Member only
Episode
120

Vespa

Jan 1, 2021
Business
-
19
minutes
Italy
Business
Advertising
World War II
Consumption

It's the iconic Italian scooter that has conquered the world.

Learn about how it started, how it got its name, and why it has become such a huge, global success story.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today, if you are listening to this episode on the day it’s released, is the 1st of January.

[00:00:29] So, happy new year, I hope today is going to be a great day for you, and that 2021 will be a fantastic year for you too.

[00:00:39] To kick off 2021 we are going to tell the story of Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter.

[00:00:48] It’s a pretty amazing story, and takes us from World War I right through to today, involving Hollywood, British music, and some fantastic Italian engineering.

[00:01:01]Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, that transcript and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:17]This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally improving their English in a more interesting way. 

[00:01:32] So if that is of interest, and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:42] OK then, Vespa.

[00:01:45] Now, you probably know what a Vespa is. Perhaps you’ve driven one before, or maybe you even own one. 

[00:01:53] They are small, Italian scooters. Like mini motorbikes, but that you can sit on a little bit like a chair, with your legs in the front.

[00:02:04] If you think of Vespa, you probably think of people whizzing around the streets of Rome, well-dressed men and women going along narrow streets. 

[00:02:17] It’s a brand and a name that will be forever associated with Italy, and indeed the British newspaper The Times once described Vespa as “a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot

[00:02:36] To understand where Vespa comes from, we need to go all the way back to the end of the 19th century, to Genoa, in northern Italy.

[00:02:47] In 1884 there was a factory built by a 22 year old man called Rinaldo Piaggio. 

[00:02:55] It initially fitted out luxury ships, and by the start of the twentieth century it was also making railway carriages, vans, and engines.

[00:03:08] In 1914 the First World War arrived, so there was evidently less demand for luxury ship fittings and railways carriages, so the factory switched to manufacturing aircraft, aeroplanes, for the war effort.

[00:03:26] When the war was over, Piaggio had become a specialist in the manufacture of aeroplanes and parts for planes, so it continued to do this, building new factories in Tuscany.

[00:03:41] In 1938, Rinaldo Piaggio, the Piaggio who had founded the company, died, leaving it to his two sons, Enrico and Armando.

[00:03:52] When World War II started, these Piaggio factories were prime targets for Allied bombers - they were producing planes and parts for planes that would be used in the war effort, and the factories were continually attacked.

[00:04:09] And on August 31st 1943, they were bombed to smithereens, they were completely destroyed.

[00:04:18] This was only 9 days before the Italian surrender, on September the 8th of 1943.

[00:04:26] With World War II in Italy finally over, it was time to rebuild, and the Piaggio brothers didn’t waste much time at all.

[00:04:37] Enrico, who had been given the task of rebuilding the destroyed factories, asked the Allies for help. 

[00:04:45] Italy, like much of continental Europe, was in terrible condition at the end of the Second World War, and Enrico Piaggio had no money to rebuild his destroyed factories. 

[00:04:58] Whatsmore, a lot of the machinery from his factories had been removed and taken to Germany.

[00:05:07] The Allies helped bring it back, and work was able to start on the Piaggio factory.

[00:05:13] But Enrico Piaggio had an idea.

[00:05:17] He foresaw a future in which there was demand for a convenient, simple, and affordable mode of personal transportation for the masses, and decided that he would build it.

[00:05:32] He enlisted the help of one of his engineers, Renzo Spolti, in 1944 to design this dream scooter

[00:05:42] They nicknamed it Paperino, which is the word for Donald Duck, or duckling, or little duck, in Italian.

[00:05:52] By 1945 Spolti had a prototype ready, but when he showed it to Enrico Piaggio he wasn’t blown away, he didn’t think it was that great. 

[00:06:06] From the front it looked quite similar to the Vespa that you would recognise today, but it had its engine between the front and back wheels, so you sat with your legs on either side, a bit like a motorbike.

[00:06:23] This wasn’t the home run design that Piaggio was hoping for, so he changed engineers, enlisting an aeronautical engineer, a man called Corradino D’Ascanio, to have a go.

[00:06:37] D’Ascanio was what we would today call a first principles thinker. 

[00:06:43] Instead of just designing something because that was the way it had always been done, he approached everything from the point of view of ‘what would the most sensible way of doing this be’?

[00:06:57] He wanted the driver to be able to sit comfortably, but with the previous design there was the engine between the driver’s legs, like it is on a motorbike. 

[00:07:09] D’Asciano’s genius move was to place the engine on the back of the scooter, to the right of the rear wheel, and meant that he could create a space for luggage to the left of the rear wheel.

[00:07:23] And crucially, moving the engine out from between the two wheels meant that the driver could sit comfortably, more as if they were sitting on a chair than on a horse. 

[00:07:37] This wasn’t only more comfy, but meant that women who were wearing skirts, which most women were, they could also ride the scooter without being uncomfortable.

[00:07:49] The name for D’Asciano’s invention, legend has it, comes from when he first presented it to his boss, Enrico Piaggio - he exclaimed ‘Sembra una vespa!’, which means ‘it looks like a wasp’ in Italian. 

[00:08:05] And thus, the invention immediately had a name.

[00:08:10] Looking at a Vespa, there are certainly similarities with wasps. The Vespa has two fat parts of its body, joined in the middle by a thin part, and the mirrors look like a wasp’s antennae.

[00:08:27] This isn’t an episode for petrol heads, for car and motorbike lovers, but there are some important design elements in the Vespa that made it so successful, and are worth pointing out. 

[00:08:41] Firstly, you could sit comfortably, enabled by the fact that the engine was gone from the middle. 

[00:08:48] This also meant that there wasn't any chain required to go from the motor to the wheel; the motor was attached to the wheel. 

[00:08:57] So unlike with motorbikes you wouldn’t get oil all over your legs.

[00:09:03] And secondly, there was this big mudguard at the front, a big shield, which protected your legs from splashes, mud and so on.

[00:09:15] Thirdly, the shaft for changing gears was on the handlebars, where your hands were, so you didn’t have to reach down to change gears.

[00:09:27] And finally, the wheels were put on an arm more similar to an aeroplane than a motorbike, which made changing the tyres easier.

[00:09:38] D'Ascanio had created something that was, in many ways, a scooter inspired by a plane. 

[00:10:23] It was comfy, it was easy to ride, anyone could do it, men and women, no matter what they were wearing, and you didn’t get dirty.

[00:10:34] The Vespa made its debut on the front cover of the popular Italian magazine La Moto, in April 1946, and in the same month Piaggio filed a patent for it. 

[00:10:49] Piaggio didn’t wait for the public’s reaction, and he ordered for 2,000 units to be built immediately.

[00:10:58] Although there were some initial sceptics, these scooters flew off the shelf

[00:11:05] In the first year 2,500 were produced and sold, then the next year 10,000, 20,00 by the end of the following year, and by 1956 Vespa had produced a million scooters.

[00:11:23] It had also inspired copycats from around the world, with similar designs of scooters being produced in Germany, Japan, Britain, and of course by other companies in Italy.

[00:11:38] You’ve probably heard of some of these makes and companies - Lambretta and the Fuji rabbit. 

[00:11:44] But none of them ever got anywhere close to the popularity of the Vespa.

[00:11:51] So why was that?

[00:11:17] A large part of it can be put down to the relationship between Vespa and Hollywood. 

[00:11:24] Piaggio made sure that Vespa was associated with models and high fashion, often appearing in photoshoots, and being an aspirational urban object.

[00:11:37] In 1953 a film called Roman Holiday was released, which had Gregory Peck and the cult actress Audrey Hepburn riding through Rome on a Vespa.

[00:11:51] This really put it on the world stage, and its popularity across the globe continued to grow. 

[00:11:59] Piaggio started something called Vespa Clubs, which were clubs for Vespa owners, which had over 50,000 members, all passionate Vespa fans. 

[00:12:11] The Vespa was more than a way of getting from A to B, it was an aspirational symbol of freedom, a tool to allow you to live your life in the way you wanted, allowing you to go where you wanted, when you wanted, at any time you wanted.

[00:12:31] And still now it is synonymous with Italy, Italian chic, and stylish living.

[00:12:38] It would take too long to list the celebrities who have either been filmed or photographed on a Vespa, but it’s everyone from Audrey Hepburn of course, through to Antonio Banderas, Joan Collins, Gérard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Sting.

[00:12:56] And perhaps most famously, Anita Ekberg in the cult film La Dolce Vita.

[00:13:02] With a brand that was so synonymous with cool, Vespa seemed unstoppable.

[00:13:09] It also developed some strange, or at least, unexpected fans. 

[00:13:16] In the UK in the 1960s there were two, opposing subcultures, the Mods and the Rockers.

[00:13:26] These two subcultures were very different, they dressed differently, they listened to different music, and importantly, they drove different kinds of motorbikes. 

[00:13:37] The Rockers drove big motorbikes, and the Mods adopted the Vespa as their motorbike of choice. 

[00:13:46] The Mods were more stylish, more appearance-conscious, and they would customise their Vespas with extra mirrors and lights.

[00:13:56] Indeed, the UK is still Vespa's second largest market. Italy, naturally, is still number one.

[00:14:04] And Piaggio, the company that makes Vespa, has gone on to produce lots of different kinds of Vespa, but the general principle, and the general style, hasn’t changed dramatically from the one D’Ascanio presented to Enrico Piaggio back in 1945.

[00:14:24] If you’ve been to Italy, especially in the south of Italy, you will know that Vespas are still incredibly popular. 

[00:14:32] You only need to be 14 years old in Italy to ride a 50cc Vespa, and many Italian teenagers are anxious to turn 14 so that they can get their first scooter

[00:14:46] There is even a popular Italian pop song with lyrics all about how amazing riding around on a Vespa is. 

[00:14:46] The word Vespa is now far more commonly associated with Vespa the scooter than Vespa the word for wasp, and Vespa has become for many a term that just means ‘scooter’.

[00:15:10] People have set all sorts of weird and wonderful records in Vespas too. In 1952 a Frenchman built an amphibious Vespa and crossed the English Channel, the water between the UK and France.

[00:15:25] An Italian student got to the Arctic Circle on his Vespa, an Argentine crossed the Andes, and people are forever going on hugely ambitious adventures on this little scooter that was only ever really designed for short, urban trips.

[00:15:45] Like many Italian manufacturers, Piaggio has had its share of problems with bad investments and poor productivity, and almost went bankrupt in 2003, before being saved by a wealthy Italian businessman.

[00:16:01] But it survived, it has been going from strength to strength, and no doubt millions of people will enjoy riding their little wasps, their little Vespas, for many years to come.

[00:16:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Vespa.

[00:16:21] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that this has inspired you to rent one if and when you visit Italy. 

[00:16:30] At least now you will know a little bit more about this iconic little scooter.

[00:16:36] I want to do just a quick shout-out in this episode - it was a request from an amazing Spanish/Italian member of Leonardo English, a lady named Silvana. 

[00:16:47] So, Silvana, thanks for this suggestion, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:16:51] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today, if you are listening to this episode on the day it’s released, is the 1st of January.

[00:00:29] So, happy new year, I hope today is going to be a great day for you, and that 2021 will be a fantastic year for you too.

[00:00:39] To kick off 2021 we are going to tell the story of Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter.

[00:00:48] It’s a pretty amazing story, and takes us from World War I right through to today, involving Hollywood, British music, and some fantastic Italian engineering.

[00:01:01]Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, that transcript and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:17]This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally improving their English in a more interesting way. 

[00:01:32] So if that is of interest, and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:42] OK then, Vespa.

[00:01:45] Now, you probably know what a Vespa is. Perhaps you’ve driven one before, or maybe you even own one. 

[00:01:53] They are small, Italian scooters. Like mini motorbikes, but that you can sit on a little bit like a chair, with your legs in the front.

[00:02:04] If you think of Vespa, you probably think of people whizzing around the streets of Rome, well-dressed men and women going along narrow streets. 

[00:02:17] It’s a brand and a name that will be forever associated with Italy, and indeed the British newspaper The Times once described Vespa as “a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot

[00:02:36] To understand where Vespa comes from, we need to go all the way back to the end of the 19th century, to Genoa, in northern Italy.

[00:02:47] In 1884 there was a factory built by a 22 year old man called Rinaldo Piaggio. 

[00:02:55] It initially fitted out luxury ships, and by the start of the twentieth century it was also making railway carriages, vans, and engines.

[00:03:08] In 1914 the First World War arrived, so there was evidently less demand for luxury ship fittings and railways carriages, so the factory switched to manufacturing aircraft, aeroplanes, for the war effort.

[00:03:26] When the war was over, Piaggio had become a specialist in the manufacture of aeroplanes and parts for planes, so it continued to do this, building new factories in Tuscany.

[00:03:41] In 1938, Rinaldo Piaggio, the Piaggio who had founded the company, died, leaving it to his two sons, Enrico and Armando.

[00:03:52] When World War II started, these Piaggio factories were prime targets for Allied bombers - they were producing planes and parts for planes that would be used in the war effort, and the factories were continually attacked.

[00:04:09] And on August 31st 1943, they were bombed to smithereens, they were completely destroyed.

[00:04:18] This was only 9 days before the Italian surrender, on September the 8th of 1943.

[00:04:26] With World War II in Italy finally over, it was time to rebuild, and the Piaggio brothers didn’t waste much time at all.

[00:04:37] Enrico, who had been given the task of rebuilding the destroyed factories, asked the Allies for help. 

[00:04:45] Italy, like much of continental Europe, was in terrible condition at the end of the Second World War, and Enrico Piaggio had no money to rebuild his destroyed factories. 

[00:04:58] Whatsmore, a lot of the machinery from his factories had been removed and taken to Germany.

[00:05:07] The Allies helped bring it back, and work was able to start on the Piaggio factory.

[00:05:13] But Enrico Piaggio had an idea.

[00:05:17] He foresaw a future in which there was demand for a convenient, simple, and affordable mode of personal transportation for the masses, and decided that he would build it.

[00:05:32] He enlisted the help of one of his engineers, Renzo Spolti, in 1944 to design this dream scooter

[00:05:42] They nicknamed it Paperino, which is the word for Donald Duck, or duckling, or little duck, in Italian.

[00:05:52] By 1945 Spolti had a prototype ready, but when he showed it to Enrico Piaggio he wasn’t blown away, he didn’t think it was that great. 

[00:06:06] From the front it looked quite similar to the Vespa that you would recognise today, but it had its engine between the front and back wheels, so you sat with your legs on either side, a bit like a motorbike.

[00:06:23] This wasn’t the home run design that Piaggio was hoping for, so he changed engineers, enlisting an aeronautical engineer, a man called Corradino D’Ascanio, to have a go.

[00:06:37] D’Ascanio was what we would today call a first principles thinker. 

[00:06:43] Instead of just designing something because that was the way it had always been done, he approached everything from the point of view of ‘what would the most sensible way of doing this be’?

[00:06:57] He wanted the driver to be able to sit comfortably, but with the previous design there was the engine between the driver’s legs, like it is on a motorbike. 

[00:07:09] D’Asciano’s genius move was to place the engine on the back of the scooter, to the right of the rear wheel, and meant that he could create a space for luggage to the left of the rear wheel.

[00:07:23] And crucially, moving the engine out from between the two wheels meant that the driver could sit comfortably, more as if they were sitting on a chair than on a horse. 

[00:07:37] This wasn’t only more comfy, but meant that women who were wearing skirts, which most women were, they could also ride the scooter without being uncomfortable.

[00:07:49] The name for D’Asciano’s invention, legend has it, comes from when he first presented it to his boss, Enrico Piaggio - he exclaimed ‘Sembra una vespa!’, which means ‘it looks like a wasp’ in Italian. 

[00:08:05] And thus, the invention immediately had a name.

[00:08:10] Looking at a Vespa, there are certainly similarities with wasps. The Vespa has two fat parts of its body, joined in the middle by a thin part, and the mirrors look like a wasp’s antennae.

[00:08:27] This isn’t an episode for petrol heads, for car and motorbike lovers, but there are some important design elements in the Vespa that made it so successful, and are worth pointing out. 

[00:08:41] Firstly, you could sit comfortably, enabled by the fact that the engine was gone from the middle. 

[00:08:48] This also meant that there wasn't any chain required to go from the motor to the wheel; the motor was attached to the wheel. 

[00:08:57] So unlike with motorbikes you wouldn’t get oil all over your legs.

[00:09:03] And secondly, there was this big mudguard at the front, a big shield, which protected your legs from splashes, mud and so on.

[00:09:15] Thirdly, the shaft for changing gears was on the handlebars, where your hands were, so you didn’t have to reach down to change gears.

[00:09:27] And finally, the wheels were put on an arm more similar to an aeroplane than a motorbike, which made changing the tyres easier.

[00:09:38] D'Ascanio had created something that was, in many ways, a scooter inspired by a plane. 

[00:10:23] It was comfy, it was easy to ride, anyone could do it, men and women, no matter what they were wearing, and you didn’t get dirty.

[00:10:34] The Vespa made its debut on the front cover of the popular Italian magazine La Moto, in April 1946, and in the same month Piaggio filed a patent for it. 

[00:10:49] Piaggio didn’t wait for the public’s reaction, and he ordered for 2,000 units to be built immediately.

[00:10:58] Although there were some initial sceptics, these scooters flew off the shelf

[00:11:05] In the first year 2,500 were produced and sold, then the next year 10,000, 20,00 by the end of the following year, and by 1956 Vespa had produced a million scooters.

[00:11:23] It had also inspired copycats from around the world, with similar designs of scooters being produced in Germany, Japan, Britain, and of course by other companies in Italy.

[00:11:38] You’ve probably heard of some of these makes and companies - Lambretta and the Fuji rabbit. 

[00:11:44] But none of them ever got anywhere close to the popularity of the Vespa.

[00:11:51] So why was that?

[00:11:17] A large part of it can be put down to the relationship between Vespa and Hollywood. 

[00:11:24] Piaggio made sure that Vespa was associated with models and high fashion, often appearing in photoshoots, and being an aspirational urban object.

[00:11:37] In 1953 a film called Roman Holiday was released, which had Gregory Peck and the cult actress Audrey Hepburn riding through Rome on a Vespa.

[00:11:51] This really put it on the world stage, and its popularity across the globe continued to grow. 

[00:11:59] Piaggio started something called Vespa Clubs, which were clubs for Vespa owners, which had over 50,000 members, all passionate Vespa fans. 

[00:12:11] The Vespa was more than a way of getting from A to B, it was an aspirational symbol of freedom, a tool to allow you to live your life in the way you wanted, allowing you to go where you wanted, when you wanted, at any time you wanted.

[00:12:31] And still now it is synonymous with Italy, Italian chic, and stylish living.

[00:12:38] It would take too long to list the celebrities who have either been filmed or photographed on a Vespa, but it’s everyone from Audrey Hepburn of course, through to Antonio Banderas, Joan Collins, Gérard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Sting.

[00:12:56] And perhaps most famously, Anita Ekberg in the cult film La Dolce Vita.

[00:13:02] With a brand that was so synonymous with cool, Vespa seemed unstoppable.

[00:13:09] It also developed some strange, or at least, unexpected fans. 

[00:13:16] In the UK in the 1960s there were two, opposing subcultures, the Mods and the Rockers.

[00:13:26] These two subcultures were very different, they dressed differently, they listened to different music, and importantly, they drove different kinds of motorbikes. 

[00:13:37] The Rockers drove big motorbikes, and the Mods adopted the Vespa as their motorbike of choice. 

[00:13:46] The Mods were more stylish, more appearance-conscious, and they would customise their Vespas with extra mirrors and lights.

[00:13:56] Indeed, the UK is still Vespa's second largest market. Italy, naturally, is still number one.

[00:14:04] And Piaggio, the company that makes Vespa, has gone on to produce lots of different kinds of Vespa, but the general principle, and the general style, hasn’t changed dramatically from the one D’Ascanio presented to Enrico Piaggio back in 1945.

[00:14:24] If you’ve been to Italy, especially in the south of Italy, you will know that Vespas are still incredibly popular. 

[00:14:32] You only need to be 14 years old in Italy to ride a 50cc Vespa, and many Italian teenagers are anxious to turn 14 so that they can get their first scooter

[00:14:46] There is even a popular Italian pop song with lyrics all about how amazing riding around on a Vespa is. 

[00:14:46] The word Vespa is now far more commonly associated with Vespa the scooter than Vespa the word for wasp, and Vespa has become for many a term that just means ‘scooter’.

[00:15:10] People have set all sorts of weird and wonderful records in Vespas too. In 1952 a Frenchman built an amphibious Vespa and crossed the English Channel, the water between the UK and France.

[00:15:25] An Italian student got to the Arctic Circle on his Vespa, an Argentine crossed the Andes, and people are forever going on hugely ambitious adventures on this little scooter that was only ever really designed for short, urban trips.

[00:15:45] Like many Italian manufacturers, Piaggio has had its share of problems with bad investments and poor productivity, and almost went bankrupt in 2003, before being saved by a wealthy Italian businessman.

[00:16:01] But it survived, it has been going from strength to strength, and no doubt millions of people will enjoy riding their little wasps, their little Vespas, for many years to come.

[00:16:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Vespa.

[00:16:21] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that this has inspired you to rent one if and when you visit Italy. 

[00:16:30] At least now you will know a little bit more about this iconic little scooter.

[00:16:36] I want to do just a quick shout-out in this episode - it was a request from an amazing Spanish/Italian member of Leonardo English, a lady named Silvana. 

[00:16:47] So, Silvana, thanks for this suggestion, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:16:51] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today, if you are listening to this episode on the day it’s released, is the 1st of January.

[00:00:29] So, happy new year, I hope today is going to be a great day for you, and that 2021 will be a fantastic year for you too.

[00:00:39] To kick off 2021 we are going to tell the story of Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter.

[00:00:48] It’s a pretty amazing story, and takes us from World War I right through to today, involving Hollywood, British music, and some fantastic Italian engineering.

[00:01:01]Before we get right into that though, let me quickly remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus the subtitles, that transcript and the key vocabulary for this episode and all of our other ones over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:17]This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally improving their English in a more interesting way. 

[00:01:32] So if that is of interest, and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:42] OK then, Vespa.

[00:01:45] Now, you probably know what a Vespa is. Perhaps you’ve driven one before, or maybe you even own one. 

[00:01:53] They are small, Italian scooters. Like mini motorbikes, but that you can sit on a little bit like a chair, with your legs in the front.

[00:02:04] If you think of Vespa, you probably think of people whizzing around the streets of Rome, well-dressed men and women going along narrow streets. 

[00:02:17] It’s a brand and a name that will be forever associated with Italy, and indeed the British newspaper The Times once described Vespa as “a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot

[00:02:36] To understand where Vespa comes from, we need to go all the way back to the end of the 19th century, to Genoa, in northern Italy.

[00:02:47] In 1884 there was a factory built by a 22 year old man called Rinaldo Piaggio. 

[00:02:55] It initially fitted out luxury ships, and by the start of the twentieth century it was also making railway carriages, vans, and engines.

[00:03:08] In 1914 the First World War arrived, so there was evidently less demand for luxury ship fittings and railways carriages, so the factory switched to manufacturing aircraft, aeroplanes, for the war effort.

[00:03:26] When the war was over, Piaggio had become a specialist in the manufacture of aeroplanes and parts for planes, so it continued to do this, building new factories in Tuscany.

[00:03:41] In 1938, Rinaldo Piaggio, the Piaggio who had founded the company, died, leaving it to his two sons, Enrico and Armando.

[00:03:52] When World War II started, these Piaggio factories were prime targets for Allied bombers - they were producing planes and parts for planes that would be used in the war effort, and the factories were continually attacked.

[00:04:09] And on August 31st 1943, they were bombed to smithereens, they were completely destroyed.

[00:04:18] This was only 9 days before the Italian surrender, on September the 8th of 1943.

[00:04:26] With World War II in Italy finally over, it was time to rebuild, and the Piaggio brothers didn’t waste much time at all.

[00:04:37] Enrico, who had been given the task of rebuilding the destroyed factories, asked the Allies for help. 

[00:04:45] Italy, like much of continental Europe, was in terrible condition at the end of the Second World War, and Enrico Piaggio had no money to rebuild his destroyed factories. 

[00:04:58] Whatsmore, a lot of the machinery from his factories had been removed and taken to Germany.

[00:05:07] The Allies helped bring it back, and work was able to start on the Piaggio factory.

[00:05:13] But Enrico Piaggio had an idea.

[00:05:17] He foresaw a future in which there was demand for a convenient, simple, and affordable mode of personal transportation for the masses, and decided that he would build it.

[00:05:32] He enlisted the help of one of his engineers, Renzo Spolti, in 1944 to design this dream scooter

[00:05:42] They nicknamed it Paperino, which is the word for Donald Duck, or duckling, or little duck, in Italian.

[00:05:52] By 1945 Spolti had a prototype ready, but when he showed it to Enrico Piaggio he wasn’t blown away, he didn’t think it was that great. 

[00:06:06] From the front it looked quite similar to the Vespa that you would recognise today, but it had its engine between the front and back wheels, so you sat with your legs on either side, a bit like a motorbike.

[00:06:23] This wasn’t the home run design that Piaggio was hoping for, so he changed engineers, enlisting an aeronautical engineer, a man called Corradino D’Ascanio, to have a go.

[00:06:37] D’Ascanio was what we would today call a first principles thinker. 

[00:06:43] Instead of just designing something because that was the way it had always been done, he approached everything from the point of view of ‘what would the most sensible way of doing this be’?

[00:06:57] He wanted the driver to be able to sit comfortably, but with the previous design there was the engine between the driver’s legs, like it is on a motorbike. 

[00:07:09] D’Asciano’s genius move was to place the engine on the back of the scooter, to the right of the rear wheel, and meant that he could create a space for luggage to the left of the rear wheel.

[00:07:23] And crucially, moving the engine out from between the two wheels meant that the driver could sit comfortably, more as if they were sitting on a chair than on a horse. 

[00:07:37] This wasn’t only more comfy, but meant that women who were wearing skirts, which most women were, they could also ride the scooter without being uncomfortable.

[00:07:49] The name for D’Asciano’s invention, legend has it, comes from when he first presented it to his boss, Enrico Piaggio - he exclaimed ‘Sembra una vespa!’, which means ‘it looks like a wasp’ in Italian. 

[00:08:05] And thus, the invention immediately had a name.

[00:08:10] Looking at a Vespa, there are certainly similarities with wasps. The Vespa has two fat parts of its body, joined in the middle by a thin part, and the mirrors look like a wasp’s antennae.

[00:08:27] This isn’t an episode for petrol heads, for car and motorbike lovers, but there are some important design elements in the Vespa that made it so successful, and are worth pointing out. 

[00:08:41] Firstly, you could sit comfortably, enabled by the fact that the engine was gone from the middle. 

[00:08:48] This also meant that there wasn't any chain required to go from the motor to the wheel; the motor was attached to the wheel. 

[00:08:57] So unlike with motorbikes you wouldn’t get oil all over your legs.

[00:09:03] And secondly, there was this big mudguard at the front, a big shield, which protected your legs from splashes, mud and so on.

[00:09:15] Thirdly, the shaft for changing gears was on the handlebars, where your hands were, so you didn’t have to reach down to change gears.

[00:09:27] And finally, the wheels were put on an arm more similar to an aeroplane than a motorbike, which made changing the tyres easier.

[00:09:38] D'Ascanio had created something that was, in many ways, a scooter inspired by a plane. 

[00:10:23] It was comfy, it was easy to ride, anyone could do it, men and women, no matter what they were wearing, and you didn’t get dirty.

[00:10:34] The Vespa made its debut on the front cover of the popular Italian magazine La Moto, in April 1946, and in the same month Piaggio filed a patent for it. 

[00:10:49] Piaggio didn’t wait for the public’s reaction, and he ordered for 2,000 units to be built immediately.

[00:10:58] Although there were some initial sceptics, these scooters flew off the shelf

[00:11:05] In the first year 2,500 were produced and sold, then the next year 10,000, 20,00 by the end of the following year, and by 1956 Vespa had produced a million scooters.

[00:11:23] It had also inspired copycats from around the world, with similar designs of scooters being produced in Germany, Japan, Britain, and of course by other companies in Italy.

[00:11:38] You’ve probably heard of some of these makes and companies - Lambretta and the Fuji rabbit. 

[00:11:44] But none of them ever got anywhere close to the popularity of the Vespa.

[00:11:51] So why was that?

[00:11:17] A large part of it can be put down to the relationship between Vespa and Hollywood. 

[00:11:24] Piaggio made sure that Vespa was associated with models and high fashion, often appearing in photoshoots, and being an aspirational urban object.

[00:11:37] In 1953 a film called Roman Holiday was released, which had Gregory Peck and the cult actress Audrey Hepburn riding through Rome on a Vespa.

[00:11:51] This really put it on the world stage, and its popularity across the globe continued to grow. 

[00:11:59] Piaggio started something called Vespa Clubs, which were clubs for Vespa owners, which had over 50,000 members, all passionate Vespa fans. 

[00:12:11] The Vespa was more than a way of getting from A to B, it was an aspirational symbol of freedom, a tool to allow you to live your life in the way you wanted, allowing you to go where you wanted, when you wanted, at any time you wanted.

[00:12:31] And still now it is synonymous with Italy, Italian chic, and stylish living.

[00:12:38] It would take too long to list the celebrities who have either been filmed or photographed on a Vespa, but it’s everyone from Audrey Hepburn of course, through to Antonio Banderas, Joan Collins, Gérard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Sting.

[00:12:56] And perhaps most famously, Anita Ekberg in the cult film La Dolce Vita.

[00:13:02] With a brand that was so synonymous with cool, Vespa seemed unstoppable.

[00:13:09] It also developed some strange, or at least, unexpected fans. 

[00:13:16] In the UK in the 1960s there were two, opposing subcultures, the Mods and the Rockers.

[00:13:26] These two subcultures were very different, they dressed differently, they listened to different music, and importantly, they drove different kinds of motorbikes. 

[00:13:37] The Rockers drove big motorbikes, and the Mods adopted the Vespa as their motorbike of choice. 

[00:13:46] The Mods were more stylish, more appearance-conscious, and they would customise their Vespas with extra mirrors and lights.

[00:13:56] Indeed, the UK is still Vespa's second largest market. Italy, naturally, is still number one.

[00:14:04] And Piaggio, the company that makes Vespa, has gone on to produce lots of different kinds of Vespa, but the general principle, and the general style, hasn’t changed dramatically from the one D’Ascanio presented to Enrico Piaggio back in 1945.

[00:14:24] If you’ve been to Italy, especially in the south of Italy, you will know that Vespas are still incredibly popular. 

[00:14:32] You only need to be 14 years old in Italy to ride a 50cc Vespa, and many Italian teenagers are anxious to turn 14 so that they can get their first scooter

[00:14:46] There is even a popular Italian pop song with lyrics all about how amazing riding around on a Vespa is. 

[00:14:46] The word Vespa is now far more commonly associated with Vespa the scooter than Vespa the word for wasp, and Vespa has become for many a term that just means ‘scooter’.

[00:15:10] People have set all sorts of weird and wonderful records in Vespas too. In 1952 a Frenchman built an amphibious Vespa and crossed the English Channel, the water between the UK and France.

[00:15:25] An Italian student got to the Arctic Circle on his Vespa, an Argentine crossed the Andes, and people are forever going on hugely ambitious adventures on this little scooter that was only ever really designed for short, urban trips.

[00:15:45] Like many Italian manufacturers, Piaggio has had its share of problems with bad investments and poor productivity, and almost went bankrupt in 2003, before being saved by a wealthy Italian businessman.

[00:16:01] But it survived, it has been going from strength to strength, and no doubt millions of people will enjoy riding their little wasps, their little Vespas, for many years to come.

[00:16:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on the history of Vespa.

[00:16:21] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that this has inspired you to rent one if and when you visit Italy. 

[00:16:30] At least now you will know a little bit more about this iconic little scooter.

[00:16:36] I want to do just a quick shout-out in this episode - it was a request from an amazing Spanish/Italian member of Leonardo English, a lady named Silvana. 

[00:16:47] So, Silvana, thanks for this suggestion, I hope you enjoyed it.

[00:16:51] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world to unlock the transcripts, the subtitles and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:17:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]