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Reader’s Ride: Key West Vespa(s)

May 5, 2015


Hey, I’m still here… at the moment posting, never mind riding, is a bit difficult. So today, please welcome a guest author.

Michael Beattie, aka Conchscooter, is the writer, photographer and publisher of Key West Diary, which started out as Key West Vespa. Michael recently acquired a Vespa P200E, which he uses to ride to his job as a 911 dispatcher for the Key West Police Dept. His story follows the jump.

At first glance the decision to make a 36-year-old Vespa your daily rider might seem like the choice of a madman. Feel free to make the case; there is madness in my method.

It’s an interesting time to be a scooter buyer in the U.S or Canada. True, the choices are not nearly as vast as in Europe where scooters are utility vehicles for negotiating clogged city streets. Here in North America, riding is a choice and frequently a sport; there is nevertheless a wide range of modern, comfortable, automatic scooters on offer from several manufacturers.

But instead of choosing a scooter with a warranty, weather protection, storage capacity and a dealer network I went the other way and bought a steel bodied, 2-stroke Vespa.

Conchscooter's P200E

My 1979 P200E may be old, but spare parts are widely available and easily ordered online from numerous sources. As we shall see, these sturdy scooters require very little maintenance once they are properly set up.

Did I mention it’s a blast to ride? Nostalgia at its best!

I got my first Vespa in the summer of 1970 when my mother, who loved motorcycles, set me on my path as a lifelong rider. I spent my vacations in Italy and though at 12 years of age I was illegally young, I rode that orange Vespa 50R all over Italy’s Umbrian hills. I graduated to motorcycles as young men do, but never stopped enjoying the Vespa, which I rode every chance I got.

In Mexico

Conchscooter in Mexico (Photos by the author)

My longest trip came in 1981 when in May I bought a white P200E brand new in New York City and spent the summer riding it to San Francisco. I rode to New Orleans, Key West, back to Texas, and south to Mexico. Then, back up to Arizona and finally to a friend’s house in San Francisco after a tour of California. The Vespa rode like a champ and I kept it for a decade after I emigrated. I continued to ride it daily until in a fit of madness I sold it and moved to Florida.

I later bought a 150cc Genuine Stella because it looked like my beloved P-series.

Sadly, it was a total mechanical disaster. Nuts and bolts flew off at random, electrical switches crumbled, the rear axle shifted, the top speed was barely 50 miles an hour. I hated it! When the engine seized (The oil pump had fallen apart after 2800 miles) I sold it back to the dealer, as Genuine wanted nothing to do with the warranty.

Key West GTS

I was delighted when Piaggio brought new Vespas back to the United States, so I went out and bought a fantastic new red GTS 250. It got 70 mpg (3.4 liters/100 km), did 85 mph (137 km/h) and was quiet and comfortable to boot. I imagined a cross-country trip in style.

However, after ten months of desperately frustrating ownership that included breaking relays, an unreliable fuel system and a constantly-glowing “check engine” light, I sold it, deciding to turn my back on scooters and stick with motorcycles.

My ever-patient wife settled down to watching me ride a Triumph Bonneville which has given me zero problems in seven years and 85000 miles but that scooter itch never went away. “What if…” I said to myself. What if I got a used P200E, had it professionally restored and used it as a daily rider to spare my Bonneville too many more miles and an early grave?

I live outside Key West, and a 23-mile commute quickly racks up the miles when you never take the car. Even when it rains here a light rain suit is all you need, as hypothermia is not a common problem in the subtropics. Key West boasts year-round riding weather and I take full advantage.

I figured a properly set up stock P200 would be reliable, easy to maintain and with a top speed of around 62 mph (100 km/h) my wife would be happy (she is) and I might get fewer speeding tickets (I have).

So, the question is: what’s it really like to live with a 36 year old Vespa, ride it every day and put a thousand miles a month on it? The answer in Part 2!

—Michael Beattie, aka Conchscooter

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