(at the Piaggio factory)
Has everyone heard of Scooterworks, in Chicago? They have been around forever. There is another Scooterworks, in London, as well. There is no connection between the two except that they share the same passion for getting Vespas back on the road.In anticipation of our upcoming vacation to Scotland and England, I jumped on the Internet to contact anyone I could find there who had anything to do with scooters. Not much luck. A place called Scooterworks UK had a nice web site and the owner wrote back inviting me to visit his shop when I arrived.
The Vespa Museum
At the Piaggio Factory
By Alan Dollar
Most scooter enthusiasts know the story of Piaggio developing the Vespa after World War II as a means of affordable transportation to aid in the re-construction of war torn Italy. The industrial history of the Piaggio Company actually began sixty years earlier in 1884 when they started making interiors, cabinets and fine woodwork for luxury liners and other sailing ships.
Twenty years later the building of the Italian railroad was becoming a booming industry. The Piaggio Company diversified from woodworking to metal work. In 1908, they started producing a variety of railway cars and streetcars. Detailed, of course, with the same luxury interiors they had designed and produced for ships.
In 1924, they branched out even further, adding an aeronautical division to their company. It was located in Pontedera. To aid the efforts of World War I they produced entire aircraft including engines.
It was during that time that Enrico Piaggio and aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, the two men who would later be responsible for developing the Vespa motor scooter, joined the company. Piaggio was in the forefront of airplane and engine development with many technical achievements to their credit. Did you know that D’Ascanio, that the man who designed the first Vespa, designed the first successful hovering helicopter in 1930?
Such innovations ended during WW II when the Pontedera factory was demolished by allied bombing. Recovery from this devastation was the driving force that led to the invention of the Vespa!
The first prototype MP5 (Moto Piaggio 5), developed in 1945, became known as the Paperino (Donald Duck). The design did not pass muster with Enrico Piaggio. He directed D”Ascanio to design a innovative vehicle for transportation based on aeronautical concepts. The resulting MP6 was labeled by Enrico as the Vespa because it looked to him like a wasp (vespa in Italian).
The aerodynamics and monocoque (integrated) body were straight from airplane design. The front suspension was designed after the trailing link rear wheel of an airplane’s landing gear. The wheels were mounted on one side of the fork and engine to make it easier to change flat tires. The gears where shifted by twisting the grip where the clutch was located. All of these design innovations were firsts in the field of two-wheel transportation.
That design led to a new direction for the Piaggio Company in 1946, and to the mass production Vespa scooters. It is a design and mechanical icon that has captured the imagination of people around the world for fifty-seven years!
A number of enlightening books have been published in the last few years that include nice pictorial displays of the entire model line of Vespa. After reading all the books and studying all the photos, I, like many others, wanted to see the real thing, in Italy. So, Tony Garbarino and I cashed in our frequent flyer miles for a free flight to the homeland of Vespa, where we set off for a week to see nothing but scooter stuff!
The plan was to see the Piaggio Vespa Museum, some private collections, parts suppliers and finish with the annual swap meet at Novergro. Tony, who knows Italy well, navigated us through his preplanned course like a seasoned rider through a Gymkhana. We did it all in a whirlwind, 8 days, 7 cities, and 6 hotels.
We took one side trip from our scooter path in Pizza, to visit the only cultural site we would see while in Italy. The magnificent leaning tower had just reopened to the public after twelve years of construction to stabilize its tilt. It was a magnificent experience to stand on top of such a historic and beautiful structure. At the same time that I was in awe of my surroundings my mind kept saying, today we see Pontedera. I must be obsessed.
At mid-day we found the sprawling Piaggio factory in Pontedera. The factory complex is larger than I imagined with rows of large concrete buildings, projecting the same appearance as pre war photos. The museum itself fills a small part of one building yet the display seems enormous.
Rolf Soltou, former Piaggio representative to America, told me he was at the factory for a week of training later that month. He was shown almost all aspects of the grand facility. (Wouldn’t it be great to read an article about that experience?)
The first scooters one sees upon arriving are the ones parked in front, ridden to work by the employees. On display outside the scooter museum are a commuter train and airplane, built by Piaggio before WWII.
When we first arrived a chap in Piaggio overalls was outside preparing a newly acquired Vespa for the museum display. The original red Pentaro had been in service as a fire engine! Later during our visit, he drove the Pentaro fire truck into position in the display, complete with original axe, fire hose and siren. I spontaneously gave him and the Pentaro a rousing applause. He seemed pleased by that and motioned at us to follow him into the back room for more unique displays.
The half-day we spent there flew by as if it were minutes. After leaving a lot of money at the museum store and receiving an armload of free goodies and posters, we were ready to embark on the next phase of our journey.
As we walked to the entrance, a side door burst open and the jovial mechanic came out. He stuffed another handful of goodies into my bag and shook my hand. We had made another scooter friend, as so often happens when people who love Vespas meet!