Before You Buy
There are a few things that are common to all Vespa scooters that you should be aware of when looking to buy one. First of all, since most Vespa scooters are getting are at least 30 years old by now, the condition of each perspective purchase should be examined carefully. Many times a missing trim piece, or hidden mechanical problem can turn out to be very expensive to repair or replace.
Here is a general checklist of things that you should look at when buying a Vespa...
Look the scooter over carefully. Look for accident damage. Look at where the floorboards bend up at the legshield, if there are strange bends or ripples in the metal, walk away - this indicates serious crash damage to the frame. Look at the inside of the cowls for evidence of bondo. You can find bondo body filler anywhere on the body by using a magnet. Magnets stick to the metal body, but not to body filler. If it is a non-p,look at the louvers in the motor side cowl; are they bent or rusty? Generally older Vespa cowls are very difficult to obtain, and when available, are very expensive to purchase. Check under the scooter for rust. Look at the paint, is it high quality? Quality of paint is highly determinative of the price of the scooter, it is difficult and expensive to get a good paint job on a scooter. Can you see bubbles in the paint where rust is coming through? Check the back of the frame by the tail-light, is it cracked? Are all of the badges there? All Vespas have a model badge on the right side of the front legshields (e.g. "Vespa G.S.") and a "Piaggio" badge in the center. In addition, there is a model badge located on the frame behind the seat on most late 60's and 70's models (e.g. "Rally 200"). Are the seats in good shape, or do they have to be re-covered? Are the tires good? Shake the front hub while the scooter is on the center stand, if it wobbles a lot then the scooter has bad front bearings. Check the inside of the gas tank with a flashlight for rust. Check the sides of the legshields, is the aluminum trim damaged, this is very difficult to replace.
Kick over the motor. Let it warm up and idle. Does it idle smoothly? Is it smoking excessively? Does it leak gas or oil? Do the lights work? The brake light? Horn? Listen to the motor, does it make any excessive rattling or knocking sound? Pull in the clutch when the bike is idling, does the motor make any different sounds? With the motor off, try to wiggle the flywheel side to side, any major play indicates bearing problems. Pull out and inspect the spark plug. You can tell a lot about how a Vespa is running just by looking at the plug. A white electrode indicates a lean mixture, which may be indicative of other major top end problems such as an air leak, poor jetting, or incorrect ignition timing. If left unattended, this situation will almost certainly result in a seizure or melted piston. A black electrode indicates a rich mixture, which may indicate poor jetting resulting in excessive carbon build up on the piston, ports and exhaust. If left unattended, your scooter's performance will be negatively effected. A chocolate brown electrode indicates all is well. Listen to each of the body parts, does the fender/cowls/glovebox door/etc. rattle? Turn the throttle. Does the motor run up to high speed smoothly? Does it return to idle smoothly? If it does not, there are likely problems.
Assuming you know how to ride, take the scooter for a spin around the block. Does it go into gear smoothly? A common problem with older Vespas is that they jump out of gear under hard acceleration. This indicates a worn shifting cross (part of the transmission), which is a somewhat difficult part to replace, or it indicates worn gears, which are difficult to replace and expensive to purchase. Does the clutch work smoothly? Does the motor bog - at low rpm, at top speed? This indicates an air leak and/or top end problems. Check the suspension. Does the bike bounce a lot when you hit a bump? Do the front shocks work properly? Shocks are generally easily replaced, but can be expensive to purchase. When you turn, does the back end wobble? This indicates worn motor mounts which are difficult to replace. Do the brakes actually stop the bike? While riding, loosen your grip on the handlebars. Does the bike track straight, or does it pull to one side? If so, walk away, this indicates a bent frame or forks.
Every problem on a Vespa is generally fixed easily, but parts can be expensive, especially on older models. Take a copy of Vespa Motorsport's or a similar catalogue with you and add up the cost of fixing problems or replacing parts. Finally, think about what that particular Vespa is worth to you. For instance for me, a beat up P 125 for $800 is probably not worth even looking at, but a G.S. in the same condition is a must purchase. If you REALLY want a Vespa NOW, it is hard to pass up even an over-priced scooter. Generally if you are willing to wait six months or so and look hard for a scooter, you can find a Vespa in reasonable condition for a reasonable price. Unfortunately it seems to be a seller's market now, and prices are steadily rising...
Now that we've covered general tips, let's look at specific Vespa models...
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