Thursday 26th September 1957
The Vespa 400, a rear-engined microcar, produced by ACMA (Ateliers de construction de motocycles et d’automobiles) in Fourchambault, France, made its public debut at a press presentation staged in Monaco. Two different versions were sold, “Lusso” and “Turismo”. The 400 was a two seater with room behind the seats to accommodate luggage or two small children on an optional cushion. The front seats were simple tubular metal frames with cloth upholstery on elastic “springs” and between the seats were the handbrake, starter and choke. The gear change was centrally floor mounted. The rear hinged doors were coated on the inside with only a thin plastic lining attached to the metal door panel skin allowing valuable extra internal space. On the early cars the main door windows did not open which attracted criticism, but increased the usable width for the driver and passenger. Instrumentation was very basic with only a speedometer and warning lights for low fuel, main beam, dynamo charging and indicators. The cabriolet fabric roof could be rolled back from the windscreen header rail to the top of the rear engine cover leaving conventional metal sides above the doors. The 12 volt battery was located at the front of the car, behind the dummy front grill, on a shelf that could be slid out. The spare wheel was stowed in a well under the passenger sea.
The high profile launch paid off, with 12,130 cars produced in 1958. That turned out to be the high point, however, and output fell to 8,717 in 1959 despite a price reduction for the entry level 2-seater “normal” coupé from 345,000 francs to 319,500 francs between October 1957 and October 1958. Commentators suggested that the chic image created at the time of the launch was not always matched by the car itself, with its awkward gear change, poor sound-proofing and, especially before a modification to the carburetor specification, high fuel consumption. The car’s origins, developed by a leading world producer of motor scooters, Italy’s Piaggio Company, makers of the Vespa since 1946, was reflected in the installation, in the Vespa 400, of a two stroke (motorbike style) engine which required oil to be added to the petrol/gasoline whenever the car was refueled. During the summer of 1958 the cars were fitted with a semi-automatic device for adding oil to the fuel, but a fully automatic fuel mixing device was not included until two years later.
The British Motor magazine tested a 400 de luxe saloon in 1959 recording a top speed of 51.8 mph (83.4 km/h) and acceleration from 0-40 mph (64 km/h) in 23.0 seconds and a fuel consumption of 55.3 miles per imperial gallon (5.11 L/100 km; 46.0 mpg‑US). The test car cost 351,725 “old” French Francs, cheaper than the 374,000 “old” French Francs domestic market starting price quoted towards the end of 1958 for the cheapest version of the larger but (even) less powerful Citroen 2CV.