The NYCS Viet-bodge 101
At NYCS we thought it was high time we addressed the subject of the infamous “Viet-bodge.” A term commonly used to describe a poorly (and sometimes dangerously) restored scooter that has typically originated from Vietnam and increasingly more and more from India and made it’s way to the US either through Stateside dealers or mail-order and eBay direct from Asia.
Scooters have longtime been a primary mode of transportation in many Asian countries, and as such these markets have a long established network of repair shops and fabricators designed to keep vintage bikes on the road long past their typical life span. Over recent years a market has developed in restoring classic models with the express purpose of shipping them overseas. Vespa VBBs are a typical example because were imported to Asia en mass during their original life-span and so are readily available in various states of disrepair after living hard-working lives.
Asian scooter restorers are able to put these bikes back together much cheaper than a State-side restoration from an award-winning shop like Jersey’s Scooters Originali not just because of the drastically lower cost of labor but, of much greater concern, their restoration practices.
Central to the design philosophy, strength and stability of the original scooter – the Vespa – is it’s uni-body monocoque steel frame, a direct descendant of Piaggio’s aircraft past. The reason many scooterists are concerned about the influx of Asian bikes is that many of them have proven to be in fact two, three and sometimes more scooter bodies welded together to form one frame, and then generously covered in filler to give the aesthetic appearance of one bike without the structural integrity.
Of course, to be fair, this isn’t going to be the case with every imported restoration, but the fact is with a sight unseen bike it’s impossible to tell. Even in the cases where you have full access to viewing the bike, often nothing short of shot-blasting the bike down to bare-metal will reveal what lies beneath.
Bodywork aside, there are other concerns about Asian restored bikes: Many of the replacement parts are made locally by after-market supplies and don’t match the quality of the original hardware. In some cases these are locally cast from the original parts and end up ill-fitting into the final assembly. Horror stories abound of tin-can shims being used inside the engine and front and rear wheel hubs to line-up mis-matches in an ad-hoc manner.
Viet-bodges in NYC?
The only local dealer who openly sells Asian restored bikes in New York (in this case sourced from India) is Manhattan’s RetroVespa. To be fair to the folks at RetroVespa, they have been very open about the source of their bikes and have worked directly with their Indian supplier to up the quality of the parts used. Further, the bikes are sold with a six-month guarantee.
Kevin, the owner of RetroVespa caused quite a stir towards the end of last year on the International Scooterist’s BBS when he bravely joined a debate over the quality of his bikes. Standing by his product (and rising to a challenge posted on the board,) Kevin shipped out a Vespa VBA at his own expense to Mike Zorn the editor of Scoot! Magazine giving Mike full grace to disassemble the bike as he saw fit and test as necessary.
Mike finally released his review to the public after several months of testing in the June 2009 50th issue of Scoot! magazine. The bike turned out to be a mixed-bag. On the one-hand tastefully restored with some nice upgrades compared to other Asian imports and (on it’s good days) a reliable runner. However he did encounter two points of concern, one minor one not so minor. Upon arrival the fuel line was leaky but this was an easy fix (for someone scoot experienced.) A few weeks later a “squirrely” back wheel led to the discovery that the back hub was coming loose and the nut holding it in place had stripped – a potentially very dangerous situation.
Mike finally therefore concluded that the bike was therefore not for the uninitiated, and that a scooterist with a mechanical mindset is the best owner of a bike like this, prepared to roll up their sleeves and address issues as they come up. Unfortunately this is likely the kind of scooterist who would stay clear of an Asian restored bike.
Spotting a Viet-bodge
If a vintage bike looks too good (and cheap) to be true then the old saying may just be true in this case. Asian restored bikes are slowly bleeding through to the pages of CraigsList either due to the misrepresentation of dealers posing as sellers or sellers looking to off-load their bike after unearthing concerns.
A number of sites have put together FAQs on what to look for in an Asian restored bike. Custom seats, over-use of chroming and mis-matching of wheel-sizes and hardware to the original bike are typical signs no matter how nice the scoot ends up looking.
Is everything from Asia bad?
No. Worldwide scooter enthusiasts have been relying on Asian countries for years to keep their bikes running, with markets like India and Vietnam putting out after-market replacement parts long past the point at which the original manufacturer did the same.
Chicago’s Genuine Scooter Company for example imports its Vespa PX clone, the Stella direct from India where it was originally manufactured as a Vespa-badged bike under license from Piaggio. Similarly these new bikes are readily available as the LML Star in the UK and other parts of Europe under the Indian manufacturer’s name, LML. The Bajaj Chetak also from India was a similar Vespa spin-off from an original licensed design that had a lot of fans during its availability in the US until the company closed in 2005.
The keywords here are replacement parts, and new scooters. In these cases you are either the owner of your scoot and replacing parts yourself, or purchasing a brand new bike manufactured from the ground up.
So with all these concerns what can you do?
Frankly, it’s a matter of knowing what you’re getting into. If you’re still interested in purchasing an Asian import, we recommend that you do so only when you can inspect the bike as thoroughly as possible. RetroVespa have a downtown showroom and we encourage you to see their bikes for yourself. You may also be able to have a bike inspected by a trusted local scooter mechanic before commiting to a purchase.
If you’re buying a recently restored scoot in the used market and you suspect the bike might have Asian origins, ask the owner to demonstrate provenance on the bike – photographs of it’s restoration, for example.Or again have a local service shop give the bike a once over before committing. A reasonable seller should have nothing to hide.
Finally, think about buying from a trusted local dealer who deals in vintage bikes like Scooters Originali in NJ or Scooter Bottega in Brooklyn. Sure, you’ll pay more. But you’ll be buying from a source with a proven track-record. Better yet, you’ll be purchasing a scoot that is fundamentally safe to ride.