scooterlife - photog's blog

Motorcycles. Scooters. Wheelchairs. Tape. Whatever rolls.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

One more thing

I love this scooter.

I really, really, really love this little machine.

It's not for everyone but for the person who has fallen under its spell, the enjoyment goes clear to the bone.

After years of riding bikes that are considered to be mechanical perfection, this little beast has stolen my heart.

Tomorrow will be the first ride through the countryside. I can't wait!

Email to a friend

A buddy of mine with FAR more scootering experience asked me a good question--will I be happy with the Stella, or is this nostalgic thinking taking over?

Both of us had experienced having acquired the same bike we had in our youth, only to find that what we remembered as sparkling performance had been enhanced by our inexperienced brains. Flexible frames and inadequate brakes did not feel quaint--they felt like inadequate brakes and flexible frames. And after decades spent on state of the art motorcycles, sometimes the older bikes just don't do much other than look nice.

So, he mused, would I feel the same way about a Stella?

Here's my reply:

Mine is running well, but I sense it could use a larger gulp of air to really unleash it. I've had to rely on it far too much this last week to try tweaking it, so perhaps next week I'll do some plug chops. My next move will be to combine jetting with adding a UNI filter. Overall, though, I'm thrilled. Aside from that damned seat being a torture device, anyway. But it is without a doubt the most willing, enthusiastic, personality-filled ride I've ever owned.

In my last blog post I noted that the Stella isn't for everyone. I think that came after the realization that it is a 20 year old design that--at that point--was drawing on experience from the 50's and 60's. It's really a relic and I think that speaks to your question. It may, at first blush, be attractive to anyone, but whether it's a long-term relationship worth investing in, is another matter.

I am quite nostalgic about some of the bikes I've had, and have had a chance to ride them again and found that some of them were pleasant, but could never be my only bike again--as they were when I had them. The sparkle wasn't quite there as I remembered it to be, especially when I didn't quite feel the same performance I remembered.

So how does the Stella fit in? I think you'll enjoy it. I think you'll enjoy it a LOT. It's easy to tinker with, and is STILL very much the right tool for a quick commute. The past few days I have had to run a lot of crazy cross-town errands where the GS would've been clumsy and the 50 too underpowered to do the job quickly. The Stella, even with the not-quite-right-jetting, made easy work of it, and there's no denying the nostalgic response I've gotten from others.

As far as performance goes, it's not the outright powerhouse of even a moderately competent Chinese 150cc automatic, but it goes about its task with all the elan that we want...and I think that is where the satisfaction lies. It works its heart out, and it does so with a lusty approach. The JL/SIP pipe is suitably boisterous, and the wickedly-quick steering allows for some entertaining heroics even on the 10" tires. It slices up traffic despite itself, if that makes sense. I haven't found a turn yet that'll challenge it.

I suppose if it were a larger roadbike, I would eventually tire of it not being quite up to par with even a entry-level bike like my Suzuki GS500 which, for all its simplicity, would easily spank any of my 350/400/550 Hondas from the 70's.

But as a scooter, it really does stand its ground and does not show its age...unless the rider is expecting an "easy" ride, like on a Honda Helix.

I can no longer look at the automatics in the same way. Yes, they are probably better all around, but after spending this past week getting to know every noise this one makes--wondering if it's fouling, listening to it break in, learning the shift points, exploring the limits of tire adhesion--the experience is much more intimate and as such I fully understand why people become slaves to these machines. They are alive and flawed and worthwhile, just like us.

I don't think everyone would be as pleased, but I think you would.

I'd continue your search. It's a fresh, new platform to work on all the mods you envisioned, and is probably just the first of a few more scoots in a your future. More than the bike itself, I think you will find all kinds of joy in the entire experience, just as you are hoping to find.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Initial Impressions

With about 200 miles added to the clock since it first came home, the Stella has delighted and surprised me with every turn of the odometer.

I didn't expect it to run--the previous owner had not been able to ride it--but after changing out the plug and giving it plenty of room to run, it fired right up and has handled 200 miles of traffic, long stoplights, and a few hard accelerations without so much as a hiccup.

Owning a Stella is like finding a perfect Vespa PX150 in a barn. It is a brand new scooter with all the charm--and technology--of an 80's Vespa.

Mine has been spec'd well with a Pinasco 177, Dellorto 24G carb, and SIP (JL) expansion chamber/pipe. With these goodies, the bike is transformed into a very capable urban warrior--even though the stock bike is more than adequate for the job. The top end is most likely gear-limited at 70mph or so--and since I'm still in break-in, I have only seen that speed briefly. However, acceleration is more than enough to keep up with urban traffic.

Is it for everyone? No way. The newest crop of automatics are well-behaved and fairly potent beasts for their displacement, capable of making cross-town commutes an easy affair. The Stella is different; you have to work for your thrills. While the engine is much more luggable than you'd expect a small 150 to be, you still have to change gears and for some, that detracts from the scootering experience. For others, it's what defines the Vespa and Lambrettas of that period and differentiates "real scooters" from their newer CVT-equipped grandchildren.

The 10" tires are skinny and the ride is what you'd expect--quick steering combined with a bit of twitchyness off-center, but not annoyingly so. The bike is remarkably stable and sure-footed; you just have to remember that countersteering takes just the faintest of pressure instead of a shove to initiate or tighten a turn.

On even or undulating pavement the Bitubo shocks are a joy. On potholes and sharp, jarring bumps the rider is treated to a spleen-jarring smack in the hindquarters. On the upside, the bike isn't easily upset and somehow remains planted in tight turns when it encounters irregularities.

But I keep asking myself--would you recommend this bike to someone wanting a plain little a-to-b scooter? I keep finding out that the answer is "no". The Stella is wonderful, but it's a bike for those that want to be connected with the machine. The clutch is light and the transmission shifts smoothly, but it's a busy affair, just like any motorcycle in traffic. The ergonomics are a bit different from the cushy, upright new bikes; the Stella/PX retains a bit of that sporty forward cant of the rider. The legshield encourages creative foot placement for weightshifting in corners. The raspy engine--especially a kitted one--encourages feisty duels with other commuters. It may not win every stoplight to stoplight battle, but it'll win a lot of them, and those it can't win with acceleration, it'll win with sheer maneuverability. But to put those notches on your cowls demands a certain aggressive, lighthearted, fun attitude and willingness to ride hard. This isn't a bike that simply takes you from A to B--it is a small cafe racer.

At 300 miles I am just into the break-in stages, running BelRay semi-synthetic oil plus a smidgen in the tank (about 1%). I'll switch to Castrol TTS synthetic at around 600-800 miles and then continue to run that for the duration. The bike does smoke quite a bit at idle--not a cloud of blue smoke that envelopes the rider, but enough that you can see it swirling around the headlight at night. The jetting is still rich, but I'd rather err on that side during breakin and try to gradually lean it out.

While the stock headlight was moaned about on several forums, I found it was fine for my night rides--though the H4 conversion will eventually happen. I also plan on installing a license plate frame adorned with a bunch of LED's to help the people behind me note that I'm slowing down, since the small, low-mounted taillight isn't exactly a flamethrower. I may also convert my turn signals to running lights.

But the bike performs admirably just as it is. I can pull away from a stop in 2nd gear, and pull reliably from about 10mph in 3rd gear. I'm still working on the details, but it seems to like taking hard turns in 3rd and pulling smoothly through them--it has enough grunt to lug around in 3rd gear for most of the day in dense downtown traffic.

It's an attention-getter. Not that I wanted that--I'm the type of person that would just as soon be invisible. But if people are gonna look, they may as well have a neat bike to look at, and judging from the responses, people love it. I get lots of waves and honks. And since I'm typically leading the pack instead of holding up traffic, it would appear that the honks are friendly ones.

Even with its dated design, the original brilliance of Piaggio is clear. These bikes were designed to get a commuter across town or across the county efficiently. A quick touch of the starter button and the bike spins to life and settles into the pop-pppp-popppp uneven idle, then clears its throat as it winds through the gears. In no time you're up to 55mph and watching the scenery move smoothly past as the exhaust settles into a nice purr. The brakes are light and precise, and the riding position is so variable that there's no way you can't find a comfortable perch. Some buzzing creeps into the bars (a set of bar ends are on the list) but it's not terribly annoying. The entire experince combines to make it a very lively ride, not an insulated one.

Without a doubt, I am convinced that this was the right bike for me. The more I ride it, the more I realize what a special, unique experience it is to ride a PX series bike amidst all the automatics.