Piaggio came into existence in Sestri Ponente in the industrial periphery of Genoa in 1884. Situated beside the Odero shipyard, it soon became the most sought-after ship-fitting company in the area.
Rinaldo Piaggio (1864-1938) was just 20 years old when, on 10 October 1884, he signed the deed that set up Piaggio & C., a company formed together with a sculptor (Pietro Costa), an arms manufacturer (Giuseppe Piaggio) and a fourth partner who was simply defined “a property owner” (Giacomo Pastorino). Rinaldo was the son of Enrico, a local merchant who owned a timber sawmill, classified “by steam operation” in 1882 and, as such, among Genoa’s most modern mechanised installations.
A mere three years later, in 1887, the production area would no longer do. The factory expanded, while the company’s cabinet-makers were producing fittings for some of the finest Italian and foreign ships of the late 19th century. It was a very significant period in Italian history. The country was just taking off industrially, its start having come later than that of the major European nations. In this phase, there was plenty of room for people with ability and a spirit of enterprise, qualities in which Rinaldo Piaggio certainly wasn’t lacking. Having divested himself of his business partners, he went ahead on his own, branching out into the railways, the most innovative sector of the time with excellent growth prospects. Here, too, significant new barriers were quickly crossed and major contracts were signed at home as well as abroad, including the royal train built in the early 1920s and the production of electric trains for which Piaggio took out a welding patent in Italy.
The MC2 at the entrance to the museum, unearthed at the Calabro-lucane railway, is an extraordinary sample of this period. Once again Rinaldo Piaggio found that the Sestri plant could not contain his dynamism. In 1901 the first steps towards the acquisition of a factory in Finale Ligure were taken and in 1903 it was finally purchased.
The Great War caused a rise in demand for traditional transport such as ships and trains. At the same time, it opened a revolutionary frontier – aeronautics. Rinaldo wasn’t about to be left behind. In 1915 the expert Sestri and Finale Ligure cabinet-makers got busy building wings and fuselage for new aircrafts.
1917 marked Piaggio’s definitive entry into aeronautics. Rinaldo was on the lookout for new manufacturing space and, having come to know of the difficulties a Pisa aeronautics company was facing following the death of its proprietor Francesco Oneto, he did not hesitate to purchase the factory with all its equipment and running orders. It was a historical date: Piaggio was establishing itself in Tuscany, which meant that a new page was being written in the story of the company as well as that of a region that has been particularly important for Italian and world civilisation, culture and economic society. In those years Pisa was home to one of Italy’s first airports (“Arturo dell’Oro”). The navigation company Società di navigazione Antoni (from the name of the aeronautical manufacturers F.lli Antoni) was created here, as was the private company Società anonima Costruzioni Aeronautiche, later known as CMASA, set up by a group of industrialists from Piedmont (among them Giovanni Agnelli), Liguria and Tuscany, of which Rinaldo Piaggio was vice president for many years.
Piaggio now had three factories and was considered one of the major Italian companies in terms of size, employee strength, production volumes and turnover. The end of World War I had a marked effect on economic development and the years of conversion from a war-driven to a peacetime economy were extraordinarily difficult. Piaggio, however, did not seem to be especially affected – at any rate not as much as other companies in the mechanical sector. The diversification of its production into various types of transport helped shield Piaggio from the worst of the post-war crisis, but the uncertainty of the time persuaded Rinaldo to look for a financially solid partner with strong finance and management skills. In 1920 the company reincarnated as Piaggio & Compagno. The new partner was Attilio Odero, a star in Italy’s industrial and financial firmament. From 1872 to 1896 Attilio Odero (1.1.1854 – 23.7.1943) had managed the Odero factory in Sestri Ponente. In 1896 he expanded his business to the Foce shipyard and founded the N. Odero e C. company. He was chairman of the Terni steelworks in 1927, when the managing director was Vincent Ardissone, another close associate of Rinaldo’s. Odero was also chairman of O.T.O. (Odero – Terni – Orlando) and founder and financier of the San Giorgio (1905), and was appointed senator of the kingdom on 2 March 1929. Attilio Odero became chairman of Piaggio & C. and would remain until 1943.
These were tumultuous years in a country wounded by the war and existing in an extremely complex political, social and economic scenario. Rinaldo and Attilio Odero witnessed a new phase of expansion as a result of having the best technicians of the time and modernised plants in Liguria and Tuscany for aeronautical, rail and ship fitting construction. In 1923 they employed new aeronautics technicians, among them Giovanni Pegna, an excellent aeronautical engineer and a partner in the Pegna-Bonmartini company. Negotiations with Pegna were long-drawn-out, with Bonmartini determined not to give up his top aeronautics man. Realising the negotiations would never end, Rinaldo broke off talks and bought the Bonmartini factory lock, stock and barrel, including technicians, experts and orders, for the considerable sum, for the time, of one million seven hundred thousand liras. The goal of acquiring Pegna’s skills had been achieved and the first tangible result was the production of the P2 (Piaggio 2) fighter monoplane, the first of a long series that would include highlights such as the P7 – Piaggio corsa – and the four-engined P 108.
Successful production and the expectations of post-war society led Rinaldo to look for yet another factory. Having identified a new business opportunity in the production of aircraft engines, in 1924 he bought the Pontedera-based Costruzione meccaniche nazionali, a small workshop that had emerged before the war from the engine section of the local agricultural consortium.
In a context that was still heavily dependent on the area’s primary activity, agriculture, the Ligurian entrepreneur sparked transformation for the first time, immediately launching production of Jupiter engines under licence from Gnòme et Ròne – a licence acquired for one million liras. By this time Rinaldo was one of the rare Italians in the aeronautics sector – he was certainly its leading figure. In 1926, together with the few Italian pioneers of air transport, he founded the privately-held air transport company SANA, Società Anonima di Navigazione Aerea, to promote the first Italian airline for passenger transport. The purchase of the Pontedera factory was an extremely significant step in Piaggio history and demonstrated the consolidation of the company.
On the 9th March 1925, Rinaldo – intending to optimise the investments he had just made and expand his business to automobile construction – worked with Mario Tolomei of Florence towards setting up a new company, the Costruzione Automobili De Dion Bouton e Motori Jupiter. His share comprised the value of the Pontedera factory, registered in the books at three million liras. It was an ambitious project, but in the end the accord with Tolomei did not go ahead and Pontedera remained a centre for aeronautical engine production that major new engineers, among them Corradino D’Ascanio, would join in a few years’ time. In 1924 Piaggio had factories of its own in Sestri Ponente, Finalmarina, Pisa and Pontedera. It also owned and administered forest areas in the Maremma (Montalto di Castro, Santa Barbara, Sant’Agostino) and Rome (Sezze Romano) provinces. These were functional production units for carbon supply and the production of timber needed for railway construction.
The new expansionist phase of the early 1920s led the partners to augment their share capital, which went from 15 to 30 million liras in 1930 to finance increased production. But new, disturbing clouds were gathering on the Italian and world horizons – the Depression was beginning. It was one of the most critical phases the company had faced so far and years of reduced orders and production would follow. Rinaldo’s response to the crisis was to strengthen research and innovation. Alongside Giovanni Pegna, the company purchased the skills of other aeronautical engineering geniuses such as Giovanni Gabrielli (who built one of Italy’s first modern wind tunnels at Finale Ligure during his stint with Piaggio) and Corradino D’Ascanio (1891-1981) the genius and inventor from Popoli, Abruzzo whom Rinaldo Piaggio stole from under the nose of Giovanni Agnelli and who designed the variable-speed propeller as soon as he joined Piaggio in 1934.
These details reveal how typical it was of Rinaldo and the company to constantly look for skills and technicians capable of rapidly coming up with innovative projects. Rinaldo surrounded himself with the best engineers and technicians, such as Pegna, Gabrielli, Giovanni Casiraghi and Corradino D’Ascanio. Each of them had a fascinating story and made a remarkable contribution to the development of Italian aeronautics. Corradino D’Ascanio is remembered as the inventor of the helicopter. He held the record for flight length and altitude for years at a time when the helicopter was totally unknown. Hence, in the decades preceding the birth of the Vespa, the history of Piaggio that the museum tells was a story of creativity and technical objects that came from innovative genius and helped the company survive the Depression years, during which the share capital dropped from 30 to 10 million liras (16th December 1932). The recovery was shaped around the ingenuity of these innovators, just as it is shaped today around personnel capable of enduring and growing in a difficult global market.
History sped ahead to World War II. Several important things happened at Piaggio.
In 1934, for the first time, Elena Odera, Rinaldo’s wife, appeared in a board meeting with her 300 shares. Two years later the shareholders would no longer only be Rinaldo and Elena Piaggio and Attilio Odero; the 1936 board meeting was attended by Rinaldo’s children and children-in-law, namely: Hilda Piaggio Schiaffino, Giorgina Piaggio Marsano, Carmen Piaggio Vianson, Rinalda Piaggio (Roasenda) and Rinaldo’s two sons Enrico and Armando. The depression was over and when Senator Rinaldo Piaggio died on the 15th January 1938 production in the four extremely modern factories in Liguria and Tuscany had crossed the 160 million liras mark.
Share capital went from 22.5 million in March 1938 to 52.5 in November the same year. Rinaldo’s sons spontaneously decided to split the lines of business: Enrico took charge of Pisa and Pontedera while Armando handled Sestri and Finale Ligure. The company continued to grow and the policy of using advanced technology in both engine and aeronautical production began to reap benefits. Between 1937 and 1939 Piaggio radial engines won 39 firsts including altitude (17,083 metres), won by the PXI engine on the Caproni 161 aircraft piloted by Colonel Mario Pezzi. A sample of this engine can be seen at our museum along with the PVII. In these years Piaggio was building not only trains, ship fittings, aircraft engines and aircraft but also trucks, trams, buses, funicular railways and aluminium locking systems, often reaching high points of excellence as with the 21 firsts won during this period or the manufacture of the famous P108 aircraft.
Mussolini’s Italy had expanded its frontiers in those years to the African colonies and some of the bigger companies set up operations abroad. Piaggio participated in the success of Italy and added new factories in Addis Ababa and Gura for aeronautical repairs and manufacturing; these were the East African workshops, the Officine Meccaniche Africa Orientale (OMAO). It was a page of history linked to the time, with its problems and their economic and social effects, a page written by Enrico Piaggio and his engineers, reported and now preserved in the Antonella Bechi Piaggio historical archive.
World War II was the major new caesura in 20th century history, causing enormous damage and directly involving Piaggio – its strategic war production entailed the total destruction of most of its factories.
Italy too was destroyed after World War II, subjected as it was to near-famine, unemployment, and inflation. The country hastened towards reconstruction with the help of international aid as well as the willingness of men and women, workers and employers, to rebuild. In 1945 the scenario was completely new as compared to 1938. Not only had Attilio Odero died, but the conversion from wartime to peacetime production had a profound effect on the production of metal-machinery companies. Piaggio had of course lost its African factories. In Italy, Armando Piaggio slowly began the job of rebuilding necessary to restart aeronautical production and rail and ship fitting in the Ligurian plants. Aircraft designed by Casiraghi and D’Ascanio were developed, such as the small flight school P148 in the courtyard of the museum or the P149.
These were a far cry from the great four-engine P108, but were nevertheless extremely successful and permitted a partial recovery to take place. In Tuscany, Enrico, unlike his brother, was looking for an all-new business idea, and dreamed of helping Italy solve its post-war transport problems. Enrico Piaggio entered the complex business of restructuring Italy with a precise idea – he wanted to build a simple means of transport that would be cheap, consume very little petrol and could be ridden by everyone, women included. In Biella, where Pontedera’s manufacturing paraphernalia had been transferred, technicians and engineers (among them Vittorio Corsini, Renzo Spolti and Carbonero) had been experimenting during the long months of inactivity in the warehouses of Count Trossi, their host, with a small scooter based on a sample they had seen. The result of their experimentation was the MP5, which the workers themselves christened Paperino, or Donald Duck, for its strange shape. On a visit to Biella with Corradino D’Ascanio, Enrico Piaggio saw the Paperino and liked the idea of a small vehicle, but wasn’t convinced by its design. So he gave D’Ascanio a few weeks in which to re-do the scooter idea or think of an alternative, the brief being to create a nimble, multi-use vehicle. D’Ascanio was an aeronautical engineer – while still at school he had tried an Icarus-type flight using a hang-glider made of bed sheets and had managed to lift himself 15 metres off the ground; as a youngster he had tried the clinometer.
His genius knew no bounds and he experimented with complex, before-their-time machines and instruments. In 1930 he had won a world record for the longest flight in a helicopter, the “rotating propeller”. The helicopter was D’Ascanio’s dream and he continued to produce prototypes, first with his partner the Baron Troiani and then at Enrico Piaggio’s, until the PD4, his last try in 1954. D’Ascanio could invent anything, from the first, rudimentary punch-card computer at a time when no-one imagined that an electronic computer might be possible, to a blender for the oven at Popoli; from timed cigarette holders to limit his own smoking to complicated games. With his extremely varied intellect (he later became a professor at Pisa University’s engineering faculty, together with another major Piaggio personality, Francesco Lanzara), Corradino D’Ascanio took up the scooter challenge with alacrity. He did not like motorcycles. He thought they were uncomfortable and limited in use, since tyre changing was difficult. Besides, the chain transmission risked getting the rider dirty. He decided to create something completely different from a motorcycle. In a few weeks time he had come up with a design for a vehicle with a load-bearing body, a 98cc direct drive engine with gear change located on the handlebar to facilitate riding, without a fork but using a lateral support arm to make tyre changing easy.
The frame was meant to protect the rider, who would be seated on the scooter as on a chair – so much so that the engineer first sketched a person sitting comfortably upright and then drew the vehicle under him. The final key element in the design philosophy of this new vehicle was that it should use light materials – a feature that came from aeronautics, which had to use light but strong materials. Having included all this and stayed faithful to Enrico’s brief, Corradino presented his scooter prototype early in April 1943. From the account of the presentation in our archive, Enrico appears to have taken an instant liking to the vehicle. Noting the buzz of the engine and the ample seat contrasting with the slender centre and rear, he exclaimed: “It looks like a wasp!” And wasp – Vespa – it remained. At midday on the 24th April a patent (faithfully reproduced in our museum) for a “motorcycle composed of a rational group of parts and elements with a frame combined with mudguards and a casing covering the entire mechanical part” was taken out at the central patents office in Florence. The creation of the Vespa marked the start of a new page in the history of Piaggio, a page that would be totally different from the preceding 60 years of the company’s existence because, starting from the Vespa, the Pontedera factory would abandon aeronautical projects and production to courageously ride ahead on the scooter.
The Vespa’s history is fascinating from many points of view – technical, social, innovation and so on, not to mention the communication aspect, which had women transfer the message in the very first advertising campaigns.
General Stone, head of the Allied forces in Italy, presented the Vespa at the Golf Club in Rome in the presence of journalists and members of the public, who reacted to the new vehicle in sharply different ways. There were those who called it an old banger, doubted its power output and reliability and were sure it would be a flop, and others who acclaimed it as a miracle of originality and engineering genius. The first 50 Vespas to be manufactured did not prove easy to sell. Nevertheless, with his father’s audacity, Enrico Piaggio had another 2,500 placed on the assembly line. A perusal of the internal memos of the period in our archive show that the Vespa had a rocky start, despite the company’s use of innovative marketing schemes such as positioning Vespas in Lancia dealerships or offering the possibility of paying in instalments – an idea that was extremely unusual in Italy at the time. It was only towards the end of 1947, and above all in 1948, with the arrival of the Vespa 125, that the Vespa “miracle” began, with a lengthy stream of production successes that has never really stopped, although it has occasionally experienced a temporary slowdown. In 1947, 10,535 Vespas were produced; in 1953 production went to 171,200 units and, seven years later, Pontedera rolled out its two millionth Vespa, a figure that became four million in 1970 with the 10 million mark being reached in 1988. Today the total number of Vespas produced since 1946 is over 16 million, with about 130 different Vespa models so far.
The Vespa phenomenon rapidly became a social phenomenon – sold from the start in Italy, it already had its first licensees in 1948, in Great Britain, Germany, Spain and France. The Vespa became synonymous with freedom, easy to use for work as well as leisure.
The Vespa inspired races, competitions and rallies of fans in a series of gatherings that have marked the very special history of this scooter. The “silver swarm” formed by thousands of Vespa riders assembling in large cities began in 1949 and myriad Vespa Clubs flourished in the following decades. The famous film classic “Roman Holiday” started a tradition that would see the Pontedera scooter feature in innumerable productions.
The halls of the museum display several Vespa models, some of which, like the “Vespa Alpha” or Vespa Bazooka”, were made famous by the Vespa’s adventurous feats. As for the link between the Vespa and cinema, it is only too easy to establish looking at images of Julie Andrews, Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Vittorio Gassmann, Alberto Sordi, Federico Fellini or Nanni Moretti, to cite a few names. The cinema was, however, only one of the many ways in which the Vespa lent itself to uses that had little to do with its peaceful everyday role of personal transport. In 1951 the Vespa 125 won the world speed record (171 km/h) in the flying kilometre with the “Vespa Siluro” on display in our museum alongside the faired Vespa Montlhéry that raced on the circuit.
In 1952 Georges Monneret built an “amphibian” Vespa on which to cross the English Channel during a Paris-London rally. University student Giancarlo Tironi went to the Arctic Circle on a Vespa. The Argentinean Carlos Velez crossed the Cordigliera of the Andes on a trip from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile. Today, Giorgio Bettinelli continues to travel around the world on a Vespa. In 1948 came the Ape, a three-wheel van built with the same logic and the same philosophy that Enrico Piaggio had conceived for the Vespa, extended this time to goods transport in post-war Italy. Like the Vespa, the Ape immediately became a part of the Italian everyday and was employed for the most varied uses – goods transport, taxi or carriage (all models that are on display at the museum).
By 1953 the overwhelming success of the Vespa and the Ape had taken Piaggio to representation in 114 countries through over 10,000 retail outlets. Enrico Piaggio’s gamble had paid off. In all probability it wasn’t enough for Enrico Piaggio to produce only “earth-bound” transport, for he soon designed and produced the “moscone” or “big fly” outboard engine that the company viewed as a seagoing Vespa which inherited the legacy of the pre-war radial and engines and which became the forerunner of marine engines such as the KS 150 and KS 200.
[/expan] 1956-1969 1956 marked the launch of the Vespa 400, a small car with a 400cc engine designed by Corradino D’Ascanio, manufactured in France and shown for the first time at Monte Carlo in September 1957.
In all, 30,000 units (one of which is on display at the museum) were produced, but the Vespa 400 was not a success and the four-wheel project that, like the Vespa, was one of Enrico Piaggio’s pet projects was abandoned. From the arrival of the Vespa onwards, the most important production stages were the GS, the first 150cc, in 1955, the launch of the extraordinarily successful Vespa 50cc, which would put generations of youngsters on wheels, in 1963 and the manufacture of the Ciao moped in 1966 – symbol of the company’s comeback after the terrible flood in November that year. Another significant date was 1964, year in which the company split into Piaggio & C. (Pisa and Pontedera) and I.A.M. Rinaldo Piaggio.
This was the final step in a lengthy process of product differentiation that had seen Enrico Piaggio produce two and three wheelers on the one hand and his brother Armando in the aeronautical sector on the other. The following year saw the death of Enrico Piaggio, the innovative and daring entrepreneur who had wished the Vespa into existence and brought a company on the brink of extinction following World War II back to flourishing health. At the time of his death Piaggio had over 10,000 employees and the company was the industrial heart of both the Valdera region in which it was situated and Tuscany in general. The history of industrial relations in the Pisa and Pontedera factories is one marked by moments of strong conflict and tensions, but Piaggio’s relationship with Pontedera is intense and their histories intertwine; their development is parallel. Enrico died at a time in which there was a great deal of tension between the company and its workforce.
The ambulance bearing the dying Enrico to the Pisa hospital went past hordes of demonstrating workers in front of the factory gates. The next day, when they were informed that Enrico Piaggio was dead, all noise abruptly ceased and the workers held hands in silence, paying homage to the memory of the brave, inventive entrepreneur who had enriched the entire territory and contributed to the success of Italian production.
The company continued to grow. In 1969 it acquired the famous Arcore motorcycle manufacturer Gilera, a leader in Italian motorcycling technology.▼
From its first model, the VT 317 in 1909, Gilera’s had been a success story all the way to the 1960s, when the company began to face difficult times. It was Piaggio, then headed by Umberto Agnelli, which bought the brand and relaunched it. Gilera became a success once more with new production models, and took part in all the major national and international races. The museum’s collection includes a wide selection of classic as well as recent Gilera models – they are our homage to a brand that forms an integral part of Italian and world motorcycling history. We are aware that Arcore is Gilera’s natural base and that Gilera is as much a part of Arcore’s legacy as the Vespa is for Pontedera. The acquisition of the brand, however, and our desire not to deprive motorcycling fans of the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful Gilera models, convinced us that it was possible and necessary to link two different histories that are now part of the same company.
In 1972 the Piaggio-Gilera combination led to the growth of Gilera in the 50cc sector as well, when the production of two stroke motorcycles with traditional distribution began, starting a new success story that would continue into the 21st century with the DNA and the Nexus that, displayed here at the museum, represent a link between past and present and between the present and the future. Piaggio’s expansion survived the difficult 1970s. As a mono-sector company it went through the normal ups and downs but, in times of real crisis, it always managed to react quickly with openness to innovation and excellent technical capability.
Everyone, from worker to owner, did his bit and even in the darkest times the ability to react was constant, as in 1973 with the mini-tractor “trattorino” or through new product launches such as the successful Vespa PX. Presented in 1978 and with over six million units sold to date, the PX remains one of the top-selling scooters in the range. 1980 saw the acquisition of the Bianchi brand, which would be part of the Piaggio group for many years.
Over the last two decades there have been several new products but production has, most importantly, been able to maintain a strong link between continuity and innovation.
The Hexagon, X8, X9, the Nexus, and the Beverly are all new models in the grand Piaggio tradition while the Vespa Granturismo, an innovative model created in 2003 just a few years after the all-new ET4 was launched on the Vespa’s 50th anniversary, is a concrete and symbolic representation of the chain that leads from history to the present and thereby into the future. The Vespa Granturismo is a vehicle with technical and innovative features that address the most evolved needs of the scooter public and at the same time satisfy the everyday transport requirement of people across borders of age and nationality; it simplifies the problematic meeting of motorised transport and environment. The commitment to vehicles with low environmental impact is an important recent – and current – chapter in Piaggio history.
Giovanni Alberto Agnelli, who was at the origin of the Piaggio Museum and the Piaggio cultural project, inculcated in the company the need to inter-connect concepts such as Nature, the environment, resources and security. In the space of a few years new values related to production and life in the factory were established, as well as a renewed idea of the relationship of territory to enterprise and enterprise to culture. Giovanni Alberto Agnelli’s successors in the company and its cultural project have inherited his legacy and shared this project, dedicating resources and time to ensure its completion and continuity. Today, a new entrepreneur, Roberto Colaninno, has taken over the management of the Company, committing himself to developing its immaterial values as well as its social function. Our museum tells each moment of this history by constructing a visual pathway made of tangible examples. These form the tip of an iceberg of historical vechicles (Piaggio, Vespa and Gilera) that little by little will be brought, through a process of rotation, to the attention of the general public.
They represent the faithful source of creativity, innovation and industriousness of the big universe made by the “Piaggio people”. The Museum was opened with full ceremony on 29 March of the year 2000. Since then, the number of visitors has constantly increased, both to admire the vehicles exhibited (thus “travelling” with them through an important page of our history) and to take part in the numerous cultural celebrations organized by the Piaggio Foundation. In the year 2003 it has been acknowledged as best Enterprise Museum and Archives of Italy by the prestigious Enterprise and Culture Award, representing a significant moment of an extraordinary path that goes from the witnesses of the past to new horizons of creativity, innovation, work, fantasy and knowledge.