In the aftermath of the Mini’s 60th birthday, it is always interesting to consider some of its alternatives from 1959 – such as this gem.
When the Piaggio company created the original Vespa scooter in 1946, it literally revolutionised Italian mass-transport.
Ten years later, the 400 project was intended to appeal to former enthusiasts of two wheels who now required slightly more space and comfort. Plus, of course, those Marcello Mastroianni look-a-likes who liked to wear their sunshades for a visit to the local coffee bar.
The 400 made its bow in 1957, and many observers were impressed with its sophistication.
The steering was via rack & pinion while the all-independent suspension was quite a talking point in the late 1950s and the Vespa also featured a 12-volt electrical system.
Power was from an air-cooled two-stroke unit, with a choice of three or four-speed transmission.
The spare wheel was located in a well beneath the front passenger seat, and the front “grille” was a cover for the sliding battery tray.
At the rear was a bench for luggage or, when fitted with the optional cushion, reasonably tolerant children; some optimistic dealers claimed the 400 had room for three adults.
A heater was standard, but the fully opening roof was an especial necessary on the early versions, as they lacked winding windows.
Asides from bubble cars, the 400’s principal European rival was the Fiat 500 which also debuted in 1957 and to avoid conflict with Turin, Vespa decided to commence manufacture at their subsidiary A.C.M.A. plant in France.
It initially seemed that the 400 would establish a niche as fashionable, yet affordable urban transport across Europe.
Sadly, RHD versions appear to have been restricted to the South Africa market, although a handful were exported to the USA.
The idea of a Vespa (it took some 25 seconds to make a top speed of slightly under 52 mph) dicing with Bel Airs on the Freeway is truly bizarre. It would certainly have been a noisy experience as the 400 lacked soundproofing.
However, sales diminished after a reasonably strong debut, and by 1961 the last of around 28,000 400s left the factory.
There were grumbles about the gearchange while the Vespa faced two major challenges from the outset.
The first was that too many potential buyers opted for the Fiat 500, and the second was the Deux Chevaux dominated the French economy car market.
The Citroën may have lacked a chic urban image, but it still offered four doors and far more interior space.
Perhaps the Vespa 400 deserves to be filed under the elite category ‘Bold and Very Charming Experiments’.
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