“It looks like a wasp!”
Not quite the endorsement that Corradino D’Ascanio was expecting when he presented the fruits of his hard work to his patron.
Yet within months the Italian language possessed a new verb based on the brand.
To date over 16 million of them have been sold around the world and they are produced in 13 countries.
They have become a screen icon starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in Roman holiday, Anita Edberg in La Dolce Vita, Angie Dickinson in Jessica and Gwen Stefani in her 2007 video for Now That You Got It.
If you still haven’t got the brand, they also appeared in Quadrophenia where ever Mod who could afford one, was riding one.
The brand is of course Vespa.
Following the end of the war, industrialist Enrico Piaggio needed to find a new direction for his company, which had been making planes for the Italian air force. He recognised that Italy had an urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transport. He therefore tasked one of his aeronautical designers, Corradino D’Ascanio, with designing a motorcycle suitable for getting around the bomb-damaged Italian cities.
However, D’Ascanio wasn’t keen on motorcycles. He thought they were too cumbersome, too difficult to repair and generally dirty.
Instead, he took inspiration from having seen US military aircraft drop tiny, olive green Cushman Airbornes to their troops in the war-torn cities of Milan and Turin. The Cushman Airborne was a basic, skeletal, steel motor scooter that allowed troops to nip about the rough terrain.
Adapting his aeronautical expertise to the task in hand, he designed a simple but practical scooter. He moved the gear lever onto the handlebar for easier access. He designed the body to absorb stress in the same way as an aircraft would. The seat position was created to give both safety and comfort while the workings were hidden behind panels to keep the rider’s clothes in pristine condition and the step-through frame meant it was an ideal machine for skirt-wearing women to ride.
In fact, the first Vespas built actually used components from Piaggio’s aircraft; the nose wheel suspension for the front wheel of the scooter.
It was however its narrow-waisted design and buzzing sound that caused Enrico Piaggio to exclaim “Sembra una vespa!” (“It look like a wasp!”). A stroke of fortune as the reaction gave the new scooter its brand name.
In April 1946 the Vespa debuted at a golf club in Rome and was an immediate success. It wasn’t long before “vespare” (to go somewhere on a Vespa) was being heard on the streets along with the wasp-like buzzing of their engines.
And the moral is that skills in one sector can be successfully transferred into other sectors. Where could you take your brand?