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VESPA SCOOTERS IN THE UNITED STATES

It may seem surprising today, but Piaggio got its star in the United States through Sears-Roebuck department stores and catalogs, arriving in 1951. Because Sears was selling the scooters as their own product, the bikes were named “Allstate” instead of “Vespa”. They were stripped-down, bare-bones 125-cc models, similar to Italian U-models, which were green in color like the All states. (Rumor was that Piaggio had commandeered a tremendous stash of war-surplus green paint, to gain the range of green shades used on each scooters). Sears sold the Vespa-Allstates in the catalog alongside cheaper Cushman-All states scooters. Though U.S. made Cushmans were popular throuh the late 1940s and early 1950s, they were simple, slow and ungainly, both in appearance and performance, compared with the elegance and sophistication of the Vespa scooters.

Sears marketers could certainly tell the difference. The Cushmans were show in small photos, and were labeled “a fine American motor scooter,” while the Vespa-Allstates had larger photos and were called: “Our finest motor scooter, the great All states Cruisaire.” One ad read alluringly, “ Go ‘Continental’ with this fine Italian-styled powerhouse.” The price tag: $325.95. When you order your Vespa-Allstate through a Sears catalog, it arrived at your door in a big wooden box, and was partially disassembled. Sears stores provided service and parts for the scooters at its region stores.

In those days, scooters were big in the United States, with Cushmans, Simplex, Salisbury, Autoped, and others enjoying raging popularity. The Vespa-Allstates were highly successful, with thousands sold by Sears through 1969. With their three-speed, clutch-operated gearboxes and superior handling and driveability, not to mention European styling, the Vespa-Allstates quickly became the runway favorites, the “finest” scooter on the road.

All this encouraged Piaggio to enter the U.S. market on the Vespa brand’s own merit. Around 1995, Vespa dealerships began cropping up in urban areas. Soon, thousands of scooters labeled “Vespa” were joining the Allstates.

SCOOTERS AND MORE
Piaggio, meanwhile, had begun manufacturing other products for industrial use, based on the technology developed for the scooters. They used the Vespa motors for industrial engines, snowplows, and small three-wheeled vehicles that were used for a wide variety of purposes and called the Ape (pronounced ah-pey, which is Italian foe bee). Ape employed a scooter front end and, from the rear seat back, a platform that could be fitted with a variety of utility bodies, such as small dump trucks, delivery vans, and pickups. These were ubiquitous on urban streets, and became familiar to most American in the background of many Italian movie scenes.

They also made a Vespa car, but it was a completely different vehicle from the scooter or Ape, not utilizing a single one of the scooter parts. Manufactured in France from 1958 through 1961 by a Piaggio division called ACMA, these little cars competed with Fiats, giving the Italian giant a run for its money, especially among women drivers because of its style and magical Piaggio nameplate. But only about 34,000 Vespa cars were manufactured.

Feeling threatened by the upstart automaker, Fiat warned Piaggio that it could build its own line of scooters and put Piaggio out of business. This is why the Vespa 400 was built in France and never imported to Italy, though it was sold in such nation as Germany, France, Belgium, and United States. In 1959, with the marriage of a ruling-family Fiat male to a ruling-family Piaggio female, the relationship between the industrial giants was cemented. After a few years of close partnership with Fiat, Piaggio quit building the little cars altogether.

In the United States, Vespa car sales were slow, even though they were advertised in such popular publications as Playboy, joining splashy ads for other such European offerings as MG and Alfa Romeo. Other than sports cars, small cars were not yet popular in the United States, where huge Buicks and Chryslers were crowding the highways and competing in horsepower wars. Little cars were something for clowns to jump out of at the circus. Soon Volkswagen would change American’s view of small cars, but that would be too late for the Vespa car.

Piaggio’s real business was scooters, and the colossal growth of the two-wheeled Vespa models mirrored Italy’s return to economic health, though with a post-war twist. And it heralded the birth of modern-day marketing, From day one, Piaggio pumped the advertising, and the advertising pumped the Vespa brand. The advertising was often as exciting as the people who were creating the scooters, the marketing as brilliant as the Vespa design, and soon Vespa motor scooters had a bright and youthful image around the globe.

In 1956, Piaggio marked an important milestone, the sale of its one-millionth scooter worldwide, a victory over the early naysayers and cause for celebration throughout Italy. To honor the rousing success, the Italian government declared Vespa Day in April of that year, and the impromptu holiday was celebrated with festivals in 15 different cities. A horde of 2,000 Vespa scooters roared through Rome, snarling traffic.

By then, Vespa scooters were being built under license in a number of countries, including France, Germany, and England.

THE BRITISH SCOOTERS
Vespa manufacture in England is a story in itself. The Douglas company of Bristol built motorcycles for many years in England before discovering motor scooters. Owner Claude McCormack was inspired while on vacation in 1948 by the sight of them buzzing around the streets of Italy, and he envisioned a similar transportation revolution for Great Britain. As in Italy, Britons had to deal with scarce, expensive gasoline and a shortage of automobiles after World War II. Like the Italians, their cars were tiny, so the transition to a small, two-wheeled “car” like the motor scooter did not seem like such a stretch.

McCormack forged an agreement with Piaggio to build Vespa models on British soil, and in early 1951, began producing scooters. The 125-cc Douglas scooter was nearly identical to the Piaggio scooter, right down to the same metallic-green paint scheme. But it had an immediately obvious difference: instead of having the headlight mounted on the fender, the Douglas scooter had the headlight mounted on the legshield below the handlebars. This design was in accordance with British law governing headlight heights, but it created the obvious detriment of the headlight no longer turning with the direction of the front wheel.

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