Piaggio & Vespa Assembly Line and Museum
March 22, 2019
by Sam Q. Fleming
Photos: Sam Q. Fleming
Given my cultural predisposition to rockers, not mods, it is understandable that I was wholly ignorant of scooter genesis or technology. Assuming, gentle reader, a similar ignorance on your part, indulge me in a little history as it eventually gives birth to the industrial era’s “David,” the Aprilia RSV4.
Piaggio follows a narrative arc not too dissimilar to Kawasaki. Both were founded as national champions of heavy industry. Both built railroad locomotives and rolling stock. Both built aircraft and aircraft engines for the Axis powers. Both had their manufacturing plants obliterated by Allied bombing. At that point they diverge in strategy, with Kawasaki continuing to make rolling stock and ships while Piaggio focused more on individualized transportation and aerospace.
Enter Corrandino D’Ascanio. D’Ascanio was an aeronautic engineer famous for developing the adjustable pitch propeller and designing the first modern helicopter for Agusta. Yes. That Agusta. It was sales of Agusta helicopters that financed all that GP racing.
D’Ascanio, however, did not like motorcycles. This glaring character flaw drove him to use his aircraft background to design a two wheeled vehicle which could be ridden by anyone, including skirt-wearing women and priests, with easy to change wheels (in case of puncture), no greasy chains, and a step through design.
Hence the enclosed drivetrain, the low center of gravity, the single sided front end (based on an airplane’s landing gear), and the monocoque chassis. The body of the D’Ascanio scooter is created by sheet metal pressings welded together to form the load bearing frame, ala some aircraft air frames.
Inspired by the buzzing two stroke engine, the new vehicle was christened the “Vespa” or, in English, “Wasp.” It quickly became the iconic vehicle of mid-century Italy. Ten years later, in 1956, Piaggio produced its millionth Vespa. In 1996 they produced their fifteen millionth Vespa.
Philosophically contradicting D’Ascanio, Piaggio subsequently acquired Gilera, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi and Derbi. Upon acquisition, Piaggio injected new capital and technology into the brands, allowing Gilera, Aprilia and Moto Guzzi to prosper to varying degrees of racing and commercial success.
European and USA market Vespas are built in the Pontedera location. Pontedera also has many Piaggio corporate offices for design, logistics and sourcing. It is a huge massive location and your correspondent only toured one building that housed the painting and assembly lines for Vespas.
The Pontedera plant assembles Vespa and Piaggo 50cc, 125cc, 150cc, and some 300ccs as well as Vespa Electrics. Vespas still use the monocoque architecture (i.e. the body is the frame) while the Piaggio scooters use steel tube frames with plastic body panels.
PAINT ASSEMBLY LINE IS TOP SECRET!!!
Well, not really, but no photography was allowed. Here is what it looked like from initial wipe down to final acceptance testing.
As any home sprayer knows, preparation is the key to a good paint job and dust is the absolute enemy. The painting line has metal grate floors with water flowing underneath them to capture and remove any contaminants. Plus, the air flow in the rooms is from the filtered intake ceiling to exhaust in the floor. This air flow keeps any latent particulate moving away from the paintable surfaces. There are air locks in the corridors to decontaminate personnel. Geico Taiki-Sha is a global provider of automated industrial painting lines. In 2016 they provided Piaggio with the automation, paint booths, ovens, and even the Fanuc robots which spray the various finishes.
The process starts with eight women rubbing down the scooter bodies which are moving along on stands connected to a conveyor chain, to clean their surfaces perfectly. This is the last manual ministration the bodies get until they undergo their final acceptance check. Each body receives an electrical deposition primer that puts a light negative charge on the body to encourage the slightly positively charged paint to distribute and adhere. Each body receives a primer coat, a color coat, and then a clear coat, with a turn in the drying ovens in between each spray.
The primer is sprayed by two of the Fanuc robots in their own primer room. One robot primes the left side and then the other robot paints the right side. When not spraying, the robots park their spray nozzles in little cups of solvent to keep everything clean and flowing. The robots can spray white, gray, or black primers as determined by their networked instruction sets. Each body takes 47 seconds to be primed. After the primer the bodies move into a little drying room for ten minutes at 45 degrees C (113 F).
After baking for ten minutes, the body moves from its oven to the final finish room. Four more Fanuc robots apply the final color. The robots appear to be typical Fanuc industrial robots but their arms and wiring are all shrouded in white cloth which gives them the faintest appearance of Halloween ghosts painting Vespa bodies. After they received their color spray the conveyor moves the bodies along into another 45 degree C oven for another ten minute drying.
Lastly, each body receives its clear coat from two more Fanuc robots. After the clear coat the bodies proceed into the big oven for an 80 degree C (176 F ), 45 minute baking. An elevator takes them down, one by one, past the big control room where all the automated systems are being monitored to the final inspection room. Two people (one man and one woman at the moment) are using thin cotton gloves to wipe each body to feel any imperfections in the paint. If they find a spec of contaminant they use a small polishing wheel to remove the imperfection.
The final painted bodies are beautifully finished with rich colors and glistening surfaces.
The scooter assembly building is huge and has six assembly lines for cranking out product.
The tube frames are for the Piaggio range of vehicles; the Vespas have airplane-derived monocoque
chassis. The bodies, fresh from the paint shop located in the same building, are on the meat hooks
up high. The pallets in the foreground are loaded with scooter drive trains. There are three different
steel frames to cover the entire line of Piaggio-branded scooters.
This is another shot of the magazines of parts that are fed to the assembly lines. In the foreground
are complete drivetrains with mounted wheel/tire assemblies. Frames and bodies are visible above.
This is Francesco Marmeggi. He is the Pontedera 2 Wheeler Plant Manager. Prior to taking over the
Pontedera plant in Italy, he had spent seven years using his degree in Engineering Management
running the Piaggio assembly operation in Vietnam. The Vietnam factory builds Piaggio products for
the Asian market. He is explaining some details of the assembly of the new electric Vespa, which
packages the battery and motor into the spaces which had previously housed the ‘thermal’ motor. He
commutes to work on a Piaggio Beverly 500 scooter.
A Vespa Elettrica makes its way slowly down the assembly line. Other models are outselling the electric
model so there is much more space between the electric models on the assembly line. The assembly
building has 800 workers divided into two shifts to staff all six assembly lines but the lines with closer
spacing on vehicles require more people for assembly. The pneumatic tools hanging from the ceiling
receive automatic torque information from a bar code on the vehicle. Information regarding the
vehicle serial number, the worker, the tool, and the time stamp are all centrally stored to allow for
auditing of any assembly or reliability issues. Currently 15 workers in two shifts are assembling
25 electric scooters per day.
The electric motor and swingarm awaiting fitment to a scooter. This model is roughly supposed to
compete with a 50cc thermal motor but the electric version produces more power. Vespa is also
working on a hybrid which will have a small thermal engine to power an onboard recharging generator.
The legacy of D’Ascanio lives on! This single sided front suspension was inspired by the landing gear
from one of Piaggio’s airplanes. D’Ascanio favored the single side to make puncture repair simpler.
Given the quality of rubber, roads, and inner tubes in 1950s Italy, puncture mitigation strategies were
probably a core competency of any vehicle.
The landing gear on a Piaggio trainer airplane from the 1940s.
The quintessential symbol of post war Italy is the red Vespa. On Line 6 of the Pontedera factory,
350 “Primavera” models are assembled daily. That is a lot of spring.
The Piaggio Museum
Right up the street from the factory is the Piaggio Museum. It originally opened in 2000 and was expanded in 2018.
This is a replica of Corrandino D’Ascanio’s office with a portrait of the man himself. Next to his desk
is one of his inventions, the variable pitch propeller. He didn’t like motorcycles, and he set himself
to designing a vehicle using aircraft features that could be ridden by skirt-wearing women and priests
without getting grease on their clothes from the drive chain and that enabled simple tire changes.
The result was the ‘Wasp,’ or Vespa.
Piaggio was originally a ship fitting company based near Genoa, Italy. As Italy became more
industrialized, Piaggio began to build trains and, particularly, airplanes. Particularly military airplanes.
Apparently their airplane engines and airframes were quite accomplished and set numerous world
records. Whereas Kawasaki and BMW were also accomplished at building Axis powers’ military
aircraft, Piaggio was unique in that they continued to build military aircraft after the Allies prevailed.
However, in 1966, Piaggio Aero and Piaggio Motors were separated into two distinct companies.
A Piaggio railcar. At one point the Pontedera Piaggio factory employed 12,000 employees. Now it's 3,000.
This is a Piaggio gun transport meant to be used by paratroopers. The idea was that it could be
airdropped with troops and driven to where it was needed, then the artillery piece would be
assembled and used with the attached ammunition.
Italian school boys learning about how their predecessors used to ride scooters. Teenage scooter
culture in Italy is largely gone. Che peccato.
The Cube. In 2002 when Aprilia was riding high on scooter sales and lightweight GP success,
they threw their hat in the MotoGP ring. It was the dawn of the return of four strokes as
the premier class and Aprilia decided to go big. In an incredibly ambitious engineering feat
they adopted F1 technology from Cosworth and released a 225bhp 990 triple with, at the time,
unheard of features like ride-by-wire, pneumatic valves, and traction control. However, 2002
was still the era of flip phones, and the software and computer systems controlling all that power
were not up to the task. The unpredictable electronics, coupled with an incredibly stiff and
unforgiving chassis, meant the Cube riders, including Colon Edwards and Noriyuki Haga,
more often ended up in the gravel traps than arriving at the finish line. Aprilia took a respite
from MotoGP in 2004 which saw the end of the Cube’s development; however, the technology
they were bold enough to pioneer is now not only standard fitment on MotoGP bikes but
even road-going machines.
When Piaggio acquired Aprilia, they also acquired Moto Guzzi. In 1955 Moto Guzzi decided to go
Grand Prix racing with a 500cc liquid cooled V-8 with dual overhead cams. The bike made 78hp at
12,000 rpm with a top speed of 172mph. However, chassis fundamentals like suspension and
frames, not to mention such niceties as tires and brakes, were decades away from coping with
that kind of power output. The bike hit 172 mph in one race and it would be twenty years before a
motorcycle ever went that fast again at a GP. The dustbin fairings are incredibly effective for high
speeds but are also wildly unstable with side winds. After a series of wrecks and injuries, by 1957 none
of the factory riders were willing to ride the bikes anymore and Moto Guzzi withdrew from GP racing.
Of all the bikes in the museum, this was the most enthralling to your correspondent. The engine
architecture is an overhead cam inline four with liquid cooling. This is an engine design which
was commonly adopted in the mid 80s. However, this engine also has an intercooled supercharger.
Depending on what gearing they were using on the charger, it could be producing power well
in excess of its modest 500cc displacement. The fins on the tank under the seat are to allow the
oil system to also shed heat. The aluminum twist knob below the oil tanks is the manual adjuster
to increase tension on the friction disk suspension damper. This Gilera won numerous races. It was
built in 1937. This is an incredible level of design and fabrication expertise in pre-war times!
Ivano Beggio converted the Aprilia artisan bicycle factory into the Aprilia motorcycle and scooter
company. He loved motorcycles. He also loved racing and was responsible for launching the careers
of Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi. This 1952 Vincent Black Shadow, sitting next to a Brough
Superior and an Ariel , were all part of Beggio’s personal motorcycle collection. Beggio died on
March 13, 2018. It seems very fitting that his personal bike collection lives on.