VESPA ADVENTURE RIDE – AN UNSUPPORTED EXPEDITION
“Vespa adventure ride? You’ve got to be daft. An adventure ride has to be on an adventure motorcycle, not some scooter. You’re denigrating us real adventure riders with this Vespa adventure ride concept.” So proclaimed a journalistic colleague when he heard I was searching for a Vespa to use during an expedition through some of the jungle in northern Thailand.
“Blame Jeffrey McCollum,” I said. “It was his idea after we’d had a fun-filled adventure using 125-130cc step-through motorcycles, possibly too much fun. McCollum sparked the concept when he asked me afterwards, ‘When do we do the Vespa scooter adventure ride?’ He’s the daft fellow. I’m just the messenger to big bike addicts like you.”
McCollum was based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so that’s where our adventure planned to start. The design of the expedition was to rent a Vespa, or two, and make a 300-mile loop out of Chiang Mai, with an overnight pit stop in the town of Pai. The ride was to be unsupported, meaning we would be on our own without the safety net of a guide and chase truck with filled with spare parts and mechanic. We would do a tough road on Day 1, followed by an easier pavement ride on Day 2.
My Vespa experiences dated back to high school days when a boarding school roommate bought a Vespa that we used on weekends to explore our world around Philadelphia, Pa.
In the 1970s I was in the bigger-is-better motorcycle touring mode when I met a Vespa aficionado who gave me an education on the Italian marque while we changed his flat tire on the side of a road. I had driven my BMW motorcycle past him and his stopped Vespa as he was unpacking it in the middle of Nowhere, South Dakota or Nebraska. I turned around and went back to see if he needed any help.
The GB sticker, lights and chrome captured my jungle riding imagination until I was told it was not for rent, only for sale, at $5000 USD, a figure not in my adventure riding budget.
He said he had everything needed to fix his flat tire, but accepted my offer to help. While I handed him tools he fixed the flat and told me the history of the Italian Vespa and gloried in the fact that his had been born in Rome. Amazingly, he had ridden the smoking two-strokers through Central America and South America. I knew the trip could be done, having followed the earlier adventures of Danny Liska as he accomplished the same on a BMW. But Liska had been on a 600cc BMW motorcycle, and there on the roadside I was looking at a scooter, a 150cc scooter, that had covered the same seemingly dangerous and impassable roads.
Every now and then over the next 30-40 years a Vespa adventurer would ping on my radar screen when I heard of them crossing Africa or circling the globe. Once I met a Vespa rider in Fairbanks, Alaska who was headed up The Haul Road to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. Later I was told he had crashed badly on The Dalton Highway before reaching Deadhorse. When I spoke with him before he left Fairbanks he seemed assured that he and his fully loaded Vespa could conquer The Dalton Highway, which apparently they did not.
With the help of several members of a Southeast Asia motorcycle forum www.rideasia.net I began to physically hunt for a Vespa. McCollum and I noticed Vespas, old and new, seemed to be quite common in Chiang Mai. They were often seen zipping through traffic as commuter transportation. We learned there was a very active community of Vespa owners in the city, as well as numerous repair and sales shops. We also discovered was that it was not going to be easy to rent or borrow one. A visit to three Vespa sales shops found that I could buy a new or old Vespa, but none wanted to part with one on a rental basis, even when I offered substantial cash deposits equaling the purchase price of the Vespa. We also found that private owners of Vespas were very attached to them, not wanting to part with theirs to some foreigner with a daft plan to ride it through the jungle.
(Above) The Vespa repair and restoration shop was attached to the owner’s Oldies Cafe & Restaurant, where I found an avid Vespa and old motorcycle aficionado. (Below) Khun Aon, the Vespa shop and restaurant owner, became interested in my proposed Vespa adventure ride, more so after I gave him a sticker and we traded stories and photographs of Indian motorcycles.
After several disappointing attempts to rent a Vespa from the large Vespa dealers, I met an Indian motorcycle aficionado who owned a Vespa repair and restoration business. I spotted a 1964 Vespa parked on the street in front of a small Vespa repair shop and stopped to see if the owner would rent it. Khun Aon, the shop owner, also owned the attached restaurant, The Oldies Cafe and Restaurant https://www.facebook.com/oldiescafeandrestaurant where he patiently listened to my plan to pilot a Vespa to Pai. He asked about the Indian motorcycle T-shirt I was wearing and when I told him I raced and owned Indian motorcycles he became aglow. While he loved older motorcycles and collected some, he had long lusted for one of the original Indians and was such a fan of the famed motorcycles that he had named his month-old daughter Indian.
Khun Aon and I became immediate friends and he offered to let me use his 50 year-old Vespa for the trip to Pai. To add spice to the pie, he did not want a deposit or rental agreement, only a handshake on the deal. I did insist on paying for any damage and broken parts and gave him a copy of a book I wrote in 1997 about Indian motorcycles as partial rental payment.
A local British expat owner of a 2013 Vespa heard of my casting about for a Vespa for the journey to Pai and stepped up to offer use of his new Vespa. McCollum and I readily accepted the offer and jokingly planned a shoot-out ride between the two Vespas, the old versus the new.
Before leaving Chiang Mai we made a short stop for coffee and conversation with some of our expat motorcycling acquaintances. The 1964 Vespa got most of their attention, as well as some guffaws and snickering. Like cowboys sitting on the rail fence at a rodeo but not getting down and dirty with the contestants, known as railbirds, the local Chiang Mai riders were laughing at my confidence in the Vespa making the journey to Pai. These motorcycle railbirds were especially incredulous when they learned we were not going to take the usual route, the easy pavement ride over Road 107 and then more pavement over Road 1095. Our planned route was to ride the back way to Pai, over some unpaved sections through the jungle known to eat front wheels on motorcycles if the pilot was not careful.
The shoot-out between the old and new Vespas became a hare-and-tortoise race. The new Vespa would easily navigate turns and had a huge acceleration advantage. The bigger advantages were the 50 year difference in suspension and braking systems. I soon speculated that the drum brake shoes on the 50 year-old Vespa were the original brake shoes, hardened with time. An out-of-round front brake drum further decreased the stopping power of the front wheel. Any slowing for curves or stopping required the maximum application of front and rear brakes, a down shift to a lower gear and a prayer. As for suspension, what was once a well-sprung system had suffered with age and when my weight was added seemingly groaned and bottomed when I was astride with my luggage.
McCollum raced ahead of me and then stopped, took photographs, drank a cola and made conversation with the locals while waiting for me to catch up. Usually I passed his parked Vespa and proceeded solo until he would catch-up and then speed ahead. Due to the unknown consumption of gasoline on the older Vespa, we pit-stopped every 60 miles and topped off the small tank while adding some two stroke oil.
The road conditions from Samoeng to Wat Chan were the most challenging, climbing into the mountains while road surfaces changed from pavement, to stone, to hard pan, to sand and then severely rutted sections. The new Vespa easily bounced over or around pot holes and bumps. The older Vespa often failed to respond to my frantic braking and found it banging the suspension or dragging some of the Vespa undercarriage. The solution was to drive slow, keep speeds below 35 mph, and often in the 15-20 mph range.
The banging and bone jarring bumps eventually made the old Vespa pay a price, a broken rear shock absorber. The broken shock caused the rear body of the Vespa to sink lower towards the ground, which reduced cornering lean angle to 10-15 degrees or the muffler on the left side would drag and on the right side the engine itself sent scratching noises to the pilot. However, even with the broken shock absorber, if the lean angle was managed the Vespa soldiered on, it wasn’t a journey halter.
The older Vespa had noticeably lost power as we left Wat Chan on the pavement and drove towards Pai. Uphills required lower gears than before (the Vespa had three gears), often needing first gear to crawl slowly up steep inclines. I worried that I had jarred something loose, possibly the timing or 50 year-old electrical connections. As dusk approached we decided to limp into Pai and find a room for the night rather than attempt roadside repairs at the expense of daylight and possibly driving in the dark over questionable sections of road.
Overnight, with the reflective aid of a chilled swill for me and iced cola for my non-alcohol-drinking riding pal McCollum, I speculated the loss of power problem was attributed to lack of air to the carburetor. In the morning we pulled off the Vespa side cover and found that dust from the day before had clogged the air filter to the point where it looked like a pancake had wrapped the filter. Using some gas I cleaned the filter and re-installed it, the overall job taking about 20 minutes.
While I was looking under the old Vespa for what might be damaged when metal met pavement I shook the rear shock to see if it would come loose from its mounting, which it could not. It seemed well enough fixed that the day of riding on pavement would not break anything else nor allow the entire rear section of the Vespa to drop onto the road.
When we were in Pai I met several foreign BMW and Triumph-mounted adventure riders who were headed to Chiang Mai. They were interested in the older Vespa and wanted to know about the back road it had come over from Chiang Mai to Pai. They concluded that if I could manage the 50 year-old Vespa over the unpaved sections, then certainly their fully blinged and farkled modern adventure big bikes could easily do the same.
(Above) This is where the expedition became a challenge as the Vespa wanted to wallow in and out of the ruts unless the perfect line was chosen. (Below) Poor engine performance by the time we reached Pai was determined to be a dust clogged air filter, easily gotten to and cleaned.
Two days later when I met the big bike adventurists again in Chiang Mai, two of the BMWs had visibly suffered severe cosmetic damage. Not wanting to pry too deeply in to areas of ego sensitivity, I asked how the bends and scratches affected handling. The proffered “no problem,” answer and accompanying story was the lead rider and his buddy collided when they hit the first section of dirt after leaving Wat Chan. They had been traveling at high speed when they rolled off the pavement and onto the dirt. The front rider applied too much front brake trying to scrub off some speed, causing the front wheel to wash out, and down he went. His buddy, following closely behind, also applied too much front brake while trying to avoid his horizontally rolling riding partner and the sliding BMW in front of him. So down the second BMW went, with both Beemers ending up in a heap of Bavarian metal and plastic.
While recounting their story, we enjoyed some laughs. Nobody had gotten hurt and the damage to the bikes was cosmetic. The only serious damages were to the rider egos, the biggest part being their deciding to turn around after the get-offs and not take the unpaved route to Chiang Mai, but to get back on the safer pavement. When asked if I had gone down with the Vespa over the same dirt or gravel sections I got a round of laughter from telling them the 50 year-old Vespa did not have brakes good enough to lock-up the front wheel.
1. Both the new and the old Vespa managed some tough roads, roads likely better suited for motorcycles with stiffer suspension and more clearance.
2. The 50 year-old Vespa was an eye catcher, and thumbs-up choice often the recipient of waves. Even at a police check-point the officers admired the old scooter.
3. For a ride around the world, either Vespa could seemingly accomplish the long ride, and the Vespa adventurers having done so in the past or doing such now had solid runners, albeit at slower speeds than when using big adventure bikes.
4. The slower pace of the Vespas meant the pilot had a chance to appreciate more of the environment they were passing through. The slower speed also meant the Vespa was an attainable target for packs of dogs when passing through villages, where the curs roamed freely and had affection for chasing Vespas.
Can a rider be daft for having too much fun? I’m daft enough and ready for another Vespa adventure ride.
5. The simplicity of the Vespa meant the operator could make some repairs and the likelihood of an owner being able to make all needed repairs made it motorhead friendly.
6. There was a fun and cult factor piloting a Vespa not found when covering the same ground on a modern adventure styled motorcycle.
Our Vespa Expedition was concluded when we returned the scooters to their owners. Both owners had the same response after we recounted our tale of traveling over the old elephant trails and dirt tracks to Pai by the back way. They said, “I would have had serious reservations about letting you use my Vespa over that road. I thought you were going to take the normal way to Pai, the pavement ride.”
To this we replied, “The Vespa did just fine and as you can see suffered little from the adventure, no scratches, dings or dents, nothing bent.”
Each owner had similar responses, that being, “I just didn’t think they could do it, not that you would not take care of the Vespa.”
My offer to pay for a new shock absorber was politely refused, Khun Aon saying the price of a new one was what he wanted to contribute for being part of our Vespa adventure. I insisted and he finally accepted cash for a replacement (made in India), about $30, while I wondered what a replacement shock absorber would cost for a big adventure bike.
Reflecting on our Vespa expedition some days later, McCollum said he was planning another adventure, this one into the deep jungles of Northeast Thailand along the border with Laos. He would to rent a bigger scooter, a 279cc Honda Forza, and suggested I join him.
I replied, “You’re daft man. That’s not a scooter, that’s a motorized sofa or recliner.”
To which McCollum said, “Think what kind of adventure you could have riding a Forza around the world.”
McCollum had me thinking daft thoughts of a Honda Forza slogging through the deep brown mud tracks of the Congo or slippery red jungle mud in Brazil. There would definitely be adventure.