Where should I buy a vintage Vespa?
July 26, 2011 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I want to buy a vintage vespa (pre-1970) and I keep seeing a lot of sites selling them out of Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Does anyone have experience with buying them from one of the websites? Am I better off buying a junker and getting it restored locally? Also - what are the licensing requirements for a Vespa in Massachusetts?
posted by joshuamcginnis to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Congratulations on your decision to purchase a vintage Vespa scooter! I have enjoyed riding them for years -- ever since I bought a 1964 Allstate 125 about 10 years ago.

You have stumbled upon one of the great rules about vintage scooter buying:


Seriously. Don't do it. These are not complicated machines. Parts and service manuals are readily available. There are websites and forums dedicated to people helping each other repair them.

Further, learning to rebuild it yourself is both rewarding and empowering. If you buy something Vietnamese and shiny, then what will you do when you break a cable while riding? Or when you need to do roadside emergency maintenance on your carb? Because it. will. happen. Even with a scooter in the best of shape.

But the real reason you don't want to buy Asian? Those scooters are death traps. For real. Those scooters have been used as daily riders now for generations, in areas that don't require much in the way of inspections, and many times having been repaired with cheap and improper parts.

I've been inside a few Asian bikes. They may look shiny on the outside, but a lot of times you'll see layer after layer of paint covering up some nasty rust. I have seen engines with stripped case bolts, held together solely by virtue of tinfoil wedged in with the bolt. I have seen parts from unidentified other bikes shoehorned into a Vespa engine. I have seen gaskets made from soda cans, cereal boxes... There is a reason people refer to these as shiny shitboxes.

Again, just for clarity:

posted by kaseijin at 8:00 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

Also: restore it yourself. It's not hard, and you'll be VERY glad you did. It can be a fun project!
posted by kaseijin at 8:00 AM on July 26, 2011

Also, why pre-1970? If you are looking for an occasional ride, then awesome.... but if you are looking for a daily rider with some vintage style, then I would suggest buying IN the 1970's, right up to very early 80's - something like a Super Sport or a P.

P's may not exactly look all "Roman Holiday" but they are total workhorses. If you are going to be getting out into traffic, I would look for something with 10" tyres instead of 8", as well.

8" bikes can do alright, but let me tell you...going even 45 mph on 8" tyres can be a...thrilling...experience. I left my exhaust in a pothole once.
posted by kaseijin at 8:08 AM on July 26, 2011

Anything with an engine larger than 50cc or a top speed higher than 30mph needs to be plated and insured like a motorcycle in Massachusetts. You'll also need a class M license to operate it.
posted by drumcorpse at 8:12 AM on July 26, 2011

As a long time vintage scooter owner and rider myself - listen to kaseijin. He speaks the truth.
posted by Wolfie at 9:40 AM on July 26, 2011

Yup, I done a bit of this too (see my profile pic), and kaseijin is right. All the way down to the soda can thing.

Worst fake parts I've seen were a big end bearing made from a coke can in a Cambodian bike, and small end bearing made from copper gas pipe in a Vietnamese one. Both those bikes threw pieces of bearing and/or conn rod through their piston at speed, resulting in complete destruction of their engines, and rather gnarly crashes.

Even when proper parts are used they're often out of the Indian generic parts market for Vespa clones, and quality control on that stuff isn't good. Eg, buy a box of 100 speedo worm drives, get three good ones.

Whether it's on bikes on local roads, or bikes being prettied up for export, it's not uncommon to see serious structural rust buried under paint, putty or fibreglass.

On several occasions I've seen multiple bikes chopped and welded together. Front end, rear end, engine all from different models type thing. That's not just a problem in terms of the structural integrity and dynamics of the bike you're going to ride, but a potential killer for your chances of getting it into the States. As long as the right payments have been made, Vietnamese or Cambodian customs won't give a rat's arse that it's leaving, but if US customs thinks a bike has been chopped to hide a history of theft, they'll keep it. Similarly, if your frame and engine numbers are from different models, you'll have a hard time proving compliance with safety laws, and again you'll lose the bike.

In short, unless you know what you're doing, and you can supervise the restoration of the bike you're buying while on the ground in Vietnam or Cambodia (or Indonesia or wherever), it really is best to give it a miss.

I'd take similar care with second hand Indian Vespa clones. They can be really good bikes when they're at home and no more than 10kms from a parts shop and a mechanic. They can be really good bikes if you're willing to carry the contents of that parts shop on your rack (Profile pic is me doing that and travelling internationally). But if you can't do that stuff, pretty soon they're broken by the side of the road and you're walking.

Do as others have said, buy a wreck or two, do some learning, restore one from the ground up. Then put in a few minutes every day maintaining it. and it will reward you a million fold.
posted by Ahab at 10:24 AM on July 26, 2011

I don't mind doing fix it stuff on the weekends, but I'll never repaint it and re-chrome the pieces myself. How does one manage to get this done?

Do I just find a body shop and just ask them to restore it? I mean, that's what Rick on Pawn Stars does. He takes his projects to Counts Customs. :p
posted by joshuamcginnis at 11:35 AM on July 26, 2011

This would probably be more a case of doing what work you can yourself, and farming out the parts you can't to professionals. Paint can be done at an automotive body shop. Good chrome shops are a bit scarcer, so depending on where you live, you'd probably be removing the chrome parts and shipping them to a specialist.
But if you don't want to do a good chunk of the work yourself, just buying a scooter that someone else has already fixed up (or is in good shape to start) will quite possibly end up costing you far less than buying a beater and paying someone to do the restoration.
posted by zombiedance at 11:53 AM on July 26, 2011

Many of the bits on vintage Vespas that appear to be chromed (headlight bezel, flywheel hood, gearbox cover, tail light enclosure) are actually buffed stainless. You could take them and have them dipped in show chrome for a sum, but then you may make them too thick to fit properly. You can buff a lot with a dremel tool and some wadding polish or, if they are really pitted with rust, you can always buy replacements.

As for the chrome trim and bits around the legshield and whatnot, you can purchase that new from places like Scooterworks.

As far as painting? Yeah, absolutely take that to somebody who knows what they are doing. You're going to want to drop the engine out of the bike to work on it anyway...and maybe the wiring harness, as well. The frame on Vespas is monocoque -- all in one piece, so just take everything off of it, and take it to be blasted and sprayed.

If buying a project bike, here are some things that I would look for:
  • Straight frame
  • unfrozen engine
  • no rust
Everything else can be repaired and replaced. For a first bike, though, I'd also suggest finding one that will turn over, maybe even start -- even if just briefly. Having a workable starting point will make your repairs seem less daunting.
posted by kaseijin at 12:23 PM on July 26, 2011

Oh, and many apologies if this is too basic, but when checking to see that an engine is not frozen...be sure the piston pumps while slowly depressing the kickstart with the spark plug removed. I've known people who bought seized engines after the seller demonstrated to them how the engine was not frozen by rolling the bike around...in neutral.
posted by kaseijin at 12:26 PM on July 26, 2011

Listen to kaseijin. NO VINTAGE ASIAN SCOOTERS!!!!

Take the MSF class and get your MC endorsement if you don't already have it.
posted by vespabelle at 1:38 PM on July 26, 2011

50 cc and under in MA is considered sort of a joke as far as the registry is concerned. you neednt even be insured and they give you a STICKER to put on the bike. however, the law has changed somewhat in the past couple of years and they've thrown this into the mix. you will need a class m lic which is quite easy to obtain as opposed to some other states. 30 bucks and a form will let you take the written test (18 out of 25 correct answers of general to somewhat specific cycle laws/safety passes) and then you get two years to ride on your permit, albeit not after dark and not with a passenger. and not that i have direct exper with asian vespas, but i too have heard and seen the nightmare stories. avoid vietnam vespas!
posted by ps_im_awesome at 3:45 PM on July 26, 2011

posted by imjustsaying at 4:48 AM on July 27, 2011

I've been riding old Vespas for over 15 years, and I'm echoing what everyone else says. I recommend buying locally. I see you are in MA. If you are near Boston check out Eric's shop.

Check out this forum for tips on buying a Vespa (and maintaining it).

I'm in Boston, feel free to PM me with any questions
posted by toddst at 7:12 AM on July 27, 2011

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