What do Royal Enfields and Vespas have in common, historically speaking? That’s simple. Both companies specialized in making two-wheeled transport that was relatively simple to maintain. This worked well for everyday people just looking to get around, and it also suited various military establishments quite well, too.
It wasn’t only comparatively big, tough motorbikes that found themselves airdropped into combat by military forces during early 20th-century conflicts. Sure, the Royal Enfield Flying Flea is cool and all, but you just can’t beat the immediately striking imagery of a Vespa 150 TAP.
Whether you’re picturing it parachuting down from the sky on a pallet, or visualizing it crawling determinedly across rough terrain, that mental image is a lot to process. Why? The first time you see one of these things, chances are good that you immediately think about someone actually firing that bazooka from the saddle. A half-second later, when your logic centers catch up, you start thinking about how impractical that would be, and you wonder what kind of story resulted in this vehicle being built in the first place.
That story goes like this. From approximately 1956 through 1959, Piaggio’s French licensee, Ateliers de Construction de Motocycles et Automobiles (ACMA), built around 600 Vespa 150 TAPs. Now, we hate to burst your bubble, but this scooter wasn’t also a two-stroke shooter. Instead, it was a two-stroke transport vehicle. After WWII, France had a surplus of American-made M20 recoilless rifles that it wanted to use. To do so, however, first it had to get them where it wanted to shoot.
That’s where these two-stroke Vespa 150s came into play. In fact, the TAP initials told you quite a lot about the scoot—as they were short for “Truppe Aero Portate.” Air-dropping these Vespas on pallets with additional hay bale cushioning meant they could very nearly hit the ground running. Troops could ride off to wherever they wanted an M20, then set it up on a tripod and fire. Easy peasy. Think of them less as scooters and more as two-wheeled, open cases for your M20 that also happened to have engines.
Surprisingly few changes were made to regular, civilian Vespas to turn them into TAPs. ACMA basically strengthened the frame and lowered the gearing, added appropriate mounts for the M20 and associated ammunition, and sent the troops on their way. The resulting scoots mostly saw combat during the Algerian War.