So you think classic scooters are terrible. Of course you do – you’re a motorcyclist. But take off those leather blinkers, biker – you might just be missing a trick…
Like pizza, opera and complicated tax avoidance schemes, the Vespa is an unassailable Italian institution. Named after Genoan industrialist and scooter manufacturer Enrico Piaggio exclaimed “Sembra una vespa!” (It looks like a wasp!) for its bulbous thorax and antennae-like handlebars, the small wheeled wonder has been a fixture of the world’s roads since 1946. But not everyone is enamored of them – particularly motorcyclists. Here’s 12 reasons why bikers should give even Vespa’s lowly PK50 model a chance:
1. Its designer hated motorcycles – not motorcyclists
The PK50 (above) is one of the popular ‘P’ range of Vespas imported into the UK and traces its history back to original designer Corradino D’Ascanio’s classic 50cc model of 1963. D’Ascanio, an aeronautical designer who actively disliked traditional motorcycles, helped Piaggio’s already successful scooter company to exploit rule changes in 1950s Italian legislation which allowed for a bike of 50cc to be ridden without number plates or a licence by a child of just 14. His plan worked – since then more than three million 50cc Vespas have been produced and more than 221,000 of those have been PK50s. And yes, you can still ride them at 14 in Italy (though the unsurprisingly high accident rate from this daft rule means it’s little more than a religiously acceptable form of late contraception.)
2. You don’t have to wear fancy dress
There’s no looking like you’re on a Power Rangers play date with a Vespa – normal clothes are the order of the day. The Vespa’s brilliant design as a practical everyday vehicle for post war Italy means you get smooth lipped fully enclosed bodywork, so your clothes won’t get caught on anything or covered in grease.
There’s no oily chain drive to lubricate or adjust and a pair of sturdy closable hooks in front of the seat means your shopping bags even have a place to live too. And before you ask, the Vespa was indeed conceived as a machine to be ridden two up (even good Catholics need a break sometimes).
3. It weighs next to nothing
With its cheap-to-manufacture monocoque pressed steel frame and unitary two stroke fan cooled engine fitted low to the ground, the PK is incredibly light, weighing in at only 77kg dry. This featherweight feel means that most people – young, old, fat, slim, mad and sane alike all feel instantly at home on a Vespa.
Its lightness is also bonus once you run out of petrol too (which, with no fuel gauge or mileometer on home grown models, you most definitely will) as it’s extremely easy to push home.
4. It’s simple
Never mind the Flintstones-tech 3-port two stroke mechanics, Vespas are good news for technophobes of all persuasions.
For a start there’s a welcome lack of electronic trickery to announce itself at precisely the wrong moment. Flicking the single position ignition switch activates precisely nothing on this PK. There isn’t even a battery! What you do get are a few coloured wires strewn about the place and on later models a transistorised CD ignition system, so no contact breaker points to worry about burning out or adjusting.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn there aren’t any warning or brake lights on this Italian model either. The legally required 12 Volt driving lights and ridiculous pulsing horn are powered directly from the regulated AC alternator – press the horn and you just sound like an angry duck connected to the mains.
5. Starting it is incredibly easy
Reaching down beneath your shopping bags reveals two of the Vespa’s few controls. One for the petrol tank (reserve, main and off arrive through 180 degrees) and a pull-out choke.
With a cold engine, simply apply full choke, crack the throttle slightly and press down smoothly and consistently with your heel on the huge kick-start lever as if you were spooling up an old fashioned sewing machine until the noise of a geriatric leaf blower heralds a correctly functioning engine. Simple.
6. Riding it is even easier
Running on choke, the slow revving motor initially might pop and cough, but don’t worry Madam – they all do that. After a few seconds and with a bit of heat in the alloy, the choke can be eased in and with a twist of throttle to keep things going, that familiar unhurried fan-cooled whir takes over and it’s chocks away.
If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle with twist grip gears, congratulations – you already know how to change gear on a Vespa. Squeeze the springy clutch lever and rotate the twist grip firmly backwards and the motor will jolt (or if the clutch is poorly adjusted, sickeningly bang) into first gear. With a little finessing of the throttle and clutch, away you whir, changing up with an opposite forward twist every few seconds until you get into fourth – top gear – where point number seven comes into play.
7. It’s all about the ‘me’ time
Reflected in profile, the Vespa is undoubtedly a design classic and makes any rider look approximately 17% cooler than they were before jumping on board (alas, the same cannot be said of the equally iconic Honda Cub whose riders tend to look like they’re on their way to a map reading convention). In their ideal urban environment, the classier Vespa rider quickly clunks into top gear, forgets about the controls/all aspects of road safety and relaxes into the time honoured tradition of looking narcissistically at themselves in shop windows: essential scooter riding technique.
8. It’s properly unisex
No need to feel like you’re riding a girl’s bike – or a man’s one come to that. There’s just nothing remotely macho or overtly feminine about the Vespa – it’s the purest form of non-binary agenderised liberal-friendly transport ever made; a key part of its marketing genius and undoubtedly the backbone of its success as a transport icon and sales marvel since 1946.
9. It qualifies as a form of brain training for the elderly*
Despite Piaggio’s claims of fuel consumption in excess of 100 mpg (unlikely, and impossible to confirm without the Italian market bike’s missing odometer) it’s always advisable to top up the tiny one and a quarter gallon under seat tank with fuel before a run. But remember, older Vespas like this one are pre-mix, meaning you’ll be frequently resorting to mathematics to work out what 2% of however many litres of unleaded you just put in is, so you can measure out the right quantity of oil. Unless there’s an App for it now (I expect there’s an App for it now).
(*blogger has absolutely no evidence for this)
10. Mastering the Vespa’s handling will improve your motorcycling skills…
Ever notice how successful race bike riders always claim to have practiced on bump-strewn off road courses to hone their skills? No reason then why a Vespa’s equally unpredictable meanderings won’t sharpen yours.
At low speeds, the Vespa’s short wheelbase, tiny interchangeable 10” x 3” wheels give what charitable road testers describe as ‘sprightly’ handling. On faster or bumpier roads you can scrub that description – it’s plain unpredictable.
Experienced Vespisti know scooters require a different technique to bikes. “Let the thing turn under you” they say, and rather than feeling at one with it as you would a motorcycle, accept that the Vespa was designed by an aeronautical engineer. ‘Flying by the seat of your pants’ is a good way to describe it, as the rudimentary suspension doesn’t so much as absorb bumps as propel you through the air into the next ones.
11…and the brakes will change the way you think about stray animals and unpredictable children
It’s not that the Vespa’s tiny drum brakes don’t work exactly, but if you’re used to a triple disc ABS set up, TLS drums or even shoe leather, the first time a stray dog wanders listlessly in front of an inexperienced Vespa pilot will forever be remembered as The Time Of Great Panic. The problem with all old scooters is that you must remember to lift your foot onto the floor-mounted pedal before you brake else you’ll find yourself stamping uselessly at the floorboards as you brace for an RSPCA inquiry. Still, it’s a lesson you, if not the dog, tend to learn just the once.
12. And yes it’s slow, but you’ll soon learn the satisfying lesson that Speed Isn’t Everything…
Despite having next to no power, the Vespa’s
saving grace secret weapon is a well-weighted flywheel and crank-web combo. It’s unnatural if you’re used to all-or-nothing two stroke Japanese tiddlers and I don’t want to invoke the word ‘torquey’ here but the result of its heavy flywheel is a low revving motor which actually which allows itself to be lugged. The Vespa maintains smooth and stately progress without heavy throttle inputs and is little affected by small inclines or being two up – or three, or four up or…(it was designed in Italy remember).
Second bike anyone?
Produced between 1982 and 1986, by far the most important thing about buying a PK50 (or all Vespas in fact) is to check for frame rust. As it uses a pressed steel frame, the monocoque bodywork you see ‘is’ the frame, so any rust, particularly round the exposed running board edges and central spinal sections can be a cause for concern. As many have been repainted, it’s easy to disguise poor repairs so unless you see picture evidence of a restoration and are in any doubt, don’t.
Jumping out of gear: The cruciform – a relatively simple part unfortunately hidden deep within the separately lubricated gearbox can wear, leading to sudden jumping out of gear, getting worse if the scooter is loaded heavily or struggling uphill. A common fault and fixable by specialists or a competent amateur with a full engine strip.
Stiff gear change: The double cable set up should be regularly lubricated and checked for correct adjustment. Replacement is fiddly but straightforward.
Gearbox oil seals can leak on the crank side, leading to an induction of gearbox oil into the combustion chamber and the kind of smoke that might make you wonder if you accidentally filled it up with diesel. Failed seals on the other side of the crankshaft lead to weak running and can cause seizure if not caught in time.
Suspension units wear out but are easily available as simple bolt-on aftermarket replacements. The Internet is your friend when it comes to Vespa parts.
Electrics are simple, and the electronic ignition models are much more reliable than their points predecessors. Some PKs have an electric start and these models will have a small battery too.
Tuning and customisation: Smallframe Vespas were popular with the Eighties scooter scene enthusiasts who modified many to create ‘cut downs’ with drastically butchered leg shields and rear bodywork, extended front forks and frequently incredibly artistic paintwork murals. Even today, there’s a strong market in modifying PK series Vespas for performance. A ‘kitted’ Vespa will typically have a larger aftermarket ported performance barrel and piston, larger carb, expansion chamber exhaust and maybe a lighter flywheel. Problems with performance modifications are many, with broken woodruff keys between the flywheel and crank common, as well as lunched main and big end bearings and overstressed gearbox and clutch mechanisms. Unless you really know what you’re doing, have perused the specialist forums and have a good knowledge of what to look out for, modified bikes are best avoided. A good rule of thumb is that if you want a really fast Vespa, buy a motorbike.
Rarity: The result of the tuning industry and the fate of many of the original UK imports succumbing to customisation is that original unmolested examples are few and far between and even the previously unpopular PK range is starting to command a fair price now.
Buying online: As a result of their rarity, some consider buying sight unseen from abroad. Be extremely wary of buying any Vespa advertised on an online auction site for sale from the Far East or India, even if it seems a total bargain. Horror stories abound of several scooters being welded into one and mechanics so bodged it’d make an Italian over-salt their pasta. There are imports arriving from Italy though, where they remain plentiful and being principally used as commuter machines are unmodified – a much better bet. Check online specialist sites or the specialist magazine’s For Sale sections.
How much should I pay for a PK50?
Total basket case: £200
Complete, running, rough £500
On the road in good to excellent condition £900+