state of disrepair that driving full-sized
vehicles was practically out of the equation.
Enrico had to figure out a new method of transport
that was both sturdy and versatile enough
to survive whatever was left of Italy’s
roads.
Luckily for him, he had already seen the early
scooter during the war.
Cushman scooters from America had been used
during the Second World War by soldiers to
get around bases faster.
They were also dropped in alongside paratroopers
or were used to sneak in between enemy lines.
Of course, because of their military nature,
comfort was not really considered in the design,
nor was driver protection, or any semblance
of visual appeal.
Thus, Enrico’s job extended beyond the technical
specifications; the vehicle he wanted to build
would have to be stylistically bold enough
to push Italy forward.
Luckily, there was plenty of engineering talent
in Italy at the time; the country had been
banned from developing any military technology
for 10 years after the war, which of course
left many engineers out of a job.
Enrico hired one such man to build a prototype—one
sturdy enough to withstand the bombed out
infrastructure, yet cheap enough for a country
left in financial ruin.
Enrico’s new engineer had actually been
one of the leading Italian helicopter designers,
and thus he could apply principles from aircraft
engineering to overcome the obstacles inherent
to two-wheeled vehicles.
As a counterpart to the dirty effect of motorcycles,
he designed a body that would protect the
driver from any dirt or rocks.
He concealed the engine to keep oil, grease
and dirt off of the driver.
The ultimate focus, however, was on the scooter’s
design, and the prototype Enrico eventually
saw evoked a rather interesting response from
him.
Enrico looked at the wide central piece and
the steering rod resembling antennas and he
remarked that “it looks like a wasp”;
the word for which in Italian, is “Vespa”.
Production was easy enough to finance, especially
when compared to building aircraft and so
by the spring of 1946 the Vespa was already
being sold to the public.
In his first full year Enrico sold 2,500 units
and he wisely invested the profits into expanding
his factory.
The next year, sales quadrupled to 10,000
Vespas, growing to 60,000 by the turn of the
decade.
Pretty soon, a new verb caught on in Italian
parlance: vespare, which meant “to go somewhere
in a Vespa”.
Before long the whole of Italy had fallen
in love with the fashionable scooter.
It was clean, lightweight and dependable,
so it rapidly became an everyday mode of transportation.
Although its original purpose was to overcome
Italy’s destroyed infrastructure at the
time, the Vespa’s unique aesthetic captured
the attention of consumers abroad.
Enrico began exporting Vespas to India in
1948, becoming the country’s first scooter
dealer, where it enjoyed a near monopoly for
decades.
The Vespa also became an American sensation
with the release of the film Roman Holiday
in 1953, in which Audrey Hepburn rides the
iconic Italian scooter around Rome.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 units were
sold as a direct result of just that movie.
Then you have something like the Mods, a subculture
in London which based itself around riding
Vespas into the late hours of the night.
As a cheap, dependable mode of transportation,
the Vespa was perfect for teenage Mods looking
for freedom from the mundane.
Becoming a cultural icon was the Vespa’s
road to global fame, which it still retains
to this day.
Enrico’s story is proof that you can make
the best out of a bad situation and the bombing
of Italy during World War 2 was pretty bad.
If you wanna see just how bad the bombing
got, and not just in Italy but across the
world, you should watch this awesome documentary
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soon and until then: stay smart.

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