Ferdinando Innocenti

The motor scooter mogul

Deirdre Pirro
July 1, 2010

No doubt, many of us have walked past buildings being constructed, restored or painted all over Italy without giving a minute's thought to the intricate cage of tubular steel scaffolding encapsulating them. The man who invented the labyrinthine system of vertical and horizontal tubes and fixtures was, in fact, one of Italy's most important industrialists and a leader in the country's post-World War II economic boom. He was Ferdinando Innocenti, and from manufacturing his ‘innocenti' scaffolding and other pipes and machinery, he went on to create Lambretta motor scooters and Innocenti cars.

 

Born in Pescia on September 1, 1891, Innocenti grew up in Grosseto. His blacksmith father, Dante, opened two hardware stores there and then a small ironmongery, where Innocenti and his half-brother Rosolino worked. In search of new markets, Ferdinando and his brother moved to Rome in 1923. Thanks to the building boom in the capital, promoted by the fascist regime during the following decade, their company was awarded important construction and irrigation contracts for its pipes, which also enabled it to industrialise production of Innocenti's rapid-mounting and -dismounting scaffolding.

 

With Milan fast becoming the industrial capital of Italy, Innocenti opened a second and larger factory there in 1931 and gradually set up nine branch offices around the country. Profits grew rapidly as he expanded into making components for light and heavy industry, soccer grandstands, sporting equipment, railway structures and gas and oil pipelines. With the outbreak of World War II, the Ministry of War awarded him important tenders with the result that between 1938 and 1943, the number of employees at the Milan factory increased from 800 to more than 7,000. He ended up manufacturing 17 percent of Italy's total wartime production, especially artillery shells and ammunition cases.

 

Post-war, Innocenti quickly took steps to rebuild his war-damaged factory and convert the plant for peacetime industries. Realising the importance cheap transport would play in Italy's reconstruction and inspired by the military motor bikes used by American soldiers during the war, he decided to produce a low-cost scooter. Thus, in 1947, the Lambretta motor scooter with its light, tubular steel frame was born. Very advanced for its epoch, it was named after the Lambro River, which flowed through the site of the Innocenti works in Milan's Lambrate area. The Lambretta was an instant success and immediately became a direct competitor of Enrico Piaggio's number-one-selling Vespa, which had gone into production in 1946. Although it cost 156 thousand lire, eight times the average wage of a blue-collar worker, people rushed to them, and Innocenti soon licensed their manufacture in Spain, India, Argentina, Germany, France and Brazil.

 

In the late 1950s, with a second economic boom, working-class Italians could afford to buy a car such as the Fiat 500, a trend that showed no signs of abating. To combat the downturn in the scooter market and assisted by large profits from the building of a steel complex in Venezuela in the mid-1950s, Innocenti's son Luigi, who had become the company's vice-president in 1958, sought to diversify by building cars. After abandoning an early attempt to build a utility car in its own plant, Innocenti made an agreement with the German Gogomobil Iseria to construct a small, four-passenger, four-wheel car. Then, in the early 1960s, the British Motor Corporation contracted with Innocenti to produce the very popular Innocenti Austins and Mini-Minors under licence.

 

Said never to have ridden a Lambretta nor to have driven a car, as he did not have a driver's licence, Innocenti was a portly man of few words. Driven by the sole desire to build and protect his enterprise empire, he had the important skill of recognising the right person for the right job. Although he knew how to exploit political and other important connections, which he used to his business's advantage, he had little time for the flashy external trappings or worldly pastimes that other successful businessmen of his era indulged in, and he was rarely, if ever, photographed at parties or the theatre.

 

In 1966, at the age of 85, Innocenti died of a heart attack. Luigi, who had lived in the shadow of his father, took over the company. Faced with difficult political and financial times as well as trade union agitation, he ended production of the Lambretta in Italy in 1971; in 1970 sales had dropped to only 55,000 from 180,000 a decade earlier. He sold the assembly lines for the scooter to India, where production finally ceased in 1998. In 2007, Motom Italia S.p.A. reacquired the Lambretta trade name, and since 2008 the company has marketed the Lambretta Pato, now made in China.

 

He also sold the motor division. British Leyland bought it in 1972, in turn selling it to De Tomaso in 1976, who then sold it to Fiat. The last Mini was made in 1993 although Fiat continued to use the ‘Innocenti' name for cars marketed in developing countries. While Fiat still owns the brand, it has not been used since 1997, and the Lambrate site has long fallen into disuse. Yet, Ferdinando Innocenti is still remembered by the owners and fans of his Lambretta scooters, which are coveted cult objects today.

 

 

MUSEO SCOOTER E LAMBRETTA

via Turati 7, Rodano (MI)

www.museoscooter.it

Tel. 02/95320438; casalambretta@libero.it

 

The Scooter and Lambretta Museum at Rodano near Milan is the product of Vittorio Tessera's 20-year passion; he patiently collected over 80 national and international scooters, which are on display. The collection includes 36 of the most significant Lambretta models and some of the rarest prototypes as well as other models, spare parts, trophies, medals, clothes and equipment-thanks to a generous donation from the Innocenti family. The museum also boasts the only official archive of the Innocenti family, with more than 5000 photos, constructive designs, manuals, film footage from 1947 to 1972 produced by the Milan factory. A visit to this museum is a ‘must' for Lambretta enthusiasts.

 

 

THE LAMBRETTA CLUB OF FLORENCE

The Lambretta Club of Florence (www.lambrettaclubfirenze.com) is a chapter of the Lambretta Club of Tuscany. It meets Wednesday every month at Villa Bandini, in via Ripoli 118, Florence. For information, e-mail lambrettaclubfirenze@hotmail.it

 

 

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