Piaggio once made a Vespa with 4 wheels

Vespa, to most people, is the brand of scooters from Italy and the 2-wheelers would be the only vehicles that come to mind when the name is mentioned. However, there was a brief period towards the end of the 1950s when Piaggio (the company owning the brand) also sold a 4-wheeler – a car known as the Vespa 400.

1957 Vespa 400

Piaggio has a history that goes back to 1884 but it was only in 1946 that it began making scooters and created the brand ‘Vespa’ (Italian for ‘wasp’) for them. Its business with the 2-wheelers and also larger 3-wheelers grew to be very successful and Vespa remains in the public eye up to today.

In the mid-1950s, Enrico Piaggio, son of company founder, who had taken over the company after World War II, saw opportunities in selling 4-wheelers as well. Italy was steadily recovering from the war and while 2-wheelers were affordable forms of transportation, there was growing demand for cars. However, they had to be compact and low-priced, leading to what are referred to as ‘microcars’’ today.

1957 Vespa 400

Scooter technology utilised
Fiat enjoyed much success with its Nuova 500 (the original 500 model) and Piaggio considered entering the growing market. Its engineers developed a small car which was designated ‘400’ and utilised some of the structural concepts from the scooters such as the backbone to form the monocoque and allow for a unitary body that was light and strong.

1957 Vespa 400

1957 Vespa 400

The 400 accommodated two persons, with some space behind for luggage or small children. Like the Mini that came a bit later, low-cost approaches were taken, eg the seats were just tubular frames covered with cloth, the windows did not open (on the early units), and the spare wheel was kept under the passenger’s seat.

1957 Vespa 400

Smaller than an Axia
Measuring 2850 mm in length and with a width of 1270 mm (a Perodua Axia is 3760 mm long, 1665 mm wide), the 400 weighed just 375 kgs. It had a 394 cc 2-cylinder, 2-stroke air-cooled engine with semi-automatic mixing of the 2T oil. Mounted at the back, the engine’s output was up to 14 bhp and the top speed was almost 90 km/h. For transmission, there were 3 or 4-speed gearboxes.

As Fiat’s 500 dominated in the Italian market and Germany had little cars from BMW, Zundapp and Messerschmitt, Piaggio looked to other markets in Europe as well as the USA. It focussed on Belgium and France and commissioned ACMA, a French manufacturer, to produce the 400 in that country.

Launched in Monaco
For the launch in Monaco in September 1957, ACMA helped by inviting three well known racing drivers (one of whom was Juan Manuel Fangio) to be present at the event. This gave the 400 a good start and 12,130 cars were produced in its first full year of production.

1957 Vespa 400

Short life
The 400 found a niche in the market where it was appreciated for its compactness but the economies of many European markets was also improving and car-buyers could afford something bigger – with space for more than just 2 adults. By 1961, Piaggio decided to end its car venture after some 28,000 units had been sold (1,700 of which were exported to the USA).

The little car that started Perodua on the road to success

 

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