70 years of sprezzatura: Vespa marks a milestone

(CNN)A year before a fledgling company called Ferrari put its first prancing horse on an automobile, another future Italian icon made a much quieter, but no less auspicious debut.

The Vespa, meaning "wasp", was meant to be the mechanized equivalent of its insectoid inspiration -- sleek, nimble and extremely efficient.
Its parent company, Piaggio, founded in Sestri Ponente in 1884, initially manufactured locomotives and railway carriages before converting to aircraft during World War I.
    Finding itself with idle factories at the conclusion of World War II the Vespa was invented for the dual purpose of providing cheap transportation and keeping workers and machinery employed.
    Piaggio's engineers didn't invent the scooter, but they certainly reinvented it.
    Far from sexy in its original incarnation, as the iconic conveyance celebrates its 70th anniversary, the Vespa has become in effect a synecdoche for dolce vita style and a sort of effortless seductiveness.
    The Vespa 98cc, the company's original model, debuted in 1946.
    The Italian word sprezzatura sums it up best: a studied nonchalance that only the most innately elegant creatures can truly convey.
    The Vespa qualifies on all counts, though it enjoyed a more quotidian existence until 1953 when William Wyler's film "Roman Holiday" became an overnight sensation.
    For almost all of the film's one hour and 59 minutes run time, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn appear impossibly glamorous zipping around the Eternal City on a Vespa 125.
    Buoyed by the the free publicity (this was before Hollywood invented product placement) that year Vespa sales smashed through the 100,000 mark.
    Piaggio quickly capitalized on the machine's momentum, re-branding it as a stylish, fun and implicitly arousing means of transport that was more of a lifestyle choice than an economic necessity.
    By the time Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" rolled around in 1960 with an even cooler portrayal of Vespa-straddling beautiful people, Piaggio could barely keep up with demand.
    Vintage models that evoke this era are still what many people think of when they hear the name, though the design has evolved considerably over the years.
    As part of the 70th anniversary celebrations, the company is releasing new Vespa Settantesimo (Italian for "70th") limited edition Primavera 50, Primavera 150, and GTS 300 models which are long on retro good looks.
    Additionally, Vespa will be hosting Vespa World Days in St. Tropez in June, which is expected to draw more than 10,000 of the faithful, known as "Vespisti."
    In the gallery you'll find some highlights from the past and present of the truly timeless two-wheeler.