...and crafting a purposeful recovery

Month: November 2016

Titus Flavius Vespasianus

I am going to go on a tangent here and talk about my Vespa.  Not just any Vespa, but a 1966 150 Sport classic.  I bought it from a friend when I first moved to Sonoma County 2-1/2 years ago.  Behind Sparta, it is the second-best purchase of my life and I will briefly explain here how the two are connected.

When I was 18 I got my first car – a brand new 1974 BMW 2002 (Yeah, I was a bit spoiled).  I knew nothing about maintaining it and figured that was best left to the professionals.  Over the 16 years and 200,000+ miles that I owned that car, I never so much as changed the oil.  I couldn’t even have located the crankcase valve.  I wasn’t particularly interested in getting my hands that dirty.  At that age I still thought I was going to be a doctor when I “grew up” and that somehow my hands were destined for a more noble purpose (little did I know that would ultimately be pushing paper and writing memos as a health care executive…yeeesh).  One thing that “Beemer” did instill in me, however, was a nascent appreciation for old things which grow older gracefully.

So flash ahead 40 years to 2014.  The BMW was long gone and I still didn’t know how to change oil and there I was the proud owner of a 50 year-old Vespa.  No problem, I’m thinking.  It had been fully restored, had only 200 kilometers on a new engine and there was a Vespa shop right down the street should I need someone to get their hands dirty.  Not so fast, Skippy.  I took my scooter down to the shop just to have a routine service and to make sure it was road-worthy.  After a brief inspection the mechanic said, “Sorry, pal.  I won’t touch that bike.  It’s a Vietnamese restoration.”  “What!”, I’m thinking. “So what.  It runs great”.  “Nope,” he said. “that bike could’ve been welded together from two old frames.  We won’t assume the liability.”.  I left the shop thinking I had just run into a species of haughty Vespa snob (he did look Italian) and said “fuck it.  I’ll work on it myself”.

So, a guy who couldn’t drain the oil is now the designated Vespa mechanic by default and it has been of the best things that has ever happened to me as a consequence of my own folly (That being not better researching the Vespa purchase online.  As I have since learned, the Internet is filled with Vietnamese Vespa horror stories).  Since that conversation in the Vespa shop I have: Changed and replaced tires and tubes, removed the gas tank to access cables, replaced the speedometer cable twice, replaced the clutch cable, replaced the front brake and performed general maintenance. These are all routine tasks that accompany the ownership of any old scooter and not, I believe, just the province of Asian rebuilds.  Cables wear out, etc..  My fingernails have a constant sliver of grime beneath.  I use the Internet and youtube to find parts and get instruction and my scooter runs like a champ.  It has yet to break in half.  But I still don’t know how to change the oil…it is a two-stroke and the oil goes in the gas. Ha!

So here are the takeaways.  One, this old Vespa, although built in a somewhat idiosyncratic Italian fashion, is a model of simplicity by today’s standards.  It is entirely mechanical.  There is almost nothing electronic on it and certainly nothing “solid state” (translation – can’t be fixed. Throw it out).  My Vespa doesn’t even have a battery.  It has a kickstarter and magnetos power the lights (they dim on idle).  How cool is that?  Something even I can fix.  And something that, more importantly, is MEANT to be fixed – not just used up and scrapped like so many products today (you may recall my rant about cell phones).  This scooter has sold me on the value of old things and the virtues of keeping them around.  Two, the Vespa experience has added mightily to my confidence about my ability to go where this man has never gone – into the realm of the seemingly arcane and complicated.  Because old things were built without the need for computer-assisted diagnostics (ever try working on a new car?), anybody with a little patience, manual dexterity and an Internet connection can fix them.  Without this Vespa experience, I’m not sure I would’ve had the audacity to take on the Sparta challenge.  Scooter ownership has broadened my view of what’s possible, at least, for me.

So, if you’re on the fence about buying an old trailer for fear that you are not up to the task, buy a scooter first.  It might just alter your whole perspective.



btw: The above-referenced Roman Emperor in the blog title, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, began work on the Colosseum 2000 years ago.  Audacious, no?




Just this morning I replaced the brake light switch. Elegant by virtue of its simplicity. Depress the brake, releasing the pin, completing the circuit. Voila…brake light on.


How dry I am…

Great news!   Mother Nature dropped over 2 inches of rain on Sparta yesterday and my waterproofing efforts seem to have paid off.   The combination of Captain Tolley’s and a silicone caulk used around Sparta’s exterior weathered the storm.  I laid a bead of silicone caulk across the top of every horizontal surface (primarily window tops) and also focused on the long vertical seams formed where two sheets of the scalloped aluminum meet.  You can see one such vertical seam in the photo below right and there are several around Sparta’s perimeter.   These seams are particularly vulnerable because the ruffled edges (yes, like the chip) don’t always align perfectly and water finds its way in.  I took the additional step of putting globs of silicone around every screw piercing Sparta’s skin.  Over the years, past owners have affixed after-market doo-dads (door bell buttons, padlocks, etc.) to Sparta using screws – a big no no.  There is a reason these trailers were assembled with rivets.  Screws are basically conduits for water and must be sealed off wherever they intrude.  There remain very slight leaks along both angled rear seams, so I will recaulk them and apply a thick coat of rubberized 3M Undercoating spray to help seal them off from within.

I hung out at the trailer for a couple hours to keep tabs on any additional leaks while pulling off the last traces of 60 year old roof insulation clinging to old glue – a nasty job definitely calling for mask and goggles.


Dressed for the elements


Angled detailing at rear attracts water


Interior view showing old black sealant along angled seam


All navigation lights pulled and caulked


Pulling the last remnants of insulation


A thick coat of this along interior seams will provide additional protection

Oh Captain! My Captain!

If you are anything like me, a world-class procrastinator, then you can relate to the glacial pace of my trailer work of late.  It has really slowed to a crawl.  I described in a previous entry some of the distractions keeping me from Sparta and a few new wrinkles have arisen but I’ll not get into them.  I need to keep my eye on the prize.


Let’s proceed.

A new round of foul weather is forecast for this weekend so it’s time to finalize preparations for Sparta’s second leak test.  You may recall my relief at the few leaks detected in Sparta’s last trial and it was testimony to the remarkable workmanship of Spartan trailers.  For those dozen or so breaches that I did discover I have applied “Captain Tolley’s” and it’s purported “capillary” action to those small fizzures.  Also, I have tightened the window seals and put rubber gaskets and/or caulk under the navigation lights.



Another important step is cleaning the roof and gutters.  Just as you would for your home after Autumn has shed its Summer finery, a trailer requires the same amount of attention up top.  Sparta rests under a very prolific walnut tree so yesterday I swept the roof of leaves and nuts.  Also, I took a putty knife and a wire brush to the gutters to ensure that overflow doesn’t find its way under Sparta’s skin.

I am excited by the prospect of concluding this process of water-proofing and FINALLY moving on to the mighty task ahead – the subfloor.


Cleaning the little-bitty gutters