When you think of Italy, you probably picture a Vespa, and the VESPA turns 70 today. To celebrate, we look back at its history.

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Today marks the birthday of the world’s most famous and best-selling scooter. Since the first ever Vespa was made 65 years ago more than 17 million vehicles have been sold world-wide – 23rd April is the day when the patent was passed enabling the mass production of the very first version, the Vespa 98cc.

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It was on a Vespa that Gregory Peck pursued Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday”, the 1953 film that helped make the marque synonymous internationally with the Roman capital.

While Vespa’s success is closely related to the history of mobility and changing lifestyles in Italy and around the world, its growth continues: with 133,000 scooters shipped in 2010, eleven thousand more than in 2009.

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Vespa has also beaten the 100,000 sales threshold every year for the past five years. Its impressive performance stems from the consistent development of new models and versions which has been key to sales figures almost tripling the 50,000 Vespas sold in 2003. And the Italian scooter is set for further growth in years to come!

Retro style

“The Vespa was better than a motor bike: it had a body with a front apron that protected riders from dust, the mud and the rain,” said Patrice Verges, a historian of the automobile industry.

“It had small wheels which made it possible to carry a spare with you at a time when punctures were a regular hazard because of nails dropping off horseshoes.

“And people liked the design and the distinctive noise, which was like that of a wasp.”

People also liked the price. “In the 1950s and 1960s, you bought a Vespa because you could not afford a car,” added Verges.

As the Italian economy began to boom in the 1980s, life got tougher for the manufacturer.

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Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida attends the Great Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey, on a Vespa scooter on June 14, 1952 (Photo by Ron Case/Keystone/Getty Images)

Obligatory helmets made the riding experience safer but less romantic and families were able to opt for cars as their main means of getting about.

Since 2004 however the brand has been undergoing a worldwide revival thanks to a combination of enthusiasm for the Vespa’s retro style and its utility for moving quickly around increasingly congested cities.

Actor and former acrobat Bonar Colleano (1924-1958) and English actress Susan Shaw (1929-1978) (born Patsy Sloots) on a Vespa scooter in this May 19, 1952 image. (Photo by George Stroud/Express/Getty Images)
Actor and former acrobat Bonar Colleano (1924-1958) and English actress Susan Shaw (1929-1978) on a Vespa scooter.(Photo by George Stroud/Express/Getty Images).

“The Vespa is still a legend,” is how Marco Lambri, the current design director, puts it. “It represents the best of Italian design and the (engineering) genius that allowed aeronautical technology to be applied to the creation of a scooter that has revolutionized our way of getting around.”

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Marketing manager Davide Zanoli adds: “It is not just a vehicle, it is an icon of Italian style, elegant and irreverent at the same time.”

To celebrate the 70th birthday hundreds of Vespa aficionados will gather this weekend at Pontedera near Pisa, where the scooter has been produced continuously since 1946.

VESPA IN HISTORY

Watch full story of Vespa