Ruminations on collecting classic scooters

November 27, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s almost 2012 and it’s become a regular activity for me to consider thinning out my collection. I have what feels like an overwhelming number of project bikes and I have no idea when I can get around to doing something with them. Laying in wait are a couple of Vespa VM2 faro basso’s, a ’52 Allstate, a VL3, GS 150 VS5, a VB1, and four Lambretta LD’s – an early Mk1, a ’54 French LD and two Mk3’s. Then there’s two Series 1 Li150s, two Heinkel Tourists, a Cezeta, and two Zundapp Bellas. To complete them all, this easily represents two years of work.

And that’s not all. A 1952 V33 faro basso was my first restoration project and I want to correct some of this small things about it that bother me. My second, pristine VB1 will need an engine rebuild if I want it to run reliably. Among the others I have finished are three LDs (one of each series), a VM1 and VM2, and a ’56 Allstate. An early Li125 Lambretta frame breather and Mk1 LD are among my completed ‘preservation’ efforts. Preservation, in other words, means keeping these scooters all original.

I’m conflicted. You can only ride one at a time and I find myself limited by time, job responsibilities, and the nine months of gloomy Pacific Northwest drizzle. Then again, scooters have never been about riding, clubs, and rallys for me. I like the work of restoring. Some people in the scootering community are repelled by this. That’s a valid point of view. These machines were made to ride, not to put on display. This thing of mine defines me more as a curator than a scooterist. So be it. I do love to ride, but restoring and admiring these works of moving art is what really makes me happy.

It’s easy to see that the queue of projects I’ve accumulated has become a bit overwhelming. In most cases each were acquired with a specific reason in mind… filling gaps in a collection that represents the classic scooters of the 1950’s. That makes it tough to let one go. The deeper I got into collecting, the more I realized the constraints of time and space. Not in Einstein’s terms though. I mean storage space and the time it takes to complete a project. And there’s the cost issue. At what point does a hobby become too expensive?

The sheer quantity of scooters manufactured in the 1950’s is surprising. The big two, Vespa and Lambretta, were the well known brands in the day. There are so many more I never heard of when this all began. The lesser known turned out to be the most interesting to me as a collector. Among the Italians, these are the all-aluminum Rumi and the Piatti, which looks like a big Twinkie with handlebars and a seat. German scooters such as the Heinkel, Durkopp, Goggo, Zundapp, NSU, and TWN are unique aesthetically, mechanically solid, and are great touring bikes. Classic French scooters have the most unusual designs and features. It’s almost as if they were intended to make a statement instead of being practical and reliable. The communists… IWL, Cezeta and Vyatka, are built like tanks. The Japanese Rabbit and Silver Pigeon had innovative designs. Spain had the Serveta. From Argentina came the Siambretta version of the Lambretta. France, Great Britain, and Germany also licensed manufacturing rights for the Vespa and Lambretta, each with their own minor variations over those made in Italy. Then there’s the Indian-made Lambretta’s and Vespas. This is only scratching the surface. The list could go on and on.

There are a surprising number of people who collect scooters. Their interests and reasons for having them vary. Some are riding enthusiasts and club members that have a lot of bikes. Others, a smaller group, are more into scooters as antiques. Some dedicated themselves to a particular marque and others don’t. Over the past few years, I have made contact with a handful of collectors in Europe and the US. In many cases the size and diversity of their collections has been humbling. The largest among them have included an amazing array of scooter memorabilia as well. Posters, advertisments, manufacturer’s promotional items, specialized tools, photos, etc. A lot of these collectibles are worth more than the scooters themselves.

No rambling diatribe about scooter collecting would be complete without mentioning Cushman. America’s contribution to the scooter world. The Cushman has a long history, pre-dating the Vespa and Lambretta. Legend is that the inspiration for the Vespa came to Enrico Piaggio after seeing the American soldiers riding Cushman’s during the occupation at the end of WWII. There’s a rich history surrounding Cushman, but that’s a story for another time. I don’t have any of these (yet), but in the US, Cushman scooter enthusiasts and collectors far outnumber the European enthusiasts. They aren’t as elegant as their Italian counterparts, but the utilitarian design and ruggedness of Cushman scooters have their own, uniquely American characteristics.

To paraphrase the American humorist Will Rogers, I never met a scooter I didn’t like. My New Year resolution is to get my collection of scooters organized and make some decisions about what I will keep and what I will sell. Invariably, more will be added to the stable, but I’ve realized at long last that you can’t have them all.

Vittorio Tessera’s Lambretta Restoration Guide

May 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Vittorio Tessera’s book is definitely worth owning if you have a Lambretta. Note that I didn’t say classic Lambretta, because basically they are all classics. The company is long gone. Every small detail of the specs are covered in Vittorios Restoration Guide from the color down to the variations within a specific model from the first to the end of production. It’s particularly useful if you are into doing nit-picky restorations that aim to put the scooter back to the way it was when it rolled out of the factory.

The Vespa equivalent, titled Vespa Technica, is quite good but it does have some inaccuracies and the hardbound set is a tad expensive. The other difference between Vespa Technica and Vittorio’s guide is that the Vespa set lacks soul. What the does that mean? Vittorio is a collector and his affection for the Lambretta marque shows in his books. He is a Master in the truest sense and makes a living through his expertise. Here’s a link to some photos of Vittorio’s Museum near Milan, courtesy of Alan Dollar, who is an avid scooter collector. I haven’t met Alan personally but his collection was featured in Scoot! Quarterly some time ago and it’s pretty impressive.

There are a lot of others with a real passion for Lambrettas and I don’t mean to sell them short… shop owners around the world, collectors, and enthusiasts of all kinds are keeping the Lambretta alive. You have to give the shop owners a lot of credit for having the nads to be in a business that serves such a small market, for a product made by a company that closed it’s doors 30 years ago. It’s easier to make money selling coffee or fast food than scooter parts and service. I’m glad all these people chose the latter.

A French Lambretta LD in the US is a rare find

March 13, 2011 § 26 Comments

Not too long ago, I received a tip about a French-made Lambretta LD for sale through another collector. These are very rare in the US.  These unusual Lambrettas were manufactured under licence by Société Industrielle de Troyes (SIT) in France. Contacting the seller, he mentioned that he had a second French LD and would toss that in for a very reasonable price. He sent some photos and volunteered to have a friend deliver them from Detroit to my digs in Chicago for free. I couldnt pass that up. I’ve shipped a lot of scooters over the years, and it typically runs between $600 and $1100, depending on the distance and crating fees.

When they arrived, I spent a little time checking them out. One was easily identifiable as one of the last made, probably a 1959 model. The other was much earlier. I’m guessing 1953-54. Both are miraclously whole. The older one is a complete restoration candidate. The other is in great original shape and still runs. Starting with the better of the two, I made sure it had gear oil, cleaned the carb, and repaired a leaky fuel tap then fired it up. Turns out it has a serious oil leak. The gasket between the crankcase and transmission is shot. Seems like a minor problem, but the LD engine and shaft-drive transmission are complicated. The rubber bits are dry rotted on both, but that’s normal for bikes this age.

The French LD can be distinguished from the Italian version by the position of the fuel and choke levers. These exit the frame near the feet instead of between the seats on the Italian made models. The seat covers are thick rubber instead of leather or vinyl, and the badges are different.

Finding information on the French LDs is tough, but there are several clubs and web sites (hosted in France) with what looks like useful information. Unfortunately, I’m not able to read French. I’d really like to find a cross reference of the serial number/VIN to a model year. I know where they were made (Troyes) but not the year.

Sometimes when you buy one of these old scooters you get a bonus. The older LD has a local club badge from Cote D’Azure. That suggests it spent it’s early life on the French Riviera. It’s always nice to have some clues to a where a classic bike has been… European tax stamps, licence plates, log books, etc. It also adds to the value.

In response to an inquiry posted on one of the French-language sites, a French LD enthusiast now living in Canada emailed me. In the course of that discussion I learned that new saddle covers are available. The seat frames are different as well. The truth be known, the thick rubber cover is a lot more comfortable to sit on than the Italian version.

It’s entirely possible that I have the only two French-made Lambretta LDs in the US. If anyone in North America reading this has one, please leave a comment or contact me directly. Outside the US… I would like to hear from you as well.

A Tale of Four Lambrettas

March 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Sometimes I feel like a real knob for starting new projects before finishing the last. The thing is… sometimes you have to wait a while to find a part before the work can continue. Or you are waiting for the paint shop to get around to the job. That can take weeks. To fill in those gaps, I start working on another bike. And the cycle repeats itself. Before you know it, there are four projects in various stages of completion. That’s where I find myself now.

There are four Lambrettas in my workshop. I use the term workshop loosely. For months, it’s been a cold storage facility for my scooters. I haven’t done a lick of work on them for months. My day job has been keeping me pretty busy.

This summer, I am determined to get these bikes finished. The paint and mechanical work is complete. All I need to do is finish reassembling them. This is always a lengthy process with Lambrettas. They have what sometimes seems like a thousand small parts. Far more than a Vespa of the same vintage. Three are LDs ( Mk1, Mk2, and Mk3) and the fourth is an Li 150 Series 1. I’ve put a ton of work into these old scooters. The time I invested in the finish work on the frame and sheet metal really shows. The paint is perfect, and the polishing and rechroming turned out great.

Not shown are the Zundapps and Heinkels. Or the Cezeta. Or the Vespa GS 150.  I swear that I wont start working on those until the four Lambrettas are done. I really mean it this time.

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