Advice for first-time buyers on selecting a scooter

This started out as a response to a post on a message board; some people have suggested that I preserve it as good advice, so here it is. There’s some US-market specific stuff here, so if you’re outside the US some of this will not apply.

So, you want to get your first scooter. And you see one on Craigslist. How do you know if it is worth considering? Especially if it is your first scooter, and all you know about scooters is that there was one in the movie ‘Roman Holiday’ ?

Here’s some advice regarding buying a first scooter in the US for someone who knows nothing about them. It is slanted more towards ‘what to avoid’ rather than ‘what to look for’, with the aim of helping you avoid some of the worst that is out there.

1. Avoid any scooter before 1960

Pre-1960 parts get difficult, bikes get slower and less reliable, and there are a lot of one-off things that were only done for a single year. Doubly so for models before 1958. Triply so for models before 1955.

2. Avoid any scooter from 1966-1970, (especially ‘150 supers’, and ‘Vespa 150’ or ‘VBB’ models)

This span is a period of very few scooters being imported to the United States, yet are high years for Bajaj production and vietnamese importation (due to the turn the Vietnam war took in 1969-1970). There are exceptions, but I’d venture that 90% of the bikes in this date range that come up for sale are poor quality asian restorations.

Italian production of the round-cowled VBA/VBB/VNB/ ‘Vespa 150’ style scotoer ended in 1965, and continued until 2006 in India. These Indian Bajaj Priyas were never imported to the US new, however many, many of these have been imported since, and they usually have been cheaply refurbished and resold as ‘Vespa 150’ (VBB’s), the Italian model they closest resemble.

The 150 super was exported to the far east in disproportionately high numbers in these years, and many of the worst scooters i’ve worked on are 150 supers with extensive modifications and ‘customizations’ done in the far east.

There is a solid exception to this rule; I wouldn’t shy away from a 1966 Vespa Sprint or 125 Smallframe badged as a Sears; there are a good number of these stateside in good to excellent condition.

3. P series and Stella are usually pretty solid.

Partly due to the fact that they are some of the newer bikes available, partly because they are not as desirable and therefore fewer of them have been thru ‘restoration mills’. Bone stock they are some of the more reliable and higher performing models produced. You also see few grey market or ‘restoration mill’ imports due to the fact that untill recently they were more difficult to import due to not meeting the criteria of over 25 years old.

4. Low miles is a bad thing.

Low mileage bikes invariably have the seals fail within a few months to a year of being pressed into daily rider service. the seals take a set and harden over time. You will need an engine rebuild if you start riding a low mile bike regularly. They do not like to sit unused.

Not that you should avoid these outright; a cosmetically perfect bike with even a seized engine can be ideal if you plan to have a shop go thru the engine and rebuild it and plan accordingly.

5. Avoid any bike that has been ‘upgraded’ to 10″ from 8″.

There are many, many ways to do this conversion, and most have problems, some of them of the severe safety issue type. Very few, if any reputable shops do this, and it’s usually the sign of a bike either done by a restoration mill or extensively reworked by an amateur.

The main differences affecting handling between most 8″ scooters and most 10″ scooters are the results of differences between models that have little to do with the wheel size, and more to do with the differences between models, and even those differences are not as pronounced as some make them out to be.

6. Avoid high performance upgrades.

You are at the mercy of the last person to work on it, and if someone hasn’t done it right it can cost you, or strand you, or leave you with expensive repairs. A mild pipe is ok, but if it’s got a kit I’d say shy away from it as a first bike.

I’d even hesitate to put an exception for work done at established shops; there are a number of individuals who are well regarded by a fair number in the scooter community that I wouldn’t trust to spec and build an engine, for various reasons.

7. Avoid ’12v conversions’,  ‘no battery’, and other wiring conversions.

There are many ways to do this, and some are better than others. Any issues you have will involve trying to figgure out how it was originally wired, what was changed, and if the person doing it knew what they were doing.

8. Stock, unmolsted bikes have less ‘surprises’

This goes hand in hand with the last 3, but a bike that is factory original but neglected is usually a better buy than a shiny repainted one, in the mid to low price range. The more a bike deviates from bone standard, the more likely it will give first time buyer problems.

9. Avoid restored bikes under $5k

It costs alot of money to do a restoration properly. It costs much less to cut alot of corners like the ‘restoration mills’ do. Granted, there are sob stories (got it restored, lost my job, must sell) but if someone has restored a bike properly, they have serious money into it, and even selling it at $5k is usually selling at a loss. Just to give some context, to have a bike restored by a shop such as Scooters Originali, the price STARTS at $8,000. not including the cost of the bike. I don’t even know what I’d charge at my shop because with the few requests I get, once I go over a rough ballpark of what paint and the motor work would cost they usually lose interest. To be honest few customers have the stomach or the pocketbook for it.

10. If the scooter is over 25 years old and the engine has never been apart, budget for an engine rebuild.

While you might get lucky, from my experience, any scooter over 25 years old that has never had the engine open has seals living on borrowed time. Plan to pay to have the engine rebuilt within a year or two.

Yes, there are exceptions to these rules, but follow them and you’ll weed out alot of the bikes more likely to give you problems. If you need advice on a specific bike, i am willing to weigh in on scooters for people. Just contact me.

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