Total Production: 1,652 1958 - 1961
The Italian based company Vespa is legendary for their motorscooters. However, the French-built microcar produced from 1957 though 1961, is far less known. Produced by Piaggio, their history dates back to 1884 where they initially produced locomotives and railway carriages. During the First World War they aided in the war effort by producing aircrafts. They produced fighter planes during World War II. When WWII came to a close, the company was nearly devastated. Their Pontedera plant had been destroyed by bombing; Italy's roads were disastrous due to the bombing and war, and the economy was suffering.
Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio's founder Rinaldo Piaggio, was determined to revitalize the Piaggio business and to address Italy's need for affordable and modern transportation that could traverse the war-torn roadways. Just like Dr. Ferdinand Porsche of the time, he began designing and building a car for the masses. The result was a very small, two-seater dubbed the Vespa 400. It was labeled as a convertible though it really only had a plastic folding sunroof. It was powered by a rear-mounted, two-cylinder, air-cooled engine that displaced 24.5 cubic-inches and produced 20 horsepower. It was mated to a three-speed manual gearbox and fitted with hydraulic drum brakes in both the front and rear. It had a steel unibody construction and a fuel tank that could store five gallons. With around 60 mpg, this was more than adequate. Top speed was just under 60 mph.
The car was introduced in 1957 and was sold in several countries including the US. It was built in France though had been designed by the same individuals that produced the scooter. Production in France was a logistical decision, as the company did not want to compete with the popular Italian based Fiat 500.
The car was priced at $1,080 which made it one of the least expensive and more reasonable micro-cars of the day. Sales were relatively strong, but not enough to convince the Piaggio Company to continue past 1961. They returned their entire efforts back to the production of the motor-scooter and mopeds.By Daniel Vaughan | Jun 2008