Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Understanding Vespa (P-series mostly) locks

I wrote this article a few years ago for American Scooterist for the members of the Vespa Club of America. I'm putting it up here so there is an online record of the information. I hope it helps.

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.

Neiman Locks

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

Examples of three factory original Neiman keys. I keep orphan keys around just in case someday one matches a lock.

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


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Devil's Keep, Secret scooter treasure

Ten or so years ago scooter enthusiasts used to get pretty excited about seeing Vespas on TV or in the movies. These days we’re pretty jaded. The vintage scooter still holds some currency as a novelty but scooters are so common now that seeing one in an ad or something doesn’t get people excited like it used to. However, I recently had a very odd and unique “scooter sighting” experience at my work that is weird enough to be worth sharing.

I manage a low-income high-rise apartment building in downtown Portland, Oregon. The building has an extremely diverse population. It is filled with folks from all walks of life, all ethnicities and age groups. The majority of the residents live on some form of disability. Almost all of them face some sort of significant life challenge. We have our share of characters.

One day a resident, who I never considered to be one of our “characters,” came to get a package from the office. (Larger packages are held for pick-up in the management office since they don’t fit in the mailboxes.) The resident, Don Gronquist, had a well-groomed patrician look. He was tall with combed-back silver hair and was usually professionally dressed. He reminded me of a hybrid between George Plimpton and Jacques Tati.

“What’s in the package Mr. Gronquist?”  “Well, actually they are DVDs of a movie I made a number of years back. I ordered them online and got them for a good deal!” We soon learned that Mr. Gronquist was a UCLA-trained movie maker and he had made a number of films in the Portland area over the years. Due to his skill and resourcefulness at making low-budget-but-larger-scale films, some people have called him the Roger Corman of Portland. (After I wrote this story, one of the local weekly newspapers, Willamette Week, did a cover story on Don.) The film that he ordered was one that he made in 1994. It was a made-for-cable production called Devil’s Keep. Mostly set, and entirely filmed, in the Portland area, the plot brings two teenagers together on an action adventure treasure hunt for lost Nazi gold.

Mr. Gronquist was kind enough to share a copy of the film. I popped it in the laptop while the family was out so I could enjoy some righteous B-movie escapism. As a made-for-cable movie, my expectations weren’t all that high but I was quickly enthralled. Here was early-90s Portland caught on film by a director who really appreciated the city. Part of the opening sequence used the downtown US Customs building on NW 8th and Davis, set convincingly as a southern European Nazi administrative headquarters at the end of the war in May 1945. Soon afterward, the scene cuts to teen protagonist, Jeff Conners, running through downtown on SW Broadway. He’s wearing 501s, a ripped/shortened Kevin Bacon-esque t-shirt and an untucked plaid shirt. Via cinematic editing magic, he is teleported with a quick cut across town, arriving late for school at the entrance of Grant High. (This reminded me of the story of scooterist, Jeff Lillie and his handlebar Allstate that was used as a set piece on Mr. Holand’s Opus which was also filmed outside Grant High School.) The stuck-up-but-sexy female protagonist (the preppy look must not have quite died yet) lived in the main manor house at Lewis and Clark College, my alma matter. And the set for the climax sequence was Rock Butte Park, a high scenic lookout in southeast Portland and a stop for many scooter rally rides!

It was fun to muse about how this production fit into a period in Portland’s history when the city was considered to be on the cusp of establishing itself as an alternative movie production center. Devil’s Keep was filmed right after Drug Store Cowboy (a film that also made fantastic use of Portland) and just before Body of Evidence, that awful film with Madonna and Willem Dafoe. (Do you remember the candle wax?)
Mr. Gronquist boasted that he was able to rent the Lewis and Clark College manor house for a song while the Body of Evidence production that came in right after him paid a fortune. Along the same lines, in another scene, the teen hero walks down NW Third Avenue in Chinatown. Don took advantage of this block, as it had just been given a fantastic retro face-lift into a gritty Chinatown period location by a previous big budget Hollywood movie, Come See the Paradise starring Dennis Quaid. He, on the other hand, since it was already made-over, was able to use the street for free.

Watching the Lewis and Clark College set reminded me that Monica Lewinsky was attending school there while the film was being made. The Portland scooter scene was just getting started. There was a lot to think about.

I'll admit it, I was lost in the cheesy narrative of the movie when I was jolted wide awake one hour and twenty-seven minutes in. Here the teens had made their way to Austria on their way to the “Devil’s Keep,” the location of the secret Nazi treasure. They leave a train station and go to rent a vehicle to take them to a castle (Portland's Rocky Butte Park in real life). My eyes blinked as they go to a scooter rental shop. This wasn’t any old set. It was an actual Portland scooter shop, Mario’s Italian Motors, on NE 60th Avenue in 1994! I was doubly floored when I see that Mario, Mauricio Bianchini, was used as an extra in the film playing himself, the shop proprietor. Through the window we see him graciously renting a green Vespa Sprint (American-spec with big handlebar turn signals) to the female protagonist.

The teen couple, riding two abreast, take off to the castle, and over the next half minute, there are many awesome shots of scooter riding as they make the curvy ascent to Rocky Butte. 

In the DVD’s director’s commentary Mr. Gronquist said that he had the scooter for most of the day. He filmed the actors riding up Rocky Butte at various times of the day from the afternoon to dusk and then at night. He cut the shots together to create the illusion of time passing on a longer journey. 

It was really interesting to see this incidental snapshot of Mario’s. Even though it was a small operation, Mario’s Italian Motors was at the time still the oldest Vespa shop in continual operation in North America. It was open from 1957 to 2002. It was also the legacy of the associated Northwest Vespa distributorship, Italian Motors Distributing. Mario still had the remnants of the distributorship's part stock! Here in the Northwest parts still turn up to help restore vintage Vespas. I was glad to see that someone had inadvertently captured a record of this important bit of American scooter history.

In the film, we get a look at Mario’s scooter stock circa 1993. Out front he still had the 1940s rod model faro basso Vespa. Victor Voris from Big People Scooters would soon buy this scooter for a song and restore it. It won Best Vespa at Amerivespa 2007 in Seattle. There were two nice Sprints, a white one and the green one used in the film. There were also three mopeds, two Ciaos and a model I wasn’t able to identify. Looking closely through the window we see some Haynes manuals but unfortunately nothing else is visible.

The thing that I love about this “scooter sighting” story is the weird interconnectedness it has with my life. I expressed an interest in a significant life project of a stranger and, in exploring it, discovered some great stuff I was personally interested in: Mario’s Italian Motors caught on film.

Devil’s Keep is perfectly serviceable as a b-movie. Underneath the psychotronic veneer, it’s evident that Don Gronquist has some real skill as a film maker. One must of course bear in mind that the film was made on a relative shoestring with a less-than-fully-professional crew. Contemporary viewers may find the fashions of this film uncomfortably too far past their expiration date and the action/adventure narrative style is also a bit dated. Nevertheless if you fancy a great look at Portland and want a brief ten-second peek at a Portland scooter icon with another 30 seconds of great Vespa riding, the film is worth a viewing.  

This story originally appeared in my friend Karen's Northwest scooter 'zine, Bumpstart.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Discovering an old Vespa of America Corporation dealer film

My story here was originally published in American Scooterist #61, the member magazine of the Vespa Club of America.

Our knowledge of the Vespa of America Corporation – Piaggio’s U.S. distributor from the 1970s to the early 1980s – remains a cloudy part of U.S. scootering history. Many mopeds, smallframes, Sprints, Rallys, P125s and P200e’s are still on the road, but surprisingly little has been written about the company itself. Here is the story of the discovery of one bit of interesting Vespa of America Corporation history.

In the early 1980s, when Piaggio abruptly pulled out of the U.S. market, most dealers were left high and dry. The dealership in Salem, Oregon , owned by Phil Pfau, was no exception. Phil had been making a fairly good go of it as a Vespa dealer. Sales were reasonable and service was steady. However, with  Piaggio's pullout from the U.S., his income quickly declined. Phil was forced to branch into other areas. Fortunately for him, he had an interest not far afield from scootering: go-karts. Phil opened a new business, World of Karting. He soon became a national legend in karting, building the fastest karts, winning races and supporting this particular motorsport like no other.

Vespa sales died almost immediately when there was nothing left to sell. Service, too, petered out pretty soon afterward. Phil sold his remaining parts stock to Mauricio “Mario” Bianchini of Mario’s Italian Motors in Portland. Amazingly, Mario kept his Vespa shop open until 2002. (Even without any scooters to sell it was the oldest continuously-run scooter shop in the U.S., dating back to around 1957.) It took Phil a little longer to give up his beloved service tools. Eventually he donated them to a local high school to be used in the shop department. (Where are they now?)

World of Karting moved from Salem to Portland, Oregon, about an hour’s drive north. Back before Portland had scooter shops, I would occasionally visit World of Karting for scooter-related items; the shop was in my neighborhood. Preferring to patronize this place over chain auto parts stores, I’d occasionally go there to buy two-stroke oil and other whatnots: spark plugs, tubes and tires (which Phil could still get in the next day through a local distributor).

Obsessed with all things scooter, whenever I was in the shop the conversation would invariably lead to his days as a Vespa dealer. We talked of his old business, scooter riding and service. One day he shared with me an item that I considered a real prize, a rare piece of the history of Vespa in America. It was one of the last remaining items from his Vespa dealership days.

This was an odd film and the specialized player that went with it. The Vespa of America Corporation realized that the U.S. market had huge potential but required unique marketing to sell a product that many Americans were not particularly familiar with. To this end, a promotional film was created to help orient customers to the unique operation of Vespa mopeds and scooters. Even though it had the feel of an ad, the film was not a TV commercial. It was created specifically to be shown in Vespa dealerships. It was partly a marketing film but much more of it was instructional, giving an introduction to the vehicles themselves.

The significant aspect of this film was that it was not an edited version of pre-existing Italian or British stock. At great expense, it was made entirely here in the U.S. by Fred Cohen Productions. (The movie was printed and distributed by San Francisco-based Leo Diner Films, Inc.) Filmed entirely in California, there are great shots of scooters and mopeds on U.S. highways and streets.

Watching this movie required a unique machine and Phil still had it. Buried and dusty on one of his many parts shelves was the gloriously anachronistic device, a Fairchild Galaxy 990. This player used unique proprietary cartridges containing Super 8 film with an audio track. The film was reeled into an endless loop, all within a plastic cartridge, analogous to eight-track audio cassettes with no beginning or end. I had never seen anything like it, but some friends remember the device from 1970s/1980s-era of school A/V departments. The player had a very angular design. It reminded me of something a set designer from the first Star Wars movie might scrap for parts to make a droid out of. It was big and heavy, with textured fleck paint in grey, brown and beige. Made in the U.S., it probably cost a fortune when new. The movies were projected within the machine onto a built-in 10 by 13-inch screen. Video, even Betamax, would have been so much easier, but this technology just hadn’t quite caught on yet.  Either that or a poor choice was made by the producers.

Phil had two cartridges of the same film, both heavily worn from being played for many potential customers. We pulled it off the shelf and he dusted it off. It smelled of two-stroke exhaust. He plugged it in and pressed a big green button on the lower right corner of the front of the machine and it whirred inside. Fans came on and the screen lit up. There was the classic clatter of the projector’s shutters clicking away. Unfortunately, the rubber drive belts had long since become hard and rotted so the film would not play. It wasn’t until I managed to track down replacement belts on eBay that I was able to view the original film. 

Once the belts were replaced, the machine amazingly played the film -- sound and all. It worked! The film lasted six and a half minutes.

The movie started with three scooters and three mopeds riding in a group down a two-lane road. There was background music that sounded very much from the era: imagine a TV sitcom jingle with lots of flute. A ghostly image of the Piaggio hexagon logo popped up, superimposed over the riders. Then this: “All Vespas are made by Piaggio, with over 6 million scooters and 2 million mopeds sold since 1946, this is a testament to durability and reliability. All scooters and mopeds are powered by reliable rotary-inducted two-stroke engines.” The scene cut to shots of a P-series scooter engine and then a separate shot of a moped engine – both rotating in space in front of an orange background.

Next we were introduced to the moped line, Ciao, SI, Bravo and Grande.  And here we learn the film's true intent: to give a general overview of the product’s features, and a brief introduction to fueling, starting and driving the vehicles.

“Mileage delivered: up to 160 miles per gallon.” (If you say so!) A little less than half the film covers mopeds. To us this may seem surprising. As scooterists we have a certain degree of chauvinism for our beloved scooters. It’s easy to forget that mopeds were a significant part of the two-wheeler landscape, especially during the 1979 oil crisis when gas prices rose higher than even during the 1973 oil embargo. Mopeds were an important part of Vespa of America Corporation’s sales.

The film gives a good overview of the Vespa moped. There were shots of the v-belt drive and the pedal/chain system and how a button is pressed in the rear of the engine to disengage the motor so that the moped can be pedaled independently of the engine. “On level stretches you can pedal completely to save gas or to exercise!” (Really?)

How to fuel and start a moped? An attractive young woman with elaborate Farah Fawcett-style feathered hair and impossibly tight bellbottoms approaches a Grande in a park-like setting. She demonstrates mixing oil and fuel. “Starting’s a breeze. Switch on. Ignition on. Turn on the fuel. Pedal while giving gas. Then enjoy!”  This is followed by close-ups showing the use of brakes, switches and horn. Next we learn how to do light tune ups and maintenance.

“Now let’s talk about Vespa scooters.” Most of the last half of the film covers scooters: “The no-straddle, feet-on-the-floor design is the product of years of research. A safer, lower center of gravity is a key feature.” I particularly enjoyed watching the demonstration of starting, “Starting a scooter is fun!”

Here we can celebrate the true American-ness of the film. There are close-ups of all of two of the terrible features of U.S.-homologated Vespas: the plastic fuel tap switch and the plastic engine cut-off switch. Too bad no warning is given that these are the two items that most frequently break on Vespas of this era. In my opinion we need to wear these features with pride since they are what set our U.S.-specification Vespas apart from those in the rest of the world.

We are shown cutaways of the frame and the direct-drive engine to help illustrate what makes the Vespa we know and love so unique. There is a great shot of a couple on a P200e zooming down a highway. Marketing a freeway-legal (and more or less freeway-capable) scooter was obviously an important selling point for the American market. Transportation here is much different than in Europe; we have less urban density and destinations are typically more spread out. There are other shots of scooters. Californians from the Bay Area might recognize some of these locations as specific suburban and light-industrial park neighborhoods.

At the end we learn that “there are new products as well, like the world-champion Bianchi bicycles: winner of over 1,000 victories!” I was surprised to see that Bianchi sold a mixte bicycle, a European-type of step-through unisex bike. This was shown alongside a more conventional-looking 10-speed road bike.  Were Bianchi bikes sold in some scooter dealerships?

The final shot was probably made with a movie camera in the back of a truck, capturing a P-series Vespa, Bianchi bike and a Grande moped side-by-side going down a suburban road. The same breezy flute-filled TV-esque jingle cues up and the film fades out.

Has anyone else seen or heard of this film? I wonder how many dealerships actually owned the Fairchild player? It must have been a significant investment for each dealer to own and maintain. One wonders if insurance companies had some say in this? Maybe Vespa of America Corporation was required to demonstrate that they were providing a certain level of rider instruction before the company could be insured for product liability? Whatever it was for, the VCOA is lucky to have found and preserved this footage.


Tinymoto? Welcome back! I decided to make this site dedicated to all of my non-sauna/soak/steam posts. Tinygogo will be devoted exclusively to adventures in bathing. I may migrate some of my old articles over here and henceforth add new ones here too.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pokey spoke, spoke tool, pokey tool!

If you go to the back of practically any bike shop you will see a tool that you can't buy. Yet for many bike mechanics it is reached for many times a day. So much so that many consider it to be an indispensable part of a bicycle repair tool collection. This is the pokey tool, also referred to as a pokey spoke. It is made by the mechanic from a spoke from a defunct bicycle wheel. One end of the spoke is ground down to a sharp point. It doesn't seem like much but somehow it gets used all the time. The most well-known use is to pick glass bits out of tires or bits of metal out of brake pads. It's important for opening cable housing ends and it's used to grab small items or clean hard-to-reach places.

These are three pokey tools in their simplest form.
Even though it's in every bike shop you rarely hear about it. This is almost certainly due to the fact that it's not a commercially-produced item. It's just a ground down old spoke made by hand in a bike shop. No one is trying to sell you a pokey tool. Still every mechanic uses one. It's a part of bike-mechanic lore that is passed down from one person to another.

The pokey tool is a virtually free tool, recycled from scrap parts. That's cool. I love this anti-capitalistic aspect so much I decided that it should be further celebrated. I made a big batch of pokey tools to be given away for free at my local non-profit bike shop, the Community Cycling Center. I volunteer here. It was the Cycling Center that taught me bike repair and opened the door to the mysterious inner workings of the business and, from this, the pokey tool. Providing free pokey tools for the shop to give away is my way of saying 'thank you' and my small contribution to further the revolutionary cause of bicycle empowerment.

I started out with a coffee can of pokey spokes. I sat down at the dining room table with the can of spokes and a big set of needle-nose pliers. The plan was to bend the non-pointed end of the spoke into random curly shapes. (This helps provide grip.) Becky observed that you could put plastic beads in the curls. She had a leftover bin of plastic pony beads. This was a great idea since the Community Cycling Center color codes the tools for each of their work stations. I also loved the juicy vibrant colors of the beads. (Oh no! Can it be that I've fallen for bead crafting? Kill me now!) The best part of this was the beads helped the tool be more visible. If it's just a simple spoke with a sharpened end, it's often hard to find mixed in with other tools. The beads eliminated this problem.

The first batch looked something like these.

After I delivered my first batch I was doing some unsanctioned gardening work in the apartment building behind the bike shop. Someone with kids had recently moved out and there were craft and pony beads spilled all over the place at the base of an exterior staircase. I picked these up. In the collection were letter beads. This gave me the idea of making personalized pokey tools for people.

Here are the ones that I made for some of the beautiful staff (and a few volunteers) at the Community Cycling Center.

Here's some other variations.
Do I have a new career on Etsy?

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Scooterists gone bad, two scooterists lost to the world of bicycles

Portland, Oregon is considered by many to be the most bicycle-friendly city in the country. Over the past few years bike ridership blossomed beyond enthusiasts and hipsters to include more mainstream commuters and families. There are now bicycles everywhere.

As a faithful scooterist, it's been a bit tough living here. On one hand it’s extremely exciting seeing the changes taking place. Bicycle shops are opening up all over the city. The city is putting in on-street bicycle parking on many business corridors. Anywhere, and at any given moment, there are bicycles on the streets all around you. On the other hand scooters and motorcycles seem to have been left behind in the city's transportation planning.

I have personal conflict too. I have to admit I’ve been riding my bike more than scooters. After a couple of scary doctor’s check-ups I started biking as a health necessity. Also it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the passion and excitement of being in the midst of a real revolution. I remain a committed scooterist but the excitement in Portland right now is with bicycles. So, as it goes, I suffer pangs of guilt many mornings when I pedal past my scooters on the way to work.

Exploring the world of bicycles, by odd coincidence, I came across a couple interesting stories of two Portland individuals who were pulled away from scooters into the vortex of the local bike fervor. They both took very different paths into the world of bicycle fanaticism. One, Sacha White, is a highly regarded custom bike builder. The other, Mark Veno, has immersed himself into the tall/freak-bike scene, building and hanging out with people who are into custom rat bicycles.

The stories of these two are interesting by themselves but they are also a great opportunity to reflect on the scooter/bike relationship. Maybe there are some insights on how we can keep the passion alive in scootering? Maybe we’ll find some dead ends, but also maybe there are commonalities. Are there bridges between the two interests and communities? Both are, after all, efficient two-wheeled transportation. Both are still vulnerable minorities on roads dominated by cars.

Meet Sacha White, owner of Vanilla Bicycles

Sasha White of Vanilla
Here Sacha White holds forth, sharing his bike building knowledge with a small group of cycling enthusiast who were on a tour of some of Portland's custom bike builders

I first met Sacha White in 1997. Mr. White had moved out to Portland from Colorado where he had been a member of an early club, Fun and Games SC. The club included members who went on to form the Colorado shop franchise, Sportique. Once in Portland Mr. White spent time hanging out with the Twist and Play SC, meeting Tuesday nights downtown at the Shanghai Tunnel. That same year, for Spring Scoot IV, he brought out a drop-dead beautiful green Lambretta GP with “gull wing” side panels. Many of us were dumbstruck by the beauty and crazy level of detail that went into this bike. It was a custom bike that seemed to take Bertone's redesign of the Series 3--one that cleaned and simplified the lines of the scooter--to a new level of purity. (The bike was later featured in issue #2 of Scoot! Quarterly magazine.) Sadly, not long after this we saw less and less of Sacha. We heard that he had become a bike messenger and that he had a new family member on the way.

GP200  69
(photo used courtesy of Jeff Allen)

Flash forward to the present day. I am hanging out on local bicycle web sites such as bikeportland.org. I learn about Portland’s thriving independent custom/hand-made bicycle craft builder community. One builder stands out. This is Vanilla Bicycles. Somewhere I saw a photo of the owner. It took me a while but I eventually made the association between Sacha White the scooterist and Sacha White, the world-renowned bicycle manufacturer. It made sense of course. It was immediately evident that the level of care, artistry and inspired creativity that went into his scooters would go into bicycles.

Vanilla dropouts

Today Mr. White is totally consumed with his job. His from-the-ground-up careful thinking that goes into each and every bike is in keeping with his earlier work with scooters. The shop is well known for innovative, often subtle, design ideas that are elegantly integrated into the each bike. As testament to Vanilla Bicycle's world reputation, one of his creations was featured on the cover of a recently-published large beautiful coffee table book, Custom Bicycles, A passionate pursuit.

One wonders in what sort of ways working on scooters helped Mr. White cut his teeth for a career in building bicycles. Did fine Italian design influence his approach to bicycles. Was he attracked to bicycles because they are so less damn frustrating to keep running? Mr. White has agreed to give an interview for us but between a five-year customer waiting list, trade shows and moving his shop, he simply has not had the time. We eagerly look forward to learning more of Mr. White's thoughts on the subject.

Meccanico di Veno, Inside the grimy machinations of an artist mechanic

Mark Veno arrived in Portland sometime around 2002. Mr. Veno like Sacha White began showing up Tuesday nights at the Shanghai Tunnel and also for the Portland scooter scene's regular Friday happy hour gatherings. Mr. Veno's lone ride was a wild redesign of a standard P-series Vespa where the body was totally altered. This scooter, to me, had San Diego written all over it. I could tell that it grew organically out of Mr. Veno being immeresd in the local scene down there. It reminded me of a few bikes and many custom hot rods I saw there during Amerivespa 1999.

After a few years Mr. Veno moved on to other interests. Many of us wondered if he was still in Portland. A few years ago there was an installation of handbuilt bicycles from Oregon on display in the Portland Airport. The display included a wide diversity of bicycles from Sacha White's and other custom bike builders' high end bespoke creations unique production bikes such as Bike Friday's folding bikes and Comotion's tandems. There was also a "tall bike," essentially a double-decker bike. This one had a car steering wheel for handle bars. This bike was dubbed "Reverse Cowgirl" and credited to the Drop Out Bike Club. Elsewhere later I saw that Mark Veno played a big part in the bikes creation.

Around the same time I began seeing posts on local Portland bicycle discussion boards by "SkidMark." The comments bore the distinct likeness to the Mr. Veno I knew: often opinionated, sometimes un-PC and sometimes insightful. I contacted SkidMark to see if he was indeed Mark Veno. It turned he was and, yes, he'd be willing to share some time with us to discuss his artistic life with scooters and now bicycles.

DAVE MCCABE: So let's start with the basics. When did you first start riding scooters. Where were you and where did it go from there?

MARK VENO: 1987. I was living in Somerville, Massachusetts and I bought a Vespa P125X on a whim for $200. I was into air-cooled VWs at the time and the fan-cooled engine and spare tire appealed to me. I didn't know anything about mods or scooterboys at the time. I sold it when I moved to Minneapolis the following year. Not long after that I picked up a fashion magazine called The Face and it had an article titled, Mutant Mods. It was basically about Scooterboys and their crazy Vespa and Lambretta cutdowns and choppers. Now I had seen plenty of Harley, Brit and Japanese choppers but never a scooter chopper. I knew I had to have one again, and I knew I had to cut it down.

I was also very into bicycles and especially BMX, and Southern California was the mecca for BMX, so I moved to San Diego. I had a friend, Rich Hansen, who lived in San Diego and worked for Haro Bikes. He got me in to talk to Bob Haro about doing some drafting for their next year line-up. At the time I was still working as a draftsman, and being a bicycle techno-geek I knew about frame geometry. I drew their new front-suspension MTBs and first 24" BMX cruiser and Linn Kastan prototyped them.

The thing I noticed immediately upon getting there was Vespas and Lambrettas all over the place. I bought a seized up P200e from Fabio Ballarin that was being used as a jig from making expansion chambers for $200. I brought it home and cut off the front fender and discarded the cowls. I poured some Marvel Mystery oil down the spark plug hole and knocked the piston loose with a block of wood and a hammer the next day. A new spark plug and it was running. A cutdown Vespa was born. From there I just kept going with it, getting frames and engines and parts, and making parts, and cutting, and fabricating, and making them go faster. I fell in with the Nightstalker Scooter Club and met Tim Stafford and Jay Tellier, who we all know as TJ Scoots. They taught me everything I know about reed induction conversions, mixing late model engines and suspensions with early frames, even basic bodywork. Any time I wanted welding done I had Tim do it, because he is one of the best TIG welders I've ever seen. I'd do the fabrication and have Tim zap it up. My first reed induction cases were from Tim and it didn't take long for me to build a top-end that was capable of destroying clutches and shifting cruciforms. Then one day it sent the primary cluster through the back of the case, so I did the cases I have today with the RD400 reed enclosure welded on. Both of these engines travelled through several frames. One was an Allstate 125 with 10" wheels, most of them were cutdown P200e's some racer style and some choppers, with a cool little peanut tank.

MCCABE: Your style of work, whether scooters, motorcycles or bikes tends to be rat rod custom. Where does this come from. Is it from San Diego?

VENO: I grew up with hot rods, I was always a big fan of Ed Roth, and Von Dutch. Later on I found out about Indian Larry, those guys are like the Holy Trinity of customizing. The whole SoCal hot rod/custom revival thing hadn't really started yet, because a lot of those guys were still building and riding Italian scooters! So it was a style I was into anyways, and it was going on around me, too. Basically American style hot-rodding crossed with the British/UK/EU Scooterboys style of building cutdowns and choppers. Later on I built a Suzuki T500 cafe racer, and a Yamaha RD400, because of what I had learned about building fast two-strokers. All these bikes were in spray paint or primer because that is what I could afford, after dumping most of my coin into the engines, tires and suspension. I also took about two years building a show-quality Vespa chopper, and within two weeks of it getting put on the road I was left-hooked by an old lady in an Olds 98. This was my first "I didn't see him!" and my last "nice" bike.

: What are you currently working on?

: I'm coming up with a prototype for a track frame that I plan on producing myself under the name Meccanico di Veno. Still in the planning stages. I'm doing a lot of bicycle wheelbuilding, and building a bicycle here and there, either for myself or to sell.

MCCABE: How did your stretch P, the one you brought with you from San Diego, come about?

VENO: I never liked how a Vespa sat at such an angle with an extended fork so I decided to do a frame with a vertical stretch. Jay had done one with a horizontal stretch, so I had to do something different. I also rode two-up quite a bit, so it was always a little cramped. The 4" up stretch is also 2" out, just about perfect. Thing was it didn't look like a chopper anymore so I replaced the 4" fork with a 7-1/2" over fork, with some aluminum spacers I turned out of hex bar stock on the lathe. To get the trailing link angle right and get a decent amount of trail, the spacers are shorter, about 6-1/2" long.

MCCABE: How did you end up in Portland. Was it Cirque du Soleil? Do you still work with them when they come to town? If so, can you get me tickets? Ha!

VENO: I came up to Portland with Cirque, and stayed when I met an exotic dancer and started seeing her. She broke up with me on Christmas Eve, she always did have a flair for the dramatic. About a year later I met Mirand, who I am married to now. I have a nice quiet life in the suburbs with her 2 daughters from a previous marriage. They are great kids and it's been amazing watching them grow up, and being a part of that. I probably would have moved back to San Diego if I hadn't met her.

I still work for Cirque when they come to town, I've worked for them in Seattle too. They used to give you 2 tickets and let you see the show, now they just give you one extra ticket, so that's obviously reserved for my wife. Join Cirque club online, and you'll be emailed when the tickets get discounted near the end of the tour.

MCCABE: Damnit. Thought I'd ask anyway. Still I get the sense that the circus works its way into your artistic sensibilities.

A few years ago we began seeing less of you. Last year I ran across the hand-built bike display at the Portland Airport. It was in this display that I saw the steering wheel bike entered by Drop Out Bike Club. This is how I discovered you had gotten into bikes. Did you have a hand in this bike?

: Meeting Mirand and moving out here has a lot to do with it, but the main reason I stopped riding scooters is because people drive so slow and so badly compared to what I was used to in San Diego. There is just too much traffic and you can't lane split. It rendered my scooter pointless, and made riding it frustrating. It was on it's way out, needing to have the clutch primary gear re-riveted. The crank had also been way out of true, causing the stator plate to crack, because it was hitting the flywheel. I replaced the crank, and then the stator plate broke, and I said "fuck it". Around that same time I had started noticing fixed gear bikes all over town, and it reminded of the bike messengers I used to hang out in Harvard Square with, I decided to build a fixed gear bike. Using the same tactics I used to build Vespas, I started building bikes. I also met the folks that started Zoobomb at this time. From there I was introduced to the whole freakbike thing: tallbikes and choppers. I built the bike that was displayed at the airport back then and named it Reverse Cowgirl. The steering wheel came a little later. All the fabrication on that bike was done by me. Not long after that Drop Out Bike Club started up, and they asked me to join. When I showed the bike I wanted the whole club to get credit. Around that time we were also asked to have a booth at the Oregon Handmade Bike Show and a year later we showed at Oregon Manifest. I think the only other freak bike club that has showed at a professional framebuilder's show is Black Label, it's kind of a rare occurance, and some sort of testimony to the level of design and aesthetic we put into our freak bikes, I suppose.

MCCABE: Did you know that Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles was into custom scooters before he became an custom bike builder? There were two scooterists in that airport display.

VENO: I think Sacha may have told me that a long time ago.

MCCABE: How did the Drop Out Bike Club come about? Are you still active in it? Did Zoobombing have anything to do with you getting into bikes here in Portland?

VENO: The big joke is that we are drop duts from Zoobomb, and we are. Most of us are actual dropouts, either from school or society. I am an art-school dropout. We still Zoobomb occasionally and are active within the bike community, and try to keep the focus on building and riding freakbikes. Lately I've been obsessed with building my own track frame, and building a 26" rigid singlespeed MTB frame, so my focus has kind of shifted towards "real" bikes. I still love working with existing bikes and creating something custom, but I really want to take it to the next level. I want to build frames, I want to start a bike company, maybe eventually do production bikes as well as handmade custom frames. I've also been trying to get back into BMX. To me it's all the same, it's all two wheels. I've been working on a Triumph chopper forever, the statement I made about driving/riding in Portland are why it is such a back-burner project. But I love it all, it's been about two wheels since I was 15 and built a "P.K. Ripper" from the frame up, even building the wheels. FTW to me means Forever Two Wheels.

MCCABE: So, don't hold any punches, what happened with you hanging out in the scooter scene? Did you become an environmental fanatic or something?

VENO: I just moved on, I went somewhere else with my life. It's just not about hanging in bars and gallivanting anymore. It's why I don't Zoobomb anymore either. I stopped drinking as well, I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. I miss drinking good microbrewed beer, but my stomach won't handle it, I had the worst acid-reflux. More importantly my family takes up a lot of my time and I like it that way.

MCCABE: I used to have really bad drinking-related heart burn. I quit the sweets, particularly soda pop and now I don't get it. So how about the environmental angle?

VENO: I could never be an environmental fanatic. I love big V-8s, noisy-ass hot rods burning rubber and releasing way too many hydrocarbons by sucking too much gas through too many carburetors. I love loud-ass choppers with big twin cylinder engines, whether V or parallel. I would love to get the Vepsa running, pre-mix it 32:1 and do some burn-outs. I see it as a vice, sort of a sin against the environment. The production of meat hurts the environment more than all automobiles do, and old hot rods, motorcycles, and scooters are such a tiny part of that. You could reduce your carbon-footprint more by being a vegetarian than by giving up your Vespa.

: Interesting stuff Mark. I hope you keep on doing what your doing.

VENO: Thanks! If people want to see more of what I'm doing my blog is Meccanico di Veno at www.meccanicodiveno.blogspot.com

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Italian Motors' old Vespa delivery/pick up trailer

In 2000 there was one particularly interesting item to surface when Mauricio Bianchini sold his business and all of the inventory of his scooter shop, Mario’s Italian Motors. This was his custom-made service trailer. It was a little trailer that he used for picking up and delivering customer’s scooters. Since the mid-1980s, with the departure of the Vespa of America Corporation from the United States, Mario’s Italian Motors survived on its own as a bare-boned one-man operation. Often all by himself, Mauricio needed a method for loading scooters either solo or with the balancing hand of a customer. This trailer was his creation and it demonstrates his resourcefulness and depth of Vespa knowledge.
The glorious aspect of this little trailer lies in his reuse of old 1960s-era Vespa steering columns . As I have discussed before (American Scooterist #46), the front fork/steering column may have been specifically designed to be a sacrificial weak link in the event of a front-on collision. The column absorbs most of the shock and bends before the monocoque body crumples thus potentially saving the scooter for repair and reuse. It's not uncommon for scooter shops to end up with bent steering columns in their salvaged parts supplies. (Note: on most scooters and motorcycles the proper term would be “forks.” Since a Vespa uses a unique hub-and-axle system to simplify tire repair, there are no “forks” holding on the wheel. “Steering column” therefore becomes a more accurate term for one of the signature features of a Vespa scooter.)

Mauricio certainly had his own stock of mostly-useless front columns. He took two eight-inch ones, cut them down and welded them to a cross brace which attached to very rudimentary single gutter-like track. The track is specially constructed to fit the wheel base of a Vespa. The front tire bumps into a stop--not too low to bend the front fender--and there is a drop in the back of the track which helps act as a wheel chock for the rear tire.
The trailer has no suspension, this had to be sacrificed in order to keep the trailer low to the ground for easy loading of scooters. With under-inflated tires and slower driving this is not typically a problem as long as the scooter hauling is limited to around town. A small cross section is welded to the front of the trailer for attaching tie-down straps.
How can you not love the elegance of a scooter-specific trailer that uses Vespa tires? These days maybe 10-inch tires might be a bit more practical due to them being more common. Still, if you ever needed a spare you could easily grab another from the shop or even borrow your customer's off their scooter! Or the other obvious option would be to take advantage of the vintage Vespa's key practicality feature: Unbolt the tire, split the rim and patch the tube. Off you go again.

For Spring Scooter 2009, Juaning Higgins borrowed the trailer from the current owner, Robert Pennington. Juaning hooked it to his dad’s Honda Goldwing. Many people appreciated that the breakdown support vehicle was also a two wheeler.
It's hard not to be smitten with all of the Vespa-specific thought that went into the trailer's creation. Maybe it's not so cute, but certainly tiny and eternally practical.