"Handlebar" Vespas are so-called because of the fact that the controls and steering are located on chrome-plated, exposed handlebars, which are similar to a bicycle's. Piaggio made Vespas of this style from the very first Vespas in 1946 until 1957, at which time they changed all models to an enclosed headset.
Most of the handlebar Vespas imported to the U.S. were sold through Sears department stores and through mail order. The Sears Vespas were not called "Vespa" at all, but were re-badged as "Allstate" by Sears. These Sears Allstate scooters were a special "economy" model Vespa made by Piaggio specially for Sears and were slightly different than any Vespa sold in Europe. They do however share some components with the highly sought after Vespa "U" model. Since the Allstates were an economy model, they lacked many of the extras that were standard on scooters sold directly through Vespa dealers in the U.S.. These "luxury extras" included such "superfluous" items as front shock absorbers, a speedometer, a brake light, etc. Allstate Vespas can be identified in several ways. None of the Vespas sold by Sears had front dampeners (except for the 1966 model year), so one easy way to identify an Allstate is to look at the front fork first. If there is only a spring on the front fork, it is safe to assume that it is an Allstate. Further, Allstate Vespas came with a metal plate riveted to the frame near the fuel switch that specifies that the scooter was produced in Italy by Piaggio for Sears Roebuck and Co. These scooters also did not have a "Vespa" badge on the front legshields, but an "Allstate" badge in the outline of the United States, and lacked a "Piaggio" shield on the center top of the legshields.
Although there were several modifications throughout the years in which handlebar Vespas were sold in the U.S., most of the scooters are quite similar in both appearance and mechanicals. The motor on these scooters is of a piston ported design which was only used on these bikes and the G.S./S.S. range of Vespas. This design was later abandoned in non-sport Vespas in 1958 favor of the more reliable crank induction which was subsequently employed by all other Vespas. Furthermore, another common element is that all of the handlebar models had three speed gearboxes and sported eight inch wheels. The motor-side cowl on these scooters was fixed to the scooter, and would prop itself up when opened.
In addition to the Allstates, and the numerous handlebar Vespas sold in the US by Vespa dealers, there are quite a few handlebar Vespas which have been recently imported from Europe these days. Many of these European imports can be easily identified because of the location of the front headlight. Because of US law, all Vespas sold in the US had headlights which were attached to the handlebars. European laws differed, and so Vespas sold in Italy had their headlights located on the top of the scooter's front fender. These scooters are often referred to as "faro basso," which means "low lamp" in Italian. In English, they are typically called "fender light" Vespas. The headlight was moved to the handlebars for all markets by Piaggio in 1955.
In fact, between the Allstates and the recent imports, handlebar Vespas are not all that difficult to find anymore. Still, as with all of the very old Vespas, make sure that you look for one that is complete, and preferably running. Parts for these bikes are generally very difficult to find, and their archaic motor design can make them very frustrating to work on.
The bodywork on the handlebar Vespas were identical for both the 125 and 150 models. Styling changed slightly over the five years that they were sold in the US. All of them had a large glovebox integrated into the left cowl. The 150 models, and later 125s had a lock with key for the glovebox, while Allstates, and some 125 models simply had a small hole in the door latch which allowed an owner to lock the door with their own small padlock. The right cowl covered the motor, and was connected to the body with two bowed rods. The cowl could be removed for service, but was made to stay on the scooter, and prop itself up when opened almost like a car hood. On early models, the cowl was cut away to reveal the motor fan cover. Later, this cut away was replaced with louvers, which would remain a Vespa styling cue until the mid-1970's. The very early cowls and front fender were made of aluminum, which was changed to steel on later models.
The body on the Handlebar Vespas steeply slopes back behind the seat towards the back of the scooter. A single saddle seat with two springs was standard, and a package tray was located behind the seat. A passenger seat could be attached to the tray. On US models, the headlight was built in to a small housing at the center of the handlebars, which also housed a speedometer on models which had a speedo. If the scooter did not have a speedometer, a blanking plate with a Piaggio emblem was placed in the speedo hole. Very early models did not have a place for the speedometer near the headlight, and an accessory speedometer could be mounted inside the legshield. Allstate models had solid aluminum strips for floor runners, while Vespa models had aluminum channels with rubber inserts on the floor.
On the handlebars themselves, there were only minor changes over the years. The early Allstates, which were the only Vespas available in the U.S. in the early years, were quite basic. The first Allstates had a very basic headlight nacelle, which did not have a provision for a speedometer. This is the same nacelle used on the Vespa "U" model in Europe. Later, Piaggio used the same parts as on the other Vespas for the Allstate headlight. The speedometer was still an option however, and a plastic blanking plate was standard to fill the hole left by the missing speedo. One thing to noe is that all handlebar Vespas sold in the U.S. had the headlight mounted on top of the handlebars due to American road regulations. This was at a time when the standard Vespas in Europe had a fender mounted headlight. Some of the "Faro Basso", or fender light Vespas have been privately imported, but they were never actually sold here. By 1955, Piaggio were mounting the headlight on the handlebars on European market scooters as well.
The motor on the handlebar Vespas was a very basic power plant. All were piston ported, and the main crank case could be detached from the swing arm. These motors are often referred to as "three-piece" motors because the cases come apart in two halves, and then attach as a unit to the separate swing arm. Later model rotary valve motors had the swing arm integrated into one of the motor case halves. In any case, there were numerous minor changes made to the motors over the long production run. The main change in motor design to the handlebar Vespa over the years was to the piston, which changed from a scoop-like scavenger top to a defector top in later models. Additionally, the carburetors were changed over the production run. Changes to the body allowed different fan covers to be used on the motor, from louvers, to open hole, to finally a "Y" shape. All Allstates and 125cc models sold in the US had a magneto powered AC lighting system, while some of the 150cc models had a battery which helped power the brake light and horn. One thing to note is that the Allstates generally had older motor designs than the same year Vespas. Additionally, all Allstates had 125cc motors. The Vespas sold through Vespa dealers however, were similar to the Europan market Vespas and were available both in 125 and 150cc configurations.
All of the Handlebar scooters can be classified as collector scooters. The older models are more valuable than the later 50's versions. Both the 125 and 150 models are too slow, both in terms of acceleration and top speed, to be safely driven regularly on today's streets. It is hard to over-emphasize how slow the 125 handlebar scooters really are. In addition, the lights on these scooters can be considered anemic at best and are really too dim to be sure that you can be seen by cars on the road at night. Furthermore, many Allstate Vespas did not have brake lights as standard equipment, and all of them have downright dangerous front suspensions without a dampener.
One thing to also consider with handlebar Vespas is that parts for these scooters can be very difficult to obtain. This is especially true for trim or body parts. Many motor parts are also quite hard to come by, and sadly the situation is only likely to get worse. Some internal motor wear items are still in production, so one could reasonably expect to keep a running scooter on the road. I would however, advise strongly against purchasing a scooter which is not 100% complete and running, as the parts search is likely to be long and expensive.
Production of 125 (1952-57)
Frame Numbers: VM1T-VM2T, VN1T-VN2T
Number Produced: 299,612 -Production of 150 (1954-57)
Frame Numbers: VL1T-VL3T, VB1T Number Produced: 131,736
Imported to the U.S. from 1952-57
125cc - 4.5 h.p, 150cc - 5.4 h.p.
- Rough but restorable = 400-1200
- Drivable, but not show = 1500-4000
- Restored or Excellent Original Condition = 4000-7000