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Thursday, January 14, 2016

The beloved Vespa scooter

By Mahendra Gonsalkorale

It is impossible to trace the history of the Vespa scooter without some reference to World War 2. Most of our batch colleagues were conceived during this period but most fortunately, in relative terms, Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was then called, escaped the terrible hardships of War. It is sobering to reflect that estimated thirty six and a half million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war related causes (equivalent to the total population of France at the outbreak of the war). No other conflict in recorded history killed so many people in so short a time. Something we tend to forget is that of these European casualties of war, at least 19 million (approximately half) were non-combatants. The non-combatant deaths outnumbered the military losses in all European countries with the exception of UK and Germany.

The post war period was devastating with massive material destruction and shortages of everything. The migration problems we see now are minute compared to the massive movement of people that happened in the post war period. Europe became much more homogenised as a result. The word “ethnic cleansing” was first used around this time. It is the hope of all civilised people that we will never ever witness such a human catastrophe.

The need for mobility is basic and in the early post war years, most people relied on public transport where available. Travelling for leisure was restricted to the small number of economically well off people. The motor car was invented many centuries ago but the first mass produced, conveyor belt production car, was the American Ford Model –T produced in 1908. Other early pioneers were Karl Benz in Germany and Nicholas Cugnot in France who is credited with the first powered road vehicle. The development of the motor car which began earlier in the century was interrupted during the war but by the early 1950s, had been revived by the production of small cars with small engines capable of delivering more miles per scarce gallons of petrol. The Citroen CV2 in Italy, the Renault 4 in France, the Morris and Austin early models in UK, the VW Beetle in Germany were typical examples. But in the post-war transport revolution in Europe, the supply of cars could not keep up with demand. This encouraged the growth of bikes, motor cycles and the new brand of motor scooters. The first National motor scooter rally was held in Rome on November 13th 1949 and was followed by a massive growth in the market for these reasonably priced and convenient means of transport which were symbols of urban freedom and mobility.

 Under such circumstance was the Vespa born.

The word Vespa means Wasp in both Italian and Latin. Up to 138 different versions of the Vespa have been built since production began. When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide, making it the most successful scooter of all time.

This picture shows the early M6 model with a central section. This was replaced by the more familiar one without the central bar with room for placing the feet behind the shield (wings) housing the handgrip  controls.

Vespa is an Italian brand of scooter manufactured by Piaggio.Piaggio was founded in1884 in Genoa by 20 year old RinaldoPiaggio as a luxury ship building company that expanded into producing rail carriages, automobiles, marine craft and later aeronautics.    Enrico Piaggio and his brother Armando inherited the family engineering business on their father’s death in 1938. Enrico decided to move the business from aircraft to scooter production after the end of the war as there was a need for low cost transport.

Upon seeing the first Vespa (MP6) for the first time, Enrico Piaggio exclaimed: "Sembraunavespa!" ("It resembles a wasp!"). Piaggio effectively named his new scooter on the spot. If he was a Sri Lankan, he would have uttered the immortal words “YakomekaBambarek wage!” and Vespa would have been known as “Bambara”.

The move to scooter production proved to be a prudent one as the company would eventually become one of the biggest manufacturers of two-wheeled vehicles in the world and in fact the Piaggio group is now Europe’s largest manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles and the world’s fourth largest motorcycle manufacturer by unit sales. The group own 7 companies. Piaggio, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Derbi, Vespa, Gilera and Ligier

From their inception, Vespa scooters have been known for their painted, pressed steel unibody which combines a complete cowling for the engine (enclosing the engine mechanism and concealing dirt or grease), a flat floorboard (providing foot protection), and a prominent front fairing (providing wind protection) into a structural unit.

In 1950 Piaggio opened a factory in Germany and a year later in the UK (Douglas of Bristol). The Vespa was soon manufactured in 13 countries and sold in 114.

As a result of the MOD subculture that developed in the 1960s, the United Kingdom became Vespa’s second largest global market.

When Vespa celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, more than 15 million of the scooters had been sold worldwide

Sadly, in its country of birth Italy, Vespa popularity is declining. According to data published by ANCMA, moped sales in Italy have declined from a peak of 600,000 in 1980 to 26,727 in 2014 - a vertiginous fall of 97 percent. Economic crisis, demographic shifts, and the changing habits of the younger generation are all conspiring to end the moped culture widely associated with Italian life since World War II."The younger generation is just not as interested in mopeds as it used to be," Claudio Deviti, head of the motorcycle unit of ANCMA, the National Association of Motorcycle, Bicycle and Accessories, told Al Jazeera.

The great rival for the scooter owning fraternity in the Medical Faculty was the Lambretta, made in Milan by Innocenti, but that is another story.

I would like to refer readers to a previous post by Lucky,"Two Wheelers" of the Batch,  25th November 2015. In this post, he named some of our Vespa owners. I hope readers would add to this list.  Those who owned the newer Vespa models (the handle in particular was different) were: SanathLamabadusuriya (I think it had registration number 4 Sri 955), MahendraCollure and the late LGDK Herath. Douglas Mulgirigama owned an older model Vespa. Rajan (Patas) Ratnesar was the other who used an older model of Vespa.
Lucky, and the comments, cover the Vespa. Lambretta, BSA.MotorGuzzi and Honda.

Does anybody know a lady Medico who owned a Vespa? I would have thought it was very suitable for a lady who would like to avoid straddling for reasons best known to her!


  1. Thank you Mahen for that exceptional historical account about the evolution of the wasp, sorry,Vespa. I bought my Vespa 4 shri 955 in my first year as a medical student. I had to write a long letter to my father so as to convince him to buy me one (later my friend Joe Wijayanayagam borrowed my letter and he wrote a similar one to his father and purchased a lambretta !) I paid Rs. 2050.00 for it and sold it later in 1969 (after joining the faculty)for Rs, 4000.00. Then I bought my first car ,a Triumph Herald for about Rs.10,000.00.
    In 1971 when I went abroad I sold it for Rs,17.000.00. The Vespa served me very well. I used to pump in R,5.00 worth of petrol per week (Petrol was about Rs. 2.50 per gallon.) My regular pillion rider was Maheswaran who also lived in Wellawatte.I met with only one accident, when I knocked down a woman on a pedestrian crossing at slow speed; she sustained a Colles's fracture. I was not injured however.

    1. Sanath, my first car in Sri Lanka was a Triumph Herald (two tone green and white) and so was my first one in England (two tone blue and grey). I bought my UK Herald for £150 and I was told I paid too much! I loved them both and thought they were beautiful designs but when I see them now, I don't have the same view. There are a few past generation cars which even now look great (apart from Vintage ones which all look fantastic) and include the Citroen "Ibba" air suspension car and the "new" Rover SD1 hatchback which came in the early 70s and were ahead of their time.

      I used to borrow my father's old Vauxhall Wyvern car and top it up with One Rupee worth of petrol, just enough to bring it back home! Those were the days!

  2. Mahen
    What a fine account of a perennial favourite, the Vespa. In my youth its whirring sound was honey to my ears and a true wasp it was. I have fond memories of the scooter although I never owned one. Still, my claim to fame can be that I once walked amongst those Vespa owners and became a perpetual free rider flying the streets with the wind on my face. Perhaps I saved the bus fare for a thosai feed at the Saraswathi or a Buryani at Buhari’s. Thanks for the memory.

  3. Thanks Mahen (everyone seems to be calling you that now) for enlightening us with the history of the Vespa. I remember all of you buzzing around on those two wheelers. "Bambara" would have been a really nice name! I cannot think of any female medicos who rode them during our time, but I bet there are some who do ride them nowadays. It is very common now to see female riders on the roads in Colombo, dressed in saris and skirts. But, I do a double take when I see entire families riding on them sometimes!
    Although I took driving lessons while living in Sri Lanka, I only drove on my own after moving to Connecticut. I do get attached to my cars and keep them running for many years. I always had the desire to own a small convertible and finally in 1989 treated myself to an Alfa Romeo Spider after my daughters moved away to college. It was only driven in good weather, which were referred to as "Alfa days." My mother liked riding in it when she visited me in the US. She loved the comfortable bucket seats. It is still in the family, and is sitting in my son-in-law's garage for the winter, after being shipped to Germany.

  4. Mahendra, many thanks for a very interesting and informative account of a very familiar 'insect' on Sri Lankan roads in our teen years and very symbolic of our then medicos. I cannot remember any ladies riding one of these except it did form a kind of family transport at times, carrying dad, driving, then two children huddled one behind the other and then the mother with arms encircling both of them. The familiar sound it made when running, was well known to us.

  5. Appreciate all your comments. It is interesting to me that my introductory comments on the background to the emergence of the Vespa, in particular the horrors of War and migration, did not draw any comments.

    1. Mahen, I think we were all reminiscing about the positive aspects of the Vespas and other modes of transportation. Unfortunately, the sad reality of war remains with us today. The numbers may not be as astronomically high as in WW II but those who are affected are similarly devastated. I am writing this from Hamburg, and as you know the Germans are dealing with a far greater number of refugees than any other country. They are doing their best to cope with the influx, but as you can imagine, the differences between the refugees and their hosts are vast; language, religion, culture etc. I am not sure how it will turn out, but we can hope for the best. Meanwhile in Connecticut, some refugee families who have waited over two years in refugee camps abroad, are finally being relocated in communities. Several groups are getting together and reaching out to help. I think they will probably find it a bit easier to integrate there.

  6. Mahen,
    Not having known anything about Vespas and their origins I have learned much. Many thanks

  7. Mahendra, Luckey Abey,

    I did not ever anticipate that an innocuous comment by me as regards to riding on the pillion of my pal the late Russell Paul's Lambretta in our 1st MB days would lead to you ponder the vexed question of the identity of other scooter riders in our batch? This was quickly followed by Luckey Abey, who as usual listing not only the names of the owners of these scooters, he went on to give in detail the Number Plates as well!!! Then of course you followed up with this grand insight into the history of Vespa.
    This is the "Wonder of our Blog"---- long may it last.