Sunday, January 27, 2013

1979 Vespa P200E

So why spend $2500 to buy a thirty three year old 200cc anachronism? I take that as a reasonable question, one that I have been forced to answer myself to myself several times since this mad search began last Fall. First, it's pretty in a purposeful way.

Second, it has a certain heritage. The first two stroke Vespa was built in 1946 after a design by a man who wanted to create affordable transportation that wasn't a motorcycle. Corradino D'Ascanio was an aircraft engineer who hated the exposed looks and accompanying dirt dust and oil of motorcycle riding. The first 98cc Vespa was capable of thirty miles an hour with a three speed gearbox and was easy enough to ride that a woman in skirts could manage to get aboard it with its step through frame. In 1946 women didn't routinely show off their underwear.

I saw this example in a privately owned museum in Pollenza in Italy a couple of years ago. It is numbered 2711 and is perfectly preserved. The outward resemblance to my Vespa built 33 years later is obvious in many details even though these scooters have evolved massively over the years. Even my wife's 2004 shares similar lines even though it has evolved to a four stroke engine with electric start.

If you accept the lineage and certain features, pressed metal bodywork, small wheels and a totally hidden engine, you will accept that owning a Vespa, especially in the US where scooters are objects of curiosity, is to some extent a passion, not a necessity.

Third it is eminently practical. A few people have traveled absurd distances on a Vespa. Italian philosopher and adventurer Giorgio Bettinelli practically lived an a P150 until he met and married a Chinese woman, got a virus and died suddenly in China as he tried to settle down after a life of wandering. Ironic but true. He said the Vespa humanized him and made him approachable anywhere in the world, not least because Vespas have been built and sold from factories all over the world. Even the Soviets ripped off the design and sold shoddy replicas in the USSR. These days India sells a replica called a Stella in the US and I had a dreadful relationship with a new Stella for 2800 miles before it blew up. To make an older Vespa practical it needs to be well restored and kept stock, in my opinion. Young enthusiasts like to use kits to boost these engines and squeeze performance with inevitable consequences.

My favorite feature is the spare wheel, just like a car's spare, carried unobtrusively and interchangeable with front and rear wheels. If the scooter had a battery it would be carried inside the wheel on a special tray which mine doesn't have. The rim can be split by unbolting the halves so tire and tube can be replaced without struggling with tire irons. Vespas have always had this feature throughout their evolution carrying the spare wheel behind the leg shield, on the rear carrier rack or under a side cowl.

Traveling by Vespa was enshrined for me by a racing motorcyclist who undertook crazy publicity journeys for the Italian manufacturers he represented in the 60s and 70s. Roberto Patrignani rode a Vespa from Milan to Tokyo to see the 1964 Olympics. He said the Vespa was easy to ride, comfortable and could carry luggage front and back which allowed the weight to be spread evenly across the machine. He called it the best motorcycle ever designed for travel. A tall claim that intrigued me.

Even today Vespas with their steel bodies can carry luggage racks front and back, my second favorite feature and one that is carried over to modern four stroke Vespas which have lost the spare wheel which has been replaced with tubeless tires. Easier to plug, hard to remove on the bigger four strokes.

My own connection to this scooter goes back to 1981 shortly after I met the adventurer Patrignani. I had planned a cross country trip on a Harley, Hollywood style. Instead luckily I decided to use my $1500 to buy a brand new Vespa P200 in Brooklyn and ride to San Francisco via Mexico where the picture below was taken.

After years of commuting on it in California I sold it when I took off on my sailboat, to my eternal regret. My purchase of the Indian Stella in 2004 was an attempt at recreating the connection. After that failure I was reluctant to get involved with another two stroke Vespa but I have had a lingering desire to try again. So here we are. And I did try the modern 250 GTS in 2007. It was fast and comfortable 85mph and 70 mpg with fuel injection and water cooling. But it proved unreliable blowing electrical relays that the dealer could not fix permanently under warranty. I was riding it "too much." That was another Vespa failure!

Five years later I figured I had tried the feeble imitation and the expensive replacement. What if I just went with the original? The recession has killed used Vespa prices, what would have sold for $4000 before 2008 is now going for a lot less. Vespas are toys in the US luckily for me. I found this one in Iowa advertised on the Modern Vespa forum and I planned to ride it home from Mason City. That was not to be as the Vespa burned a piston on my first test ride and I left it behind to be repaired by Greentree scooters, well known restorers of two stroke scooters. So why a vintage Vespa instead of the lovely powerful comfortable modern Vespa?

Vespa has had to modernize its line because scooters have become useful tools on an overcrowded planet. They are inexpensive personal transportation well adapted to crowded streets with no parking. And D'Ascanio's original conceit, that a scooter not be a motorcycle has been taken to heart by Asian manufacturers who build tubular frames around small motorcycle engines and gearless transmissions. They encase the twist-n'-go scooters in plastic bodywork and call it good. They have cavernous storage under their seats and in the photo above you can see my Vespa has a fuel tank under the seat- no storage. Unlike this Genuine Buddy made in Tawian happily ridden by Rob in Key West:

He has underseat storage and baskets from and back, no gears and endless miles to the gallon from his 50cc motor with electric start which will get him anywhere in Key West in ten minutes. My old scooter has turn signals but no kill switch, parking lights but no battery, and an on/off switch for the headlight a feature outlawed decades ago when the whole world decided motorcycles should run only with headlights on, for safety.

My scooter has storage behind the leg shield where I keep two stroke oil and a measuring cup to mix oil into the fuel (2% or 2.5 ounces per gallon). My scooter was built when automatic oil pumps were an option so this is a premix scooter. I like it for added simplicity but some people find it awkward because mixing fuel and oil is a nostalgic science at best. The wood block is supposed to work as a jack to replace the rear wheel. That I will have to practice! The T-shaped tool unscrews the spark plug, unscrews the wheels and separates the rims, all in one! On my previous Vespas I just used to lay them on their sides on a rag while I changed the spare. Batteries were also optional in 1979 in countries outside the US and the scooter runs on a magneto, even though it has parking lighs and turn signals which will only operate with the engine running... Look ma - no kill switch! The left hand button on a stalk is the on/off light switch:

A modern scooter has no gears and uses a belt and pulleys to transmit power to the rear wheel. The belt's lifespan is a guesstimate though you can ride it until it breaks, which I did recently with my wife's modern Vespa. Luckily the rear wheel didn't lock up at sixty miles an hour...and if you replace the belt yourself be sure to do it right. Steve of the scooter blog Scooter In The Sticks changed his own, left out a washer and destroyed the engine on his 150cc Vespa. So I am leery of belts, hidden behind the silver cover:

My wife's Vespa has electric start as well as a rudimentary kick starter, it has a carburetor though newer models use fuel injection to meet modern emissions standard. Fuel is metered automatically and all you do to go is get on, hit the starter button and twist the accelerator. On mine you open the fuel tap, open the choke if it is a cold start, turn on the key and start kicking. Above the choke you can see the luggage hook a feature seen on all Vespas ancient and modern in one form or another.

I believe my Vespa was built for the Canadian market as it has a metric speedometer with English labels. Instrumentation is basic, a turn signal indicator and a high beam indicator:

Once broken in my 200 should be able to keep up with my wife's 150, which will be the acid test for this scooter's suitability as a daily rider on US Highway One. My wife has more instruments including a fuel gauge. On mine when the engine sputters after maybe 90 miles you switch to reserve and find gas within another 30 miles...

Just to make things more complicated my scooter has a gearbox and a clutch. Four speeds are on the handlebar, so to change gear you pull in the clutch lever and twist the grip (!) which also has the turn signal control box.

All that means the rear brake, normally found on the left lever has to be somewhere else, in this case like all classic Vespas, on the floor. The rubber floor mat is a twenty five dollar option, but I like it as it is traditional and kills some of the buzziness of the vibrations of the two stroke motor. Note the wear on the brake, this scooter has been ridden at some point in its history.

On the subject of brakes the front drum on the early P series is notorious for inefficacy and lack of feel. In modern traffic this is probably the worst feature as you need to plan ahead as much as possible and rely on stomping on the rear brake for emergency stops...The P series Vespas are still built in 125 and 150cc models though neither are imported to the US! Though parts are easily available and not expensive. My new cylinder and piston complete cost $230, factory originals shipped from a German scooter shop. The modern two strokes as well as the Indian Stella have disc brakes at the front, which is a worthwhile upgrade frankly.

From that to this:

My Vespa has removable side covers, one covers the spare wheel, the other the engine which is made with a cast iron cylinder, an old fashioned solution that wears over time but offers lubrication properties for a hard working two stroke engine. The engine gets its spark from its sole piece of electronic gadgetry, a capacitor discharge ignition instead of old fashioned points, for which I am glad. It is also cooled, just like my wife's ET4 by a big forced air fan. No water cooling here:

It's a cool scooter, it should be good to 63 miles an hour and 60mpg with an occasional gearbox oil change and easy to replace tires. I know it isn't as pretty as the earlier models with their rounded curves and 50mph top speed, if they were lucky. I saw this lovely model in Gubbio, in Italy where most people ride sensible modern scooters, Hondas built in Italy and modern Italian scooters with plastic bodies by Piaggio, who owns the Vespa brand and several motorcycle and scooter companies. The new ones are works of art but some of us like the old ones:

I need some scooter performance because I live alongside a state highway and city speeds aren't enough. But I love the old curves and rounded forms, and though I have no pictures I think of my first motorized vehicle every time I look at my own P200. When I was twelve, in 1970 I illegally rode my orange Vespa 50R all over the mountains of central Italy, in Umbria, not far from Gubbio actually. My mother loved motorcycles and she firmly planted the seed before she died three years later. I thought of her when I saw this overloaded 50 in Carrara, in Italy.

I hope this works out. I feel I have rather too much on the line for this elderly Vespa which deserves a quiet retirement.

 

 

6 comments:

Circle Blue said...

I do so hope this all works out. The memories you carry of the P200 seem so rich. I can understand why so much is riding on this. In your place, I would be both excited and sure the whole thing was going to blow up in my face. I'm impressed you are risking it. I think this may reveal a strong sense of character on your part. Or, a lack of common sense. I'm voting for the former.

Oh, I do so hope this works out. I'm ready for a happyish ending.
~Keith

RichardM said...

I too hope this venture works out for you. Thank you for shedding some light on the workings of an older Vespa. I knew they had a manual transmission but there was no obvious way to shift. I remember seeing these in old movies and wondered why they weren't very common in the US.

Thirty years old is not old enough to be retired. That's the same as my airhead...

Lola Martini said...

That is a beautiful Vespa and a great story.

bayrider said...

Very interesting and informative. I think it's a reasonable enough purchase, I always wanted some fine romantic Italian wheels, Ducatis would be nice but too high a price, I would rather remain unemployed and debt free. All you need now is to queue up some classic Italian 60's cinema from Netflix and settle down with some Campari and soda...

john smith said...

"Vespa Scooter" an italian peice. Vespa is known for its monocoque design, which is the most prominent characteristic of this scooter, with single peice steel body, bright and shining paint.

Marcelo said...

Great history!

I have a 150 Super - brazilian spec (it's almost like a Sprint). I've upgraded the brake system to disc. It's a must!