Friday, March 9, 2012

Vespas, or what?

1959 Vespa - Note the small wheels allowing
a step-thru chassis, spare tire, cowling
Why would I write anything at all about Vespas? They're not even true motorcycles but motor-scooters — you know, they have those tiny wheels, a small motor — everything about them is small and low to the ground. I remember them from my childhood years when they were practically the only two wheeled vehicle on American roads that wasn't named Harley or Indian. By the way, the name Vespa derives from the Italian word for wasp and is a reference to the buzzing sound those tiny high-revving motors made as they raced along the highways of Italy.

During my motorcycle trip to Nan last month I spent a few evenings chatting with biking buddies Al, DC, Sean, and Andy over beers at our hotel. These guys have been riding for years. They're true aficionados. When we get together we constantly talk about motorcycles; Bimmers, Kawasakis, Hondas, tires and exhaust pipes, street bikes vs off-road, etc. One evening the conversation somehow turned to Vespas. To my surprise, Sean said he'd gladly pay $4,000 USD for an older Vespa, properly restored. Al immediately chimed in with his affirmation.

I said, Whoa, are you kidding? You'd both be willing to pay four grand for a Vespa, an old Vespa?

"Yes", they said, practically in unison, "in a heartbeat  — cash money."

So I thought I'd do a little research about Vespas. If I do some reading, I reasoned, maybe I'll end up liking them too.

As it happens, the Vespa was a revolutionary 2-wheeler for its time. The small wheels allowed a step-thru chassis that made getting on and off easy even if the driver was wearing a skirt, unlike other motorcycles of the day. The 2-stroke engine was enclosed and hidden inside a streamlined rear end and they had a cowling up front to protect the driver from rain and mud. The modern Yamaha Finos and Honda Scoopys and Clicks borrow heavily from that original design and you see hordes of them in Thailand, often driven by attractive gals in skirts and high heels. These bikes far outnumber Vespas on the roads nowadays. Vespas are made in Italy by Piaggio and always have been. The company started out making interiors for train coaches but in the late 1940s developed the stylish motor scooter that made the  Vespa marque famous. I read somewhere that over 15 million Vespas have been manufactured since they first appeared. That's more than 4 times the number of Harleys that have sold in their one hundred year history. Who knew?

(More reading: Here's a blog article about the Vespa Museum near Pisa, Italy: Velvet Escape)

Chiang Mai girl riding a Honda Click
Because the modern bikes have automatic transmissions these machines have no clutch lever. Of course, having no clutch to operate with the left hand, only a brake, makes it easy for people to hold a drink, or even a cell phone, with that hand. This is all too common a practice in Thailand. Hell, you're never gonna need that other brake anyway, right?

Taking a call while driving one-handed in heavy traffic

Vespas are fairly common in Thailand. Most of those I see here are older ones with 2-stroke engines. The two-strokes are the ones that have lubricating oil mixed with the fuel which results in the production of a lot of smelly smoke, which in turn causes me to curse them. Lonely Planet calls the Vespa the iconic motor scooter, the machine that defines what a scooter is. I call them crop-dusters. Whether on the open road or waiting for a light to change, there's almost nothing worse then being caught behind a crop-duster. Two-stroke engines have been pretty much phased out in the U.S. except for chain saws and other applications requiring a high power to weight ratio, which is one of the few redeeming virtues of 2-stroke motors. (They're light because they use no valves or camshafts. Plus they deliver one power stroke for every 2 crankshaft revolutions, while a 4-stroke engine delivers only one power stroke for four revs.) Every once in a while you'll still see an old outboard motor or vintage motorcycle trailing a characteristic plume of blue smoke but they're mostly gone now. They're very inefficient compared to four-stroke engines and the stinky exhaust gas they produce is both smoky and polluting. Good riddance.

2 old Vespas in our parking lot
Business end of  a 2-stroke Vespa motor

Another neighborhood Vespa
Mirrors and lights
But things have changed. The company almost went bankrupt a while ago after losing ground and sales dollars to Japanese bike makers for many years. But beginning in 2003 new management and the employment of Japanese assembly line techniques have reinvigorated the marque and have once again made Vespas a cult item, in demand for the metropolitan commuter and Sunday drive in the country crowd. For example, the young fellow I chatted with at Wangwon Farm the other day had a new LX150 of which he was quite proud.

Nut and I looked at an assortment of new Vespas at the big Honda dealership in Chiang Mai the other day. They are pretty cool I must admit. Why the Honda dealer is selling them is a question I cannot answer. (More profit margin? If you can't lick 'em, join 'em? The owner loves Vespas as do my buddies Sean and Al?)

Vespa GTV 300

The new Vespas boast state of the art fuel injected, 4-stroke engines ranging in size from 50cc to 280cc. Gone are the smelly plume of blue smoke and the ring-a-ding-ding sound of those venerable 2-stroke motors. Enter Halogen headlights, electric starters, disc brakes and efficient automatic transmissions. But I had an attack of sticker shock when I looked at the price tag on the top of the line GTV 300. This little baby will set you back 300,000 baht, close to $10,000 USD. I read an article in Wired magazine while I was putting this together that talks about an experimental model, the X9, which has a 460cc motor.

Note: Feb 2013 - I learned the X9 was released in 2005 but was not particularly successful and is not listed on the Vespa site (link below). It never caught on in the states, nor here as far as I can tell.

(The Vespa site for the USA is  here.)

So, now that I've looked the situation over have I changed my mind about Vespas? In a word, No.

I do like them better than I did but still think my buddies are crazy. Pay four grand for a restored crop duster? No way. Pay 10 grand for the new, sportier 4-stroke, automatic transmission equipped GTV 300? I don't think so. The Japanese brands competing in the step-thru category cost far less than any Vespa. A brand new 125cc Honda Click or Yamaha Fino can be had for under $2,000 USD and there are service centers literally everywhere in the kingdom.

Just for the hell of it and as another point of comparison even though not completely fair, a new BMW F800GS, practically a superbike here in Thailand, will set you back around 800,000 baht, ($26,000 USD!) In the U.S. the F800GS can be had for a paltry $13K USD. My CBR250 is, of course, manufactured in Thailand while the Vespa and the Bimmer are imports and therefore carry a stiff import duty that jacks their MSRPs to almost double the cost elsewhere.

The 2012 BMW F 800 GS - you can have one for only $26,000

The other day I bought the tickets that will take me to the east coast of the U.S. and out of Thailand for the summer months. My original plan was to spend a month or so in France and the Netherlands but I decided for various reasons not to do that and will instead come more or less directly back to the states. I'll fly west out of Bangkok to Amsterdam for a 3-day stop at one of the favorite cities of my 2009 visit to Europe and then on to Buffalo and North Carolina. After that I'll spend a few weeks in Eugene while my son Tuli recovers from knee surgery for a torn ACL and then sometime in late May or early June return to Alaska for the main part of the summer.

What does the summer hold now that I no longer have a place to hang my hat in Homer? Good question. I'll tell you about it when I figure it out.