Does all this sound familiar? If you’re an avid reader of Scootering magazine it might do, because they recently ran a small frame article. But as our version is more of a buyer’s guide, we deliberately held it back until they had finished theirs, both out of courtesy to them and because we thought it would make a nice follow-on.
There can’t be many scooterists who haven’t started their two-wheeled adventures on a Vespa small frame. These mini marvels have enjoyed something of a revival of late, due to either nostalgia, the introduction of a new range of high performance kits, or just the urge to own one of the prettiest Vespas ever made.
However, as with a lot of scooters which are a few years old, most small frames have had at least one careless owner who has thrashed, crashed, or hacked bits off them. What this guide will (hopefully) do is point out some of the areas to look out for as well as exploring a selection of the many models and the varied tuning and performance parts on the market, along with their availability and cost.
By the very early 1960s Piaggio had already been producing a range of machines that fitted its design remit of a unisex vehicle for the masses. However, as the decade rolled on and the postwar population numbers boomed, Piaggio could see a market for a new model of Vespa scooter emerging from Italian society.
In 1962 a law was passed where all vehicles larger than 50cc had to have a number plate. Piaggio saw this as a serious threat to its market, so a new model was designed to keep pace with both the social and legal developments.
Changes in the Italian Highway Code in 1959 led to the classification of a ‘moped’. This was defined as motor cycle having ‘an internal combustion type engine not exceeding 50cc and able to travel on a horizontal road at a top speed of 45kph (28mph). Anyone over the age of fourteen could now legally ride a moped; they didn’t need to have a licence, thus opening the door for a new generation of scooter riders as well as a whole sector of industry.
While not being the first manufacturer to produce mopeds (or ‘micro scooters’) Piaggio unveiled its design for a new 50cc Vespa to a great reception from the motor industry press in 1963. The new model featured a redesigned engine layout with the cylinder now facing at 45 degrees. This configuration would be used on all subsequent small frame Vespa scooters until the mid-1990s.
The Vespa 50 weighed in at 66kg, had a three-speed gearbox with a 49.77cc cylinder with a bore and stroke of 38.4 x 43mm. This produced 1.45 bhp and a top speed of 39.5kph (24.5mph) this was increased to 2.6bhp with the later Vespa 50S. The very first Vespa 50 ran on 2.75 x 9in wheels, but these were soon replaced with the now familiar 3.00 x 10in wheels which improved stability and safety over Italy’s cobbled streets. With a length of 1630mm, width of 610 mm and a dry weight of 70.5kg, the Vespa 50 was designed to be easy to use for learners. On its release it was priced at 102,000 lire (£42.23) and was an instant success with the general public.
This new type of Vespa model would go on to become a sales success for the next 30 years.
During the three decades that the small frame Vespa was produced, over 30 models were released to the general public. As well as being built in Italy, they were also made under licence in Spain and India.
It would be near impossible to try to cover all these models in this one-off article and would be more suitable for a ‘spotter’s guide’ rather than a ‘buyer’s guide’; so only the more common and familiar models will be covered. As they all share the same frame and engine design, then what’s valid on a 1964 Vespa 90 will be just as valid on a 1992 Vespa 50 – the exception being such things as electronic ignition and indicators.
The models that are most common on the British market are the V90/100cc, the 50 Special, PK50-125cc, Primavera/ ET3 and (although hardly common) arguably the finest small frame ever made – the SS90.
CHECKLIST – FRAME
When it comes to buying a Vespa small frame, there are certain things that you must be aware of before slapping down your hard earned cash. As with any motor vehicle of a certain age, small frames have no doubt had more than one less-than-careful owner. These individuals have mercilessly thrashed the engine to within an inch of its life, tried to re-enact the career of Evil Knievel, or maintained it as much as your average sundial.
With the frame there are certain things that you should be checking. Rust is always the biggest and most obvious danger to most Vespa chassis, so check around the seams and edges of the frame to see if there’s any rust forming. Ask the seller if you can check underneath with something like a screwdriver (or similar). Tap all around the bottom of the legshields and runner boards to see if there are any major rust patches which have broke through or about to form. If the seller isn’t too keen on this idea then walk away; there will be other machines for sale…
If the scooter has been hit hard in an accident, which has knocked the frame out of line, then there’s nearly always a crease mark below the horncast area of the frame – on the section where the chassis curves round to the rear. This area is normally hidden by the mudguard, so get on your hand and knees and check this area by turning the forks from side-to-side. The forks also would have suffered in such an incident, so check to see if they are straight and true. Look at them from a sideways-on view and imagine a line going down the fork stem right through to the hub centre. If there’s any deviation then you’ll spot it right away. Other symptoms are tight steering on one side or the other and if the steering stops are damaged then this is an indication that the forks have been knocked around either way and are possibly bent as a result.
The legality of the machine goes without saying. The frame number or prefix can be found underneath the right-hand side (flywheel) panel. The frame number should be at the top of the frame – where the panel sits in. Check around this area to see if the number has been re-stamped or cut out and replaced with another number. Ask to see the V5 and maybe run the numbers by the DVLA via their website, or get a vehicle check by an organisation such as the RAC or AA.
Scooter forums are another good source of information regarding the legitimacy of machines; sites such as www.smallframeforum.com has many enthusiasts who will be more than willing to help you avoid the pitfalls of buying a dodgy machine.
CHECKLIST – ENGINE
As with the P range engine unit, high mileage small frame Vespas can suffer from jumping out of gear due to a worn cruciform. Where the PX lump has a habit of filling the gearbox with petrol due to blown oil seal, the small frame will tend to air leak and drink the gearbox oil (much like a Lambretta). On starting the engine you’ll be greeted with the lovely smell of burning gearbox oil and a smoke screen the Red Arrows would be proud of. Check the gear selector shaft – a worn example will leak oil, though this can be cured with oversized O-rings.
The engine number and prefix can be found on the back of the casing just below the mounting bracket for the rear shock absorber. Once again check for any signs of alteration and tampering.
The small frame Vespa is one of the most tuneable classic scooters out there. Ever since the early 1960s, various enthusiasts saw their potential and began uprating the engines to great effect both on the racetrack and the road. In the last 30 years, various tuning houses in Italy (as well as scooter dealers in the UK and Germany) have been turning out quicker and quicker machines. This has made the humble Vespa small frame a viable option for either a touring or a race machine. Combined with excellent handling it makes them just as practical a machine as the larger PX/Rally range or series 1/2/3 Lambrettas.
Now I don’t claim to be a tuning guru, so please don’t bombard the Letters Pages about my lack of knowledge about bhp figures, power spreads, etc. But if you wish to get down ’n’ dirty with these things, once again there’s various forums which will satisfy your hunger. While this isn’t a comprehensive guide to small frame tuning (which will probably be covered more in-depth in future issues), here’s a quick rundown on some of the tuning cylinders available on the market:
The cheapest of all the 130cc barrel kits and while not being the quickest, it’s pretty durable. It’s basically a copy of the ET3 cylinders apart from the transfer ports arranged differently and the compression being raised.
The DR is a cast cylinder with a 57mm bore, 51mm stroke and has five transfer ports. All this adds up to a bit more oomph and usable power (about 8bhp), but in standard trim it’s not going to win any race medals. There are DR kits also available in 75cc, 85cc and 102cc. Expect to pay anything from £80 to £100 for the 130cc kit.
A popular choice with many tuners. The Polini barrel is a more ‘torquey’ kit, which is suitable for a touring set up – though with fettling, it can be made into a race motor. The cylinder has a 57mm bore with a 51mm stroke, which is cast iron and sports six transfer ports. A standard cylinder with a decent carburettor should knock out around 12bhp, though this could be increased to around 19bhp with the necessary tuning and parts. For smaller engine blocks, Polini produce a 50cc, 75cc, 85cc, 102cc and 112cc to suit all pockets and licences. The 130cc kit should set you back around £120.
Malossi has an excellent reputation due to its T5 172 and P2 210 barrel kits, which many scooterists have happily thrashed over the years. The 135cc is no exception and with its high revving nature, good potential for tuning and decent price bracket. The Malossi has a 57.5mm bore, a 51mm stroke and cast iron construction (actual size is 132.43cc). The performance you can expect from a standard cylinder can be around 12-14bhp depending on your exhaust and carb set up. The Malossi small frame family comes in 75cc, 105cc, 115cc. The 135 kit retails (depending on the dealer) around £130.
Now this is a serious piece of kit! The Falc is one of a new generation of barrel kits for the small frame range and it’s a bit of an animal! The cylinder has a 54mm stroke, 60mm bore and has a Nicasil lined alloy cylinder. It also has a direct reed valve inlet, five transfer ports and a bridged exhaust port. All this adds up to an engine that can produce up to 25bhp with scud missile-like acceleration. However, all this mentalist material doesn’t come cheap – expect to pay over £500 for the cylinder alone! You then need to fork out another couple of hundred pounds for the special Falc crank and clutch as well as various other necessary engine components. Your engine rebuild cost will be way over the £1000 mark but if you want the best… The Falc kit is also available in a 138cc version.
It’s worth noting that pre-1964 engines are difficult to tune and require machining to fit a barrel kit. The spigot size was smaller on these motors. These engines also have a different kick-start mechanism as well as gearbox components. While it’s not impossible to use these engines for tuning, it may be cheaper and easier to pick up a later type engine case.
When it comes to small frame Vespas, there’s no shortage of ‘go-faster’ goodies on the market, be it cylinders, carbs, gear up kits and exhausts. For more information, please consult one of the many tuning houses either in this country or abroad. They should be more than happy to help you scare your local boy racers on the ring road!
By the late 1970s, Piaggio had sought to revise its range of scooters with new designs. As the Vespa Rally 200 model gave way to the PX, the Primavera/ ET3 was eventually replaced by the new PK range.
The sleek, curvaceous styling of the original small frame was replaced with a more angular, square design which many enthusiasts didn’t warm to. The frame now featured two panel doors; the left side became a storage area for a spare wheel (like the PX range). A plastic toolbox filled the space behind the legshields and blocky rectangular indicators now adorned the front and rear of the machine.
When the PKS was released in 1983 it was available in two engine sizes (50 and 125cc). The 125cc version shared the same engine characteristics as the ET3 such as three cylinder ports and electronic ignition. As the 1980s rolled on the PK range was subjected to a cosmetic makeover resulting in the PKXL range and then the PKXL2 models. These had a more streamlined appearance, with sleeker curves and smoother lines. However, due to poor sales and Piaggio beginning to concentrate on its new range of automatic scooters, the PK ceased production in the early 1990s.
The PK50S was produced between 1982 and 1986, with 221,578 being made. The prefix on the engine should read V5X2T, while it should be V5X2M on the engine case. Production of the PK125S lasted from 1982 to 1986. The frame prefix is VMX5T and the engine is VMX5M. 62,606 PK125s rolled off the production line.
The PKXL range ran from 1985 to 1993. The PK50XL-125XL frame prefixes are VMX5T for the 50cc, while the 125cc is VMX6T. The engines are stamped V5X3M (50), VMX6M (125). Total production for the PK50XL is 221,578 and 57,014 for the PK125XL.
The less popular PK range can be picked up for anything between £500 and £900, depending on the engine size.
Though the first 125cc small frame appeared in 1965 with the VMA1 (named in reference to its frame prefix) in 1967 Piaggio decided to upgrade its specification and named the model the Primavera. These changes included a longer redesigned frame with a toolbox now residing in the left-hand panel, as well as an increase in power. In 1976 the ET3 version of the Primavera was introduced; this model was now fitted with an electronic ignition, as well as an SS90 ‘banana’ style expansion chamber. More power was achieved from the engine due to a third transfer port added to the cylinder, increasing it from 5.5 to 7 bhp.
The VMA1 was made between 1965 and 1967 with a total production of 17,100. The Primavera ran from 1967 to 1976 and the ET3 was produced between1976 and 1983, totalling 220,342 and 153,212 respectively. Accurately trying to determine when production actually stopped is no easy matter as ET3 models were produced for the Japanese market up to the late 1990s.
Frame prefix and engine numbers for the VMA1 are VMAIT and VMA1M. The Primavera is VMA2T and VMA2M; the ET3 prefix is VMBIT while the engine is stamped VMB1M.
Being a 125cc, the ET3/Primavera normally sells for £750- £1200.
The 50 Special was released in 1969 it featured a square headlamp, different horncast and tail-light arrangement. At the same time the 50 Elestart was introduced, which was basically a 50 Special with an electric start, though this model was never imported into the UK at the time.
The 50 Special was made between 1969 and 1983 with a total of 659,966 being produced.
The frames are stamped V5BIT, V5B3T and V5A2T, while the engines should be stamped V5A2M, V5B1M, or V5B3M.
Expect to pay anything between £600 and £1000.
…More scooters featured in this buyer’s guide in the magazine!