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Scooters to Beware Of (part 2: Vintage)

Vintage Vespa scooters are all over the internet and are popping up in shops everywhere (including a few shops right here in Vermont). You'll see some of the shiniest old scooters on Ebay and on websites, and have no idea that these machines are Southeast Asian "Frankenscooters." The dealer might even come right out and say "These are imported from Italy" even though they are, in fact, Vietnamese bodge jobs. Read this article (complete with pretty pictures) to see what they look like once the bling is stripped away. Most of these scooters come from Vietnam, though many have also come out of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. They are considered "flipped" machines, old scooters that have been beating dirt roads since the Vietnam War, aquired cheaply and done-over to be nice and shiny, then sold to a dealer or wholesaler to be sprung upon new scooterists who have no idea what they are in for (the dealers themselves might not even know). Most often these models are Sprints, VBCs or VBBs (exported heavily to Southeast Asia), or even chopped and accessorized to clumsily resemble (and be sold as) older 1950's "handlebar" Vespas, and while not all Vietnamese Vespas are rolling deathtraps (ScootRS is the one exception that comes to mind) enough of them are so as to be assumed unsafe.

"Unsafe" comes in many categories. The most frequent offenders are scooters that are a composite of two or more frames welded together, bearing multiple holes and rust covered by bondo so thick you cannot stick a magnet to the steel body, cracks in the body covered by chrome accessories or paint, forks that are poorly welded together to accomodate larger wheels, rusted and uneven brake drums, and engines rebuilt with incorrect parts, bolts, or dangerous substitutions (brass inserts, coffee cans, cola cans, gaskets made from beer 12-packs, etc). At best, these machines will not run well (or even start up), at worst the frame will fold in the middle from all the hidden rust while you're zipping down a road full-throttle. Many serious accidents have occured due to bodged scooter restos, and the scooter community has been taking steps (such as this) to make the unwary public educated in these matters.

Spotting a Bodge-Job

Thankfully, there are many similarities in these bikes that are easy to spot. Bear in mind that not all bikes with these characteristics are neccessarily bad bikes, as much of the "bling" and other readily-available parts asociated with these bikes have been adopted by American riders (myself included), but if you don't know the dealer and have no one who can vouch for them it's better to be safe than sorry. Not all of these extra parts and window-dressing are bad in and of themselves (some of them are actually quite nifty), but they are characteristic of Viet scoots, and often used to hide bigger problems underneath.

One thing I've started seeing a lot of is tricked-out motors... not tricked out with greater functionality or with super fabulous performance parts, tricked-out with nice chrome and nice paintjobs to match the bike. Asian resto shops LOVE color-matching just about everything on their bikes, and the motors are no exception. On the example here you'll even notice a color-coordinated flywheel, which is very typically an Asian maneuver. Also seen are chrome flywheel cover, airbox, kickstarter and gear selector box.

Another variety we've been seeing a lot of is the copying of designs from older handlebar bikes, most often applied to VBB scooters. In the photo you'll notice the chrome handlebars with steel-wrapped cables, rather than the painted handlebars and grey plastic-sleeved cables that were actually used. The steel cable outers are from modern motorcycles, the brake lever is probably also from the same. You might also see in the lower right of the photo the chomed steering column scallop. This is something else that Asian chop-shops do. The scalloped colar is actually the shape of the collar on the fram (rather than an extra piece fitted in) and thusly should be the same color as the rest of the paint.


In the two above photos you'll see more of the color-coordinating, as well as some of the extra chome dressing common to Viet bodges (and the pretty pearl pink is another giveaway). The chrome hubcap is an Asian thing (though many U.S. scooter shops sell them as well, but I'm guessing they are importing them from Vietnam), as well as the thin chrome fender bumper. In the second photo take a look at the plasic mat on the floor center, screwed down through the center with four screws (which is incorrect and trash), as well as the chrome edging along the outside edge of the floor. Originally these chrome edges ran along the top and sides of the legshield and down to the bottom, they didn't wrap all the way along the edge of the floor istelf.

This example has a lot of what I was talking about earlier. We can start with the rather ugly two-tone paint job. Viet bodges are almost always covered with the brightest, shiniest paint jobs imaginable in order to make you WANT it, as well as to hide a wide variety of structural problems. Not to mention, Vespa never built any two-tone scooters. They look hot, but not for the purist. That big front fender bumper chrome? Another common thing found on Asian restos, as well as the over-sized chrome "wings" on the top of the legshield (normally these bikes only have a small blue plastic logo in that area). This scooter was marked as a VBB, which brings up more problems. First of which being that the front fender is not a VBB fender. VBBs have rounded cowls and fenders, you'll notice this one is squared, and probably belonging to a Sprint model. The handlebars were discussed earlier, but you can see how they are applied to the incorrect scooter. Same goes for the headlight on the fender. these lights were used on "fenderlight" models in the late 40's and early 50's, and were discontinued for the same reasons that make this an unsafe bike while riding at night. The yellow rubber boots on the centerstand are also highly characteristic of Vietnamese scooters.

There are a lot of things to mention in this photo. You'll notice more of those color-coordinated seat covers, as well as a chrome grab-rail on the back of the rider's seat. This grab rail is a Vietnamese design. The "Piaggio" tag on the back of the seat cover? Another Vietnamese construct - the seat covers on these older Vespas were built by Aquilia, and not Piaggio. The chrome gas cap and the white rubber gasketing around the tank and glovebox, and the chrome frame under the pillion seat are things to notice, and while they are not terrible additions, they are very characteristically Asian. The nylon floor mat is another dead giveaway, as is the fact that there is a glovebox at all, considering that this is a VLB, and those weren't manufactured with gloveboxes.

Other things to keep an eye out:

The ever-so-common chrome exhaust extension (it's a thin steel pipe about 6 inches long bolted onto the end of a stock muffler, not to be confused with a performance exhaust). It looks nice, and keeps the soot off your tires, but is an Asian mainstay.

Chrome hardtail-style springs on the rear of the rider's seat. This was the standard seat shock absorber on 1940's and early-50's scooters, and not on the late-60's models you'll find them on at an Asian resto shop.

The front tire is more that 2 or 3 inches from the ground when the scooter is on its centerstand. This indicates that wrong parts were used - either in the center stand, the wheels, or even the front fork.


Before you buy your classic Vespa do some research. Find out all you can about the dealer, especially if you purchase the bike on the internet. If the scooter is at a local dealer it doesn't neccessarily mean that it's not the same deathtrap being flipped on Ebay, many dealers buy shipping containers filled with these bodges without knowing themselves what they are getting involved in. If you do buy such a scooter you may well be in for more trouble than you know. The lack of safety is a major issue of course, but should you take the scooter to a repair shop you might very well be turned away, as many mechanics don't want to take on the responsibility of a bad scooter (or be sued by the owner when they assume the problems with the bike are the fault of the mechanic). You'll also have difficulty reseling the scooter to anyone who might have done their own research. Besides, what kind of person would you be by selling off this dangerous scooter to yet another unwary victim? You become part of the problem! If you're not sure, ask some of the folks on ScooterBBS, this site is a very useful tool for this kind of thing, and there are a great deal of people who would be very willing to help you out.

Article by Kevin Montanaro


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