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If you simply must

November 10, 2011

Craigslist post

You’ll see these on Craigslist all the time: a clean, always-garaged modern Vespa (most often an ET4) with LOW MILES, for sale cheap.

I’ve always said you should avoid scooters like this, if for no other reason than scooters (and all other motor vehicles) are designed to be used, if not daily then at least regularly and often. The seller in the Craigslist post to the left touts “only 240 miles!” That works out to 24 miles per year, though it’s more likely the bike sat for several years before the owner finally decided it needed to go.

These days, there are so many scooters like this on the market, and they can be sooo cheap (in this case, the asking price is a bit on the high side… don’t be afraid to wheel & deal!). Maybe it’s your next-door neighbor, or the guy down the street offering it for sale. This one actually looks pretty good… should you really pass?

I sat down with Jason, recently returned to Bellingham after a stint at NW Motorscooters in Tacoma (he works on the GTS) and we discussed dormant scooters.

Obviously, you’re going to want to look carefully at the scooter for signs of serious rust, crash damage, a blown engine, flood immersion, stuff like that. Ask lots of questions of the seller, and be sure this person is in possession of pertinent paperwork. A certificate of title and most recent registration, at least; a bill of sale, owner’s manual and/or service records are nice. The anal-retentive owner who can produce every single receipt for every penny ever spent on the bike is right up there with the barn find — quite rare, but not unheard-of.

If you’re looking at a modern Vespa, make sure the seller has the RED KEY. I would personally look elsewhere if this were missing… you need it to make duplicate blue keys, which contain a chip with a code that is read by the ignition immobilizer — you know, the thing that prevents a thief from starting the bike by hot-wiring it. Yeah, you could get a new one from a dealer, but it’ll cost several hundred dollars to program it.

Oh, and DO NOT buy a scooter sight-unseen. Go look at it, and talk to the owner, or whoever the owner has given a power of attorney (ask to see the paper) to act in his/her behalf. A motor scooter is a motor vehicle, not a toy. It must meet all legal requirements for motor vehicles in the place where it is operated.

Piaggio recommends an initial service at 600 miles (965 km; 1000km is 625 miles) on all modern Vespas, so this particular bike hadn’t been ridden enough to even have that done. It must be nice to have so much money burning a hole in your pocket you can drop five grand (the price of an ET4 after tax, license and setup) on something like this and just have it sit, but still.

Jason

Jason

Jason says resuscitating a modern 4-stroke scooter will require a lot less work than an old-skool bike. But it will require work, nonetheless.

First, get a new battery. Chances are, the one it came with will be dead, but even if it still has enough juice to crank the engine, get a new one. It’s an easy swap, and not particularly expensive. Be sure to properly dispose of the old one.

Next up is an oil and filter change. Jason says if the bike has not been ridden at all (I’ve seen a few of those), you could skip this step, but in this case the oil has been exposed to gasoline vapor, which can initiate chemical reactions that would be prevented by regular running at normal operating temperature. A couple liters of good synthetic 4T motor oil and a filter will run you 20 bucks or less if you do it yourself. Most modern Vespas require removal of body panels and the exhaust pipe to do this.

More than likely, the bike just got parked after its last ride. Which means any gas in the tank may have long since turned to varnish, or worse. You’ll therefore want to flush out the gas tank. And while you’re at it, Jason strongly suggests replacing the fuel lines, which can develop cracks, which means petrol will be leaking everywhere. Which could result in a fire. You really don’t want that.

Likewise, replace the fuel tap if there is one (some Chinese-made scooters will have a fuel pump instead of a tap). Sitting around for years can gunk it up really good, which will prevent it from working properly. If there’s a carburetor, don’t be surprised if you find it necessary to pull it apart and clean it.

Jason says he’s encountered more than a few 4-stroke scooters which have had 2-stroke oil poured in their gas tanks(!). This usually happens when an uninformed owner is told by a seriously misinformed neighbor or relative that, since it’s a scooter, it needs 2-stroke oil. If the bike is for sale because it quit running, ask about this! You will need to clean and flush the entire fuel system if this has happened.

Electronic fuel injection (EFI) is a relatively new feature on scooters, though it has been in widespread use in motorcycles for over a decade (and in cars for a quarter-century). Therefore, it’s not likely you’ll encounter it in an entombed Craigslist special. EFI contains no user-serviceable parts; it’ll work, or it won’t. Still, if the bike has EFI make sure you flush out the tank and lines and replace the fuel filter, then add fresh gas before you fire it up.

ET4 on the stand

A 4-stroke scooter will probably be okay with the spark plug it has, notes Jason. But they’re cheap, and easy to replace yourself. If you want. Just remember, screw the new one in very carefully! You do not want to strip the threads in the cylinder head. Really, you don’t.

What if this scooter were an ET2 (the 50cc 2-stroke version) or some other modern 2-stroke? Definitely replace the spark plug, says Jason, and if you live near salt water, check the electrical connections for corrosion.

Finally, if one or both of the tires is flat, pump them up to the recommended pressure (a bicycle pump will do just fine) and see if they hold air. Check the sidewalls for little cracks near the wheel rim; rubber dries out as it ages. If the tire(s) won’t hold air, or have lots of those little cracks, add a new set to your budget. Most modern scooters have tubeless tires, so you might need to take the wheels to a tire or motorcycle shop to have them mounted, and balanced if that’s necessary.

As I said, doing all this will cost you a few bucks, but if you can negotiate a corresponding price decrease, it’ll be worth it.

But what if the scooter to be re-animated is an old-skool scoot? We’ll cover that next. Favicon

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3 Comments
  1. November 10, 2011 12:39 am

    Orin,

    I liked this. Of course, I once bought a ’71 Honda Passport (non operational) so I’m not the kind to shy away from a deal. Still these things are important – and my opinion is if the price is right, buy it – but only if you’re willing to do the work to get it back on the road, or pay someone who will.

    Brady
    Behind Bars – Motorcycles and Life

  2. Ben permalink
    November 10, 2011 3:29 pm

    Oddly enough, last year when my ’03 LT150 was stolen, I was lucky enough to find a 2001 ET4 with only 1200miles on her. A Navy corpsman had purchased one each for himself and FORMER fiance…and yes, it had sat for 3 years—unridden—in his bedroom. 😉

    Of course there were all the exact problems mentioned above, but after the carb was cleaned out and the fuel line replacd, she was a spotless 10 yr beauty and at $1800 I still feel I got a bargain. She’s my daily ride and gets compliments all the time.

    Happy hunting!

    Ben

  3. November 10, 2011 5:05 pm

    Way to shop, Ben! The best thing about the ET was Piaggio selling ~800K of them during its 10-year run… don’t settle for a beater, there are lots of good ones out there…

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