When we see the word “ape,” it makes us think of a rather large, ferocious animal. But in Italian, its meaning is almost the opposite. Ape is the word for "bee." The Ape, as we shall see, was built for people who work, for someone who is busy as a bee.
At the end of World War II, many, if not most Italians were having money problems, and certainly only a privileged few had the financial means to buy a car, much less pay for its fuel and maintenance.
The Ape came to the rescue. In 1947, the inventor of the Vespa, (a popular motor scooter whose name means “wasp”) came up with the idea of a light, three-wheeled commercial vehicle to power Italy's economical reconstruction. Piaggio, who had built the Vespa became interested and took on the project. The very first Ape models were glorified Vespas with two wheels in the rear, and a flat-bed structure on top of the rear axle— a sort of tricycle with a motor.
Little by little, the model developed to include a cab to protect the driver. Designed as a one-seater, a passenger is often seen squeezed in, as well, but it's definitely a tight fit. There are now doors on either side to facilitate parking right up next to a wall. Although no longer made principally in Italy, the Ape is still in production today!
Because of its small scooter-sized engine, the Ape doesn’t go fast (maximum around 60 kilometres an hour), and as a result, you don’t need to have an automobile driver’s license to drive one. The motor is strong enough to carry a sizeable load, and to get up the steep hills found in many parts of the country.
We see in the movie Chi m’ha visto, that Peppino’s vehicle is indeed an Ape. Given the size of the streets in so many Italian towns, cities, and country roads as well, the Ape is just right for negotiating them. Peppino races around like a maniac anyway, honking at pedestrians to get out of his way.
If you have ever been traveling in Italy, you might have heard an Ape before seeing one. The noise is terrifying especially as it climbs steep, narrow, cobblestone streets in the middle of an old town, where the close stone walls amplify the sound even more. Getting caught behind one on a narrow road can add hours and frustration to your trip. Fortunately, the Ape is so narrow, the driver can hug the side of the road so that cars can pass. Menomale!
Still a familiar sight all over Italy, the Ape is amazingly useful for the handyman, gardener, farm worker, delivery man, etc.
In an episode of Commissario Manara, Manara himself actually drives an Ape to figure out how a crime had been committed. He's putting himself in the killer's place.
Al piazzale davanti allo studio ci potrei andare a piedi, invece ci vado con l' Ape. Perché? Perché devo trasportare qualcosa, qualcosa di pesante. E che cos'è?
To the courtyard in front of the studio I could go by foot, but instead I go with the "Ape." Why? Because I have to transport something, something heavy. And what is it?
Captions 44-47, Il Commissario Manara S1EP11 - Beato tra le donne - Part 9Play Caption
Even though the Ape is pretty small already, many Italians use a diminutive suffix and call it l'Apino. It also distinguishes it from ape the insect, and it renders the idea of "small."