Sixty years of success and charm, a vehicle that’s made its name the whole world over, also thanks to its unbeatable versatility. No other commercial vehicle in the world can tell a story like the Ape. This 3-wheeler has always kept in step with the times, putting the working force of Italy on the road.
Nineteen hundred forty-eight
The Constitution of the Italian Republic is passed, and on the 11th of May Luigi Einaudi is elected President of the Italian Republic.
Gino Bartali wins the Tour de France for the second time and Zatopek and Consolini race to victory in the London Olympics. Oscars go to Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), Hamlet and Laurence Olivier.
Books published that year include: Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars) by Elsa Morante, Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw. Inventions include the LP, the transistor and cybernetics. The per capita income of the Italians is 139,152 Lire.
More and more Vespa scooters are taking to the roads of Italy and Europe: Piaggio produces 19,822, a significant step forward with respect to the 2,464 scooters built in 1946, the year the Vespa was launched. The Italian economy is slowly getting back up to steam, and with it industry, commerce, and the artisan sector. Goods are carried on heavy trucks based on military models, costly commercial vehicles based on automobiles or heavy and slow three-wheeled delivery vans; while in town you can often see tricycles and pushcarts.
Thanks to the intuition of Enrico Piaggio and Corradino D’Ascanio, Vespa starts work on a product to meet the obvious requirements of daily life in Italy. And the result of this intuition and the heritage of Vespa is the Ape, launched in 1948: «The “Ape” light 3-wheeler goods vehicle will be a great success — wrote Motociclismo magazine —. It’s a modern vehicle, available at a reasonable price with very low fuel consumption, well within the limits of even the smallest company, but designed without cutting corners on the basis of a very rational criteria, both from the functional and constructional point of view».
The first Ape produced in 1948 is based on a Vespa- even if it has three wheels - and all the essential characteristics of the scooter, including the full front end and a 125cc engine, which is used for the first time in 1948 on the Piaggio scooter, until then available with a 98cc engine. Cost 170,000 Lire.
D’Ascanio, the gifted aeronautical designer of both the Vespa and the Ape, said: «What we did was find a solution to a demand for compact transportation in the post-war period, introducing a 3-wheeled light goods vehicle with a small displacement, and limited fuel consumption, at a modest price and it was easy to service and drive too, highly manoeuvrable in the busiest city traffic, and particularly suitable, fast and practical for delivering goods from shops».
The first direct beneficiaries in this phase, are small and medium-sized dealers and merchants, and in fact the promotion of the 3-wheeler light goods vehicle is targeted at them: «The Ape accelerates the rhythm of commerce and sales, to create a mobile extension of the shop and a much-appreciated link with the customer». The result of this brilliant intuition is sensational. Ape vans start buzzing busily about all over Italy “in black and white” with the side panels of the vans bearing the bold signs of the firms they work for.
1952. The first evolution
The summer of 1952 brings more power — the displacement of the Ape is increased from 125 to 150cc — and this also means more load capacity, which until then had been limited to 200 kilos. The load bed is also modified, with a steel model launched in 1954: all these modifications lead to the production of a new model, the Ape C, a small truck capable of carrying up to 350 kilos. The new Ape is launched with a major advertising campaign, millions of brochures are printed in five languages, and the Piaggio points of sale go into an important promotional drive. It was time for the economic boom to knock on Italy’s door.
From 1958 to 1968. The dimensions grew, more models and fittings, even an Ape… with five wheels.
The Ape world is in continuous evolution. In 1958 the Ape D rolls off the production lines: bigger than its predecessors, a cab complete with doors, headlight mounted on the front of the cab instead of the mudguard, and a displacement of 170cc. Everyone by now associates the idea of light transport with this 3-wheeler, an absolutely ingenious mix of content and functional character. The Ape’s image is taking its rightful place in popular culture and on the wave of the latest evolutions in social and cultural trends; Piaggio coins the slogan «Ape, the vehicle that will help you earn».
The technical evolution of the Ape continues: in 1961 Ape produces the most manoeuvrable articulated truck ever, an Ape with five wheels called Pentarò. It’s a very original vehicle with an impressive load capacity (700 kg) based on the idea of larger articulated lorries. In 1966 however the Ape MP steals the show with a cab that offers the driver (and passenger) more protection from the elements and a level of comfort that can be compared to that of 4-wheel vans. The displacement of the engine (still a 2-stroke) is increased to reach 190cc, but the real breakthrough is in the technical and design solutions to make the vehicle more rational. The motor is now installed at the rear in a “sledge-type” structure, the transmission is no longer a chain drive but direct to the rear wheels through half-shafts, with steel wishbones, rubber spring suspension with hydraulic dampers. In 1968 the Ape MPV is the first Ape to have a steering wheel as an option with respect to the scooter-type handlebars.
1969. The “Apino” is born: a small “commercial” runabout with a 50cc engine.
Just one year later, in 1969, there’s a new arrival in the Ape family: Piaggio presents the Ape 50, a happy event in its own particular way as it’s the first model of the Ape range in the moped class. The Ape 50 — as is often the case in the story of Piaggio — is designed and built to repeat the success story of the Vespa 50 also in the field of light goods transport. The small Vespa is launched in 1964 to comply with new Italian road regulations that required a number plate on vehicles of a higher displacement.
1971. The Ape Car is here
But the real “revolution” comes in 1971, when the Ape Car is launched. This model can compete with light trucks and is characterised by an extremely modern design for the time. The Ape Car has a new and bigger body with a more spacious and comfortable cab. The vehicle has a steering wheel, and the 2-stroke 220cc engine again installed at the rear on a specific sledge-type structure. Piaggio’s advertising campaign also focuses on the “similarities” between this new model and traditional 4-wheel commercial vehicles.
1982. Ape by Giugiaro
The Ape Car is an enormous success, but there is another technical-design breakthrough of the same scale in 1982, the year of the Ape TM: the vehicle is a completely new concept, the design — by Giorgetto Giugiaro — the dimensions of the cab, the car style steering wheel and dash are all elements that enhanced the comfort and usability of the vehicle. The suspension is new too, an independent system with wishbones and light alloy drum brakes in 12-inch wheels. The Ape TM, still in production today, is one of the most successful vehicles in the Ape range thanks to its solidity and performance.
1984. Diesel power
While the 2-stroke engine remains the beating heart of the Ape, the time is right for a new engine. The result: the first Ape with a diesel engine. The Ape Car Diesel has a new 422cc diesel engine with a 5-speed gearbox. This is a revolutionary design as it is the smallest direct injection diesel in the world. Two years later, in 1986, Ape launches a real record-breaker, the Max able to carry up to 900 kilos.
1994. The kids are alright
Another Ape adventure — this time not into the world of four wheels, but into world of the young — in the mid-90’s, it’s 1994, and the popular special Ape Cross series rolls off the lines to become an immediate success.
Based on the Ape 50, the Ape Cross is designed for the multitude of teenagers who love to use the Apino as an alternative to their first moped: it has a roll-bar, a practical and spacious trunk behind the cab, and it comes in young and stylish colours for this “custom” with respect to the Piaggio range of commercial vehicles. You can even have your Ape Cross with an electronic alarm, and a car stereo with speakers.
2007. The return of the Calessino
Back in the 50’s, the Ape’s timeless charm was in the stars, when paparazzi photographers “snapped” photos of famous Hollywood film stars on an Ape used as a runabout at their holiday resort on some Mediterranean island. The Ape became the protagonist in the fashionable life of exclusive resorts such as the Versilia, Capri, Ischia, and Portofino.
In 2007 Piaggio reintroduces a unique and limited edition (999 numbered units): the Ape Calessino. The Ape Calessino pays homage to the story of the vehicle and, at the same time, is a stylish runabout for guests in exclusive resorts. The Ape Calessino is the perfect reinterpretation of the fabulous design of the 60’s (wood inserts, chrome finish, and an elegant vintage blue livery) reminiscent of the sunny Mediterranean. The launch of this limited edition raises a great deal of interest with the media.
2008. Ape today
Compact dimensions, unbeatable manoeuvrability, a very reasonable purchase price and low running costs, a great loading capacity and as solid as its legend would have it — today as sixty years ago — these are the strong points of the Ape range. A vehicle which, while remaining faithful to its constructional philosophy, has grown continuously to meet the changing requirements of professional mobility in the best possible way.
Today, with almost 2 million units sold in Europe alone, Ape is very much still one of the products of reference for the Piaggio Group. Every year more than 10,000 Ape vehicles roll out of the Pontedera factories to travel the roads of Europe.
But Ape’s success goes beyond the boundaries of the Old World; it’s a success story of global proportions. Since 1999 the Ape – in the 501cc and 601cc diesel versions – is also built in the Indian factory (Piaggio Vehicles Private Limited) near Pune. Over 140,000 Ape vehicles are produced every year for the Indian and Asian market.
Today the Ape is available in the following versions for the European market: 50cc petrol, Tm 218cc petrol, Tm 422cc Diesel and in the two special Classic and Calessino series.
All of the new engines meet the strictest European regulations in terms of exhaust emissions, but the Ape of today is also characterised by new models, new versions and news methods of use no longer limited to the world of work. The Ape in fact is being used more and more often by numerous companies to advertise their products; the 3-wheeler from Pontedera is synonymous of charm, and the sunny side of life “Made in Italy” making it ideal for TV spots or press campaigns. The Ape has also been used in a variety of clever and exclusive ways. As mobile distribution points for exclusive aperitifs and tasters in the “slow food” world, or as an original and alternative vehicle for the presentation of prestigious fashion collections “on the road”.
In short the Ape is the real “Queen Bee” of transportation, and from 1948 to today, Ape has followed the evolution of Italian society, something it will continue to do also in the future.