So you want to buy a vintage scooter? Read this first.

Everything I say will have exceptions and  I have made more than a few generalizations.

We think it’s a huge amount of fun.  It’s a vintage vehicle  with all the challenges that go along with that, but because of its middle-aged cult following  with good buying power, excellent spare parts are easily available now. Shipping from outside Canada is 5-7 days typically.  If you are mechanically inclined, they are pretty easy to work on because they are simple, and there is a massive amount of help on-line, in video, and books.  In the past, I’ve owned and worked on vintage cars and motorcycles, and scooters are much easier.

There are some great entry level options, but let’s get the bad stuff out of the way.  The main potential problem you need to be aware of is this: over their 30 – 60 year lives, many hands may have worked on them, some completely unskilled and using poor or improvised parts. On top of this, there have been scooters  shipped here from Asia/Pacific regions that have been ridden most of their lives in harsh climates, and in some cases dangerously assembled from worn out parts. Not all imported scooters are bad, it’s just a higher risk than one that’s only lived in NA.

In many cases, the scammers fixing and selling dangerous garbage follow a pattern – two tone paint jobs and lots of rubber trim and chrome accessories. Without this, it would be easier to notice body filler, major welding, poorly fitting panels etc. . There are cases where a major failure (front fork collapse, engine seize, etc.) has caused people to fall off in traffic and sustain serious injury (and even death). If the body is fine, you may find the engine never really runs well or reliably. A complete rebuild to get all the garbage out may cost you ~ $1,000 – $3,000 depending if you can do the work yourself.  Remember this is a generalization, its possible to find a two-tone scooter covered in chrome that is perfect mechanically.  But more often than not, it’s a sign of a “bodge”.

Sadly, there has been scooter shops in Canada that sold garbage like this. The end result, if the advertisement says “full restored”, that is pretty much meaningless unless there is evidence it was done by someone who has a solid reputation in the scooter community. It can help to do some research on-line, but go into it knowing you may have a large initial repair bill.

Scooters from NA tended to have an easier time of it. While there may have been  a farmer or teenager fixing it as best as they could with whats on hand, because they were ridden less in a mild climate, there was a lot less DIY work over its lifespan. 

My recommendation? Best option for a first vintage scooter is to buy a Vespa P series, either a 150cc or 200cc. These were only sold in EU and NA in late 70s into 80s, with some more recent “anniversary” editions. They were highly reliable and only existed when good quality parts were easily available. While there may be bad ones out there, typically the main issues were just neglect and lack of routine maintenance (which is not serious to sort out). So relatively low risk with lots of potential for trouble free fun.

After riding a “P” for awhile, if you really enjoy scootering and want to try something more historic, prettier, exotic etc. then you will have by then more knowledge and experience to make a well informed next purchase and  better chance of a happy outcome.

Your options are essentially:

  • Vespa:
    • more common; simple engine; some  tuning (go-fast) options; set up properly are known for high reliability; there are a couple of garages that will work on them in the GTA
    • “Small frames” are just that, smaller bikes with engines between 50-100cc. They are actually pretty quick because they are so light, and as a result are popular to race. So many tuning parts and you can make a 130cc version that is hard to keep the front wheel down. They are small, not really meant for  someone who is larger nor great for riding with 2.
    • “Large frames” are 150  – 200cc. The 150 maxes out around 80 kmph and the 200cc at 100 kmph. They have enough power to ride with a passenger and are great around the city. 
  • Lambretta:
    • much less common; more complex engine but has a large number of tuning options and performance parts; no garages work on them at this time
    • Engines range from 125cc – 200cc.
    • 150cc max out about 50 kmph and 200cc at 60 kmph. Both will handle a passenger, but the 200cc is better for this.
    • Don’t buy one unless you are prepared to make an investment in tools and to learn how to do your own repair work.

There are bolt on “kits” that can relatively easily make a 150cc bike faster, getting it up to a 200cc level of performance.  There are some simple things you can do to  200cc engine to improve them, giving more acceleration and adding ~ 5-10  kmph top speed.  Beyond that, it is possible to 2x-4x the horse power, have a scooter that can cruise at 130 kmph, and beat most cars off the line. But to handle that much power everything needs to be redone and you will be spending at least 1,000 to many times that.

Thankfully we have a few options now for licensed mechanics that will work on vintage Vespa. I expect they will add Lambretta to that at some point.  But don’t expect that you can go to a regular motorcycle garage. They wont touch them:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Because of their unknown service history it’s impossible to predict just how much work anything will be. You come in asking for a carburetor adjustment because it is running rough and then you freak out completely on them when handed an 800$ bill because they discovered problem after problem. There are liability issues here.
  • Once diagnosed its a 5 – 11 day wait for parts. Your scooter is sitting around the shop taking up space
  • You’re cheap and complain about the repair bill. A lot of people think this is an inexpensive hobby. Not really, these are vintage machines, parts wear out, and need replacing.

You need to be prepared and budget for routine maintenance and repair of a vintage vehicle. Do no expect others to do this work for you for all the same reasons garages wont touch them.  Use licensed mechanics (if you can’t confidently do it yourself).  You may try to save $ on a repair, but remember you are on 2 wheels riding in traffic. A major failure can lead you to falling off.

We obviously have a lot of fun with our scooters. You might also. If you don’t like it, then just sell it. Nothing ventured nothing gained.  I’ve mentioned the horror stories because they exist, but they are not the majority. It is just terribly sad when you see someone buy a “restored” scooter, they just love it, and it lets them down continually because it is completely worn out. But you can avoid that outcome with some due diligence and join in the fun.