Innocentis abroad: The beautiful stories of the Lambretta scooters

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A typical Innocenti Lambretta scooter. Anon. “Advertising – Bentley’s Cycles and Sports Limited.” Le Petit Journal, 10 August 1958, 110.

Good day / buongiorno / bonjour, my reading friend. You may wonder what a scooter lifted off the pages of the 10 August 1958 issue of a Montréal, Québec, weekly, Le Petit Journal, is doing in our blog / bulletin / thingee. I respectfully respond to this observation by pointing out that there is more to life than airplanes. This being said (typed?), the subject that concerns us this week has a small aeronautical element, but enough twaddle, let us move into the heart of the matter.

Allied to National Socialist Germany before and during the Second World War, Italy was a devastated country when the conflict ended in 1945. However, industrial activity gradually started anew. In Milan, for example, Ferdinando Innocenti, the big boss of a steel pipe manufacturer, Innocenti Società per Azioni, was looking for new markets. He got the idea of producing a scooter, a small vehicle that could compete with the motorcycle, a vehicle very popular with those who could not afford a car.

Innocenti handed this project over to one of his engineers, a well-known and respected aeronautical engineer in fact. In the second half of the 1930s, Corradino D’Ascanio designed a variable pitch propeller for his employer at the time, Società Anomima Piaggio & Compagnia, a maker of trucks and railway vehicles which had gone into aeronautics during the First World War. This propeller equipped many aircraft used by the Italian air force, or Regia Aeronautica, before and during the Second World War, but let us return to the main topic of this article. And no, there will be no pontificating on variable pitch propellers, at least not today. Sorry.

Much of D’Ascanio’s inspiration came from the scooters, designed by Cushman Motor Works Incorporated, that the American military used in large numbers during the fighting in Italy between 1943 and 1945. He designed a simple, robust, lightweight, economical and revolutionary vehicle that did not look much like a motorcycle, a type of vehicle that D’Ascanio deeply despised. A young woman in a skirt could use the new scooter without any difficulty, for example. A front bumper also protected the driver from splashes. Although impressed by D’Ascanio’s concept, Innocenti wanted to use another type of body work. The engineer politely refused and offered his concept to his former employer, recently renamed Piaggio & Compagnia Società per Azioni.

Unable to produce aircraft because of the restrictions imposed on Italy as a result of its defeat during the Second World War, Piaggio had to reorient its activities. It too got the idea of producing a scooter. In fact, a team of engineers designed a prototype even before the end of the conflict. The president of the company did not like this MP5, nicknamed Paperino, a whole lot. Piaggio therefore welcomed D’Ascanio with open arms and asked him to modify the MP5. This being said (typed?), the engineer preferred to use his own concept as a starting point.

Baptized Vespa by the president of Piaggio, the scooter went into production in 1946. Made in multiple versions and in millions of copies, in Italy and abroad, the Vespa was one of the most important achievements of Italian engineering of the 20th century. In fact, much improved versions of this vehicle were still in production in 2018. Let me mention that the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, includes a Vespa made in 1965.

It should be noted that the Vespa gave birth to a flying machine presented in Spirou et les héritiers, the 4th album of the adventures of Spirou, one of the great French language graphic novel heroes of the 20th century, which arrived in bookstores in 1952, in Belgium. Named Zantajet ZX-100, after Zantafio, the wicked cousin of Spirou’s sidekick, this flying scooter proved less successful than the Fantacoptère of said sidekick, Fantasio. This backpack helicopter was mentioned in a June 2018 issue of our blog / newsletter / thingee.

Cinephiles among you will remember that a Vespa played a crucial role in a memorable section of the classic 1953 movie Roman Holiday, which starred Gregory Peck, a star mentioned in a May 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. This scooter is probably the oldest Vespa in the world. It still existed as of 2018.

If I may be so bold, the Cushman trademark still existed in 2018. The vehicles that carried it were produced by Textron Specialized Vehicles Incorporated, a subsidiary of American giant Textron Incorporated, the parent company of a Canadian aircraft engine manufacturer known worldwide mentioned in a May 2018 issue of our blog / newsletter / thingee, Pratt & Whitney Canada Incorporated, but let’s get back to our story.

No longer able to use D’Ascanio’s brain, Innocenti did not sit idly by. Two well-known and respected aeronautical engineers modified his prototype. Cesare Pallavicino was technical director / chief aeronautical engineer at Società italiana Caproni, a major aircraft manufacturer before and during the Second World War. Pierluigi Torre, on the other hand, was the co-designer of the Savoia S-55, one of the most famous flying boats of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He worked at the direction of studies and experiments of the Regia Aeronautica before and during the Second World War.

By the way, in July 1933, 24 S-55s of the Regia Aeronautica commanded by Italy’s Air Minister, Brigadier General Italo Balbo, a brute with the looks of a movie star, landed in Longueuil, Québec, at the seaplane base of Fairchild Aircraft Limited, a subsidiary of the American aircraft manufacturer Fairchild Aviation Corporation. (Whew, that sentence was a long one. Give me a moment to catch my breath. I’m not 20 anymore, you know.) This armada, the Crociera aérea del Decennale, was going to Chicago, Illinois, where the Century of Progress International Exposition was taking place. And yes, my reading friend, many people, and not just Italo-Montrealers, unfortunately offered an enthusiastic welcome to Balbo and his men, representatives of the brutal fascist government led by Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, a pompous brute and bozo who wanted to return Italy to its former greatness.

This event was apparently a sad revelation for a Montréal commercial pilot. Rodolphe Pagé was so disappointed by the disinterest of Québec’s French speaking population in aviation that he undertook the design of a light / private 2-seat airplane that flew in 1935. Pagé wanted to make a tour of the province to encourage his compatriots, which made up the great majority of the population of Québec, to become air minded. In fact, he christened his homebuilt airplane Émérillon, the name worn by the smallest ship of the French explorer Jacques Cartier during his trip to the new world of 1535-36. Pagé had to end his journey before the end of 1935, in the Lac Saint-Jean region, when a mechanical break caused his sponsor to ask him to return home, but let us return to our sheep, sorry, to our story. And yes, my reading friend, homebuilt airplanes were mentioned in September 2017, October 2017, November 2017 and January 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

The production of the modified Innocenti scooter, called Lambretta, began in 1947. Available in multiple versions with 1 or 2 seats, the vehicle has also became a global success, even though it was more complex than its great rival, the Vespa. Let me mention that the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum includes a Lambretta manufactured in 1964.

The Lambretta scooters proved so popular that companies located in 8 countries in America (Argentina, Brazil and Colombia), Asia (China / Taiwan and India) and Europe (France, Spain and West Germany) bought the production rights. A well-known American retailer, Montgomery Ward Incorporated, imported at least one version of the Lambretta and offered it in its catalogue. Bentley’s Cycles and Sports Limited of Montréal, the company named in the advertisement at the beginning of this article, became an Innocenti representative at an undetermined date.

“Why pay more for your transit tickets? Ride with Lambretta ‘58. More and more people are discovering that the Lambretta scooter is the best way to end traffic and parking problems while saving money.” This vehicle was indeed inexpensive to purchase. Bentley’s Cycles and Sports offered 3 versions that sold from $ 393 to $ 519. A buyer with limited financial means could purchase a Lambretta for as little as $ 4.50 a week. As well, this vehicle consumed a tiny amount of fuel: less than 2.85 litres per 100 kilometres (more than 100 miles per Imperial gallon / more than 83 miles per American gallon). Familiar with customers interested in the Lambretta, Bentley’s Cycles and Sports offered insurance (public liability, property damage and collision) to young people over the age of 17 for as little as $ 11.

It should be noted that a typical worker in the Canadian manufacturing industry earned about $ 3 400 a year in 1958. By comparison, she or he earned about $ 56 750 in 2017, more than 16.5 times more.

Bentley’s Cycles and Sports also sold motorcycles made by American (Harley Davidson Motor Company) and British (Ariel Motors (J.S.) Limited, Enfield Cycle Company Limited and Francis & Barnett Limited) companies. And no, my reading friend, I’m afraid yours truly does not have time to pontificate on these manufacturers and / or their products.

If I may be permitted to quote the father of English-language literature, the poet William, sorry, Geoffrey Chaucer (Private gag. Hi, EP!), who lived in the 14th century, all good things must come to an end. The economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s in Italy meant that more and more people could afford to have a car, if only a used one. Other factors, from union activism to the state of health of the company’s president, not to mention limited government support, further complicates the task of Innocenti’s management. Be that as it may, scooter sales peaked and then declined. The financial health of the company suffered from this state of affairs.

In the late 1960s, British Leyland Motor Corporation took advantage of these difficulties to take control of Innocenti. The relationship between the British car manufacturer and the Italian company dated back to the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the latter signed an agreement with British Motor Corporation Limited to manufacture one of the best known British cars ever, the Mini. Dare I say that Innocenti’s Minis were superior to those produced in the United Kingdom? Viva Italia!

Be that as it may, British Motor became British Motor Holdings Limited in 1966, before being integrated into British Leyland Motor in 1968. Difficulties in the United Kingdom led to the closure of Innocenti in 1972. The management of the British car maker was in fact facing a perfect storm: a reduced work week caused by the scarcity of coal related to union activism, difficult negotiations with the unions and prolonged strikes, management mismanagement / incompetence, the 1973 oil crisis, etc. British Leyland Motor went bankrupt in 1975.

Aware of the economic importance of the scooter for people who could not afford a car, the Indian government acquired the tools of the Italian factory, as well as the production rights, and this even before the end of 1972. A state-owned company, Scooters India Limited, revived production. There again, the increase in individual wealth, not to mention the introduction of small Japanese motorcycles, led to a gradual decline in sales. Scooters India delivered its latest Lambretta in 1997. It was the end of an era.

A large number of Lambrettas, and not necessarily the youngest, still circulated in 2018. Many of them belonged to passionate people who took the utmost care of them. It should be noted that Innocenti Società anomima, a Swiss group, launched a modernized version of the Lambretta in 2017. The Museo Scooter & Lambretta, in Italy, is worth the detour, it is said.

Farewell / arrivederci / au revoir.

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Rénald Fortier