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D’Ascanio drawing the Vespa, beneath a seated man. Frames from Istituto Luce archive footage.


In the video’s English translation, Corradino d’Ascanio provides a running commentary on his drawing of the Vespa scooter: “I put a mudguard below the seat to cover the wheel…I aligned the steering column with the front wheel, automatically the scooter takes shape. Another new feature was to provide wheels that could be taken off, not in the same way as normal motorcycle wheels (which are mounted on a fork with a cross axle, so if you have a puncture you have pull out the axle, dismantle and remove the wheel). Whereas here the system is similar to that widely used on aeroplane undercarriages, where the wheels are cantilevered, so they can be taken off, as easily as on an automobile.”

The pre-production prototype of the Vespa 98cc, designed by Corradino d'Ascanio, 1945

“Dreams must never be allowed to die,” Corradino d’Ascanio (Popoli, Abruzzo, 1 February 1891-Pisa, 5 August 1981) wrote to his children. A visionary and prolific engineer from Italy’s Abruzzo region, he himself had countless dreams. Those he achieved – such as the modern helicopter and the Vespa scooter – are regarded as milestones in Italy’s industrial history. D’Ascanio was a remarkable character, tenacious and highly gifted, who led an adventurous life marked by success and sacrifice. His career had a difficult start: to keep his family, he designed anything (an oven, a town square, a war memorial). In 1906, at the age of fifteen, just three years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, he designed and built a sort of hang glider from bedsheets, for experimental flights, managing to travel a distance of 15 metres. From 1918 to 1919, he tried his luck in America, where he designed small aircraft fitted with motorcycle engines and set up a company with Ugo Venerio D’Annunzio, the son of the celebrated Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. But the American adventure failed to make headway.

L-R: Enrico Piaggio and Corradino d’Ascanio, 1940

Back in Italy, d’Ascanio devoted himself to a “vertical flying machine”, aka the helicopter. In 1930, his third prototype, the DAT3, commissioned by the Italian Air Force, proved successful, setting international records for duration, distance and altitude that would remain unbeaten for years. In 1932, d’Ascanio began a long-term collaboration with the Piaggio company (active at the time in aeronautics), where he worked mainly on aircraft. From 1937 to 1961, he was a lecturer at the Engineering Faculty of Pisa University, where he taught Machine Drawing and Design.

A page from the patent for the 98cc “motor scooter”, the Vespa.

D’Ascanio’s extensive collection of vehicles, patents and technical drawings offer an insight into the origins of the creative genius that led to the Vespa patent and the beginning of the extraordinary success of one of the symbols of Italian industry and creativity, famous all over the world. Since that first scooter, the “98” patented on 23 April 1946, more than 18 million Vespas have been produced, for customers in every continent.

The first Vespa 98cc to go into production, 1946

The story has been told many times. The war was not yet over, but entrepreneur Enrico Piaggio was already thinking about reconstruction and production conversion back to peacetime work: he had an idea for a small, simple, low-cost, fuel-efficient vehicle for individual mobility, that everyone could ride on the country’s war-wrecked roads. Corradino d’Ascanio (who was not a fan of the motorcycle) went to his drawing board and, starting from a prototype nicknamed Paperino or Donald Duck, designed a completely new vehicle with a load-bearing body (an innovative advance at the time, which would be embraced by automobile makers only years later), a direct-drive system and the gear change on the handlebar for easy riding. The scooter body was in metal, the only one of its type in the world. D’Ascanio presented his prototype, the “MP6”, in 1945 and the final version, which conquered Enrico Piaggio, in 1946. This was the start of a huge industrial and commercial success that continues today, 70 years later.

Left, d’Ascanio with the millionth Vespa to leave the production lines (April 1956); right, with the Vespa racing riders at the Perugia Cup (September 1950).

The unstoppable engineer was the author of many other inventions and the most original and bizarre stands for exhibitions at which the Vespa was shown. His astonishing creations include the Vespa on a branch of peach blossom, on a tightrope and on a tapis-roulant, or held up by dummies. D’Ascanio, a true genius!