Blue Cat Motorcycle

Viva Midwest

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Restoring a family machine

Posted on 17 May 2011 in On The Lift | 2 comments


In 1963, Erik’s dad bought an Allstate Vespa VNB from the Cushman Motors down on Franklin in Minneapolis. Dad rode the little slate gray scooter everywhere, including back home to Iowa a few times. After years of faithful service, Dad signed up for service of his own: the US Navy. The VNB went into storage while Dad hit the open seas. There it stayed until Erik un-mothballed it in high school. He couldn’t not ride it, and ride it he did until he actually wrecked it. The Vespa went back into storage, and there it stayed until 2006, when Erik undid much of the damage his younger self had done to the scooter. Erik put a new front fork on, a new stator, then cleaned the carb and rode it to the 2006 Scooter Du rally. He rode it again in the 2007 season, but he had to stop riding it when the engine started leaking vital fluids rather badly.


Fast forward to 2011. Erik brought the drippy VNB to our St. Paul shop for a full restoration. We had our work cut out for us. The motor had to be rebuilt. The floorboards were badly rusted and rotted through. There were dings, dents and bends all over the little scooter’s steel panels and what was left of the paint was hardly presentable. Over the following months, the plucky little Allstate slowly came back to life. Reusing what we could and replacing the too far gone with new, begged and borrowed parts, the Vespa soon began to look like its old self again. With a brand new front mud guard and brand new side cowls, plus all the body reconstruction on the main chassis, it didn’t seem remotely like the same scooter when it came back from paint and body. All the rot was gone and all the panels were straight and even. Fresh paint wrapped the healed body in a soft, putty gray. It’s a remarkable paint job that looks both shiny and matte at the same time.


With the bodywork sorted, Jeff turned to the mechanicals. In some places, like the clutch, we had only to finish what Erik had started. In others, like the engine, Jeff did a full overhaul. New internals, new seals, and each component carefully fitted. Jeff soon had the Vespa up on his lift in a full rolling chassis. Freshly painted split rims held in new white wall tires and fresh tubes. It was starting to look like a Vespa again.


I’d look at the Allstate on Jeff’s lift at this point and it seemed like it ought to be just a few minutes away from done. Not so. A world of details remained. There were yards of aluminum trim to rivet into place. There were yards of rubber trim to install between the body panels and on top of the floor boards. Tiny pieces of trim and badging needed to be cleaned and polished. Then new lenses needed to be installed in the lights. Control cables needed to be run and adjusted. It would be a couple weeks before Jeff had everything buttoned up and ready for a test ride.


The key to any restoration is attention to detail. It’s knowing what parts to keep, what parts to replace and knowing how something should work once it’s back together. With Erik’s Allstate Vespa, getting it all put together was only the first part of the restoration. Sure, the bike was complete, and it was gorgeous, but only a test ride would show if everything was in proper working order. Jeff got the bike started and it snarled happily. The clutch wasn’t quite right though. No amount of adjustment would let it change from 1st to 2nd properly, and it wouldn’t go into higher gears at all. Jeff had to put the Vespa back on the lift and pull the clutch apart. Using another VNB belonging to our service writer, Mutt, as a reference, Jeff soon found a washer in the clutch assembly that didn’t belong. It’s one of those obscure things where that washer belongs in the clutch on one Vespa, but doesn’t belong on this one. Erik had done some clutch work on the bike prior to our restoration efforts and it looks like he had the wrong clutch kit, which included this washer. It’s an easy mistake to make, and thankfully an easy mistake to rectify.


With the clutch sorted, only one mechanical issue remained. The front brake wasn’t right. The brakes on these old Vespas are almost just for show when they’re working, so when they’re out of sorts, they become completely useless. A Vespa VNB isn’t exactly a fast machine, but stopping is still important kids. Jeff found that either the shoes were dragging the whole time, or he could grab a full handful of front brake and get nothing for his efforts. This wasn’t something we could solve with the cable adjustor. However, the issue was quickly sorted with some fresh brake components. That was that, the Vespa was done.


We rang Erik to come claim his shiny new/old machine. He didn’t need to be told twice. He was on his way immediately. I met him down at the shop, where the Vespa was waiting for him out front in the gloomy spring overcast. Jeff gave him the rundown of recent mechanical nags and adjustments to both the clutch and the front brake. Seeing the bike complete, I could tell Erik was excited. He told us that he was thrilled to have the family machine back together and in such amazing shape, but that he was actually a little scared to ride it now. It’s just so lovely, I can’t blame him. But these machines are meant to be ridden. To let the old girl stagnate would be a shame, so Jeff and I encouraged him to make sure the old girl got regular road time.


It was a long journey, but as we got the Vespa loaded up in Erik’s vehicle, it was a bittersweet relief to see all that time and attention leave the shop. One more old machine out on the road again, and a member of the family going home.

[UPDATE] While we’re very proud of this work, it should be understood that we don’t do scooter service anymore.