Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The first time I laid eyes on a Vespa it was 1994.  Until then, I had never heard of Vespa scooters.  I must have seen them in pictures or on the streets, but I couldn't have picked one out of a lineup.

It was my brother Tom that inadvertently got me hooked.  He was a senior in high school and persuaded our parents to let him sell the family's old 1978 Toyota Corona station wagon in order to buy a 1979 Vespa P200E.  It was $400 if I remember correctly.  When we brought it home it was in pieces, but I was able to quickly get it running.  It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Tom and I had had other vehicles growing up, from go-karts to mini-bikes, to a Honda Aero 80 scooter, and we enjoyed them together, but our individual connections to them were distinct.  Tom had a much more balanced life with lots of friends and other hobbies.  I had difficulties connecting with my peers and found myself talking about go-karts non-stop, obsessing about various repairs and modifications. A kid like me has trouble making friends, but a kid like me with wheels can get by.

Anyway, this project followed the same pattern as other projects Tom and I had as kids.  He acquired the vehicle because he had the taste and the social skills to do so.  I repaired the vehicle, with Tom handing me tools and helping out along the way.  Then we struggled to work out a joint-custody arrangement.

We finished that restoration just a few days before I entered the Missionary Training Center to begin a two-year mission for my church.

This is what it looked like when we were finished.  Fall 1994.

When I got home from my mission the first thing I was dying to do was to ride the Vespa.  I ransacked my room until I found the envelope containing keys that Tom had hidden for me before he left for his mission.  It would be a year before Tom came home from Brazil.  During that time I rode the Vespa everywhere.  In addition to being basic transportation it was a decompression valve, and a key that opened doors for me socially that I had hitherto been too clumsy to lockpick.

When Tom came home I handed the keys back over to him.  By that time I had begun fixing Vespas for other people.  I had also begun work on my 1963 Ford Galaxie.  I was getting my life underway.  College was going well.  I had a good job.  And I enjoyed fixing Vespas on the side.

I remember eating at a Japanese restaraunt with a friend (whose scooter I was helping to restore) and he began talking to the waiter about scooters.  When the waiter expressed interest in getting a Vespa, my friend introduced me to him as the expert.  I was floored when the waiter said that not only had he heard of me, he had my name and number in his wallet.

I restored and repaired a lot of other scooters during that period.  I met a pair of businessmen who, in addition to buying and selling used Levi's, had made a trip to Italy and returned with a container of classic Italian scooters.  With these now in local circulation, demand for my help increased dramatically.

We formed a scooter club called Brigham's Bees.  It was amazing to me to go on rides with ten or twenty other Vespa owners.  We'd line our scooters up in front of scenic mountain vistas and take pictures.  I would secretly count off the ones I had repaired or restored.  It gave me a great sense of accomplishment.  I had found, and forged, a community for myself.

I've tried to count the scooters I've restored.  I should have kept records and pictures of all of them.  I know I have restored at least 15 scooters since that first P200.  All of them for other people.

On July 28, 2004, I bought a Vespa for myself.  A shop in Austin, TX had a 1961 Vespa GS150 project.  Price $2000.  One of their employees was heading to Denver for the Mile High Mayhem scooter rally, and my friend Kent was also going to that rally, so between the two of them I was able to get it transported to Orem for free.  I wish I had pictures of it pre-restoration.  It was pretty ragged but full of potential.

I quickly took it all apart and took the body to a painter.  I ordered many of the parts I would need.  When the painter finished I began reassembly.  As at other times, with other aspects of my life, I got off to a good start.  Unfortunately I soon slacked off and the scooter began collecting dust.  

The process of restoration is pretty interesting.  It's a heartbreaking hobby.  Any time you undertake to fight entropy, you end up losing.  Just look at Joan Rivers.  Things deteriorate.  It's a law of nature.  trying to make things go the other direction takes a tremendous amount of energy, and when you stop putting that energy in, entropy reclaims its prey.

Restoring a vehicle is challenging on a few fronts.  First there's the problem of rust.  Rust is like a cancer that eats metal.  It gets into microscopic pores and seams in sheet metal.  It's very hard to eradicate.  There's also the problem of dents and dings.  Those kinds of scars require skill to remove.  On cars most of the sheet metal only has one exposed side, so you can get away with using dent fillers more liberally.  But with scooters much of the sheet metal is exposed on both sides, so filler very quickly makes it look too bulky and thick.  Also the sheet metal on a scooter body is exposed to more vibration and flexing, which can cause heavy filler to crack and flake off.

These are just a few of the problems.  Others include scarcity of replacement parts, repairing the mechanical parts like the engine and suspension, and refinishing the various parts in the appropriate finishes (chrome, polished alloy, paint, etc.)

When I first started with this hobby I had no qualms about having a scooter painted any color, or using whatever new parts were available for a restoration.   Gradually I've grown to appreciate original colors and refurbishing old parts, even when new ones would look nicer.  I like to try to preserve some of the history and character that come with age, rather than just making it look showroom new.  It's funny to me that I feel this way now, but I do nevertheless.

I have finally finished restoring that 1961 Vespa.  I guess it's a good time to have it finished because it's turning 50 this year.  This is the first scooter I have done for myself.  I think it turned out nicely.


Kevin said...

Great read Dave.

Kaerlig said...

The first time I ever laid eyes on a Vespa was in 1994 too- thanks to you. I wish that I could say that I was cool enough to pick up on the style and culture of Vespas on my own- but I wasn't-

David said...

The process of restoring this scooter parallels my life in so many ways that it is a personal metaphor of picking up things that were earlier left off. My education, my spirituality, my health-- all once derailed and neglected. All now under renewed construction.

This is what I forgot to say in the post.

Kaerlig said...

I like that metaphor.