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Easy Riders

For classic restored scooters such as Vespas and Lambrettas,
look no further than Vietnam
where Saigon Scooters reconditions
the Italian icons to their former glory, writes Dan Stern

FOR THOSE OF YOU who like travelling in style, the word "scooter" may not seem stylish and practical way of negotiating the streets of Hong Kong than riding a classic scooter to work ?

Air-conditioned luxury it isn't - but if it's freedom and exhilaration you crave, then there's no substitute for catching the eye of passers-by on a fully restored Vespa or Lambretta.

Such Italian masterpieces were immortalized by films such as La Dolce Vita and the British "Mod classic" Quadrophenia. It has been a long and daunting task to import classic scooters into Hong Kong owing to high prices and prohibitive shipping costs from Europe. But now, one cost-effective option is a short hop away in Vietnam.

Saigon Scooters, run by Briton Patrick Jont, is one of the foremost classic scooter suppliers in Vietnam. Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Joynt supplies scooters from $15,000 to $25,000. And Vietnam's close proximity to Hong Kong means shipping can take only three or four days.

Most bikes in Vietnam today are attractive slim-style Series 3 Lambrettas, dating back to the early 1960s. At this time there was an assembly plant in Saigon recieving bikes direct from the factory in Milan. Vespa models including the VBB, Sprint and Super also remaines plentiful.

Joynt is passionate and meticulous about his work. The one-month restoration process is exhaustive as each bike is stripped down to the chassis and rebuilt with original Italian or UK re-patterned parts. But while he sweats over the merest mechanical detail, he's well aware that most scooter enthusiasts simply enjoy the thrill of driving such elegant, refined two-wheelers.

"Most people who buy classic bikes do so for the looks and the style. Most can't even change a spark plug, and why should they have to? I personally test each bike for a week and make any required adjustments so the customer doesn't have to worry about anything but riding the bike and looking good," he says.

Unfortunately, not all bikes from Vietnam are restored so carefully. A pretty paint job can cover up some serious problems.

"With so much cheap labour in Vietnam it's no problem to change a piston for less than the price of a beer in Hong Kong, but these parts were not produced to meet export quality," says Joynt. "At least once a week I see a life-endangering repair job brought into my workshop.

"Anyone can pick up a wreck down Ho Chi Minh City 'scooter alley' for as little as $500, but the work is shoddy and they're restored in a matter of days", he says.

"In a way it's like open-heart surgery. It's not until we strip the bike down that we know what we're dealing with. Occasionally, the flaws are so well hidden we can't restore a bike. Then it's used for original parts instead."

Joynt's insistence on imported parts means restorations are not cheap. For example, a Vietnamese piston costs $4, while Joynt uses an Italian one which costs $70.

He believes, however, his commitment to quality and detail is what keeps his customers from all over the world coming back. Business is good - in fact it's so good, he has two-month waiting list for some models.

So how did he end up restoring Italian-designed scooters in Vientam? Joynt got his first scooter when he was a teenager and embarked on a hobby that lasted throughout college. In 1993 he went travelling, but it wasn't until he arrived in Vietnam in 1997 that he found what he was looking for and began restoring and exporting classic scooters.

Four years on and he has exported scooters all over the world, including Britain and Australia. On one occasion he even sold to a couple of Italian businessmen passing through Vietnam. They bought two rare Lambretta LD Series 2 scooters build in 1956. "It was like taking coal to Newcastle," Joynt recalls.

"The two Italian guys had been friends since they were young men. Back then, both rode Lambretta scooters which they couldn't find anywhere in Italy now."

Ironically, vintage scooters are a rarity on Italian streets. Most werwe bought by British and American enthusiasts. For many, there are only two types of classic scooters: Vespas and Lambrettas.

The Vespa, which means wasp in Italian, was build by Piaggio. Vespas were first manufactured in MIlan during 1946 as a cheap and simple form post-war urban transport. Because so many manufacturing licences were issued around the world, the list of different classic Vespa models is long. But 90 per cent have 150cc engines and all share the distinctive single seat, wide front panel and sweeping sides. The most stylish and sought-after Vespa is the VBB, build in the early 1960's and famed for its beatiful lines and chrome detail.

Lambretta, named after a district in Milan where the factory was based, had its heyday in the 1950s. Lambrettas are generally thinner than Vespas and have larger engines. The Series 2 and 3 are particularly sleek.

One of the most prized Lambretta is the SX200. It boasts a 200cc engine and can reach speeds of more than 112km/h. Only 21,000 were ever made, so finding one can be a tall order.

Unfortunately, in 1971, Lambretta stopped making scooters in Milan. The factory was closed and the plant equipment shipped to India where manufacturing continued but quality control eroded. - The South China Morning Post

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