The Vespa is such an iconic symbol of Italy that we're forgiven for assuming the ancient Romans must have ridden the two-wheeled scooters on their daily excursions around town. In fact, Vespas are a post-war creation of the Piaggio company, which started out in 1884 manufacturing parts for ships, railroad cars, and, eventually, airplanes.
The first Vespa (Italian for wasp, the name was reportedly coined by Enrico Piaggio himself) rolled off the assembly line in 1946. The Vespa was unique among motorcycles in the way it allowed riders to sit upright in a position that was ergonomically correct, before people even thought much about such things. The 98cc scooter also had guards beneath the rider’s feet and over the tires, to keep the rider from being splattered by mud and debris. It was, in short, a very civilized motorcycle.
By 1953, the year Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode a Vespa through the streets of Rome for the film Roman Holiday, some 500,000 Vespas had been produced — estimates suggest the film accounted for an additional 100,000 sales. The line of Vespas had now grown to include a larger 125cc Vespa U (for Utility), with a rack behind the seat (only 7,000 of these rare Vespas were made). In 1962, Salvador Dali painted a Vespa 150, and collectible bikes from 1963 include the smaller Vespa 50 and the 125cc Primavera.
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