#22: Bit by the Vintage Bug

Today’s question for Dr. Buzz (the “panel of experts” is still M.I.A.) comes from Katy D. in California. Katy owned a Honda Metropolitan in the past but…

…I always wanted a vintage Vespa but the price was not right. Now I can afford one, but am leery of venturing into unknown territory…

Dr. Buzz: Katy has some great specific questions that we’ll address one by one:

My friend got a vintage Vespa, which he found out later was made in Vietnam, so no mechanic would work on it and it was a total lemon. Since most vintage scooters are sold by individuals, not dealers, lemon laws do not apply. So how do you avoid buying a lemon vintage scooter? Also, it is easy to find out up front if the Vespa is an Italian or Vietnamese one?

First off, I’d have grave reservations about buying any vintage scooter sight-unseen from any source (even eBay or Craigslist). If you can’t inspect and ride the bike before sending money, don’t buy it.

In the case of Asian bikes, in most cases these guys are buying up cheap, thrashed scooters that are beyond hope of a quality restoration, and using cheap local labor and lax safety/environmental requirements (one site I saw a couple years ago bragged about professionalism right next to a photo of a shoeless ten-year-old banging on a frame!) to weld/bolt together a Frankenstein of old parts and new parts from several bikes. You’ll often find beer-can shims and a frame that’s more bondo than metal. They look great in photos, and even from a couple feet away, but that’s about it.

There are a couple possible exceptions. There’s even one Southeast Asia shop from whom I have bought parts and accessories, and I’ve always had a good experience with them. The owner truly loves scooters and posts on 2strokebuzz and seems like a top-notch guy. But with all due respect, I wouldn’t buy a scooter from his shop, simply because I can’t imagine buying any bike without seeing it in person first.

Here are some good Web resources to help identify Asian bodgery:

Rovers SC’s “Crash Course in Viet-Scoots”
List of Vietnamese dealers with comments
NYC Scootering “Vietbodge 101”
Scoot.net FAQ on Asian Restorations
And definitely Google the name of the importers and restorers, (dig deep, some pad ‘reviews’ pages with fake reviews.)

You’re right, it gets harder when private sellers buy them, drop some money into them trying to undo the damage, and then sell them to try to get their money back. Bikes like that have almost fooled me before. It really helps to bring someone along who knows what models had what features in what years, etc, and can give you good advice. Find your local vintage scooter club and ask for advice (but don’t let them buy it out from under you!)

Another clue is the VIN and paperwork. If the bike has matching VINs on the title, engine and frame; and they match the model and year of production (check for VIN tables) that’s a good sign, especially if the title is several years old. Know what the VIN should look like, some importers weld over the original ones and add their own with number punches.

Recent imports are often very difficult or impossible to title. If the seller has a recent title from a different (more lenient) state, be wary. If the title is “lost,” that’s always a bad sign, most states require loads of paperwork, police checks, and months of waiting before a replacement title will be issued, and you could learn the bike had been stolen years ago, or that it was never titled, putting you back at square one.

(Note: Some original U.S.-imported bikes do NOT have matching body and frame (The U.S. always got the end-of-batch mismatches, or sold models a year or two after they were produced, and engines get replaced, etc), and before VINs were standardized in the 80s, the DMV made a mess of them sometimes, but again, if the title is more than several years old, that’s a good sign. Also, most of the vintage bikes I’ve ever bought had some original dealer paperwork with ’em, too, like the well-worn original manual, maybe some dealer sell sheets, an invoice, or an accessories catalog. If you’re buying from someone who saved all that stuff for 30 years, it’s a good sign.

You can often get a vibe just by cost, location, and condition. If it’s a yuppie in a McMansion with a 3-car garage full of impulse-bought ‘toys,’ selling a brand-new-looking Vespa via Craigslist, and he can’t really tell you anything about it, and he ‘can’t find the paperwork right now’, run! If it’s a grizzled retiree selling a dusty bike with cracked 40-year-old CEAT tires, the original dealer sticker, and he goes to a file cabinet in his overorganized garage to find an old manila folder full of documentation, you’re probably in luck.

Basically, any vintage scooter that looks too good to be true probably is. If it looks brand new, ask what dealer restored it, or sold them the parts to restore it. Then call that dealer and ask them if they know about the bike. I’ve done that many times, and the dealer will generally tell you their opinion of the scooter. Restoring a bike properly can cost thousands of dollars and take months or years of hard work. Anyone who’s ever restored a bike will tell you that it’s not a wildly lucrative endeavor. Many shops will fix up trade-ins to sell, and maybe do a few full restorations a year to keep their mechanics busy when it’s slow, but in general, people restore bikes for themselves, not to sell. Again, the local clubs are helpful here. If the bike was done right by professionals, they’ll be aware of it.

The thing I loved about my Honda scooter was how simple the engine was and how easy maintenance was. I went to my scooter guy every six months and he tuned it up and checked everything and that was that. I could change spark plugs myself and fix little things here and there without reading the manual. And I am not at all technical. I loved my scooter and taking care of it was fun, because it was easy and made it run better. Are other scooters as simple to take care of? Are the vespa engines easy to understand? I do not mind some maintance but I don’t want to spend every weekend taking apart my scooter or bringing it to the shop.

Well, 2-strokes are in general pretty simple, but require a bit more attention. 4-strokes are more complicated, but way more reliable. All modern bikes are super-complicated with emissions regulations and all that, and even something simple like changing the sparkplug can be kind of a drag. Changing tires on an old Vespa takes five minutes, on a new bike, you can’t really do it yourself. But it’s all relative. And modern bikes have neat things like brakes that work, and lights that work. So it’s all a compromise.

A vintage Vespa is, honestly, always a gamble, even if you buy it from your best friend, things can go horribly wrong, you have to be prepared to accept that. Luckily parts and know-how is available and fixing them is fairly easy, but if you need a reliable daily rider from the get-go, you have to be really picky, and still cross your fingers.

All that said, maintenance is not terribly different than a modern scooter. Most vintage scooterists learn to do it themselves (it’s fairly simple), but there’s no reason a dealer can’t do it, and it might turn out to be a bit cheaper, since the engine’s a little easier to work on. Just remember to take it in! Without a warranty and a blank speedometer, it’s harder to remember to keep to the schedule.

What do you think of the Stella Scooter? It just became legal in California and so I am contemplating it. I love the way it looks but it is expensive and I know nothing about its reliability etc.

The new 4-stroke Stellas are actually (as of early August 2010) not available yet, the EPA is holding them for some mysterious reason (they passed all the tests months ago).

Honestly, I prefer the 2-stroke Stella (it’s been available outside California for years) not because I’m a snobby polluting luddite, but simply because it’s almost entirely interchangeable with an old Vespa PX150, so parts, accessories, and know-how are unchanged for decades, and all available in spades. The 4-stroke is indistinguishable if you don’t look under the cowls, and has a lot of good points, but it features a new engine that hasn’t stood the test of time yet. The 2-stroke has been discontinued, so soon the 4-stroke will be the only new Stella available and you won’t have any choice, and since you live in California, the 4-stroke is your only choice anyway. I wouldn’t advise against buying one, It’s a safe bet they’ll be great, I’m just saying given the option, I’d take the 2-stroke.

Stella quality is maybe not quite on par with an old Vespa-P-series (do they make anything like they used to?), but on the other hand, they haven’t been driven into the ground for decades, so it’s a fair tradeoff. When Vespa last sold the PX (5 years ago) the MSRP was $5,000, so the Stella’s certainly a better value. And while it may lack the charm of the curvier 60s/70s Vespas, it comes with a warranty and more modern brakes and shocks. So either Stella is a good value and built well for the price.

In conclusion, If you have the vintage bug, it’s critical to do your research and know what you’re looking for and what to expect from a vintage scooter before you buy. Vintage scooters are not good impulse buys! On the other hand, don’t be afraid to dig in, ask for help from local scooter clubs or online forums, and see what you can find. If you’re wary of the risks involved, you could do worse than a Stella while you take your time to learn about the different vintage Vespa and Lambretta models and hunt down the scooter of your dreams.

Do you have a question for our so-called experts? Email Dr. Buzz! Your confidentiality is guaranteed, to the degree that we’ll spell your last name with one letter.

Note: Dr. Buzz is an unlicensed, mostly-fictional doctor. Take his advice with a grain of salt.

10 thoughts on “#22: Bit by the Vintage Bug”

  1. I’m not sure where this person is from, but Phil at POC has planty of running vintage bikes in the shop.

  2. Buying a vintage bike from a reputable shop is usually a safe way to avoid a horribly bodged bike, but it’s important to remember that ANY vintage bike is liable to have hidden issues. A good dealer will generally be honest about the condition and known issues with the scooter, but even if they’ve gone over it with a fine-toothed-comb, it’s generally not sold with a warranty, and anything can happen. Also, remember that, just as with used cars, dealers hunt for bargains or trade-ins and then mark them up for profit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you might get a better bargain buying directly from a private seller.

    That said, If you live within three or four hours of Cleveland, and you find a vintage scooter for sale that Phil hasn’t already snapped up, it’s either junk, or they’re asking too much, ha.

  3. As for VINs on old Vespas. The frame number matching the title is the important bit in most states. I’ve heard of the mythical engine and frame number match but I’ve never actually seen it happen in real life.

    I just want to be clear so newbies don’t frustrate a legitimate seller with a pointless line of questioning about how the motor and frame numbers don’t match. My eyes are rolling in advance of Judy McNewb trying to negotiate a better price based on a mismatch of engine and frame numbers.

  4. Actually, we at the PVSC generally keep Phil out of PA and parts southeast of Cleveland.

  5. I tried to make that clear Brooke, though my odds have been better than yours (4 of the 5 vintage vespas I’ve had matched, though I’ve switched engines in one of them since and plan to do it in another).Probably because mine have been mostly barn finds and not bought from scooter nerds, ha.

    Also note the frame VIN has “T” as the fifth character (VBA1T) and the frame has “M”) (VBA1M)

    VIN locations: http://www.scooterhelp.com/serial/vespa.serial.locator.html

  6. You have a miracle record of them matching. That’s like lighting striking twice. I think I remember you telling me that though.

    I don’t think the engine and bodies were stamped at the same time so getting a matching set seems like the luck of the draw. I’m just saying, it’s not necessarily because someone has swapped them at a later time.

  7. Bryan, I wouldn’t call modern scooters “super-complicated”; rather, they are like the electroic gizmos that say “no user-serviceable parts inside”. While the engines in new cars are controlled by computers, cars have to comply with OBD II; you can buy a tool that plugs into the diagnostic port and shows the fault codes at Pep Boys for around 100 bucks. However, a modern Vespa doesn’t have to comply with OBD II, so you must use the proprietary Piaggio diagnostic tool, which is not readily available to the public (and probably too expensive for a home mechanic)…

  8. Generally, assume 6 months or 2-3,000 miles to ride all the bugs out of any vintage bike you find. Even if it’s a reputable seller. Hell, even if you know the seller, sometimes.

    That said, if you’re just getting into the vintage side of scootering, a Vespa P-series is a good place to start – lots of parts availability, generally a pretty well-engineered Vespa motor with most of the bugs found in previous designs worked out.

  9. The vintage-PX150-vs-new-Stella battle is tough. Most of us would obviously go with the P, just for quality and resale value, but for a new scooterist, the Stella warranty, roadside assistance, and dealer support (and the fresh paint) is pretty attractive. It probably comes down to the price difference at that point. Of course a P200E is a whole ‘nother story, that’s worth the premium and the risk for the more powerful engine. And no one’s bringing in Asian-restored P200s (yet) (afaik!).

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