David Dry looks back to his youth in 60s London, and on buying his first scooter, a secondhand Vespa GS 150. Things didn’t go quite as expected…
The motivation of teenagers and their reactions has been food and drink to generations of psychologists and their ilk, so to think back and ask the simple question – Why did I do that? – Is fraught with many problems. Time, as usual has cast a veil over the whole issue and viewpoints change as we mature. The area becomes grey.
O.K. Lets kick-off! Now, Rick Jones was not the prettiest kid in town – Nose too big, legs too thin, but there he was large as life. At eighteen, two years older than me, smart dresser, page boy hair style, hand-made shoes and, above all else, he rode the Mod boys favourite – The 160 GS!
To those who are perhaps not old enough to remember (or is it? – still jealous that they never owned one!) let me let you into a not very well kept secret…
There was only one scooter that everyone wanted in the 60s and that was the ‘GS’. Some may put forward the Lambretta ‘GT’ or more correctly the ‘TV200’, as the ‘must have’ and they do have a point, but for what the French call pure panache, the Italians call style and the Brits ‘drop dead gorgeous’ – The GS had it all.
Let’s get it right, the GS wasn’t the fastest piece of Italian metal around (The GT was that…and some!), but for sheer ‘pose value’, speed was not the essence. You had to be seen! And, might I add, seen on the prettiest and most desirable bit of two-wheeled transport ever made. That’s what the Mods were all about – style and visibility. It’s no good knowing you’re the greatest, everyone else had to know – and no mistake!
The above must be one of the most out of date adverts ever put down on paper, so Piaggio – who made the Vespa GS 160 are unlikely to find it in their hearts to pay for the recommendation after thirty odd years (especially as they, foolishly, only produced the model for three years, following it up with a replacement, the SS, that was ‘below par’ visually).
To return to the plot, not to forget Rick Jones. The young birds (sorry, they really were called that then!) drooled over Rick. He was fabulous in their ‘speak’ – Just right! Try as hard as you could with the boutique clothes, shoes from Toppers or Raouls, or leather coats – You just could not compete. The problem was the GS.
Now, GS’s were about £200. You earned something like £10 a week. Where could you get that sort of money? Selling drugs was out – too many doing that! Borrowing the money, by HP (Hire purchase) was a possibility, but needed parental guarantees. No one, but no one borrowed money at this time. No one had a bank account, either! Borrowing was out. As my old man (father, to you!) said: ‘Yes, you can have a scooter, but you are going to have to pay for it. With your own money!’ This was supposed to block the whole idea. Kill it ‘stone dead’, as they say. Not an option, however! How had Rick done it? HP, that’s how. Some person, rather more gullible than my dad, had signed the loan paperwork. Bugger!
‘Plan B’ was needed. Was there a more affordable alternative? Not really! There was, however, a predecessor to the 160 GS – The 150 GS. Hmm, let’s see about this. Looks similar. Loads about. Been made for years, too! Could this be the answer? Exchange and Mart was duly purchased and the Vespa column (actually all the scooters were dumped in the same section) was scrutinised. Blimey, you can get a 150 GS for £80 (80 quid, that is!)!
This was, perhaps, not the best idea that I had ever had. The cognoscenti will know what the problems could be. You see, the Vespa people didn’t stop making the 150 GS for sheer devilment; the machine had a few quirks. The 160 GS, with the benefit of hindsight, was just about bug free. To the extent that you can actually take the engine from a modern geared Vespa and fit it into the GS 160 – That’s how little the design has been tweaked over the subsequent 30 plus years. The 160 GS was a good ‘un then! The ‘quirks’ were not an issue. A 150 GS it would have to be!
Money was, however, still a problem, but now, not insurmountable. First dispose of all assets! The very elegant racing bike built by Fred Dean of Fulham with full Italian fixtures and fittings must be worth £20? I got £25! I had actually saved a similar amount, but tax, insurance, not to forget a provisional motorcycle licence would also be needed. I still required £50!
Now, we must go into family conspiracies and even the best have them. Authority figures spawn resistance, the tougher they are the more overt that resistance becomes. This was the case in my family. The one ‘in charge’ was something of a dictator – The old man. As an ex boxer, ex miner and, at this period of time, an engineer he wasn’t a ‘bad bloke’ to any of his friends and casual visitors, but he ruled with a rod of iron at home. Guess what? I didn’t like it one tiny bit! As it happens, neither did my elder brother.
The stage was set for a minor coup on the home front. My brother was, somewhat surprisingly, prepared to loan me the missing £50. What was in it for him? He just wanted to see the look on Dad’s face when he saw me on the scooter that he had effectively blocked by refusing to sign for my loan (my brother couldn’t do this as you had to be over 21, by the way!). After due consideration of at least one second I happily accepted the dear boy’s offer. ‘Ta, Jim!’
The money settled, what did the Exchange and Mart have to offer? A bit sparse on the GS front. Just one. Maze Hill, Greenwich (South East London). This made it, by contemporary measurement, not far short of a trip to the Moon, as us West London kiddies saw it! Needs must and I arrived at the address accompanied by an inquisitive mate who also wanted to see the look on the old man’s face when he saw the new scooter! He must have had quite a reputation to become a local spectator sport – Don’t you think?
The GS looked OK. It had an unusual dark Jaguar blue paint job (they came out of the factory in silver). It worked and we both had a ride as pillion passengers. I’d forgotten to mention that, not only did we not have a licence between us, but also neither of us could ride a scooter! A small point at the tender age of sixteen. The deal was done. The money paid. The GS was to be ridden back to Acton by the now ex owner, which was just as well! He described himself, by the way, as one of the ‘original mods’. I’m not sure quite what that made us. Had we missed a generation or something?
The overall effect of seeing the look on the old man’s face was a trifle lost on us as the scooter arrived some time before we did thanks to public transport. The poker face displayed by my father on seeing number 2 son hugging a scooter in the back yard was only let down by a slight raising of the eyebrow and the pursing of the lips. I suspect even one as stubborn as the old man ‘new when he was beat’, as they say! ‘All right, but you can’t ride it until you get a crash helmet’ was the only comment expressed, as that would delay my fun and games for a short period, not to mention cost me even more of the money that I shouldn’t have had. I now had the scooter that was so necessary to complete my coolness and my brother had the warm feeling that comes from the joy in the misfortune of the mighty being out manoeuvred.
Now it was necessary to learn to ride. There was a Pitman’s do it yourself style book on the subject that had been so long overdue from the library that the text had been memorised by most of the local youth who lusted after two wheels plus an engine. Riding a scooter was, therefore, dead easy!
First wheel the highly polished object of desire out of the back gate into the alleyway. Turn on the petrol, pull out the choke and switch on the ignition. So far so good! Kick it over. It starts with the unmistakable cloud of blue smoke and whiff of two-stroke oil. Wonderful! Now, it’s possible that those in the know might feel a little apprehensive at this point. Those who may have lived a slightly more sheltered existence may be rather more optimistic. An explanation to the latter crowd will now be given.
GS stands for Gran sport, which in English means ‘goes like a cat with a banger up its bum!’ The ‘sport’ part also gave it a light clutch and a fast pickup with a very high revving engine. Arguably not the best machine for a complete novice rider. Also, at this time, being a learner was dead easy. In fact, so easy that a (not insignificant) minority ended up that way…dead! All you needed was to cough up a small sum (25 bob or £1.25 as we now term it), fix ‘L’ plates to the front and back and off you rode!
Now, even as a new boy it was quite obvious that to attempt to ride off in an alleyway that was about 30 yards long was not the best idea on this planet if you needed to stop at the end and you weren’t positive about how well the brakes worked, so the new cult symbol had to be pushed onto the street. Again, a slight digression. It being lunchtime and a nice day the factory workers, as usual had spread out onto the adjacent streets and made themselves comfortable on the garden walls of the local houses. This included the walls at the end of the alley. In fact the whole street was infested with them! The Salvation Army band was enthusiastically entertaining this captive audience and saving the occasional soul at the same time.
Ignoring all this the GS was fired up under the gaze of at least 200 mildly interested persons. Sit on the saddle. Move twist grip back and forth. Just like it said in the Pitman book. Now the clever bit…pull in clutch lever; twist the same wrist so that the neutral mark lines up with the number one. A satisfying clonk comes from the gearbox as first gear is engaged. If the expression, ‘Now this is where it all goes wrong’ can be slipped into the narrative, perhaps we should do that…now!
The throttle was twisted open. The engine revved through the roof. The clutch was not so much released as dropped. The now very attentive audience was about to witness an epic second only to a launch at Cape Canaveral…
The front wheel left the tarmac like a November 5th rocket, tilting the seat to a crazy angle and enhancing the death grip (and unwanted twisting movement to the throttle!). As the GS leapt towards the vertical, the inevitable happened. Out of balance and on one wheel machine and intrepid rider toppled to the left with the accompaniment of a rousing cheer from all bar the Sally Army band (who continued playing!).
For anyone reading this that may have been in a similar situation they will know that these episodes actually take place in a period of seconds. To the individual experiencing the event time enters a notable continuum to drag the incident out for what seems like ages. Then you hit the deck! Pandemonium – Back to real time!
The Italian manual on the subject will tell you that an unladen GS 150 weighs 98kgs – no lightweight, then. Add the weight of the rider and you have an idea of the sort of impact being discussed. The pain and embarrassment go without saying. The damage to the once pristine machine had to be seen to be appreciated. Not to forget the noise from the motor, now not under any load and running at full tilt! Greater damage to the GS was saved by the simple expedient of having trapped a desert booted foot under the footboard edge. This factor, however, made standing up a little difficult…in fact, impossible!
The time for audience participation had arrived. Some kind soul lifted the GS on to its wheels and into an upright position. This at least stopped the racket from the engine as it immediately stalled. Leaving a somewhat dishevelled and very embarrassed young man to push a grazed scooter back home. Interestingly, people do not hobble away from accidents, that’s saved for later when no-one’s looking! The art of clutch control and gear changing was soon practiced and quickly mastered. This time without an audience apart from the nosey grandmother (aka The Acton Gazette) watching from her eyrie in her first floor kitchen.
Time to return to the ‘quirks’. On the third day of riding, time trials were thought to be in order. The nearest bit of dual carriageway was a mile or so up the road. The Western Avenue is a very busy arterial road leaving London for Oxford and all points west, as its name suggests. It twists through the rougher parts of West London’s suburbia and, at Hanger Lane, dips down into the bowels of the earth at an underpass. Just the job!
Turn onto the ‘Western’ at North Acton. Through the gears. Into fourth. Throttle opened against the stop. The two stroke purrs into its element. Up to fifty-five. There’s a bit more in there somewhere! Down into the underpass. Sixty, sixty and a bit. Too fast to watch the clock now. Up the GS swoops towards the sunlight. Something happens. Suddenly the GS is insisting on travelling sideways. The unnerving sensation of losing site of the day lit exit and watching the underpass wall shoot past. The ‘penny drops’. The GS had seized up. Quick, haul in the clutch. The machine is now freewheeling at sixty miles per hour, not to mention now pointing in the right direction, into the bright sunlight. Gradually, after about a quarter of a mile an appropriately situated lay-by slowly approaches. Thank God for that!
Yes, the 150 GS had managed to do what they all do when roundly thrashed. It had seized solid. The piston had given up expanding with the heat of it’s journey up and down the barrel until it was too tight to continue. It had reached the point where movement was impossible and locked the engine and back wheel up. Whew!
As the motor cooled (and the rider, for that matter!) the piston gave up it’s death grip with the engine innards allowing it to be, once again, kick-started. It ran like nothing life threatening had occurred! Thought of the day, ‘perhaps a crash helmet was in order. Better wear one next time!’
Sadly, the GS 150 has even more to share with the uninitiated. They stop dead! Only a flat battery, apparently, so charge it up and off we go again. Sixty or so miles down the road and, once more, it happens. Something was not right. ‘Not a lot of cop’ if you can only travel sixty miles before needing a re-charge. Might as well have bought a milk float!
To explain, the Vespa GS’s shared something of a racing pedigree and like the racing engines of that time had a ‘coil ignition’ system that needed ‘exciting’ (nice expression to use for an inanimate object!) by a charge from a battery. So, no charge, no go! The problem lay with the anti-deluvian Italian electrics. In this case a ‘vane’ rectifier in the battery charging system, which dies with engine vibration and fails to charge the battery. The twist in the tail with this sort of fault is that if you continuously charge and then flatten a lead-acid battery, the battery itself becomes damaged with plate distortion.
After a time, not only is the rectifier in need of replacement, so is the battery. At this period a suitable rectifier cost £5, or thereabouts, a battery cost slightly more. Already it has been mentioned that the hero of this tale only earned £10 per week, so rectification (if that term dare be used!) of this fault was not cheaply undertaken. Twice the rectifier and battery were replaced. Time had come to draw a line in the sand and sell the wretched thing!
Such a cult surrounded the GS marque, and such an impression had been made with the local Mod community, that selling the ailing beast was no problem. Sold it was – for fifty quid – and very good riddance!
This was, actually, only the beginning, the scooter bug had bit. To be absolutely truthful the GS was sold to finance the purchase of the ‘dream machine’ – A customised Lambretta GT! The GS had served its purpose, after all.
Rick Jones and his GS? Strange you should ask? The last we heard of the catalyst to this story was, actually, quite sad (or perhaps, quite funny!) to relate. It appears that Rick was hammering down the one-way street system, just off Hammersmith Broadway when he saw two sorts (see ‘birds’, above). He turned to give them a cheery wave and rode slap bang into a traffic island. The ‘keep left’ bollards, which were then far more substantial than our current plastic ones, were demolished and so too was the ever lovely white GS160 with its chrome plated side panels!
Rick sustained a broken leg and ribs. The scooter was scrap. Rick saw no necessity to pay off the remainder of the HP loan on something he no longer possessed and was last heard of living in North London trying to avoid the ‘heavies’ who were sent after the finance house’s money.
Sic transit Gloria mundi (perhaps!)