Piaggio, funded 1884 as a shipbuilder, was before and through WWII one of Italy's biggest airplane manufacturer. Forced by the Marshall Plan, the company changed production to the Vespa motor scooter and the Ape three wheel light truck in the late forties. Both models became extremely successful and were soon recognized as true icons of the Italian road culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
Approximately 34,000 Vespa 400 cars were produced in France from 1957 through 1961 (they were designed by Italians and built by Frenchmen). The Vespa 400 premiered at the Paris Auto Salon in 1957. Its main competition was the Citroen 2 CV and the Renault 4. Of those, approximately 1,650 were imported into the United States. The price was $1,080 FOB NY, NY. The Vespa has a 5-feet, 7-inches wheelbase and an overall length of 9-feet, 5-inches with a turning radius under 25-feet. The engine is a 2-cylinder, 2-cycle, air-cooled unit producing about 20 horsepower. It has rack-and-pinion steering and 4-wheel (10-inch) independent suspension. The front panel is a pull-out drawer housing the battery. In the same area is the master cylinder with it's unique glass jar reservoir. The Vespa car features suicide doors with sliding windows and a roll-down convertible top. Although small in size, a tall person can easily be accommodated with the adjustment of the seat.
This car won it's AACA 1st Junior at the 2005 National Spring meet in Greensburg, PA and it's AACA Senior Award at the 2005 National Fall Meet in Jeffersonville, IN. It was designed by Carradino d'Ascanio for the Piaggio company and built by ACMA (Ateliers de construction de motorcycles et d'automobiles), which was better known for its popular Vespa motor scooters).
Today, Piaggio is still the world's biggest scooter manufacturer - and still make the Ape three wheel truck. And still the engines are tiny: Even after 65 years of production the smallest commercial vehicle starts with a 2.4 horsepower 50cc two-stroke while the 218cc 'big block' puts on 9.5 horsepower, and the Diesel version with 422cc and 12.2 horsepower.
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