Vespa is best known for building two-wheeled vehicles. This Italian company has long been renowned for building stylish and economical motor scooters, which have achieved iconic status in Europe. However it is not so well known that Vespa briefly built vehicles of the four-wheeled variety. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it marketed a microcar that went down as an intriguing footnote in the annals of automotive history: the 1958-1961 Vespa 400.
Introduced in 1957, manufactured in France by A.C.M.E. (Ateliers de Constructions de Motos et Accessoires), and sold at a low sticker price of $1080, the Vespa 400 was the brainchild of Enrico Piaggio. Reportedly developed over a period of six years, it was an attempt by Vespa to broaden its product line by offering a small economy car at an affordable price. The 400 arrived at a particularly opportune time. When first introduced, Europe had just experienced a fuel shortage brought on by the closure of the Suez Canal. This event caused a market shift in Europe towards small cars, which increased the level of interest in microcars.
In terms of size, the Vespa 400 was a truly a microcar, measuring a mere 112 inches long, 49 inches high, and 50 inches wide. Inside, it was able to seat two adults in the front seats and either a small amount of luggage or perhaps two small children in the rear seat. But in terms of design, the 400 was a surprisingly sophisticated machine. The car was powered by a rear-mounted 2-stroke inline-2 engine, which displaced 393 cubic centimeters and was good for 20 horsepower. A particularly novel feature of the engine was its semi-automatic oil/fuel metering system, which maintained the correct mixture of 2-cycle oil and gasoline (2% oil and 98% gasoline). The 400 was equipped with 4-wheel independent suspension, which consisted of 4 hydraulic shock absorbers with coil springs. Outwardly, the 400 was clothed with a bulbous steel body shell that featured unitary construction. The body was fitted with rear-hinged “suicide” doors and a plastic roll-down sunroof.
The Vespa 400 was capable of a level of performance considered acceptable for a car of its type. Vespa claimed it capable of a top speed of around 60 miles per hour and fuel mileage of 60 miles per gallon. The car was highly maneuverable and could be parked in very small parking spaces, which made it ideal for use in crowded European cities. Its four-wheel independent suspension gave it excellent road-holding abilities. The 400 received a significant amount of praise from automotive critics of the time, who described it as well-engineered, economical, and fun to drive.
Although the 400 was reasonably well-received by the European motor public, it did not sell as well as Vespa would have liked. One reason for this was Europe’s quick recovery from the Suez oil shortage, which shrank the market for microcars. The 400 also had the misfortune of competing against somewhat larger and more practical economy cars, such as the Fiat 500 and Citroën 2CV, which were available for a little more money. Faced with such realities, Vespa decided to concentrate on building its famous motor scooters and pulled the plug on the 400 in 1961. Around 30,000 Vespa 400s were built.
Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p.810.
Franzel, Erwin, “Readers Drive ‘Em,” Small Car Parade, March 1960.
McCahill, Tom, “The Vespa 400,” Mechanix Illustrated, October 1959.
Vespa 400, Vespa: Serial and Trade Catalogs: Specific Model, 1959-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Vespa 400, Perfect in Town, Brilliant on the Road, Fascinating Everywhere, Vespa: Serial and Trade Catalogs: Specific Model, 1959-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.