NYCS interviews RetroVespa – Part One
Kevin Ochel is a New York scooterist who has spent the last ten years developing a very thick skin in response to criticisms while amassing knowledge of the dos and don’ts of scooter restoration. Last week Kevin kindly agreed to sit down with us and share his experiences.
Kevin’s business, RetroVespa imports restored 1960s Vespa VBBs from S.E. Asia (first from Vietnam, then later – and currently – from India) and distributes to buyers in North America and countries around the world including the UK, Australia, Germany, Norway and South Africa.
It’s the business of exporting scooters and their sale to Western buyers that has opened up a hornet’s nest of debate (and in some cases sheer vitriol) in the always-vocal scooter community.
South-East Asian sourced sixties Vespas have arguably had very long hard lives in their home countries following years of use as daily workhorses before being restored in often poorly maintained back-street garages using less than perfect parts, mechanical improvisations, and sloppy build techniques.
We’ve reported on this phenomenon, known as “Viet-Bodges” before, so if you’re unfamiliar with the term and the consternation it’s caused, you can read about it here.
While Vietnam based companies were the first to see a business opportunity in exporting scooters to westerners, Kevin entered the business from Stateside without any notion of the hotly argued debate he was getting into.
It was following his business collapsed during the economic downturn after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, that he hit upon the idea:
“I sold an apartment, and I had some money to travel for 6 months. So I traveled around the world with the idea that I’m also going to keep my eyes open for some sort of business opportunities. And I remembered when I was in Vietnam I saw these scooters and I thought they were cool.
The only thing I knew about scooters was that my brother owned a 1980′ P200 up in Newport, and I drove it around a couple of times. And I had a great time just driving the scooter around. So I’m like ‘these are cool.
So when I came back I had three or four ideas bouncing around, and with the money running out I took the last like fifteen-grand and I went over and spent about two months in Vietnam.
I was put together with a contact through a friend of mine in Atlanta who ran a Software-Outsourcing company in Vietnam. He didn’t know anything about scooters and I didn’t know anything about Vespas other than my experience with my brother’s bike.
So we went over there, and through his local knowledge I was literally hunting – you know, chasing people down on the street and going “Will you sell me your scooter?” And man it was so much fun, it was a blast. So I brought a handful of them back. And it was quite a learning curve. Of course the first one’s I brought back had the yellow footies, and they had the wrong center-stand, and everything was wrong on them, you know.”
NYCS: Which presumably you got to learn in a very short period of time?
“Of course I did. And very quickly it was pointed out to me by ScooterBBS and other boards, what’s wrong with them and “They’re pieces of shit from Vietnam” and this and that. I had people telling me over and over, “Don’t waste your time, its terrible, terrible.”
NYCS: And this didn’t scare you off?
“There were some frustrating times. But I’m the type of person where if I pick a battle, that’s it, and I don’t pick em’ too often, and I picked this one, I said “You told me I couldn’t make/get a good scooter out of Vietnam, well I’m gonna tell you I can.”
NYCS: So it was an iterative process?
“Yeah, I like to call them “Generations” every time I’d learn and I’d fix. And the first thing that was easy for me to do was learn the aesthetics ‘Okay, you know this center stand…’ you know ‘make it look exactly…’ I got the manuals, I got the technical books and I brought them over to Vietnam. I went to Vietnam probably a dozen times you know and I’d bring the books over.
So we got the aesthetics down, and I watched the work being done but I’m no mechanic. So my next step was 2006, there was a guy that used to work at Scooters Originali, Ian. So we took one of my scooters that came right from the crate, and I go “Ian lets rip this thing apart and I want you to tell me everything that’s wrong with it and we’re going to detail everything” …had spreadsheets and everything. And every part that was either…I don’t want to say wrong, or it was manufactured there, or they used it when they should have replaced it, we made a complete list.
I bought every single one of the replacement parts we needed from Scomo and Scooterworks, and you name em’ I pulled from everywhere. And I got five sets, and I packed them in a bag and went over to Vietnam for a couple weeks, and I showed up to my mechanics, and it was like Christmas-time for them.
Because they’re amazing mechanics but as you probably know they — I think you were over there recently right?”
NYCS: Yep, back in August. (Story here) It was very apparent that they work with what they have, they’re improvising. Whatever it takes to keep their scooters on the road.
They’re very improvising. So when you give them the right parts they’re very pleased.
NYCS: So the quality of the restorations started improving?
“Yeah exactly, we got into a nice rhythm. We were maybe doing like forty or fifty scooters a year.”
NYCS: So given things improved dramatically out of Vietnam, what prompted the move to India as a source for the restorations?
“I realized that most of the parts I was getting from the U.S were coming from India. So then I started to get some parts dealers from India shipping parts from India direct to Vietnam and then at that point my contact in Vietnam started hinting at me like ‘prices are going up’ you know ‘the inventory’s going down.’ So I was a step ahead and I planned this trip to India. And right around the time I planned the trip to India is when he called and said “Look we can’t do this anymore.”
NYCS: They couldn’t meet the prices you needed?
“It was more because of what was going on there. In the past the Vietnamese were like…these were just like things you drove around, but now as their economy improved, their middle class kind of rose up, they were able to afford these things. So then they were coveting them, keeping them.”
NYCS: I actually saw surprisingly few old Vespas in Vietnam, and I assumed that was because it’s sort of like a well that’s run dry, they’ve either gone into collectors within that region, within Southeast Asia, or they’ve come to the States.
“Exactly. The Vespa over there for them is like a family heirloom, they will not give it up, its tough to get them to sell especially if it’s still running and I understand why.
So in March 2008, I went over to India and I didn’t have my contact set up yet and I went to Delhi and a few other cities and I finally found my guy, and we’ve been working together ever since, the guy’s amazing.
In the early 80′s there was this fastest scooter every built, it was a Lambretta 250 I think, and he was involved in building the engine, tuning the engine, and shipping the engine from India to the UK, and they achieved the fastest time ever. And this is the guy who’s building my scooters, he’s the one that’s overseeing the whole operation.”
Kevin had brought with him a newly restored black sixties Vespa VBB from India that was on it’s way from a recent shoot during fashion week to its new New York City home.
I checked the bike over and – in the absence, of course, of a thorough strip-down – liked what I saw. The scooter looked and sounded great.
The engine, carburetor, and exhaust were brand new, the paint job flawless with no signs of hiding suspicious welding. Even the rivet work under the floorboards had been carefully peened and hardware choices throughout carefully considered. The after-market extended front forks and ten-inch wheel conversion was tastefully done and all cables and levers tight and responsive with plenty of compression in the (new) engine.
“This is going to a customer who lives in Soho. And this is actually his second scooter that he’s bought from me. He bought a gray one, it was you know, the regular engine, 8” wheels, and he wanted something a little quicker. So we gave him the 10” wheel upgrade, 5 port engine, and we put a custom exhaust on, it’s got 166 cc cylinder, and the carb’s modified, the clutch is modified.”
NYCS: So is this a standard offering from RetroVespa, or something custom?
“This is something custom. This is the first time we’ve done this. We do offer the 10” wheel/brand new Bajaj 5 port engine upgrade, its $500 extra. It’s great to have the brand new engine. It doesn’t have the points and condensers, I mean its kind of bulletproof, and people like the fact that it’s brand new. But it took me a while because I was a bit of purist I didn’t want to change it, so it took a little bit of convincing for me to catch up with the rest of the guys who were doing the conversion. And actually I’m real happy with it.
It’s a motorcycle dealership, the guy; I mean he’s kind of a legend in the scooter industry in India. He worked for SIL, and so his mentality; it’s a dealership for motorcycles, so they’re only gonna buy factory parts. So its a Bajaj engine coming directly from the Bajaj factory.”
You can view some videos Kevin took on a recent trip to his source in India in a previous NYCS post prompted by a RetroVespa Twitter feed. In the videos Kevin interviews his chief mechanic and provides a brief insight into the facility. Kevin shows me photos of the scooter in front of us in the garage in India…
“I’m upfront where my scooters come from I don’t try to hide it. Here are photos of the scooter. That’s one of the frames. You know, that’s the frame from that video in that room. There I am, the paint shop. You know, all one–there’s no Frankenstein here, you know, that’s the shop. I mean that’s India. You see many shops that clean in the U.S? When I walked in his place in India I was like ‘Woah!’ In Vietnam your like, you know, I think I took some years off my life over there, you know, just painting stuff.”
Stay tuned for part two in which we conclude our chat with Kevin and discuss among other things the challenges of any owner looking after a fifty-year old piece of machinery, RetroVespa’s average customer and Kevin’s own daily rider.