Today’s question for Dr. Buzz and his panel of experts comes from From Mark P. of Galveston FL:
I’m looking for a scooter and I’m considering the Yamaha Vino. I’ve read that Yamaha makes some Vinos in China, and I’ve seen ads for much-cheaper Chinese scooters that look like Vinos. Are these all the same bike? How can I tell where a scooter was manufactured?
Shifton Cross: Use the scooter’s name in a sentence. Example: “Tonight I have a date with Isabella Rossellini. Im picking her up on my Kymco Grand Dink.”
See? That doesnt sound right. Now try it again, but instead of the Kymco try “Lambretta Cento.” That sounds great. We know that Isabella Rossellini is Italian, so the Lambretta must be Italian.
Dr. Buzz: Never mind that Portia DiRossi is from Australia. And “Wah pahng-key wah-ay pay bow PGO G-Max?” still doesn’t sound right.
Havelock VanDerHook: If the name ends in a set of vowels like ‘ia’ or ‘cci’ (pronouced like chee) it’s likely Italian.
Dr. Buzz: …and rhymes with “Her Chee,” the Taiwanese manufacturers of the decidedly un-Italian new “Lambretta.”
VanDerHook: Well, OK, but if it ends in ‘ette’ I’d guess it’s from France. Now if it ends in a ‘ki’, the best bet is that it’s from Japan.
Also, you can use the “magnet test.” Use a common refrigerator magnet and hold it against the body of the scooter. If it sticks, it’s probably an early American scooter, good old Detroit iron!
Dr. Buzz: I think probably the only thing in the world scarier than a Chinese scooter is an American scooter. As usual, you guys aren’t much help.
That’s a very tough question, Mark. (Is that the name I made up for you? I’ve lost track…) Luckily, there’s a simple answer. Though, like most things, it’s not as simple as it should be.
AS you probably know, all vehicles have an identifying number called the “VIN.” This VIN must be etched into the motor and the frame of the bike. Usually the frame VIN can be found on the inside of the legshield or on the actual front fork of the bike (often hidden under a rectangular panel in the middle of the legshield). The engine VIN is usually etched into the engine case somewhere reasonably visible. The VINs on the engine and frame should match. The VIN is basically the serial number for your bike, but all those numbers have meaning.
The first three digits of the VIN are the “World Manufacturer Identification,” or WMI. This WMI comes in very handy, especially in the world of scooters, where many importers share manufacturers and rebrand their bikes for different markets.
The first digit of the WMI denotes the country in which it was manufactured. some countries have one letter all to themselves, for instance Chinese scooters’ VINs start with “L.” No amount of marketing and rebranding can scratch that “L” off the VIN, though some importers have found sneaky ways to get around that, we’ll get into that in a moment.
The next two digits indicate the manufacturer. If the third digit is a “9,” the manufacturer makes fewer than 500 vehicles per year and shares a WMI with other companies. Otherwise, you can positively identify the manufacturer armed with these three digits and the NHTSA website. If you enter a WMI into that database and it doesn’t show up, or shows up as a farm machinery manufacturer in Laos, you can generally assume that the bike is not registered with the NHTSA and thus has been imported illegaly.
2strokebuzz’s Scooter VIN database lists all the scooter WMIs we could find, and also tells you what country your scooter came from. If you don’t see your scooter on that list, please send it to us, we’ll add it.
Find the first three letters of your VIN, and have a look. In your example, a Yamaha Vino, your Vin is probably “JYA,” which means it was built in Japan by Yamaha, or “LPR,” which would mean it was made in China by their subsidary, Yamaha Motor Taiwan Co., Ltd. It’s curious that a company with “Taiwan” in their name would have a VMI that starts with “L,” (Taiwan’s RMIs start with “R”), but Yamaha is a big-time responsible company, so I would imagine it means their subsidary in Taiwan runs a factory in mainland China. Cars are the same way, if Toyota builds a car in Kentucky, it’ll have an American VIN, if Ford builds a car in Mexico, its VIN will start with a 3.
What about all those other scooters that look like Vinos? Look ’em up in the database. They’re not made by Yamaha. In fact, you may even see some with “Yamaha” stamped on the side of the engine that weren’t even made by Yamaha. There’s a lot of weirdness, bootlegging and intellectual property theft going on in China.
Some of that weirdness doesn’t stay in China. For instance, we found a Diamo scooter (to be fair, it was at a trade show and not for sale) with a WMI starting with “Q,” a letter that is generally not used in VINs, and not assigned to any country. It may have been a prototype, but if you see a scooter on a showroom floor with a VIN starting with “Q,” run away, fast. Other manufacturers use import/export laws and the lack of NHTSA enforcement to their advantage. Some of the bikes listed as being made in the U.S. or Mexico may have had a few parts bolted on here, but you can be sure the bulk of the scooter was manufactured in China.
So all those other “Vinos” are not the same. They are made by a variety of manufacturers with varying quality control standards, and imported by a variety of importers with a wide range of ethics. Scooters that look exactly the same might have been built hundreds of miles apart by two unrelated companies. Sometimes, even two scooters made in the same factory that look identical can vary in quality, the importer may or may not be involved in the production and quality control. You can learn a lot by looking at that list, you’ll see that some well-known brands have changed manufacturers a few times (are the parts as interchangeable as the suppliers?), and some vendors supply a dozen different importers. The scooter market is not pretty, but checking the WMI can usually help you find your way to the truth.
Do you have a question for the 2strokebuzz experts? Email Dr. Buzz! Your confidentiality is guaranteed.
Note: Dr. Buzz is an unlicensed, mostly-fictional doctor. Take his advice, and that of his team of experts, with a grain of salt.