The market for Vespa scooters is big and varied. The huge number of designs and technical differences mean that it isn’t always easy to keep track of everything. That is why we are shedding some light on this subject in a multi-part series that tells you everything you need to know about the different series. The first part is about the Vespa Wideframe scooters, with questions like “Where does the design of the Vespa actually originate from, and how did the term Vespa Wideframe come into being?” as well as “What are their distinguishing features and their technical details?”
Some 75 years and still going strong: what began on 23rd April 1946 in the small Italian town of Pontedera with a simple idea has become a worldwide success story. We are talking about the Vespa, or “Wasp”, which didn’t just take the sunny streets of Italy by storm, but also won over hearts worldwide within a very short time. Until then, its manufacturer Piaggio had been operating in several very different fields: from shipbuilding and the manufacturing of railway carriages through to aircraft construction, industrialist Rinaldo Piaggio seemed to have a golden touch in every new sector. Shortly after the end of the war in 1945, however, his son and successor, Enrico Piaggio, sensed that there was an increased demand for a mobile, inexpensive, straightforward and easy to drive means of transport. To bring his idea to fruition, he hired inventor and engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, who had previously advised the company in its aviation segment.
How did the typical Vespa design come into being?
The Vespa primarily owes its legendary design to practical considerations. To appeal to as wide a customer base as possible, Enrico Piaggio developed a design which would appeal to people of all ages, including those with no previous experience of scooters. In this respect, his prototype was as straightforward as it was ingenious. A drive unit without chains, easy to handle wheel mountings with small wheels, and a simple design that also allowed inexperienced users a rapid entry into the world of Vespa.
D’Ascanio’s signature was unmistakable. For example, he used a front wheel suspension in the design which had already been used in the field of aviation. The idea of designing the scooter with a self-supporting sheet steel body, in which the body and chassis form a single unit, also stems from his experience in other areas of mobility. They ensured that the design was robust, light and very compact, allowing the rider to mount and dismount with ease.
The scooter was also designed to allow for an easy tyre change. For this purpose, he developed a single-sided wheel suspension in which it was possible to change the tyre at both the front and rear with just four screws. Conveniently, due to the poor road conditions at the time, each model came with a spare wheel as standard. Unlike the motorcycles of the era, it was also pretty easy to start. Instead of several gear levers and buttons, it was only necessary to pull a choke to start the engine, which was positioned on the rear wheel. Further advantages of the design were the manoeuvrability, rain and splash protection, ease of use and repair.
What are the distinguishing features of a Vespa Wideframe?
The distinguishing features of the series include the refined contours of the casing and the gently rounded, curved rear. Also characteristic of the production series is the inspection hatch located in the leg-shield, which provides a very wide central tunnel under the seat. The tubular handlebars, the carburettor flap in the frame and the engine swing arms, which were separate from the engine at the time, are the other typical features of the series. Initially, the headlight was also located on the mudguard, but was later mounted on the tubular handlebars. The most distinctive feature, however, is the design of the conspicuously large frames, which were much wider than those of the subsequent generations: a characteristic feature which is familiar to every Vespa fan, and which resulted in the name “Wideframe”.
What are the key models of VESPA Wideframe?
Until the end of the production of the Vespa Wideframes in the early 1960s, some 1.7 million units were sold in Italy (not counting licensed production) in various versions. Which versions are the most significant, however? One of the most significant examples is the Vespa 98 - whose name refers to its 98cc engine capacity. Not only was it Piaggio’s first mass-produced scooter, but nowadays, it is also considered the first Wideframe model, being nicknamed the “Paperino” (Duckling) due to its design and capable of an impressive 37 mph (60 km/h). There were two series of this version - two in ‘46 and two in ‘47 with the same engines. The next step was the Vespa 125 from 1948, which also featured a side stand and a more powerful 125 cc star cylinder engine. The Vespas from the late 40s/early 50s and the V30 series are also significant. On the latter, from the construction year 1951, the design featured a cable gear control. After that, the ‘53 to ‘56 versions arrived on the market as intermediate stages. All of the versions that featured the headlight on the tubular handlebars had an engine output of 150cc.
Perhaps the most important Vespa sports model of all is the “Sei Giorni”. This was developed for the “Sei Giorni Internationale di Varese” six-day race, and dominated the race series in 1951 with nine gold medals. It was also considered a scooter for experiments: with this model, several of the components that were tried out found their way into series production. This was also the case with the later 150 GS, which was called the GS3 in Germany, and was manufactured under license by Messerschmitt. Until then, no model of scooter was available that had so many different characteristics or designs as the Italian counterpart. While all the Vespas in Italy were equipped with a Siem or Aquila seat, the German scooters came with a Denfeld seat and brighter headlights. With the exception of the above components, however, both designs were similar in many respects.
What were the most important changes?
A frame from one single mould
One of the most important changes in the development of the Vespa series relates to the beaded frame, which came into use from 1946 onwards. Rather than using several parts, as was previously the case, the engineers in Italy opted for production from one single mould. The materials used in the add-on parts, such as the mudguards and side panels, also underwent optimisations over the course of time. Initially, the parts were still made from aluminium, but steel was subsequently used as the manufacturing material. A little tip on the side: to tell the difference between aluminium and steel, it is advisable either to knock against the mudguard or, optionally, to use a magnet to determine the material.
Chassis and shock absorbers adapt
Over the years, things also changed in the area of the wheel suspension. Rather than relying on a front swing arm with just one rigid spring as in the beginning, the models from ‘50/’51 onwards rolled off the production line with a damper and a spring in the front suspension. To support the spring, which had been used alone until then, the manufacturer Piaggio launched a friction damper on the market as an accessory. This caused the parts to rotate against each other and - depending on the setting - the rebound and compression damping to vary. From 1955 onwards, the system with a suspension strut was used, with which we are still familiar today.
The gearshift becomes more comfortable
While until the V15 in 1950, the Vespas had a linkage gearshift system with a rod that was connected to the gearshift button at the back, from the V30 onwards, the Italian manufacturer used a more reliable and at the same time more comfortable cable shift. Although this change saw the cables leading into the frame, they still protruded into the outer area on a relatively unprotected basis. It wasn’t until the introduction of the cast handlebars on one of the last Wideframe models, the VB1, that all the cables were fully protected from then on. With the 150 GS series, the cables were also fitted in the cast handlebars from the VS2 onwards.
From one-port to two-port engine
The next key milestone in the development of the Vespa Wideframe was the change from a one-port to a two-port engine, which significantly increased the performance of the scooters by the standards of the time. This meant that from the V33 onwards, the petrol-gas mixture from the crankcase reached the cylinder from two channels rather than just one. From then onwards, the side panel was no longer completely or partially open, but completely closed. In addition, the entire colour scheme of the scooters changed from green to grey/beige, although licensees continued to use a shade of green for a while longer. By the way: one of the specifications of Piaggio was that licensees should usually continue to make the previous versions for longer, which is why the Italians often had the latest versions in their range sooner.
The headlamp over time
Until the mid-1950s, the majority of Vespas had their headlight on the front mudguard, which is why this production series is also called the “Faro Basso” (lower lamp). This only changed with the VL series from the year 1955 onwards. From then on, the manufacturer fitted the headlight to the upper part of the handlebars, also called the “Struzzo” (ostrich), which was integrated into the cast handlebar on subsequent scooter versions. The different road traffic regulations also meant that there were often variations in the positioning of the headlight. On the French Acma models, for example, the lamp was positioned in the upper section, while on the models from British licensee Douglas, the lamp was positioned in the middle of the front section of the Vespa.
Different sizes of fuel tank
Another important feature with which the different generations of Wideframe scooters can be identified is the size of the fuel tank. While the earlier versions had a square tank with a capacity of approximately 4.5 to 5 litres, later designs, such as the VM or VL series, had larger tanks that protruded more into the top of the frame. The largest version was installed in the 150 GS, which filled the entire volume of the frame.
Bigger tyres - more comfort
An equally important development took place in the area of wheels. To achieve a smoother ride on a long journey, the 8 inch wheels were replaced with 10 inch wheels. Of the Wideframe versions, it was only the 150 GS that benefited from this development, however. An exception was the licensed version from Acma, which used 9-inch tyres on their Vespas. Sports scooters from Piaggio, on the other hand, used a multifunctional system which it was possible to use with both types of tyre. While 10-inch wheels were used for longer distances, the smaller 8-inch tyres were used for the mountain stages. As a result, the drivers of the time usually carried a spark plug wrench in their boots so that they were able to change a tyre as quickly as possible. This special attribute can also be recognised due to the many screws in the area of the tyres.
The Vespa U - the limited edition model
The Vespa U was a limited edition model (the U stands for “Utilità”, or utility), of which only 7,000 were manufactured. This limited edition model was designed to appeal to price-conscious customers in 1953 in response to the increasing competition. On this Vespa, the design wasn’t just simplified visually, the technology under the hood was also reduced to the most necessary only, allowing for a retail price of around 110 dollars. Anyone interested in buying a Vespa U today will have to dig deep into their pockets, however. Due to the small number of units manufactured, it is a popular collector’s item and has become one of the most expensive Vespas of all time.
The ideal entry point into the world of Wideframe Vespas
Because there are four series of Wideframe V98 scooters, the price range is relatively wide. If you want to buy a V98 in as original a condition as possible today (April 2021), you should expect a price of between 50,000 and 70,000 euros. It is therefore advisable to go for a cheaper model from the Acma series or other licensees. However, you should also make sure that they have a two-port engine. That means you not only have a low cost start in the world of Wideframe Vespas, you also have lots of fun with the subsequent tuning.
Vespa Wideframe Tuning
There is no doubt that Wideframe tuning is becoming increasingly popular. Old timers with their charismatic tubular handlebars are frequently locked in the garage as collectors’ items, or are only used for a short ride. Owners have too little confidence in the old engines, especially over longer distances. Moreover, with 2-3 HP engine, you are quite simply underpowered for the road traffic of today. To remedy this situation, in recent years, a small scene of resourceful tinkerers and enthusiasts has grown up around the “Faro Basso”. On the original cylinders, the transfer ports and timers have been optimised, pistons have been changed, and different types of carburettor fitted, etc.
As a general rule, there are two types of engine with the Wideframe Vespas:
One-port and two-port engines
With the 1 transfer port engine (recognisable from the outside by the exhaust manifold running along the side) there are only a few tuning options: CP19 carburettor, air filter, CNC cylinder head and non-contact ignition system. The increase in performance is nevertheless noticeable. Alternative: get a used two-port engine (approx. € 250-300) and put the one-port engine on the shelf. With the 2-transfer port engine (recognisable from the outside by the downwards running exhaust pipe) the results are very impressive. With the appropriate components, the engines achieve an output of 10-14 HP along with a powerful 15 Nm torque. And that’s certainly enough to keep up with the traffic or drive to the top of a mountain pass. Additionally, many products have now reached series production maturity, and are easy to assemble. Racing cylinders from PINASCO in aluminium with 160cc, reinforced crankshafts from TAMENI & SERIE Pro by Stoffi, carburettor kits based on the POLINI CP models, racing exhausts from SIP, maintenance-free electronic 12V ignitions, longer gear ratios, improved clutches and suspension parts provide brand new possibilities to fans of the tubular handlebar Vespa. With the following components, you can turn any Faro Basso into a Daily Rider without losing the charm of the 50s model. All conversions can be retrofitted at any time. Here is a list of the most important components for effective VESPA Wideframe tuning.
Vespa Wideframe catalogue: Tuning & accessories
In our Vespa Wideframe catalogue, we present you with a wide range of accessories, tuning and spare parts for the Vespa Wideframe models, including some in-house products from SIP Scootershop. Have fun browsing or downloading. Shop link.
Ralf is managing director and co-founder of SIP Scootershop. He has been riding Vespa since 1990 and even today the working day starts best for him when he rides to the SIP headquarters in Landsberg on his Rally 200. Otherwise he owns a 180 SS, a 160 GS and a VM2 fenderlight Vespa.