Possibly the most intriguing stand at the 2018 EICMA motorcycle show in Milan, Italy, was… completely empty. Now exhibition stands at Fiera Milano Rho are not horrendously expensive at 252 euros per square metre plus 350 euros registration and insurance, but when you add staffing costs, travel, accommodation, insurance and transport it’s not a cheap outing.
I seem to remember that the stand had been booked by German electric scooter manufacturer Kumpan. Odd, I thought. You wouldn’t think that a firm from efficiency-conscious Germany would miss the opportunity to display its products to some 500,000 show visitors after paying for the privilege.
The truth came out when I asked a friend at Motociclismo magazine about the ghost stand. He laughed happily.
“When the Piaggio people saw the stand,” he said, “they thought they saw copies of the Vespa in the exhibited scooters. They filed criminal charges against the company and had the exhibition contents confiscated. It’s not the first time but hey, it’s usually… another country… making the copies!”
As it happens, the European court has just found against Piaggio. But that’s an unusual result.
My friend told me that Piaggio had done the same at INTERMOT in Cologne in 2014, when Vespa-like scooters from a Chinese manufacturer (how did you guess?) were on display. Here, too, Piaggio initiated legal action for anti-competitive conduct and trademark infringements, with the support of show operator Koelnmesse. The Vespa imitations were then removed from the exhibition stands post-haste.
He also told me about the time Ivano Beggio, the man who launched Aprilia, was approached by a Chinese factory representative and offered scooters supposedly identical to the ones Aprilia was about to launch, for a price significantly below what it cost him to build them. Effectively, he was being offered his own scooters, made by someone else. He called the Customs Police.
Piaggio is actually a little unusual in taking prompt and decisive legal action, but then they have the most to lose. For quite a few years, copies of Honda’s little Scoopy scooter were also everywhere at the big shows, but they didn’t really seem to make it to the street so much – I don’t recall seeing any outside the show — and Honda apparently just ignored them.
But scooters modelled on the unmistakable monocoque Vespa design from Piaggio are as common around the world as… well, as what? I’m having problems thinking of another motorcycle or scooter design that’s copied as frequently and painstakingly as the Vespa’s. Perhaps in the heyday of Japanese enthusiasm for cruiser-type bikes, Harley-Davidson design was imitated as commonly but that’s pretty much gone now. Copies of the Vespa are still being made and sold enthusiastically all over the world.
Anyone who has visited EICMA in Milan in the past few years and has looked beyond the huge stands of the major manufacturers will have noticed tiny stands displaying cheaply-made motorcycles and scooters. Often these are based, at least visually, on well-established models from the large international motorcycle manufacturers.
If the displays are of scooters, the manufacturers seem to rely particularly often on the Vespa ‘look’, even if they are usually careful not to knock the design off too blatantly – sometimes referencing Lambretta as well — to avoid annoying Piaggio too much. It makes sense to follow that look; the most famous Piaggio scooter of all (yes, they do make others, branded as Piaggio) has enjoyed enormous popularity for many decades and has even reached cult status both in- and outside Italy.
And although Piaggio’s 2018 court action was against a German firm, it is more commonly the Chinese manufacturers that are in its sights.
This time the trigger came at EICMA 2019. This ‘Chinese Vespa’ was intended for display at the show that year, but it did not take long for Piaggio to notice the similarity to its Primavera and take offence. The Pontaderans initiated action to have the scooters removed from the stand. As intended, that meant the display of the replica was prevented at an early stage and damage was limited; but it wasn’t to rest there. Piaggio went further and launched legal action against ‘an unspecified Chinese manufacturer’, which it said had copied the design of the Vespa.
Now Piaggio has announced that the case has been settled in favour of the Italians. During the trial, the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) ruled that the Chinese scooter reflected features of the Primavera “quite accurately” and that the scooter lacked its “own character.”
According to Piaggio, the firm’s legal action over the past two years has led to the cancellation of more than 50 registered trademarks owned by companies seeking to market ‘fake’ Vespas.
“Piaggio has no sense of humour when it comes to plagiarism of its products,” said my friend from Motociclismo. “But Italian design is copied all over the world. We have to defend ourselves.”
(Photos The Bear / manufacturers)