Understanding Vespa (P-series mostly) locks
If you ever owned a P-series Vespa, you have probably wondered what possessed Piaggio to produce a scooter that came new with three separate keys. One scooter, three different keys! Most cars don’t even don’t even have two keys anymore. It’s an odd arrangement and over the years it has created a fair bit of frustration, especially when it’s time to have a spare key made. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where the Vespa is comparatively rare and your average locksmith isn’t familiar with the appropriate keys.
With the right information and a quality locksmith, keys for your scooter can be made that work as well as the originals. Vespa lock and key replacement is its own world of obscure lore and knowledge. It has been a fun side hobby to track down this information. For this article I cover some of the basics of the P-series locks. The material is also relevant for many 1960s and 1970s bikes.
Find a good locksmith
Locksmiths can be a mixed bag. Some love to help with odd, time-consuming projects. Others want you to go away so they can continue to make money cutting house keys. Even well-intentioned locksmiths may have trouble figuring out the correct key blank for your scooter. I’ve had keys made for scooters using a locksmith’s “best guess” and ended up with a key that works, but only sort-of. Using the wrong blank, a key might need to be wrestled get inserted and then jiggled to turn. The blank might be for some European car so it’s big and bulky and doesn’t match the original. It’s frustrating to pay a lot for a key that never works as it was supposed to.
If you do find a good locksmith, one who is willing to take the time to help figure out your probably negligibly profitable project, I suggest supporting them by spreading the word within your scooter community. Alternatively you may want to seek a recommendation from a local scooter club for locksmith who has already establishment themselves as good with oddball stuff and/or a shop that is old enough to stock old key blanks. This sort of mutual support can offer dividends to all concerned.
There are four locks on a P-series Vespa: The column, the glove box, the ignition and the seat. Of the four, only two of the locks came keyed alike, the column and the glove box. The keys for the seat and the ignition are both completely different.
The original P-series Vespa used a lock mechanism made by Neiman, a German company that continues to manufacture automobile and two-wheeler lock mechanisms. Vintage BMW motorcycle enthusiasts also know about the Neiman lock. Their motorcycles used the same key blank as the Vespa column and glove box. On BMW motorcycles it was the same key blank from 1955 up to (on some models) 1994. This blank was also very commonly used for European mopeds, so much so that locksmith key catalogs often refer to this key as the moped blank.
The Neiman column lock was in use by Piaggio for a long time before it was included in the P-Series. Its use in Vespas dates back to the 1960s, when Piaggio introduced the Super/Sprint/Rally models. With the exception of the GS 160 (that had its own unique lock mechanism) it was a huge improvement in security over earlier column locks. The older column lock used a cam to extend a flap to engage/lock the column in place. This lock was easy to pick. It could be broken by forcing the handle bars or, if you were a thief with a bit more finesse, the lock could be circumvented by simply unscrewing it from the outside!
The new Neiman lock was simple, reliable, very robust and incredibly hard to pick. Just like a typical house key, inserting the key lifts top pins, allowing the bottom pins to conform to a sheer line within the cylinder. This allows the cylinder to turn. When unlocked, the cylinder (on the inside a thick steel rod) rotates and can be pushed into the steering column of the scooter. The steel rod locks the handle bars to one side so the scooter can’t be ridden or easily wheeled away.
Cracking the code
If you have your original Neiman key for your Vespa, consider yourself lucky. Stop what you are doing right now and get out your key. You will notice that there is a five- or six-digit number punched into the key’s head. Write this number down and file it away in a safe place. I suggest keeping it with the title to the scooter. Whatever you do, don’t lose this number!
The number on the key is the code to your lock. If you ever lose your key, a good locksmith with the right key blank (see below), can cut you a new key to this code. It costs more but you are assured of getting an accurate copy. An accurately made key, cut to the code specifications, should be like having a new original key.
Understanding the code is very simple and actually easier than typical keys. This knowledge may help you explain the cutting process to your local locksmith. Each number on the key represents a bit depth on the lock. The key should be read from the shoulder to the tip of the key—the shoulder being the part closest to the head of the key that you hold. The tip is the first part of the key that first enters the lock. There are five or six numbers on your key. The sixth number (if your key has six) for some reason is always a zero and is superfluous. Ignore it. Here's how the code works: a "5" represents no cut in the key and a "1" is the deepest cut. "4" through "1" the cut goes deeper as the code number is lower.
Here are some examples:
5-4-1-1-2. Read the key above from right to left. There are five spaces, A through E. A. is 5, no cut. B. is 4, there's a tiny cut. C. is 1. The deepest cut. D. is also 1, equally deep. E. is 2. Just a little higher.
5-4-1-3-3. From right to left. A is 5. No cut. B is 4, cut just a notch. C is 1, the deepest. D and E are the same depth.
2-2-1-4-5 A is 2. B is 2, the same depth as A. C is 1, the deepest cut. D is a tiny cut. E is no cut at the tip on the right.
It's easy right? Now you try:
The above is a newer Neiman key that does not have the code stamped on the key. It's still easy to "read." Give it a try and compare it with the answer at the bottom of this article.
If the keys are lost, many scooterists end up drilling out the lock and replacing it. This is too bad. First, if you have the code, you can have a locksmith make you a good-as-new key. This is probably cheaper and less hassle than installing a new lock. Second, the Neiman lock mechanism is a good one. It’s well made, uses a steel key and it’s hard to pick. A thief who wants to break the column lock on a scooter with one of these locks will almost always be frustrated or cause serious damage. He’ll either have to lift up the front tire and load it into a truck or he might be able to pick the lock. This will take a lot of skill, luck and time. Also, obscurity is a virtue here. It’s unlikely that a thief would have the proper key blank to make an “impression” (another method of key copying or picking). The next thing to do is to drill out the lock, a time consuming process that makes a lot of noise.
If you take a magnet to an original Neiman key you will notice that it sticks. Original Neiman keys are steel. Here in the U.S., keys are almost universally some sort of (non-magnetic) brass alloy. If by odd chance you happen to have an original European blank for this key it may take some effort to find a locksmith who is willing to cut it. Steel keys will damage the cutting wheels of standard U.S. key copying machines. The advantages of the steel key are that it is much stronger. It is less likely to wear out helping it to remain accurate for a long time. Also, being stronger it is less likely to bend or break. The disadvantages are that they can rust and that they typically can’t be cut in North America. Still, the standard brass key blank is perfectly adequate. A little more care must be taken with the brass replacement key since it is more likely to bend. Avoid bending a brass key if a lock sticks by wiggling the handlebars as you disengage the key.
There are a number of key manufactures who made or make a duplicate key blank for the Neiman Vespa column/glove box lock. At your locksmith ask for an Ilco or Dominion SR61N or Taylor B69K. (Silca NE5 if you are in Europe.) If the locksmith has been around for a while they may still stock an old Dominion or Taylor blank. Neither company is in business, but their key blanks are still in many inventories. Ilco currently makes the blank and it can be ordered through your locksmith. There are other blanks that sort of fit, but I don’t recommend using them when the proper blank is available. It’s worth the wait if it has to be ordered.
On the PX (the successor to the P beginning in roughly 1984), Piaggio finally put the ignition where it should have been all along: on the column. The new key was made to work with the glove box and seat—two fewer keys! And, since the ignition was moved away from the speedometer, there was no more frustration with the other keys on a keychain scratching up the speedo lens. Piaggio sourced the new locks from a different manufacturer and so, when this conversion was made, a new key blank was used.
After all this discussion about column locks, it’s important to note that simply locking your column is never adequate security. If you can, always lock your scooter inside or, failing this, physically lock the body to something secure. Scooters are light enough that two determined people can still carry one away. It happens all the time.
Seat and ignition locks
It is still possible to obtain the proper blanks for the other two locks on a P-series. The proper seat blank is an Ilco F91CB. Taylor F72V, Silca AF4D or MM1RP (for the plastic head).
For the ignition, there are a number of key blanks based on the manufacturer: Dominion 63SP, Taylor F69F, Curtis FT29. Silca ISP2 and Ilco 63SP. When in doubt, just mention the Ilco number since it is the only U.S. company still in business this would be the starting point for cross-referencing with older key manufacturers.
There are codes to both of these locks. On the ignition, the code is stamped onto the outside of the lock and the key. For the seat lock the code is stamped on the original key. (Again, write it down before you lose it!) In both instances a veteran locksmith should be able to make new keys for you based on these codes, especially if you provide him with the proper key blank information first.
After-market keys and lock
It’s worth noting that over the years a number of manufacturers sold aftermarket replacements for all these locks. Most used their own different key blank. Beware of the Vietnamese copies which use very flimsy blanks that bend easily. The most common key blank for the aftermarket locks was made by Zadi. These replacements locks were common but now are so old that if you are looking to make a copy of a key for your scooter, you may in fact need a copy for an older aftermarket lock. Fortunately the Zadi key blank is pretty common. If the locksmith’s blanks don’t match any of the ones mentioned above, ask to see if the Zadi blank, ZD7, matches up.
I’ve seen replacement sets that offer one key for both the glove box and column lock. Given the fact that aftermarket locks were made for all four locks on a P-series Vespa, all using a Zadi ZD7 blank, it’s conceivable that someone at some point packaged a complete lock replacement set that (gasp!) used one key. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate P-series aftermarket accessory?
If your locksmith is missing the specific code information, try emailing me. Maybe I can help, especially if you tell me you're a VCOA member. Membership has it previleges.
Key code quiz: 2-1-2-5-4