Our old friend and contributor Phil Waters of Pride of Cleveland Scooters sent this informative and funny dispatch with much insight about Piaggio’s dealer training, and some dirt on their upcoming scootersâ€¦ including photos of the Piaggio MP3-badged Gilera Fuoco 500!
Last week The Rabid Badger (Renae) and I attended Piaggio Dealer Training in lovely Costa Mesa, California. A rumor has been going around that Piaggio is closing their Costa Mesa Tech Center to dealers. We would only be able to get future training secondhand from certified “training centers” located regionally. In other words, it sounds like Piaggio is going to make folks from “ABC Motorcycle Mechanics School” pay big bucks to attend a training class, which will certify them to train the ever increasing number of questionable Piaggio/Vespa Dealers at a cost I’m sure will be split with Piaggio/Vespa. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I haven’t been wrong yet.
The last time I’d gone through Piaggio training was back in the ET4/ET2 days when Rolf Soltau would show up at your dealership in a Vespa-stickered Ford F150 with a few motors and tools in the back. You’d spend a day going through the motor, share tips and tricks, then retreat to the comfort of the nearest bar. God bless Scott Smallwood and his moonlighting as a bartender near Ohio State University. Rolf and I might still be recovering from that “Vespa Training.”
The current Piaggio/Vespa/Aprilia/Moto Guzzi tech center is located in a wonderfully diverse industrial block containing such wonders as a vintage Mini restoration shop, at least five exotic motorcycle/scooter shops, a fantastic vintage VW shop (VW Things and pickups everywhere) and the Paul Frank headquarters/thrift shop. The fact that Huntington Beach and the Pacific Ocean are less than a mile away was all the bait this snowballer needed to get the hell out of Cleveland for a week. The course was run by Vespa Guru Erik Larson, scooter savant Sean Needham and Porsche/VW/Audi/Vespa/Goggo/Zundapp/Herkimer technician Rolf Soltau. Make no mistake, these guys are not the detached, corporate suits we’ve learned to blame for all of Vespa USA’s woes. Erik’s experience dates back to his days as owner of Go Fast Scooters, and his performance exhaust system called the Go Fast “Thumbripper.” It was one of the first performance parts I paid good money for. He was there to support me then, and he’s still a vital part of the scooter culture here in the U.S.. He runs the tech center and you can tell “corporate image” is not the driving force behind this facility.
Our class was packed with dealers running the gamut from “we just got our Vespa franchise and we normally sell RVs” to “We’ve been selling 14 different kinds of motorcycles for 40 years and we’re tired of Chinese crap.” The skill level of the class varied greatly and it seemed to be a real challenge to keep everyone involved without losing the experienced mechanics’ attention. The vast majority of the class is “hands-on,” which is great because it’s simply useless to try to describe how modern scooters work using only PowerPoint and hand-outs. We started on the LX150 and special attention was given to its similarities to the ET4 motor, as dealers would probably be seeing both. Not only was there an LX150 there to work on, but also a complete LX150 motor on a stand, on which we did a 100% disassembly and rebuild during the first couple days of the class. Rolf and Sean did an excellent job not running away with technical jargon, yet still giving enough engineering info to keep the current techs interested. The funniest part was watching Rolf explaining the “genius” decompression valve on the LX150 motor only to have one of the modern Suzuki techs say “Damn, why does it have to be so big and clunky? The Suzuki unit is an eighth the size and works perfectly.” Rolf simply said “because it works and it never breaksâ€¦ back to reality.” Transitions were made into the complete rebuilding of a GT200 motor and addressing some known emissions “hiccups” with that motor, and their correct fixes. You can tell fuel injection is the way of the future, as the vast majority of class time was spent training us on the Digitek diagnostic computerâ€¦ basically, if you aren’t comfortable with fuel injection, your life is going to be really tough starting next year. Taiwan already has laws stating that ALL scooters must be fuel injected by the end of 2008.
Our training hinted that Piaggio might have the same plan, we were working on the new Vespa LXS 150, and that bike is EXACTLY the same as the LX150 except for what appears to be a completely superfluous fuel pump assembly (pictured above), and a different carburetor to comply with more strict Euro 3 standards. LX150s aren’t known for their great mileage, so this may be the ticket. The “S” will be available in Black, White, and Red and come stock with the optional-in-Europe sport seat (fastback, seats 1). If you want to ride two-up you’ll have to buy the “standard,” what is now being called the “touring” seat. I figure PiaggioUSA is certain they’ll sell a lot more $300 seats this way.
After extensive training on the GTS250, and little more than a familiarization with the BV500 and X9 (discontinued in the US), we moved on to what we knew would be the feature of the training, the MP3. This was especially interesting to us at POC, since we’d just had a $500 non-optional alignment tool shoved down our throat by PiaggioUSA, and an additional $95 for a home-made $1 CDrom that contained a Digitek update that U.S. dealers don’t have the hardware to download. Needless to say, we all had our hackles up and were itching for a fight. This MP3 business had better be damned involved! They did not let us down. I am going to sum up the entire 8 hours we spent on the MP3 with one simple statement; If you own an MP3 call your dealer right now and order the extended warranty, for the maximum amount of time they will sell it to you. You do not want to pay for a non-warranty repair on this scooter. The design is brilliant and it works perfectly, but every single system is reliant on at least one other system to operate correctly. Most dealers will not be truly “up to speed” on this bike for several years, if ever. The last thing you want is to pay $70 per hour (or more) while your mechanic learns how to service your scooter. The training material was too fresh, Sean is still picking it apart and finding flaws (he’s a troubleshooting genius). The video we saw was poorly translated and was at a grad-level engineering pace. There’s no way anyone in that class was able to grasp everything they were trying to shove at us, myself included.
The class was also great because the PiaggioUSA parts manager and one of their new parts techs were in attendance. It was fun for dealers to actually be in the same room with the people who have been telling them their parts have been on back-order for the past 2 months (sounds of fur flying). The Piaggio parts ordering system was explained to us in great detail and we were all relieved to see that it didn’t make any sense to them either. They are taking steps to make it better, but the ability to simply go online and click your part and know that it’s being pulled and shipped seems to be an unnaturally difficult task for PiaggioUSA.
My only criticism on the class was the complete denial of the existence of the PX150. Not a single minute was spent on the most prolific scooter in the Piaggio family. Instructors said “as a Vespa dealer, people will come to you with vintage scooters, you can’t make money on that stuff. Find your local vintage shop and give them the referral.” I found that to be quite frank and refreshing, but it was pretty creepy for there to be not even a handout on a scooter that has been sold in the US for at least 4 years and is definitely the most maintenance intensive. Piaggio is holding their hands over their ears while chanting “we really never brought in the PX150 scooter!”
While we were there, I noticed that Sean had been riding the new 500cc MP3, aka the Gilera Fuoco 500 (I will be calling it the “MP5” and the 400cc MP3 the “MP4” respectively). The bike looks dead sexy in the stealthy black finish, and if you don’t immediately think “Transforming Mastodon” or “Darth Vader Scooter,” you’re not getting it. They made it pretty clear they weren’t giving test rides. I waited until the last day of training then when everyone was gone at lunch I humbly asked for the keys. “Don’t hurt it, and don’t let anyone else see you taking it!” Good enough1 I’ve been riding my MP3 for a year, so I knew the 500 had to be impressive. It was. It does everything just as well as the MP3, without feeling heavier because of the extra CCs. The downside is you lose the cool pass-thru trunk and a whole lot of trunk space, the upside is the back-end looks like it was stolen from an Aprilia SR50 and it’s equally sinister coming or going. I had some fun blasting around Costa Mesa and had the speedo up to an indicated 90mph with no difficulty, I had to slow down due to crowded California traffic, but there was plenty of power in reserve. Clearly this bike will top 100mph and have handling to match. The only real change between the MP5 (Fuoco) and the earlier versions is the rear wheel, it’s a 14″er where the others are 12″s. I can’t say I felt this difference and I’m not even sure what benefit it offers as the fronts are still 12″s. Just be looking for me next rally season on the MP5 “dark”.