The Piaggio & C. Company of Genoa was founded by Rinaldo Piaggio in 1884, initially producing locomotives and railway carriages. Towards the end of the First World War, it turned to the military sector and later progressed to vehicles.
Rinaldo died in 1938 and the management of the company passed to his sons Enrico and Armando. After the Second World War, Enrico Piaggio decided to diversify the company’s activities, addressing a perceived need for a modern, affordable mode of transport for the Italian mass-market; in 1946, Piaggio launched the famous Vespa (“wasp” in Italian) and within ten years more than a million “wasps” were produced.
In 1959 Piaggio came under the control of the Agnelli family, the owners of the giant Italian car manufacturer Fiat SpA. In 1964 the aeronautical and motorcycle divisions of Piaggio split to become two independent companies: “Rinaldo Piaggio Industrie Aeronautiche Meccaniche” and “Piaggio & C.” for vehicles. The logo of the first one depicted the initial letters of the founder (RP) with a stylized bird, while the first Piaggio logo of 1946 depicted a shield divided transversely into two fields: the letter “P” appeared on the blue and the Piaggio logotype on the light blue. In 1965, Enrico Piaggio died suddenly, at the age of 60, and his successor was his son-in-law, Umberto Agnelli, who later became managing director of the company.
In June 1966, the company invested 3,000,000 Lire (equal to approximately 30,000 euros in 2020) to award a prize for a new logo with a contest that would have distinguished the future production.
The contest notice provided that “each sketch must be presented in a double version: one in black and white, the other in two or three colors. […] The technique of execution is entrusted to the free choice of the artist who will, however, have to create the logo so that its practical reproduction in metal, plastic, and any other material is permitted.”
A total of 509 logo proposals were submitted, each with one, two, or more sketches and, “in the opinion of the Jury, all of excellent quality.”
In a press release dated November 1966, 11 prizes were awarded, the first of which to the absolute winner, Franco Grignani, for an amount of 2,000,000 Lire, and 10 further prizes of 100,000 Lire for young designers born after 1935 for having “presented works worthy of particular mention”.
Franco Grignani participated with as many as 19 sketches, which were afterward all donated to the company, but the motivation for the award had a peculiar meaning: “It, therefore, acquires even greater value the fact that the last, and certainly most heated, discussion had as its object two works both signed by you […]. In the impossibility of awarding the prize to one of the two competing sketches, the Jury unanimously decided to assign the prize to your person, rather than to the sketch.”
The press release of Grignani’s victory is dated 2 November 1966; two days later, the Piaggio factories suffered great damages from the flood of the Arno river (following the flood, Grignani donated to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Florence a beautiful painting, now at MUSEONOVECENTO), but the company reacted promptly and the works continued…
Two Vespa shields, the latest models, were promptly sent to Franco Grignani to do all the necessary tests for the new logo: the fact that two sketches had been chosen jointly, each one presented in the black and white and color version, posed indeed an “important and urgent” problem, as “we will absolutely not be able to adopt two logos”.
The solution to the problem was then left to Franco Grignani himself; in addition, Agnelli was pressing for the use of his lucky colors and the situation was creating a “vague sense of discouragement” within the company.
The story ended six months later in an unexpected way, even for the company itself. Agnelli decided to adopt another logo that he himself chose and got done directly by the architect Franco de Silva of Turin, despite the beauty of the Franco Grignani’s logo that “no one has ever doubted” [Ettore Zancani, at the time chief of the Piaggio’s press office].
The real motivation for this change was never communicated, but we can assume that Agnelli would have preferred a more “product-oriented” logo; in fact, de Silva’s logo explicitly recalled the company’s two flagships: a “wasp” (“Vespa”) or a “bee” (“Ape”). The two mirrored letters “P” stylized in fact an insect with outstretched wings inserted in a hexagon that recalled the cell of a beehive.
[this post has been edited thanks to the precious contribution of Mariamargherita Scotti of the Archivio Storico Piaggio]