I’ve been riding vintage scooters, and thus maintaining a small fleet of them, for more than 25 years. I’m still no pro mechanic, but I’ve learned a few essential things over the years. Before getting into specific repair and maintenance tasks, let’s consider the methodology and philosophy of working on scooters. Hopefully you’ll find that these concepts apply to vintage and modern scooters, cars, appliances… just about anything mechanical.
YOU CAN DO IT
If you have the interest, and the time, you can learn how to maintain and repair a scooter. It won’t happen overnight, but you will gradually acquire skills and knowledge that will surprise you. Reach outside your comfort zone to learn, but take your time and know your limits. If you’re thoughtful, methodical, and willing to learn, you’ll be fine.
IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME
It’s empowering. the challenges and victories feel good. It’s a good way to get to know your scooter. You’ll notice minor faults long before they become life-threatening issues. Finally, it’ll save you some money. Not only on scooters, either — if you can fix a scooter, you can fix a lot of things. The same skills, tools, and systems apply to your furnace, your clothes dryer, and especially your car. After you learn to replace your scooter brakes, you’ll start wondering why you pay a garage $900 to do your car brakes.
BE AN APPRENTICE
If you’re not comfortable digging in, ask friends or club mates if you can hang out and watch them work. They’ll usually appreciate the company and you’ll pick up some wisdom. Bring a six-pack and lend a hand, and you’ll be invited back.
THE RIGHT TOOL
Buy quality tools, and use the right tool for the job. Don’t try to fix a scooter with a pocket multitool. You’ll need a full set of good screwdrivers, metric combo wrenches, and metric sockets. That’ll cover most of your needs, you can buy other stuff as you need it. You’ll eventually need some electrical tools and specific Vespa service tools, but that’s down the road. In the meantime, borrow it from a club member (and for God’s sake, give it back promptly!).
DON’T BE A CHEAPSKATE
Don’t skimp on fluids, batteries, tires, riding gear, parts and accessories, “cheap” always ends up costing more later. You don’t need the highest-end European performance components, but stick to brand names from reputable sources. And please support vendors that support scootering. Oil might be $1/qt. cheaper with free shipping at sportbikezwarehouse.com but those guys aren’t going to help you replace your clutch cable by the side of the road.
THE RIGHT WORKSPACE
A good working environment is as essential as good tools. You don’t need a hydraulic lift and a wall of matching tool cases. You just need plenty of space, time, light, ventilation, and some good music. You can’t rebuild an engine on a gravel driveway as it’s getting dark and starting to snow, and the radio’s playing Staind rock blocks.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Keep your bike, tools, parts, and hands clean. A clean, carefully-maintained, and frequently ridden bike is easier to diagnose and work on. Clean up spills, sloppy wiring, loose screws, and metal shavings before they come back to haunt you.
Use common sense and stay alert. Don’t work when you’re tired, frustrated, or intoxicated. Wear mechanics’ gloves, eye protection and safe footwear. Be careful around power tools, heavy equipment, electricity, and fire. Follow local rules for disposal of batteries and fluids. Ask someone to check on you regularly, or to stay in range to hear you when you scream.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Have everything you need handy before you start. Give yourself ample time to set up, do the job, and clean up, figuring on things taking longer than you expect. Organize your space so you can leave the bike and tools while you run to the hardware store, or overnight, or until the weekend. Take notes, drawings, and photos as you disassemble. Keep loose bolts and screws sorted and labeled so you know where they go. If you’re missing a part or a tool, wait until you get it to move on. Be methodical and don’t rush anything. Take frequent deep breaths and bathroom breaks. Stay hydrated and reasonably sober. Do one task at a time, test it, then move on to the next one. Use Occam’s Razor and the scientific method. If something is frustrating you, take a break.
If something doesn’t fit, put down the 5-lb. hammer and figure out why it doesn’t fit. If something’s stripped, or rusted, or damaged, or frayed, or cracked, address the problem properly or you’ll have to deal with it again later, and it’ll be worse. If something needs to be welded or re-tapped, take it to a welder or a machinist. Ask club mates for references, or just Google it and pick up the phone. Don’t be intimidated by professionals, if you can clearly explain what you need, they’ll help you out.
Between the original manuals, Haynes manuals, later books, and the internet, the information you need is out there. Read up ahead of time, and anytime you get stuck. If you’ve diligently searched for answers and can’t find them, ask for help. Provide clear, detailed information; your model, year, modifications, the issue, what you’ve already tried. People are unlikely to help you when you ask vague questions or when it’s obvious you haven’t even Googled it yet.
LISTEN TO HELP
Scooter forum threads are often the same questions over and over, people looking for an answer they want to hear. Sure, not all internet advice is good, but if eight out of ten comments on a forum are telling you it’s an airleak, it’s probably an airleak. Messing with your stock jetting isn’t going to fix that, it’s just going to make diagnosis more difficult. Starting another thread about it on another forum isn’t helping anyone. Check a variety of sources and make an informed decision. With time it becomes obvious who to trust.
DON’T OVERTHINK IT
All that said, don’t read/ask/ponder/post/speculate yourself into a hole with a bunch of conflicting information. You’ll lay awake at night slowly being driven crazy by circular thinking. Nothing is THAT complicated, read up, make a plan, and execute the plan. If it doesn’t work, reset to zero, and try something else.
Keep It Stock, Stupid. If you don’t know what you’re doing (and smart enough to admit it!), don’t mess with performance modifications until your bike is running perfectly under stock conditions. Adding a performance exhaust or Dremel-ing your cylinder ports isn’t going to fix a real problem with your bike. Get it running as Corradino D’Ascanio intended, THEN you can spend thousands of dollars to go four MPH faster.
SPEND WHERE IT COUNTS
Also, before throwing cash at performance parts, invest in good wheels, tires, brakes, cables (OMG teflon cables… WORTH IT), ignition, lighting and suspension, the things that keep you alive and on the road. Don’t put a $3000 pipe and a liquid-cooled 220 cylinder on a bike with rotten 60s CEAT tires and tubes.
DON’T LOSE FAITH
Sometimes it doesn’t go well. Sometimes the new part doesn’t fit, a bolt strips, or something snaps in half. Sometimes your friend Bryan shows up and drops a clutch woodruff key into the engine you just spent a whole weekend putting back together. Walk away, take a break, and come back to it and try again, it’ll be ok. It’s only a scooter. If you’re like most of us, you probably have several more of them. Each challenge is an opportunity to learn more about your bike AND yourself!
©2021 Bryan Bedell, Vespa Club of America, Chicago Chapter. Photo courtesy of Phil Pace even though I didn’t technically ask him if I could use it.