While checking over Terror1, the 2016 Vespa I recently bought from a nearby Vespa dealer2 to use in the 2023 Scooter Cannonball, I discovered they’d drastically over-filled the engine oil.
The oil on the dipstick was way above the MAX mark – which is not good, of course, since too much oil means too much pressure inside the engine, causing leaks and other damage.
I put about 8 miles on Terror just riding it home, which shouldn’t present a problem.
The dealer said they’d changed the engine oil and transmission oil before selling it. I asked about brake fluid, since it’s hygroscopic and absorbs water over time.
You really don’t want that. Water in brake fluid compromises braking and causes rust in steel brake lines and elsewhere in the system.
They said they didn’t know when it was last changed but said their mechanic “looked at” the brake fluid, presumably in the reservoir, and said it was okay.
Apologies, but that’s bullshit, too. You need to test the fluid with special test strips or an electronic meter – you can’t just “look” at it. Everything I’ve ever read says you should change the fluid every two years or so.
This 2016 Vespa is six years old.
But back to the engine oil. On Friday night, after sticking a clean plastic straw down the filler hole, I laboriously and patiently and carefully sucked out the excess oil like it was a toxic milkshake.
Motul 4T 5W-40 full synthetic looks like red wine salad dressing but most certainly does not taste like it.
I got the engine oil level down to where it should be. The excess went into a gallon jug that formerly held Arizona iced tea. It was about ¾ inch deep, which seems a frightful amount.
On Saturday, I rode the Vespa 153 miles south to Scoot Richmond3. They’ll change the brake fluid and engine coolant, to give me a baseline of maintenance. Linda and I will pick it up on Saturday, Aug. 6.
And that was the latest Vespa adventure, with the apparent lesson being you have to check everything.
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1 — Which is named after the second ship of the James Clark Ross expedition to the Antarctic in 1839. We’ve been over this before, right?
2 — Who shall remain anonymous. The sales person was very nice, though.
3 — Who has the only Vespa mechanics I can trust, apparently. It doubles my regret at not waiting and purchasing a similar vintage Vespa that popped up on their site after I bought Terror.
It’s one of my favorite stories and I think that’s because I had a great time talking to the riders I interviewed. Fascinating people, every one.
So now I have two Vespas.
There’s an indescribable feeling you get when crossing the dividing line between spectator and participant. I felt it most keenly in my first Marine Corps Marathon, taking my place among the other runners and thinking to myself I’m really doing this at last.
Likewise, writing about the Cannonball made me think could I do this?
The marathon had its roots in my high school cross-country days, back in the Pleistocene era1. The Cannonball dream is more recent, of course, and I’m learning more about its logistical demands, which are roughly akin to those of the Normandy invasion.
The planning elements comprise a long list2, but choice of scooter – what am I going to ride? – is probably paramount.
Scooters get punished during the Cannonball. Small engines aren’t intended for sustained high-speed travel over 8 to 10 days and riders often do maintenance chores in hotel parking lots when they’d much rather be sleeping in their rooms 10 feet away.
I could take Erebus, my 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni, but it’s sort of a special-edition model and I started having visions of being dopey-tired and dropping it at gas stations and such. I really didn’t want to bash her up3.
That made me think about getting a second scooter, one, er, nice but not as nice as Erebus but still sturdy enough to get me across the country. Linda and I looked at Japanese scooters4 but then I saw the 2016 on La Moto Washington’s website.
It’s a 2016 Vespa Super Sport, a 300cc scooter with ABS, much like Erebus but less sporty-appearing. The engine isn’t an HPE like Erebus and Linda’s GTS but it’s still powerful, relatively speaking5, and has longer maintenance intervals. It had 872 miles on the odometer.
Long story short, I rode it home eight miles in the rain today.
I had to give her a name and, continuing my preference for naming my motorcycles after Antarctic exploration ships6, chose the moniker Terror, after the second ship of the James Clark Ross expedition of 1839-1843. Erebus was the first7.
Terror is in my workshop now at Starbase 8 with 880 miles on the clock. I’ll start learning how to work on it, how to change engine oil and filters and how to replace transmission belts and variator and clutch rollers. It will be a steep learning curve for me.
I’ll baby Terror and take care of her, but I’ll be secure knowing that I can take a tumble and – while aghast at the damage I’m causing8 – think: At least I’m not fucking up Erebus.
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1 – Admittedly, I wasn’t a very good runner, then or now. I’ve had bystanders tell me to just get a cab.
2 – That’s not an exaggeration. You have to decide if/how to ship your scooter to the starting line, reserve rooms at hotels/motels along the way, arrange for space on support vehicles and figure out how you’re going to get your scooter home when the rally is over.
3 – Any motorcycle or scooter can get damaged while traveling but the Cannonball carries a higher risk because of long days, insufficient sleep, enforced timelines and intense navigation. I just didn’t want to risk Erebus like that.
4 – A Honda ADV 150 or Yamaha SMAX were on the list. They have smaller engines and less power than Terror but are considered extremely reliable.
5 – Terror has 22 hp; Erebus has 24.
6 – It’s true; I have three motorcycles and two Vespas of my own (not counting Linda’s Vespa and Yamaha Vino) and all but one has an Antarctic-related name.
The outlier is Santiago, the 1965 Honda CL-77 awaiting restoration in a shed out back. It’s named after one of the five ships Magellan took on his circumnavigation voyage in 1519.
7 – Both were constructed as “bomb ships,” built with extremely strong hulls to withstand the impacts of naval explosions. Sadly, they were lost during the 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. Erebus was found in 2014; Terror was discovered in 2016.
8 – And will fix, since it’s a really nice scooter.
I signed up for the 2023 Scooter Cannonball1 – a scooter-only, 8-day event covering 3,170 miles – on June 25, the day registration opened, and the same day I tried to fire up Linda’s Vespa 300 GTS and found it wouldn’t start.
It was irony of the highest sort, since the Cannonball is a long-distance event in which participants ride scooters of 300ccs (or less) across the country. Scooters aren’t really meant for that type of distance and riders typically do scooter maintenance in hotel parking lots at night.
So the work of getting her Vespa back online became a learning experience, a dry run of sorts for the Cannonball, since breakdowns are common during the event. Riders are expected to at least attempt to make their own repairs, though fellow competitors often offer help2.
The Vespa hadn’t been run in a while. I pulled the Dow cover, rolled it from underneath the patio overhang and turned the key.
The system initialized: the dash lights came on, the fuel pump pumped, but when I hit the starter button, I was rewarded with only a single click from somewhere in the engine.
One tries to be rational and methodical in times like these but I couldn’t help but think: “What if this were happening at a hotel in Guymon, Oklahoma, in the morning?3 What would I do?”
I charged up the battery, tried the starter again without success, and found the battery level had fallen again. From experience with Endurance’s battery, I figured that was the problem.
We dashed to La Moto Washington before they closed and got a new battery, which didn’t solve the problem. So I was feeling rather clueless.
I started searching online for solutions and to watch Robot’s instructional videos on scooterwest.com5. I traced the clicking to the starter relay under the saddle and checked it by swapping out the relay from Erebus, which has the same engine as Linda’s Vespa.
Erebus fired up, but the other Vespa didn’t. So it wasn’t the starter relay.
I started poking about the engine, looking to check the spark plug and spied a rubber sparkplug-like boot and pried it off, only to see a stud, a nut and the business end of a broken ring terminal, a dime-sized fitting used here to connect a wire to the engine block. Could this be it?
I modified a ring terminal from a box of spare parts, fitted it on the engine, and tried the starter button. The Vespa cranked over and started.
I don’t know what I felt more: relief or amazement at discovering the problem. I have to permanently mount a ring terminal to the engine wire, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem. And now we even have a spare battery.
1 – I wrote about the Cannonball in 2021 for USA Today online4. It’s one of my favorite stories; I enjoyed talking with nearly a dozen riders, a good group of folks. After some internal deliberation, I decided to sign up myself, though I have a long way to go before I’m actually ready.
2 – It’s part of the camaraderie of the event. Seriously, it’s a wonderful thing to see.