Follow The Bike Shed Times‘ editor Peter Terlick’s journey as he buys an old two-stroke Vespa. Hey. What could possibly go wrong?


Here’s where it started. A green Vespa, advertised for sale as a 1962 Piaggio Vespa 150 on The Bike Shed Times website.

At this stage I knew nothing about Vespas, other than their reputation as tough and stylish old-school runabouts. They were created in the aftermath of World War II by Italian manufacturer Piaggio, to satisfy a need for cheap personal transport. Since then, 16 million have been made.

This one appealed to me because it was born the same year as me and clearly had been subject to substantial restoration. The paint, tyres, seats, speedo were all new or near new. It started and ran well, and it was licensed. The seller (a dealer) had no documented history, but believed it had been “rescued from Vietnam and restored in Australia”.

Cool, I thought. So I bought it.

I rode it to work a few times, initially wobbling all over the road until I got used to the thing, and enjoyed it immensely. I started my research.

My first discovery was that not all old Vespas were equal. “Real ones” were made in Italy, but many copies were made in India and have found their way all over the world, many wearing Vespa badges and masquerading as Italians. Confirming my Vespa’s manufacturing roots was easy though – the engine and frame numbers confirmed it was made in Italy, and the numbers both aligned with a 1962 build date. Good news.

My second discovery, less good, was that old scooters from Vietnam had a terrible reputation. Many had been treated poorly, sent to scrap, retrieved from scrap, and “restored” using cheap parts and dodgy techniques, then given a good coat of paint and sold off – mostly to tourists who took them home to America and Australia. Uh oh.

On one Facebook forum, someone suggested I park this bike up as an ornament and buy another one. Pig’s bum, I said.

I tracked down the previous (pre-dealer) owner to see if he could shed any more light on the bike’s background and restoration. But no — he had bought the bike as it was, and just repeated the dealer’s story. He had not kept the details of the person he had bought it from, so I was at a dead end.

Never mind. Onward!

Riding to work early one morning, I hit a bump and all the lights went out. The engine was fine, so I continued to work in the darkness. Hmm.

There aren’t many wires in a ’62 Vespa – there’s no key or ignition switch, no battery, and no indicators — just a headlight, tail-light and brake light. On inspection, I found a dislodged wire in the headlight cluster. Of more concern was the quality of the connections. Wires were twisted together by hand, and then wrapped in insulation tape. Ok, I had done worse things in my own bike-maintenance history, but this wasn’t a good sign. Not what you’d call professional standard …

Vintage VBB Vespa wiring

I repaired the loose wire.

Riding the scooter to work again, it lost power and sounded terrible. Pop pop pop. Compression was suddenly very low. It felt and sounded very much like a blown head gasket. It went home on a trailer.

Some more research revealed that 1962 Vespas don’t actually have a head gasket.

Uh oh.

Vintage VBB Vespa cylinder and head gasket

Off came the head to reveal a dodgy-looking and obviously blown head gasket. It was soft metal and had only two bolt holes, despite there being four head bolts.

Worse still, one of the studs was stripped inside the crankcases. Or, more accurately, the crankcase thread was stripped so the stud couldn’t be tightened properly.

My theory? When the engine was rebuilt, they didn’t bother repairing the stripped thread. Knowing they would not be able to tension the head down properly, they installed a soft metal head gasket and used light tension when tightening the head nut onto the stud. That would work … for a little while.

The amateur wiring and stripped thread provide enough evidence that this scooter has had a shoddy rebuild: I’m going to have to pull it to bits and start again. Sigh.

To be continued.


Vintage VBB Vespa in workshop
Vespa starts to get naked, as Bonnie watches on.