Many Vespa Club of Chicago members have spent years hunting down rusty Vespas in barns and crawl spaces throughout the Midwest, so it still seems kind of crazy that you can just walk into a nice, clean, well-lit building, hand over a few thousand dollars, and ride home on a brand new scooter — with a warranty — and not even have to stop at the DMV. That all sounds very nice, but some of us are cheapskates. Some of us like a challenge. Some of us like to ride things you can’t buy at a store.
There are many options for buying a used scooter, whether it’s vintage or a current model. Most dealers sell used bikes, and that’s a good way to go, if you know and trust the dealer. Then there’s eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Cycle Trader. Remember, some sellers are elderly/rural, so don’t limit your search to the internet (or correctly-spelled words). Word of mouth is probably the best way to track one down: get the word out to friends and family. Ask on forums if anyone’s looking to sell. Usually you’ll have better luck with word of mouth than trying to beat others to a public listing.
Don’t buy sight-unseen. If you know the seller, or have friends who can vouch for their reputation, that’s probably OK, but in most circumstances, it’s pretty risky to pay for a used scooter online without seeing it in person first. Even “collector” sites like bringatrailer.com post some very sketchy scooters.
Questions to ask yourself:
Do you speak Latin?
Caveat emptor: Buyer beware! Obviously this means it’s up to you to ensure the scooter and seller are legitimate. But the more subtle meaning is that there’s no warranty and no way to know if there are hidden problems that even the seller’s not aware of. You have to be comfortable accepting some risk. If you’re not, buy a new, warrantied scooter from a reputable dealer.
Is it really the scooter you want?
There have been hundreds of makes and thousands of models of scooters made over the years. Do your research to ensure the scooter you’re considering is from a reputable manufacturer and that spare parts (especially parts like brakes, tires, cables, and bulbs) are easily available. Don’t assume that this availability is related to age, many vintage Vespas and Lambrettas are still surprisingly well-supported with parts and information, yet spare parts for many recent makes and models are already impossible to find. Note that some US-market models were modified from their domestic market, which can be a problem.
Don’t panic-buy the first bike you come across unless it’s what you really want, at a fair price. Sure, the “perfect” bike might not come up for sale very often (or in your price range) but keep saving and keep looking, you’ll find the right scooter before too long.
Is the scooter still available?
Act fast when a listing appears! There are people with alerts set up on every platform, watching all day, every day. Call/text right away and get ‘on the list,’ then go see it as soon as possible. If others are coming before you, confirm it’s still available before you head over to check it out.
Is 50cc enough?
There’s much more about displacement in our Guide to Scootering in Chicago, but let us say here that there’s absolutely no advantage to a 50cc scooter in Illinois other than the slightly lower cost. You still need a license, title, plates, insurance, etc. Maybe it’s the right bike if you have a specific limited use in mind, but we see so many folks buy a 50cc “to learn” and regret immediately that they hadn’t spent a bit more for a faster bike. Most 150cc scooters are identical in size to their 50cc counterparts, not much more expensive, no harder to operate, and give you enough power to keep up with traffic and go on longer rides.
Do you really want/need a scooter?
Is this scooter a reasonable expenditure considering your budget? Will you really ride it frequently? Will it change your life, or is it another expensive and unrealistic case of “retail therapy?” Are you absolutely sure safe, legal parking is available? Is it really cheaper, easier, and more fuel-efficient than taking the bus or carpooling?
Do you need it right now?
In Chicago, scooters sell for premium prices when the sun starts coming out in the spring and early summer. You’ll find fewer listed, but at better prices, at the end of the riding season, or in the depths of winter.
Do you have a license?
Please take a riding class (we recommend Ride Chicago) and get your license before you buy a scooter, you’ll be able to test ride it, and your bit of experience will allow you to make a more informed choice.
What can the seller tell you about the scooter?
Why and where did the owner get it? How much did they use it? Was it serviced regularly? Why are they selling it? Was it ever rebuilt, restored or substantially repaired? Who did the work? Vintage scooters often have interesting backstories of European tours, first loves, and celebrity encounters, or at least a couple interesting decals.
Is it a scam, or a bodge?
There are plenty of general predatory online scams out there, please be careful, especially regarding personal information and money transfers.
The most egregious and surprisingly common pitfall specific to buying a vintage Vespa or Lambretta is the “Vietbodge:” These very-low-quality Southeast Asian restorations look great in photos, and even from a foot away, but they’re absolute irredeemable garbage. This is no reflection on the fine nation or people of Vietnam, but it happens to be the home of a scooter export industry that regularly swindles Americans and Europeans. The worst part is many buyers realize they’ve been swindled, then turn around and try to pass it along to another sucker, sometimes hiding some of the more obvious signs. Don’t fall for it. They’re easy to identify if you do your research. Googling the (unfortunate) term “Vietbodge” will save you a lot of heartbreak.
Is the price right?
There may be some wiggle room on price, maybe even if it says “firm,” especially if it’s been listed for a while. But if the asking price is ridiculously high, the seller’s probably going to see your offer as a lowball, even if it’s absolutely fair. It’s worth confirming they’re in your general ballpark before driving an hour out to the exurbs.
Can you afford it?
If you’re going to look at a used bike, come prepared to buy. Bring cash or your checkbook, or confirm the seller’s online payment apps in advance. You shouldn’t be wasting a seller’s time if you don’t have the money ready and a way to get it home.
Haggle as needed, but don’t lowball, or ask the seller to jump through hoops for you, or hold the bike until you can get the money together. Be respectful.
Also consider the expenses of title, taxes, registration, insurance, storage, and maintenance, plus any local taxes or tags. And your helmet and other gear, and travel and… see our guide for a list, and cost estimates.
Can you test-ride it?
Bring your license. Most sellers will let you test ride if you have a motorcycle endorsement, stay close and leave your license (and maybe the car or scooter you arrived on) as collateral. Remember to bring along your helmet, gloves, and other gear.
How do you feel about government bureaucracy?
Buying used guarantees a trip to the DMV. Without the right paperwork, a positive attitude, and an appointment, you might be in for a big hassle. Be prepared and know what you need, or how to get around it. DMV employees are generally helpful and often even excited to help you solve a problem, but they can only do so much if you don’t have the documentation they need.
Inspecting a used scooter:
This is an awful lot to keep in mind, so take your time and inspect the bike carefully. It also includes some leaps of faith. If you’re not experienced with scooters or motorcycles, it’s probably best to bring along a more experienced friend.
A scooter with a bent or damaged frame is unsafe to ride, and in most cases it’s not cost-effective (or even possible) to repair. That said, it’s difficult to visually assess the frame of most scooters, because it’s largely hidden by bodywork. Check what you can see for hairline cracks, broken welds, cracked paint, and buckles. If you can find a series of measurements to check, that’s helpful, but even then, spotting a bad frame comes down to experience and judgement. Above all else, ride the bike, if it tracks to one side, or doesn’t handle well on turns, it is likely to have frame damage.
Keep in mind that a Vespa monocoque body IS the frame! Small dents and scratches can be repaired, but heavy rust or structural damage can be a major issue. For instance, a buckle in the center channel of a vintage Vespa (photo at right) is a clear sign it’s been in a front-end collision. Luckily, in this case, it’s very minor, and equal on both sides, so the bike tracks straight.
Original paint, even in rough condition, is generally preferable to a repainted bike, unless it’s very professionally done. Light corrosion on metal parts and/or dull-looking paint can usually be cleaned and polished, you might find it looks amazing after applying some elbow grease.
If cowls, body panels, trim, or other bodywork parts are damaged or missing, be sure they’re reparable or replaceable, and note the cost (including paint). Check for previous repairs, welds, excessive Bondo under the paint (bring a magnet!), and paint touch-ups. Ensure any repairs are not disguising lasting structural damage. Surface rust is generally no problem, but if body parts are heavily rusted, or rusted through, it’s a good sign the bike’s been neglected for years and will need a lot of work. If the frame is rusted through, walk away. Remember that in most cases, light damage is reparable, but disassembly/reassembly, bodywork, prep work, and a top-quality complete respray will probably cost close to the full value of the scooter.
A even-slightly-bent fork is dangerous, and, like the frame, hard to assess by eye. Again, riding the scooter is the best way to make sure it handles properly.
Check the condition of the shocks and swingarm. Check any rubber buffers or mounts for damage. Sit on the bike (off the stand) and bounce up and down aggressively. Minor squeaks are OK, especially on an older bike, but there should be no “thunks” or shudders. If it bottoms out, or feels super-bouncy, the springs and dampeners are not doing their job. Ride the bike and listen/feel for suspension issues.
Prop up the bike on the stand with the front wheel off the ground (on a modern scooter, have someone sit on the passenger seat to lift up the front). Ensure the fork turns smoothly from side to side without any ‘notches.’ Lift up on the handlebars and wiggle them to see if there’s any play in the steering bearings, the fork should not slide up and down, or rock back and forth. Grip the tire and wiggle the wheel side to side and up and down to ensure there’s no play in the wheel bearings. Spin it and ensure the wheel spins freely and there’s no wobble.
Repeat for the back wheel (on a modern scooter, have someone hold down the front end of the bike, so the rear wheel sticks up)
Most vintage scooters rest on the centerstand with the front wheel off the ground, If the front wheel touches the ground, the stand might be a bit bent, but that’s common and easy to fix. If the wheel is more than a couple inches off the ground, it’s probably a “Vietbodge,” see above.
Most modern scooters rest on the centerstand with the rear wheel off the ground. It may spin slowly with the engine running, but should not spin with enough force to move the scooter until throttle is applied. Do not rev the engine of an automatic scooter while it’s off the stand, or drop it off the stand with the engine revved-up, it will take off!
Test the brakes before and while riding. Look for excessive wear on discs/calipers/shoes (if visible). Check both independently and together and feel for slipping or grinding (and ensure the suspension works with the brakes as it should). Brakes should not squeak (much), or stutter at all. Levers and cables should be adjusted properly so they start to activate after a slight pull on the lever, and are fully activated well before the lever touches the grip. On older bikes, the rear brake should activate the brake light, on newer bikes, both brakes should activate the brake light.
Check date code on tires, check wear marks, and look for any damage, bulges, cracking, flat spots, or dry rot. If they’re worn or more than a few years old, you’ll want to replace them right away.
Look for cracks/dents/irregularities in the wheels, and ensure all lug nuts are present and tight.
Check that both wheels spin freely (when lifted off the ground) and there’s no side-to-side, up-and-down, or diagonal play.
If the bike is supposed to carry a spare wheel, check that it’s there and in good condition.
Check that both the speedometer and odometer work properly. Note mileage for title and bill of sale. “Low Mileage” is good if it’s just a year or two old. but for older bikes, more miles means the scooter has been ridden regularly, and thus probably better maintained over the years. A scooter that’s been sitting unridden is likely to have a clogged up carburetor at best (even after a few months) and dried-out seals at worst (after several years). Even if it starts right up, once you’re out on a long, fast ride, the seals could blow.
You legally need at least one! Are you able to adjust them properly? If they’re missing or broken, are the threads/mounts damaged?
Even if it’s good, assume you’ll need a new one before long. Be sure a replacement is easily available and note the cost. DO NOT attempt to start a scooter without a battery. Many kickstart models will start up fine with a dead battery, but if the battery is missing, kicking it over can blow up other electrical components. If it’s an older scooter that doesn’t have a battery, your life will be much easier in general, but note that if your engine dies on the side of the road at night, you’ll be invisible.
Ensure all lights work properly. On a vintage scooter without a battery, they’ll only work with the engine running, and they’ll likely be pretty dim at idle, but should brighten up as you rev the engine. Check hi/lo beam, brake light, turn signals, speedometer, etc. Inspect wiring where visible, look for cracks and wear in insulation.
Check any hollow spaces for rodent nests, insect hives, etc. Check wiring and cables for critter damage. They’re often in spaces you can’t inspect easily, like inside the airbox, headset, exhaust, and fan housing.
Hopefully it’s not full of critters! Look for flaking rust (some surface rust is to be expected even on a reasonably new scooter), holes, and hairline cracks, especially at the bends and at the manifold. Listen for leaks and hold your hand near the manifold, bends, and welds to feel for (very) hot air escaping.
Check for rust and debris inside the tank. Any rust at all is a problem, and rust is common. There are various methods to clean and/or re-coat it, but it’s sometimes cheaper and easier to replace it.. If gas has been sitting in it for more than a year, it’s likely turned to varnish, drain it and add fresh gas and clean or replace the carburetor. Check if gas flows freely through the fuel tap. Modern scooters have elaborate fuel systems and often a fuel pump, be sure everything’s working.
Check that the scooter has the proper fluids (oil, 2-stroke oil, gas) before starting it!
If it’s a 2-stroke, check if it’s oil injection or pre-mix. Ask if the oil injection works, people disconnect it for various reasons, which is good to know about if you’re buying it.
Look for puddles of oil or gas under the scooter.
Look for leaks and fractures in the cases. The cases are unlikely to be clean, but they shouldn’t be coated in grime and oil, either. Wrench wear on case bolts indicate that the engine’s been opened up. Why? Look for screwdriver/wrench dings on other fasteners, too.
Ensure the engine ‘turns over’ and starts easily. If there’s a kickstarter, ensure it’s firmly attached and engages firmly and cleanly with the engine.
Vintage 2-strokes may need the choke engaged for cold starting, but once warmed up, should start without choke.
Once warmed up it should idle calmly and evenly with the choke disengaged.
While riding, the engine should rev smoothly through the full range of the throttle without hiccups, backfiring, or racing.
The throttle should snap back to idle when released. Older gummed-up cables will stick, giving you an ersatz “cruise control” which is handy for long rides, but unsafe if you’re not used to it.
Both the throttle and clutch should have a bit of play before activating. f it’s a manual transmission, the clutch lever should engage firmly, but not difficult to activate, and the gears should shift smoothly and cleanly. If not, it may just be a matter of cable adjustment, but it could be something worse.
Sometimes it just needs a new plug (bring one along!) or a carb cleaning, other times, the internals are thoroughly destroyed and will never start again. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot but with experience, you can get a pretty good idea what’s wrong with it. If it turns over, doesn’t rattle, and compression seems OK, check for spark and see if it’ll start with starting fluid. If it does, even briefly, it might need new seals, but there’s hope! If the piston is seized, that’s obviously a bigger problem, but it’s still fixable. If the price is too good to pass up, it still might be worth it… in most cases, unless the cases are cracked/damaged, or bits are rattling around inside, it can be repaired or replaced, for a price.
Missing bodywork (especially Lambretta rear floorboards) or flywheel covers/engine shrouds probably indicates someone was working on it, years ago, gave up, and the parts were lost over time. Maybe they just didn’t know what they were doing, or maybe others have tried since with no luck. Hard to say. You wanted a project, right?
KISS: Keep it Stock, Stupid
If the bike’s had any performance enhancements, it’s good to know about them, and they may add some value, but an unmolested, stock, original-condition scooter is generally more valuable than one that’s hopped up with random aftermarket parts. Safety/reliability upgrades like electronic ignition, lighting, brakes, and wheels add value, but be sure you know what you’re getting, any modifications away from stock make problems harder (and more expensive) to diagnose and repair. A highly-tuned engine is theoretically faster, but more volatile and unpredictable (and gas-guzzling!). The engineers in Italy or Japan knew what they were doing.
Any accessories are nice to have, but shouldn’t affect the resale value too much. A matching top box and a cover aren’t going to knock the used value back up to MSRP. Do you really want that used helmet? The exception is some rare vintage (not reproduction!) trim and accessories on a vintage scooter, which are sometimes highly valuable.
Just about all vintage scooters have a column lock key. Some have an additional ignition key and/or glovebox key. Make sure you get them all, and get copies made before you lose them.
Note that on some vintage scooters, it’s best to remove the column key so it doesn’t don’t fall out as you ride. On others, if you remove the key, the headset will lock when you turn left. Scary!
Most Lambretta keys can be ordered from a specialist in the UK with the lock number.
If the keys are missing on a vintage Vespa, replacing the locks is a pretty simple project.
With a modern scooter, keys are far more complicated. Many modern scooters have transmitters built into the key for security and the master key is needed to reprogram new keys. Replacing the lock is also prohibitively expensive and difficult. Be sure you get all the keys when you buy the bike, including the master key, and keep the master key with the title in a lockbox.
If there’s damage to or around the locks, or if they’re bypassed, it’s likely stolen.
Check the height and design of the seat and floorboards and the general ergonomics of the bike to ensure it fits you well and is comfortable to ride. Can you put down your feet on both sides? If not, is a lower-profile seat available? Be sure you’re able to get it on and off the centerstand unassisted. Ensure that the bike is rated to carry your weight easily, with plenty of room left over if you intend to carry a passenger or cargo.
Will it fit in your parking area? Does it have the storage space you need? Helmet hooks? A phone charger? How’s the mileage? What’s the range of a tank of gas?
Vehicle Identification Number
On most scooters there are separate VIN plates on the body and the engine, and the numbers should match. On vintage scooters, ensure the model codes match and the numbers are reasonably close. If not, it’s likely the engine was replaced. Also confirm that the model code matches the year and model listed on the title and the VIN matches at least one of the VINs on the bike.
Don’t Forget the Paperwork!
A missing title will GREATLY reduce the value of the scooter. Don’t buy a scooter without a title unless you’re absolutely sure it’s never been stolen and you’re willing to jump through some serious hoops. It’s possible to replace a lost title, but it’s time-consuming, sometimes expensive, and occasionally risky (it could turn out that the bike is stolen or reported totalled by insurance). Note that the “Vermont loophole” vintage scooterists loved was closed in early 2023.
Ensure that the title matches the VIN of the scooter (hopefully both VINs!) and there is no lien on the title. Confirm that the make, model, year, color, and odometer reading are correct.
Confirm that the name and address of the seller matches that of the title, and make sure they sign and date it and list the mileage before handing it over.
It’s possible the seller is not the title holder. Many ‘flippers’ will buy a used scooter, fix it up, and sell it without ever titling it. Other sellers ride it illegally for a few years then sell it when they get bored with it. “Title jumping” is technically illegal, but it’s common and not generally an issue if everything is clear and above board. It’s critical that the title is signed by the original owner on the back, somewhat recently. (Currently, citing the pandemic might buy you some sympathy at the DMV, too.) It will make things MUCH easier if you can get a copy of the older bill of sale (when the current seller bought it from the owner listed on the title) along with your bill of sale. The DMV loves bills of sale.
Bill of sale/receipt
There’s no official format for a bill of sale, but you’ll definitely need one to title the scooter. Print out an official-looking generic form online ahead of time, or simply write it down on a sheet of paper. It must have a “BILL OF SALE” at the top, with the date of sale, agreed price, Make/Model/Year, VIN, mileage, and color. It must also include both the buyer’s and Seller’s complete names, addresses, and signatures, with the date.
Also get a receipt from the seller, especially if you pay with cash or check. This could be as simple as a note on the Bill of Sale that says “PAID (cash, check no., etc)” signed and dated by the seller.
The tax on any used motorcycle in Illinois is a flat $25, so don’t worry about fudging the price on the receipt or bill of sale to keep the taxes low (That used to be a thing!)
The original manual and tool set are good to have, but not a dealbreaker, most manuals are available as reprints or downloads, and most original tool sets are better replaced with higher-quality tools.
Original sales paperwork, dealer brochures, appraisals, old photos, owners’ notes, antique license plates, receipts for parts, etc. are very nice to have, too, if you can talk the seller into parting with them. They might have other maintenance guides, books, posters, and such they could include in the deal.