[This post needs a few small edits...(last edit 02/2023).... but that said, this post stands up surprisingly well even after 10 years. A credit to the original author. Moderator edits below will be in Blue - Birdsnest]
Caveat Emptor: this is intended to be a general starting point for anyone thinking about getting a vintage vespa. It is not the gospel and I am not a guru, these are my opinions and while many things here could be debated endlessly by the vespa obsessed, that isn't the point. The point is to give beginners a place to start from. I hope it helps somebody and I'm always happy to get advice and additions/corrections from others, god knows there are an awful lot of folks out there who have forgotten more about Vespas than I'll ever know. Anyhow, here we go....
Things to consider before purchasing a vintage Vespa motorscooter:
Note: First, and most importantly, if you aren't willing to get your hands dirty and do at least basic maintenance, vintage scooters are not for you. You don't have to be an experienced mechanic, but its not like a '92 Honda Civic, and you WILL have to at least learn to change a tire, adjust a cable and things of that sort. Also, vintage Vespas are manual shift transmissions and you will need to learn to work the clutch, it is not a "twist and go" scooter. If all that doesn't put you off, then read on...
What do you want from your scooter?
Do you want a classic but reliable daily rider for your 10-50 mile commute each day?
you may want to think about a P-series bike, or even a more modern PX or Stella. You get the reliability, speed, and more modern mechanicals (electronic ignition, oil injection, disc brakes on some) but you are still riding a manual with style. These bikes are also a great introduction to vintage and will give you something to ride while you spend 5 years on your GS160 concourse restoration. P-series bikes are the last of the vintage vespas and began production in the late '70s. PX's and Stellas are modern bikes that only recently ceased production they retain the look and mechanics of classic Vespas, including the manual twist-shift transmission. To be fair, there are lots of folks out there riding much older bikes as their daily commuter, but they tend to be excellent mechanics that have the knowledge and ability to keep their bike running reliably.
Do you want a sunday cruiser, casual rider, or garage ornament?
In this case its reasonable to go a little older and more stylish. Its not going to make you miss work if something breaks down and needs a little work and you won't be likely to leave it where theft and vandalism are a huge risk. If you're in this category, you have many more options and its safe to go with older bikes. However, there is a big difference between cruising your Rally 200 at 60mph on a winding country road and putting through the neighborhood at 35 on an Allstate with 3-speeds, 8" wheels and a hum drum 125cc 2-port top end (not to mention almost no suspension). [With new aftermarket kits these bikes can be made respectable riders with a little cash and elbow grease.] If you want to ride hard and fast, you probably want to stick to the Sport models (GS, Supersport, Rally, etc). These were the top of the line models when they came out and they remain some of the most versatile, stylish and fun. Of course, this comes at a price. After those models, there are a huge range of performance abilities and styles, but you need to consider what you want from the bike. Don't buy a 50's Allstate to go racing, it just isn't going to happen. On the other hand, its a gorgeous bike and would be loads of fun to putt down the street to get some ice cream.
Do you want a complete running bike, a fixer upper or a project?
(these categories pretty much cover what is out there for purchase and within them there are further things to consider)
As far as running bikes go, there is the much coveted and all too rare "totally cherry original bike" with a few dozen to a few hundred miles on it, original paint in good condition and so on. They are out there and they're always cool, but they usually don't come cheap.
There are also restored bikes of every quality imaginable. They might be concourse, museum quality restorations done by a shop or a dedicated amateur, they might be a halfassed amateur attempt (that still might be ok) or there is of course the dreaded "vietbodge" which I won't go deeply into (plenty on that elsewhere) but in a nutshell, this a mangled rusted old frame welded to another mangled old frame, cobbled together using random parts and homemade quick fixes, then adorned with lots of chrome and a beautiful paint job to lure the inexperienced buyer. Avoid them.
Beyond that, the market for restored or original bikes is thriving and quality bikes in reasonably good running condition with a decent paint job can be had for anywhere from $1500 - $6000 or even more. Keep in mind though that even an immaculate restored or original bike, if ridden often will require maintenance, possibly even serious maintenance. If you found a never-ridden bike in your grandpa's barn, fresh as the day it rolled off the line in 1966, you would still have to replace the engine seals among other things (not a small or easy job if you are new to this and expensive if you don't do it yourself). Point being, there are no maintenance-free vintage scooters.
Then there are the fixer uppers. The ad shows a good looking bike, decent paint, and a good price, but "it needs a new top end" or more often "ran good a couple years ago when I parked it". Nothing wrong with these, and if you're a shadetree mechanic like me, you love these ads. But you need to know what you're doing or find someone to help you that does. The thing keeping that bike from running could be as simple as fresh gas and a carb clean or as complicated as a totally frozen engine that needs hundreds of dollars in parts and labor. Fixer uppers can be a great deal, but if you don't have experience you could easily bite off way more than you can chew.
Finally, the projects. My personal favorite. I love nothing more than a rusted old bike with a frozen engine being sold in a couple cardboard boxes for a couple hundred bucks. The main thing you need to know about projects (other than that they are fun!) is that you will not make money on them. There are exceptions to every rule, but 99% of the amateur project market results in a bike you love that you could only sell for less than you put into it. I could say a lot about projects but the only other warning I'll issue here is to never get a project bike without having a running bike also. If you are fixing the bike so you have something to ride you will rush the job and probably make expensive mistakes. Get yourself a runner, enjoy it, and then think about taking on a project.
Consider the right model for you:
I'm not going to debate the finer points of Vespa models here, the best place to start your search is at www.scooterlounge.com as they have an excellent overview of the models and their pro's and con's. I'm simply throwing out a few generalities for you to start with. Keep in mind also that you would be wise to narrow your search to a few models and a range of years. If you decide it has to be a '64 GS 160mk2 and no other bike you'd better have patience and deep pockets.
Generally there are a few categories of Vespa produced over the decades.
Wideframes, which were the earliest models and while beautiful designs and classic bikes, they are less ride-able on today's streets and their parts are considerably more difficult and expensive to source. [Some newer aftermarket parts make these machines more ride-able than before.] Generally, more of a collectible than a daily ride. Note that the name refers to the "wide" engine-mount design, not necessarily a "wide" body style.
Largeframes, the broadest category covers everything from early 125s to Supersport 180's to the Rally 200. This is where most people start. After 1958 there is a much higher degree of parts interchangeability and although there is still quite a range, these models are generally faster and easier to source parts for. These models evolved constantly and their designs were updated almost yearly. Mechanically, many new developments came along over the years, from piston-ported to rotary induction, from points and condensor to electronic ignition, from pre-mix to autolube and on and on.
Smallframes, which are unique in that they changed very little over the 40 years or so in which they were produced, are, as you may have guessed, considerably smaller. They were designed for teenagers and ladies and are a great option for the vertically challenged. Keep in mind that anyone under 5'6" is going to have a very difficult time safely riding a largeframe vespa. Smallies are a lot of fun, have great handling, almost all parts are pretty easy to find and the performance tuning options are limitless. They also tend to be less expensive. Be aware the '64-65 models have a smaller crankcase mouth which severely limits their ability to be upgraded, but nearly any other model can tricked out to go much faster than one probably should. Note: you don't have to be small to love smallframes. I'm 6' and I have 3 of them.
P-Series, are the newest in the realm of the "vintage" bike. Some folks don't consider them properly vintage, and some would lump them into the category of Largeframe, but to me they represent a big enough change in design that they warrant their own category. They came out in the late 70's and have plastic bits, sharper angles and overall, their design bridges the gap between the classic vintage vespa and the modern bikes of the 80's. The great thing about P-series bikes is that they are very reliable, most have 12volt lights, electronic ignition, autolube, turn signals, and other bells and whistles you won't find on most stock vintage bikes. They are an excellent choice for a daily runner or a first foray in the world of vespas. Most parts are still available, albeit some bits and bobs as of 2023 are disappearing (#USMARKETKILLSWITCH. There are also world of performance upgrades you can buy.
Before you buy:
Research, research, research. Spend lots of time reading up on the history of Vespas, read the buyer's guides, browse the forums, learn as much as you can about them. Also start watching the sales sites and over time you will get a sense of market value. As in any hobby market, there is no bluebook, and there are sometimes wildly disparate ideas of what things are worth, but if you watch the various sites you will eventually get a sense of what most bikes are worth. You also need some research into your local laws. How hard is it to title an antique vehicle in your state? Does your state require turn signals on bikes built after '74? What are the laws defining moped vs motorcycle? In most places, anything over 50cc or 30mph will require a motorcycle endorsement on your driver's license. Also look into the costs of registration and insurance. By and large, in the eyes of the law, a scooter is a motorcycle, so be prepared to make your bike legal.
Narrow it down. Think through what you want from the bike, narrow it down to a few models, the condition you'd like, and a range of years, and settle yourself on a price range. You will be more successful if you can find a happy medium between too general and too specific.
Start Looking. Be patient, and watch all the sales sites, from Craigslist to Scoot.net to the forums and whatever else you can come up with. The more patient you are, the more likely you are to end up with the right bike for you. And although the internet is great, I recommend you get off your ass and get out there and look for bikes. Barns, auctions, estate sales, garage sales, you name it and somebody has a story that ends with them finding their dream vespa at a steal of a price. Put up flyers, hand out cards, whatever you can think of. There are still hidden gems out there waiting to be found. Note: avoid eBay if you can, most Vespas on there are ripoffs and half-truths. Not all, but lots. And who wants to pay shipping. Just be patient and you'll find one closer to home.
Finally, and this is probably the best advice I could give anyone: Reach out to the community. Get on the forums and ask for advice, find out who is in your area, talk to a local scooter shop. I live in the middle of nowhere, and there are still a handful of vintage scooter people, so chances are very good there are people near you. And almost without exception, scooter people are friendly to those with an interest and excited to help on a new bike or to go with you to look at a potential buy. You can't learn it all from research, but if you can find some people with experience and get them to help you out for a few beers, you've got a great shot at getting the bike you want without getting ripped off.
Pulling the Trigger:
So you found a great looking bike for sale in your town, now what?
Ask Questions: talk to the owner and try to get a story from them. You can learn a lot about a bike and you can usually get a sense very quickly of whether or not the seller is a straight shooter. They might not know much about the bike and that can be a good or bad thing. How long have they had it? Where did they find it? What have they done to the bike? Does it run and how well? And so on... Get all the info you can. VERY IMPORTANT: find out if the bike has a title. Many vintage bikes do not. Depending on where you live this can be a relatively minor issue or a huge one. Do some research and find out how important this is where you live. If you can't get a title, at least get a signed Bill of Sale.
Inspecting the bike: Again, the best thing you can do is recruit someone experienced to go with you to see the bike. Use the web forums to try to connect with a local enthusiast. Vespa people are always happy to go look at a prospective purchase. Anyway, once there, you want to do as complete of an inspection as you can. Does the bike start easily? Is the idle steady? Does it shift through the gears smoothly? If you can, take it for a ride and see how it handles and runs, but even if you can't, you can get the bike off the centerstand and roll it to switch through the gears and check the brakes. Does the speedo/odo work? Is the paint original? Has it been repainted? If it has, look closely for signs of quality. Is there any "orange peel" or rippling or spots rusting through? Open the gas tank and look for rust and debris, this can mean not only a dirty tank but carb problems. Check for rust and pay special attention to the floorboards and underneath. An original bike is likely to have some surface rust and that isn't necessarily a bad thing, we call it "patina" but you need to look for "rot" or cancerous rust that is eating through the frame anywhere.
By their nature, the bikes we are looking at are unlikely to be flawless, but the flaws and age are often what give them character. Things like a minor oil leak, worn tires and a blown headlight are all pretty fixable, it just comes down to how much you are willing to pay for the bike in front of you in its current condition. On the other hand, there are a few things that are not easily fixed and you should look for. Twisted frames, cancerous rust, bent forks and frozen engines are all expensive and difficult to fix items. Unless you are paying "project" prices, avoid them.
We could probably write an entire thread on what to look for when tire kicking, so I'm going to leave it for now, but I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get help. You can always post pics to a forum and ask for opinions too, of course there is no substitute for seeing it in person.
A Final Note:
Like any community, the world of Vespa enthusiasts has its share of controversial topics. Chief among them is the issue of preservation vs. customization. There are many who feel it is a mortal sin to do anything less than concourse restorations to vintage bikes and there are many who enjoy intense modifications from highly tuned engines to redesigned frames and more. Most folks fall somewhere in the middle and try to use good judgement. Most often the community will encourage you to keep your stock bike as is and sometimes these debates get into a pissing match. At the end of the day, your bike is your bike and you can do what you want with it, but if you decide to take your near mint 50's handlebar model and paint it pink and put a sidecar on it, you aren't going to get a very welcome reception from the vast majority in the vespa world. Just remember that they aren't making any more of these things, and its only original once.
http://www.scooterlounge.com/ -the web's best guide to the various models, their pro's and con's, and a reasonable price range estimate. A bit general, but its the best place to start wrapping your head around it all.
http://scoot.net/classifieds/?cat=scootersforsale -everybody's favorite shopping site. Its person-to-person and generally pretty reliable. Like anywhere, scams happen, but there are many happy sales here.
http://vespamaintenance.com/ -a very detailed guide to rebuilding a largeframe engine among other things. Uses a P200 engine, but a good start for many models.
http://www.scooterhelp.com/ -an encyclopedic site with scores of technical resources, a model number lookup guide and detailed info on many many models.
http://website.lineone.net/~smallframes/index.htm - smallframes info site
http://modernvespa.com/forum/ - you're already here. a great forum to get advice or just browse and learn. Not-so-modern is the home of vintage, but also check out the For Sale section and the Projects.
http://forums.stellaspeed.com/ -another forum, seems to have a lot of us midwesterners. not specific only to stellas, all vespas are discussed here.
http://davedaniel.proboards.com/ -when you get into smallframes and you're ready to have your mind blown, check out this english forum full of incredible tuning projects. Careful, they love boobs in their avatars.
General Vespa Books:
A classic, very basic introduction to vespa mechanical work. While its a good start, its a bit general and tries to cover every model at once. It won't get your engine rebuilt, but its very much worth a read for the novice.
Similarly, these books have a few errors, and covers a lot of models but are still a decent resource.
Parts Books! Order from your local scootershop, they are invaluable resource!
Performance Tuning Books:
want to performance tune your bike? start here.
yet another great performance tuning book.
Anyway, if you got this far you probably have the bug and it doesn't usually go away until you get your fix. Good luck!
Last edited by adastra on Thu, 28 Apr 2011 03:08:02 +0000; edited 1 time