Exploring The French Countryside On The Vespa 400 Microcar’s 60th Birthday
Photography by Máté Boér
Anything related to Vespa or microcars is going to be a source of whimsical fun, but combining the two is the key to unlocking miniature-motoring’s highest levels of charm. Put simply, the Vespa 400 is weapons-grade cuteness.
On the 26th of September, 1957, three Vespa 400 microcars—wearing the French national colors (blue, white and red)—lined up at a press presentation in Monaco. To increase the media attention, three racing drivers were hired to grab the wheels of the Vespa triplets. These weren’t just any old drivers with a race license though, as the group consisted of such fame as Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra and Louis Chiron. With this event, the story of the four-wheeled Vespa was underway.
Almost 60 years later, 29 Vespa 400s lined up in the small town of Fourchambault, and though their drivers were not as renowned as Fangio and the like, the immense passion for the little Vespas made this group the perfect party guests for the celebration of the model’s 60th birthday. Of course with Vespa being an Italian style staple to this day, it might seem a bit odd to see this group on French soil.
The Vespa 400, as we mentioned in a previous article on the car, debuted in the same year as some of its major Italian rivals: the Fiat Nuova 500, and the Autobianchi Bianchina. The Vespa 400 wears a name that’s as much connected to Italy as parmesan or Ferrari, but the delightful little microcars were actually built in Fourchambault, France. Of course, the manufacturing followed the Italian Piaggo company’s design, but it had to be physically put together elsewhere because Mr. Gianni Agnelli didn’t allow Piaggo to enter “his” market.
Piaggo exercised great taste in choosing the location of the French manufacturing plant for the Vespa. Fourchambault sits next to the Loire river, which is famous because of its majestic chateaus and acclaimed wines. Exploring a historical place like that accompanied with a convoy of classic cars is more than what any petrolhead could dream of. I take that back: seeing dozens of Vespa 400s unleash the full fearsome force of their 14-horsepower engines on the Magny-Cours Formula 1 circuit is the purest form of vintage car enthusiasm—it’s not about how fast or how valuable, it’s about how much joy you can squeeze from your cars, and that was in abundance here.
Thanks to production on French soil, the model saw major success in the country, and though it is still quite unknown in many other parts of the world, the interest just started to increase outside of France and Italy.
On top of the “track day,” we were also treated to some great French cuisine over the weekend. In fact, the organizers of the event amazed us right on the first day of the event when they served up a fantastic lunch in the middle of nowhere, just under the blue skies of the beautiful Gallic countryside. Only the voice of Édith Piaf was missing from this idyllic moment.
The views and gastronomy were certainly appreciated, but the cars came first. And among the swarm of bright and buzzy Vespas there was an extra-special example: an original Pichon-Parat conversion. It is very similar to the Fiat 500 Jolly beach car (the one with a wicker interior), and it was designed for much the same purpose.
The legend says that the Coca-Cola bottle’s designer, Earl Dean, once saw a crashed Vespa and subsequently had the roof cut off of that car, and this led to a very limited-run series of the roofless version. In the case of the Pichon-Parat Vespa 400, the production figures are unclear, with most sources mentioning six examples, while some say seven, as it goes. Anyhow, this is a super rare gem however you cut it.
I joined this birthday party for the Vespa 400 because three years prior when I was first introduced to the car, I also struck up a friendship with my pal Feri, whose infatuation with oddball small vintage cars has continued to rub off on me. Thanks to him I’ve been granted deeper insight into the crazy world of 400 owners for events like this one. Beyond the adorable array of cars though, this weekend was made great by the people folded inside the Italian microcar, as their hospitality and readily apparent enthusiasm are as grand as you’d find anywhere else.