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?