Automotive technology dramatically changed between the late-1940's and the early-1960's. The transition from steel and iron to aluminum and fiber glass in car manufacture allowed for smaller, lighter cars. Of course, as the popularity of economical cars increased, so did the demand for larger cars. The muscle car era that started in the mid-1960's ended abruptly with the energy crisis of the 1970's, contradicted the increasing popularity of compact cars. American manufacturers began fulfilling the demand for more-practical vehicles including the Buick Special and the Oldsmobile F-85, which were created specifically to compete with foreign-made microcars or economy cars. Still, the most famous economy car of them all came from Germany - the Volkswagen Bug. In fact, the prototype for the Bug was introduced in the early-1930's, but took off across the world long after World War II. In 1972, its production surpassed that of the Ford Model T, which until then had the distinction of being the most-produced vehicle in the world with over fifteen million sold.
c.1960 Vespa 400
- The Italian Piaggio Company introduced the Vespa (“wasp”) scooter in 1946. Within ten years, they sold 1 million (with over 15 million sold to date). Piaggio introduced their Vespa 400 microcar in 1957, which was in production until 1961.
- The bare-bones vehicle is both adorable and practical. It has two seats, with a cushioned area located behind them as a place for smaller passengers (seat belts were not required at the time). The air-cooled engine is in the trunk, the spare 10” tire is below the passenger seat, and the battery is under the hood. The front grill is purely decorative and conceals storage for the battery. Initially, the windows did not open in an effort to maximize interior space for the driver and passenger. That too was modified in later designs, but windows slid open without the luxury of a handle that rolled them down into the door panel. Portions of the car's top were fabric, and they could be rolled back to allow for improved circulation. The Vespa 400's top speed was 50 m.p.h.
- Sadly, the Vespa 400 did not receive glowing reviews upon its initial release. Three primary reasons for that included difficulties in changing gears, poor sound-proofing, and unexpectedly high fuel consumption for such a little car. Modifications would be made to the carburetor to correct this third challenge, but little was done to improve the first two.
- Cole Brothers Circus introduced the clown car gag in the ‘50s. The Vespa, with its size and maneuverability, would have been an ideal addition to the comic antics of clowns upon its introduction in the late '50's.