First Impression: 1997 Vespa 125cc ET4

An In-Depth Look At This Ground-Breaking Design, And a Short History of Vespa's First 50 Years


How would you celebrate the 50th birthday of a transportation icon like Vespa? First you could publish a three book trilogy about the legendary scooters, second you could baptize two new, ground-breaking models and finally you invite 700 motojournalists from around the globe to tell the world about it while treating them to gourmet dinners and wild parties. 

Italian two wheel giant Piaggio did all that and more. After all, who could blame them? As far as Italians are concerned, the Vespa is their very own Model-T Ford. An object that symbolizes not only the freedom of affordable personal transportation but the very resurrection of a whole country from the ravages of World War II. And with a production figure of over 15 million units, this feast was well deserved.

The first Vespa to hit the streets in 1946 was the result of an outstanding effort by an aircraft factory that just three years before was pulverized by Allied bombers. Enrico Piaggio, the head of a factory that once proudly produced 1750 hp aircraft engines, was searching for something to produce that would be profitable. What he found was an old design for an army-issue motorcycle used by paratroopers. But his prototype wasn't the answer for the broad appeal, mass produced product that he desired.

To design his image of what the bike could be he recruited Corradino D'Ascanio, an aeronautical engineer famous in pre-war years for the design of helicopters. D'Ascanio lacked any traditional motorcycling background and in fact admitted to hating motorcycles. They were heavy, hard to handle by the inexperienced (or skirt wearing women), they lacked any weather protection and always ended up staining your hands and clothes with oil thrown up from the engine and chain. All of these reservations clearly showed in the first prototype.

The new creature outlined within a few days already had most of the ingredients of an innovative classic. Piaggio's simple to produce "personal mover" was totally different from anything seen to date. Its main feature was a step-through design with no tank or engine filling the space between the handlebars and seat. Crucial to this design was the use of aircraft-style thin stressed skin as a load bearing structure, which also doubled as splash shield and footboard. Vespas have no frame tubes; steel skins formed into deep channel sections by stamping and joined by spot welding are the key for their extremely rigid, light and cheap to produce bodywork. Gone was the need to weld a myriad of jig-held small tubes into a frame.

Another important design feature was the use of small, toy-like eight inch wheels. These freed valuable real estate within the short wheelbase, allowing engine and transmission to be mounted well behind the rider's legs. That gave D'Ascanio the chance to get rid of another unpopular feature; the foot gearshift pedal - an unyielding lever that must have left marks on countless stylish Italian loafers.

In pure functional terms, his idea of a twistgrip-controlled gear selection is hard to fault. The mechanical aspect of that first prototype was no less innovative. An ultra-compact powerpack, including engine, gears, clutch, final drive and rear wheel axle was fabricated from just one main casting that enclosed all working parts with easy to seal covers.

All this was possible because of the radical positioning of the 98cc two-stroke engine to the side of the scooter's line of symmetry. A centrifugal crankshaft mounted blower took care of supplying the engine with cooling air. A strong aeronautical influence showed in their design of the front suspension, reminiscent of an aircraft's landing gear. And you didn't have to be a mechanic to fix a puncture now, as the spare wheel was carried in the dummy engine cover.

In fact it was those two bulbous steel covers enclosing the engine unit on one side and spare tire on the other that gave the new vehicle its thin-waisted insect look, earning it the Vespa moniker (wasp in Italian). This was to prove no less important in the success of their new baby than the technical innovations. For the first time a two wheeled product didn't bear a drab and heavy moniker made of an acronym of letters and displacement digits. Rather, this machine carried a funny, young and highly marketable name.

After a few initial improvements the Vespa was set to conquer the world. From 1946-on production figures rose steadily, and by the mid-sixties 3.5 million Vespas meant that one-in-fifty Italians had one. In other parts of the world Vespa turned into a lot more than just a cheap transportation solution. Driven by relentless promotion and advertising campaigns, Vespas turned into the centerpiece of a whole lifestyle.

Owner's clubs similar to today's Harley-Davidson HOG chapters sprouted up all over the world. In motorcycle-crazed England the sudden popularity of the Vespa meshed with the new Mod cult, offering the stylish clean cut and clad hipsters an alternative to the heavy, greasy machines so loved by their rivals, the Rockers. Throughout the world, Piaggio's well-oiled advertising campaigns managed to make Vespa into a symbol of fun. An attitude not to be dismissed in those days when Europe and other areas had yet to overcome the trauma of WW II.

It might be hard to make a 50-year history with 89 different models fit into just a few paragraphs, but then there is no real need to. The Vespa actually changed very little in all those years.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Vespa's success did not go unnoticed by the other manufacturers. The copying started with the Lambretta and then spread like wildfire during the fifties with dozens of manufacturers jumping onto the scooter bandwagon. Luckily for Piaggio, none of these models had a long production life. Piaggio was in command, but it was getting harder to keep that good thing up.

The first cracks in the wall started in the mid sixties, when Honda stepped into the scooter game. Honda's commitment to motorcycles meant that their model didn't quite leave a mark, but the writing on the wall was clear. Despite these occasional threats from competitors Piaggio had managed to keep the Vespa's edge right into the early eighties.

In 1984 Vespa took the first step towards the modernization of their classic with the introduction of an automatic transmission to take the place of the handlebar-twist operated gear change. Another stop-gap attempt was the 1987 Cosa, a total re-design of the Vespa that, unfortunately, was not too successful. By now Piaggio had to acknowledge the superiority of the emerging oriental scooters that already populated the cities of south east Asia and were now threatening to spill over into other markets.

For the first time Piaggio had to follow anothers lead and produce a 50cc scooter made in a totally different way. The 1990 Sfera had reverted to a steel tube frame over which thermoplastic injection-molded panels and covers were attached. Later, Piaggio managed to regain lost ground by bringing out a host of very trick 50cc scooters. Their influential Typhoon off-road scooter is credited with spawning that breed and recently their NRG 50cc road racing scooter has started a trend of large-tired scooters with upside down forks and water cooling.

American readers staring in disbelief probably need an explanation: In many parts of Europe and Asia, acne-ridden youngsters are limited to 50cc machines until 16 or even 18 years of age. And the manufacturers are out to make the most of the limiting regulations with wild and wonderful designs that just sell like mad.

With economical stability secured and their 50th birthday fast approaching, Piaggio just had to undertake the serious task of designing a Vespa for the year 2000. Not that the old design had ever sunk to being a really poor seller. Last year "only" 280,000 were sold, but with ever tightening emission rules looming menacingly, the old two-stroke engine days were numbered (and actually over in some markets). 

1997 Vespa 125cc ET4 Enter the new Vespa ET4. The current trend in "big" scooters is towards four stroke engines that don't need oil added, have longer maintenance intervals and pollute much less. The new Vespa received an overhead camshaft fan-cooled 125cc four stroke engine. Features like automatic transmission through a stepless belt variator drive and electric starting had already appeared in other Piaggio designs and were incorporated. It is pretty obvious that Piaggio could have taken a much easier route by using the tube frame/plastic covers approach of other scooter manufacturers. Call it loyalty or call it plain stubbornness, but Vespa's ET4 is made out of sheet metal pressings, just as D'Ascanio would have done.

As an industrial designer myself, I wouldn't touch the redesign of such a classic piece with a ten foot pole. I really don't envy the task that fell on Piaggio's designers to recreate something as mythically loaded as the Vespa. Almost akin to changing the Coca Cola® bottle. The fact that the "retro" trend is so strong these days in the two wheeled world was of help to them. And indeed their designers embraced the trend strongly and came out with a result that is very much a nineties' interpretation of shapes from another era. During my half day in Rome with the new Vespa the locals kept saying "bellissima" (what a beauty) wherever I happened to stop.

After a rather long morning of speeches we were at last free to examine the newborn 1997 models (for info on Vespa's second new model, the innovative ET2 two-stroke, see accompanying story).  Funny enough, most journalists first reaction to the ET4 was to knock on the scooter's surface just too see if it is really made by steel pressings. The complex double curvature surfaces of the new Vespa just don't seem to be made in the old way, but countless knackered knuckles will attest to the fact that, yes they are steel. Vespa's designers managed to steer clear of the overly expressive shapes that typify many current scooter and bike designs and opted for very clean curves that carry subtle hints of old Vespa styling.

After instructions were given I took to the seat of my assigned scoot and was quickly able to appreciate the new model's good ergonomics.  The engine awakened at the mere touch of the starter button (choke is automatic) and settled into a steady idle rhythm. All was set now for the journalists' race around the nearby Coliseum.

In my few days in Rome I had already noted the crazy antics of Roman riders and drivers and was ready to do battle with them. The Vespa's new power unit turned out to be quite impressive. The cute 125cc lump managed to grab holeshots out of most stoplight drag races, even against rather determined car drivers. The variable transmission is tuned to keep the engine right in the middle of its torque peak and the acceleration available was impressive, by scooter standards anyway. Observed top speed was about 60 mph, more than enough to make a daily 20 mile commute through a secondary road enjoyable.

Rome's cobblestone and pothole-ridden roads were an excellent test of suspension and the new Vespa seemed to swallow them all without wallowing. The generously-sized tires (120/80 at the rear) allowed really silly lean angles through some fast sweepers. Grip and stability were good considering the 10-inch tires, and it's a good thing they were. I didn't even have the chance to slow down. Angry Fiat and Alfa-Romeo drivers made sure I kept the throttle pinned. Only the brakes kept me wishing I had more power available for those inevitable city panic stops.

Piaggio has produced a truly outstanding scooter -- both stylish and functional. City commuters pulled over with their old, battered Vespas just to have a peek. Everybody seemed to notice the new model, asking enthusiastic questions about it. With such a warm reception from the home crowd, Piaggio seems to have come up with a worthy scooter to carry on with the storied Vespa legend.

Specifications
Model:  Vespa ET4 
Type:  Single Cylinder, Two-Valve,
       Air-Cooled Four-Stroke 
Bore/Stroke:  57 x 48.6mm 
Displacement: 124.2cc 
Compression Ratio:  10.6:1 
Carburetor:  Mikuni
Transmission: Automatic Centrifugal 
Body:  Load-Bearing Pressed Sheet Metal 
Suspension: Hydraulic Single Shock
            (front and rear)  
Front Brake:  Single 200mm Disc 
Rear Brake:  110mm Drum 
Seat Height:  805mm 
Fuel Capacity:  9 liters
Weight (wet): 104kg

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