Vespa. On the one hand there’s the breathless icon, the vision of beautiful Italian limbs perched upon beautiful Italian design, zipping past fountains, ochre walls and cafes practically swaying with romantic intrigue. On the other, there’s a bald man in a shirt and tie. The man who designed the thing.
That man was Corradino d’Ascanio
The Vespa museum in Pontedera, Tuscany, welcomes you not with racy Vespas and photos of celebrities, nor dashing ad campaigns. Those wait inside. Instead there’s a memorial and a polished aerobatic trainer plane, monuments to the man who began his career in aeronautical engineering but who achieved fame with a much smaller machine: the Vespa.
At the end of the Second World War, Corradino d’Ascanio found himself out of a job in an Italy with a ten year ban on military manufacturing. Elsewhere, plant owner Piaggio found himself with the remnants of a blitzed engineering factory and an irritating habit of getting mud on his trousers while riding his motorbike.
The elements collided. Piaggio hired d’Ascanio, they both got to work and after a few shiny prototypes the Vespa was born. Its unique design had gears on the handlebars, a single metal chassis and an easy way for riders to rest their feet on the platform instead of straddling an unwieldy mechanical beast. Splash guards even protected those tailored Italian suits.
Either from the Vespa’s narrow waist or from the buzzing of the engine, the motorbike reminded both men of a wasp. This was handy, since Vespa in English means wasp.
Fame and Hollywood followed, surpassed only by a visit from the British Blue Peter team.* The Vespa became both a legend and an art form and the museum in Pontedera celebrates it well.
Yet the words on the plaque by the exit are the ones that stay with me still:
“Corradino d’Ascanio, 1891 – 1981
A man of science and extraordinary imagination and creativity.
The book of his life tells the story of aviation, the helicopter and the Vespa.”
The museum also shows glamorous photos of a woman with long hair clasping the man of her dreams as they speed through the Tuscan countryside.
Behind every sexy invention, you’ll find an engineer.
Disclosure: I visited Tuscany as part of a blog trip organised by Avventurosa (a social media specialist) & Casa Gentili (a Bed & Breakfast in Tuscany.) Neither have anything to do with aeronautical engineering – or the mighty Vespa.