Luckily, Stella’s supplier, LML (that’s Lohia Machinery, Limited of India) has been working on this problem, developing its innovative Star Automatic model for domestic and overseas markets. Although the classic Vespa PX chassis looks pretty much the same as it was when Piaggio starting building them at the LML factory under a joint venture 30 years ago, the powerplant is a ground-up LML design with some very interesting features.
The engine is a four-stroke Single, with a modern overhead camshaft and almost-square 57mm by 49mm bore and stroke numbers, rated for about 9 horsepower at the crank – not bad for a 125cc four-stroke. It may lack the punch of a two-smoker, but it’s clean-burning enough to pass the toughest emissions regs, thanks to a catalytic converter and an interesting “electronic carburetion system.”
Wha? Why not just use fuel injection? Genuine’s tech guys, Massimo Cipolletta and Jim Kolbe, really couldn’t say, other than to speculate about cost-savings and LML’s deep knowledge of carbureted scooters – Third-world customers are just more familiar with that technology, after all – but they called it a “beautiful Del’Orto system…made in Japan and developed in Italy by Del’Orto’s engineers.” The system has been around for a while and is proven to work. A fuel pump sends gas to a small holding tank where the carb sips it in, metered by an ECU that can mechanically adjust the fuel-air mixture – a unique solution that seems to do the job nicely, thanks.
With few exceptions, the Stella Automatic will be familiar to anyone who’s ridden a P-series Vespa in the last five decades (yes, that’s right – if the first P200E was from 1977, that means these bikes have been around in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, Oughts and Teens – it’s the equivalent of driving a Model T in the 1960s if you think about it…). Swing the bench seat up to access the 1.8-gallon gas tank. The front brake is still on the right handgrip, turnsignals still on the front of the leg shield and mounted on the rear cowlings. The wheels are the same five-spoke 10-inchers you’ve seen for years, except now have a disc brake in the front – hooray for progress! There’s still a roomy glovebox in front and a clip for bags and luggage under the seat. The chrome mirrors, big boxy front mudguard and large taillight all hint at the pre-cellphone era from whence the PX came.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice the differences. The left handgrip doesn’t pivot – the clutch lever now works the rear brake. The reserve tap, oil-level indicator and choke knob are gone from their spots under the parcel hook, and if you get a flat tire you may have to take advantage of Genuine’s roadside assistance plan: the spare tire is gone (no room for it with the new drive unit), replaced by a cover behind the right cowling so it still looks right. The drive unit looks weird if you’re used to vintage Vespas, but it’s an interesting piece of engineering that doesn’t seem out of place.
(Above) This is what an electronic carburetion system looks like. (Below) LML did the heavy engineering lifting, but Genuine’s expertise in product development shows in the tasteful paint, trim and graphics.
Also different is the chassis, according to Tech Services guru Cipolletta. Though the front of the bike, from the floorboards forward, is similar monocoque construction to the original Vespas, the rest is a tube-steel frame covered with steel body panels. The wheelbase is a bit extended, weight distribution is improved, and the engine is now centered, not leaning to one side like the old Vespas – it only took 60 years to figure that one out. It’s easier to check the engine oil level, and the centerstand is improved: It’s stronger and it hoists the rear wheel into the air.
I am not a big fan of riding vintage Vespas (or LMLs), even if I do love the way they look. Frankly, they’re a lot like operating a Burning Man art car; the short wheelbase, offset engine, back-heavy weight distribution, crude suspension and close-to-vertical steering-head angle aren’t what anybody would consider ‘confidence inspiring’ unless they’ve been huffing paint thinner all morning. There are also the issues of balky shifting, stiff clutch pull and that manic gear whine coming from the engine bay. If they built scooters in prison metal shops, they would be much like vintage Vespas.
That’s what I expected getting on the Automatic – and I was pleasantly surprised at how wrong that expectation was. Not only is the new scooter very easy to ride, it also feels safer and more stable.
Starting it up is simple – just thumb the starter and the automatic choke does the rest. After a short warm-up period, even in sub 40-degree temperatures, the scooter is ready to ride, the motor quietly chuffing away at idle.
You’ve probably guessed the Stella doesn’t offer class-leading performance, and you’d be right. But it’s not slow. Acceleration isn’t neck-snapping, but keeping up with city traffic is no problem. I received dire warnings about Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive, a multilane divided freeway where traffic was moving at 50-70 mph, but the 125 took it in stride, cruising happily at an indicated 55 mph on flat ground. Not a tourer – but I thought it was fine for short freeway jaunts. Fueling is very good, combining that analog feel of carburetors (think vintage vinyl vs. MP3) with the clean burning and efficiency of fuel-injection (claimed MPG is 100-plus, and I used so little gas I couldn’t accurately judge my mileage in the 70 or so miles I rode). Let’s see how well the system holds up in daily use – Genuine tells me the system has been in service for many years in overseas markets with no particular difficulties.
The wheelbase and weight distribution of the Stella seem better suited for high speeds than older PX Vespas and their clones. Steering is still really quick (I won’t bore you writing another analogy for “telepathic”), but the Stella didn’t feel twitchy at high speeds, or weird and wobbly at lower ones. It was just…well…modern feeling. Not quite bland – you won’t mistake it for a run-of-the-mill plastic-covered twist-n’-go – but a smooth, relaxed and non-alarming experience any rider will enjoy.
The brakes and suspension shine as well. The front disc brake feels as powerful as you can expect from a single disc on such a small wheel, helped by good-performing (but retro-looking) Dunlop rubber, steel brake lines and a modern master cylinder. The suspension has a lot working against it: There’s not a lot of travel and there’s that unsprung mass of the drive unit working against the skinny rear shocks. The front end isn’t much better, with its 60-year-old, aircraft landing-gear style design, but it’s as good as I’ve felt on a stock scooter of this style. So it provides an acceptable ride, even at higher speeds on bumpy, frost-heaved (is that a word?) pavement. Let’s face it: there’s only so much you can do with the format of the steel-bodied Vespa clone, but LML seems to have taken it as far as it can go.
Sounds like you have to put up with a lot to ride in style, no? Of course – the whole point of riding a steel-bodied scoot is so you can ride something classic and unique. The Stella 125 Automatic does that, gathering looks, attention and “what year is that” questions and “I used to have one of those” stories everywhere you go. LML did the heavy engineering lifting, but Genuine’s expertise in product development shows in the tasteful paint, trim and graphics. My only real complaints is the bike’s modest top speed and lack of underseat storage, but I could say the same about any scooter in this genre.
Do I sound impressed by the Stella? Well, I am. I’d love to spend more time to really put it through its paces, but my too-brief time on it showed me it should be on the short list of a scooter rider (or prospective scooter rider) that wants the look, feel and experience of riding a classic scooter without the heartache and privations that come with owning an old scooter. For $3499 it’s a solid deal, made sweeter with a two-year warranty and roadside assistance. It’s not the real thing, but it’s genuine with a capital G.