Curbside Classic: 2002 Piaggio Ape 50 – It’s Pronounced Ah-Peh

(first published 3/14/2012)    In 1945, Corradino D’Ascanio found himself without much to do. Formerly an aeronautical engineer, the destruction of the Piaggio factories and the 10-year postwar moratorium on Italian aerospace development threatened to leave D’Ascanio without a future.

He was a talented engineer. At the age of 15, he built an experimental glider. During the 1920s he was highly productive, patenting a number of ideas in and out of the field of aeronautics. By 1930, he had created the D’AT3, an astonishingly capable early helicopter which won an international prize for a non-stop return flight of 8 minutes and 45 seconds. The records it set remained unbeaten for years, but despite an encouraging reception (Mussolini offered verbal support), funds dried up and D’Ascanio was almost broke by 1931.

His relationship with Piaggio began the following year, as an advisor on further helicopter development. But back to the story at hand.

Postwar Italy struggled to rise from its knees. Piaggio’s aircraft plants had been bombed by the allies and then mined by retreating Germans. Enrico Piaggio, son of founder Rinaldo, asked the Allies to return machinery that had been taken north from his factories to aid the German war effort.

Considering his circumstances, he struck upon the idea of providing very simple, low cost transportation with what little industrial capacity he had left. Road conditions were terrible, lending an advantage to 2-wheeled vehicles.

Development of what would become the Vespa began in 1944, but Enrico Piaggio was dissatisfied with the early prototype (the MP5, above). Meanwhile, Corradino D’Ascanio had been working on a revolutionary scooter design for Ferdinando Innocenti, another Italian industrialist who like Piaggio realised that cheap transportation was soon going to be in high demand.

Innocenti and D’Ascanio fell out over the construction of the frame – Innocenti wanted to use rolled tubing, to support his steel tubing company, and D’Ascanio wanted a unit spar frame. D’Ascanio left the project and was soon snapped up by Piaggio. Innocenti’s design would go on to become the Lambretta scooter.

Interestingly, both the Vespa and Lambretta were inspired by American Cushman scooters used by Allied forces during the war:

D’Ascanio immediately made it clear to Piaggio that he had an intense dislike of motorcycles. It was perhaps his hatred of them that led to several important advances; under D’Ascanio’s auspices the scooter gained a step-through chassis and an engine located next to the rear wheel, allowing the scooter to do without a dirty and ugly chain drive. Bodywork covered the engine and transmission, cooled by fan blades mounted to the flywheel, and the splash shield at the front of the Vespa kept riders relatively dry and clean compared to regular motorcycle designs.

The Vespa went on sale in 1946. Only 2,484 would be sold in the first year, but figures would skyrocket to over 60,000 units per year by 1950.

Fate smiled on the Vespa and saw it become a legend. Fate probably threw the Ape a confused expression, but it hasn’t been unkind.

In much the same way the Vespa was intended to get Italians themselves moving about, the Ape (Italian for Bee, a play on Vespa meaning ‘Wasp’) was intended to get businesses moving. D’Ascanio hit upon the idea in 1947: a light, inexpensive enclosed vehicle that could be operated without a license. The Ape would share many parts with the Vespa to keep costs low. Early models looked remarkably similar.

The cab arrangement seen on this Ape (found near where I work) wasn’t introduced until 1964; earlier models left the rider (or is that driver?) open to the elements. The 150cc Ape B arrived in 1952, but power was never a motivating factor – few Apes were capable of anything more than 20mph, but the torquey little two-strokes that powered them were strong enough to tackle uphill gradients even with a full load.

The Ape is essentially a load-bearing Vespa frame with an axle at the back, supporting a flatbed.

The basic vehicle has undergone few changes since its introduction. In 1968 the engine was moved to the rear for driver comfort for the first time, and the two current models, the 50 and the TM, have barely changed at all since 1993. The Ape 50 features a 50cc 2-stroke producing a curiously specific 2.58bhp. The more expensive Ape TM is available with a four-stroke 218cc petrol or 422cc diesel engine, producing 9.39 and 11.40  horsepower respectively. The diesel TM tops out at 39mph, and the petrol version is a little slower. The less said about the 50 in a straight line, the better.

The Ape may not win any races, but in countries where space is at a premium, they are indispensable.  TM models can carry some 700kg in pick-up format, and the 50cc version can manage 200kg. With a turning circle of just 3.4 metres, it’s very nimble, and can be lifted up at at one end for tight turnarounds. The purchase price is low  (though not in the UK), running costs are very low, and it meets all modern European emissions legislation. They’re common as muck in Italy, where weather isn’t so important and streets are narrow.

It’s sold in panel van, pick-up and tipper variants to the public, but the Ape has led a richer life than just that. They’ve been used as fire engines, police vehicles, trailer tractors and more unusual creations. In 2007, Piaggio offered the rather flamboyant Calessino model, limited to just 999 examples.

As well as being everyday workhorses, the Ape’s unique appearance makes it useful for attracting attention. Some are used as advertising billboards, and others are fitted out by third parties as mobile coffee stands or ice cream vans.

In many ways, it reminds me of another small, nimble and unusual worker:

Though I doubt donkeys have ever doubled as ice cream vans.