Audrey Hepburn and the Rise of the Vespa

Kanishka Sonnadara
by Kanishka Sonnadara

Pretty girls sell motorcycles, that’s no secret; but did you know that silver screen leading lady Audrey Hepburn may have been the face that sold one hundred thousand Vespas? Read on, but first up, how it all started for Vespa.

Italian Origin, American Influence

Vespa was born out of parent company Piaggio’s desire to replicate the small and simple American Cushman scooters that had become popular in Italy during World War II. Beating out Lambretta at the time to make it to market in mid 1946, the pressed steel frame Vespa scooter has since become a symbol of scootering the world over.

Original 1946 98cc Vespa Scooter.

Cushman scooters had found their way in to Italy during the war as a means for soldiers to get around bases and navigate small European towns. The scooters had also proved useful on the front lines as they would be air dropped in along with paratroopers or used to sneak in between enemy lines.

In its first year of production, the newly minted Vespa brand sold an estimated 2,500 units. That number rapidly grew, and by the turn of the decade in 1950 as many as 60,000 Vespas had made it into public hands.

The Pontedera factory churning out Vespas in 1950.

Sharing Screen with Audrey

In 1953 Audrey Hepburn made her big screen debut alongside Gregory Peck in the Hollywood flick Roman Holiday. The film featured a brief few minutes where Hepburn’s character in search of excitement hops on board a Vespa and runs amuck through the streets of Rome with flair in the way only this classy leading lady could.

Vespa’s appearance in the film may have been brief, but coupled with countless movie posters that pictured a young Hepburn riding the handlebars of the scooter against a Roman cityscape backdrop, the romance between Rome and Vespa were cemented for decades to come.

Reports from the time suggest that right after the release of Roman Holiday Vespa sold over 100,000 units as a direct result. Watch the film for yourself and see if you don’t find yourself hoping for a little scooter love; I sure did.

By 1962 there were over 60 movies that featured the little Italian scooter. Even big screen tough guys Marlon Brando, Dean Martin and Charlton Heston were seen riding Vespas off screen. By 1970 Piaggio laid proud claim to the production and sale of over four million Vespas worldwide. The scooter had become more than economical, functional and efficient transport; it had come to represent freedom and imagination.

Death then Rebirth

Just as Vespa launched the new P series scooters in the U.S., federal emissions laws tightened up and in 1983 imports of large displacement two-stroke Vespas ceased. Failing to adapt, dealer stock of new scooters quickly dried up and many American Vespa dealers closed up shop.

It’s interesting to note that this was right around the time the Japanese manufacturers Honda and Yamaha started importing four-stroke scooters into the country and dominated the scooter market with great success.

In 2001 Vespa returned to North America with the ET line of scooters. The new frame could accommodate two-stroke 50cc motors and were called ET2 models and the four-stroke 150cc models were named ET4.

Piaggio Group has used Vespa’s re-entry in to the American market to position it as a premium product. In the last dozen years it has clearly been a winning strategy for the company as the scooters have become a status symbol for many and the brand continues a cult-like following the world over.

Even during its absence from the North American market between 1983 and 2001, Vespa love was kept alive by die-hard brand fans who continued to rebuild and restore old models. Early company-backed establishment of national Vespa clubs also helped ensure that the brand remained relevant and talked about while the company wasn’t active in the U.S. during those 18 years.

Since its return to the North American market, Vespa has once again found its way into numerous movie and TV roles, including parts in: Alfie, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Ratatouille, Get Smart, Veronica Mars, Entourage and Big Bang Theory. Oh, and for those gear heads reading this, you’re sure to remember Jeremy Clarkson’s green Vespa from the Top Gear Vietnam special.

Vespa Romance

Vespas have been ridden by good guys, bad guys, pretty girls and animated characters on screen in various forms over the years. It was, however, that first appearance of a Vespa alongside Hepburn back in 1953 that helped paint the scooter as an icon of two-wheeled motoring.

Time Magazine of England published the following about Vespa when it first showed up in the late 40s: “It is a completely Italian product, such as we have not seen since the Roman chariot.” Just as the chariot has been intrinsically linked in our minds with colosseums and gladiators, Vespa has become a symbol of fairytale European romance thanks in no small part to cinema.

Today the list of celebrities who ride a Vespa reads like a who’s who of Hollywood, music, and entertainment A-listers. Here’s our Top 10.

Kanishka Sonnadara
Kanishka Sonnadara

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  • Benchikh Benchikh on Jun 29, 2013

    I can say that the Italians are the first who gave the world a real motorcycle,adding a spare wheel,lovely VESPA

  • Wade Nelson Wade Nelson on Jan 18, 2015

    Ya gotta be a Vespa fanboy because they're overpriced and horribly unreliable compared to Japanese scooters like the Honda PCX and Yamaha S-MAX. Even the newer Vespas. I wish it weren't so because their styling is timeless. When an owner can actually OBTAIN the necessary service and parts - and get their scooter running, they're wonderful.