1959 Vespa 400 Microcar

1959-Vespa-front.jpg

Introduced in 1957 the Vespa 400 was an innovative solution to the needs for compact and economical transportation in Europe's micro car marketplace. As the European economies gained increasing momentum and the effects of World War II faded into the past, there was huge demand for an affordable new car and Vespa saw a great opportunity. Introduced in Monaco with much fanfare and three top Grand Prix drivers on hand, it made a very big splash on the European auto scene with sales over 12,000 units in 1958.

The Vespa car was designed and engineered by Piaggio in Italy but manufactured in France due to concerns regarding competition with the just-introduced Fiat 500 models in the home market. Piaggio was new to car manufacturing and careful not to appear too directly competitive with Fiat. Pricing was very attractive, the 400 listed for two thirds the MSRP of a VW Beetle, and somewhat less than the minimalist Citröen 2CV.

Designed with aeronautical priorities and engineering sensibility, the Vespa 400 was a very compact, ultra light urban runabout with a roomy interior and a slick rollback convertible top. Rear hinged doors provide easy access to the surprisingly spacious interior. Twin bucket seats are augmented by a rear compartment that can be fitted with a cushion for kid-sized back seats or used for cargo. A big step up from Vespa’s scooters, but certainly a tiny motorcar, the Vespa made sense in the context of European city use. Overall length is a trim 112" on a 67" wheelbase, curb weight is under 850 lbs.

The 400 features a 393cc two-stroke twin cylinder engine with semi-automatic oil injection. Rated at 14 HP with a three-speed manual transmission, performance is modest but adequate for the city. A four-speed manual was optional. Top speed is 50-55 mph, fuel consumption is 45-50 mpg and the 0-40 mph “sprint” took around 23 seconds. The fact that the two-stroke engine required oil to be mixed into the gas was a drawback compared to conventional 4-stroke competitors, even after an automated mixing system was installed in later production.

Suspension is independent on all four wheels with coil springs, hydraulic shocks and a front roll bar. Brakes are drums at all four wheels. Light weight, good balance and the sophisticated suspension provided a very nifty ride and an abundance of fun to drive sensations.

Contemporary road tests included a ringing endorsement from Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated, America’s most popular auto reviewer of that era, who noted the smooth, comfortable ride quality and sharp handling ...."Here is real fun... this car has a fantastic ride!".

The Vespa 400 was very sophisticated and well engineered compared to the other microcars available, such as the BMW Isetta, but never matched the comfort and performance of the newer mini cars just entering the market. Piaggio addressed many needed improvements after launch. 

The 1959 model featured numerous upgrades including automatic oil injection and opening door vent windows. Unfortunately for Piaggio, this was not enough. The European economy had improved making mini cars such as the Fiat 500 and BMC Morris Mini much more popular than microcars in the marketplace. The microcar fad ended more quickly than expected, and the 400 was in production only until 1961. 

A victim of fast moving technology and a growing economy, the Vespa 400 was a short-lived success. It remains one of the most interesting of the microcars and a very rare collectable today.

  • Engine : 24.0 cu in two-stroke I2 
  • Power : 14 HP
  • Transmission : 3-speed manual (GT 4-speed)
  • Dimensions
  • Wheelbase : 66.7 in
  • Length: 112 in
  • Width : 50 in
  • Height : 50 in
  • Curb weight : 827 lb
  • Article by Dean Seven; Photos by: Ryan Bula