Scooter madness

How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. By Tom DiChristopher.
Saigon Scooter Centre is located down an alleyway in HCM City’s District 12, hidden behind the coffee shops and orchid stalls that line the boulevard to Tan Son Nhat International Airport. With the nationwide popularity of Honda—the word for motorbike in Vietnam is xe Honda—you’d think the Scooter Centre would be a mecca for Japanese motorbike enthusiasts. But step inside, and you’re transported to a more far-off land: Italy. Among his stock of 50s and 60s-era Vespas and Lambrettas, owner Patrick Joynt has more than a few vintage motorbikes, from a WWII-era Excelsior to a German Zundapp 50cc. But there’s a reason his collection—perhaps the best in Southeast Asia—is dominated by Italian classics. Vietnam is the last place on Earth you’ll find a stockpile of classic Vespas and Lambrettas. “Even the Italian classic scooter market dried up years ago,” says Joynt. “I myself and friends were going over there on buying trips in the mid 1980s, and the country has been pillaged since, leaving very few classic scooters.” Joynt has been in Vietnam for twelve years now, hunting down and restoring scooters, exporting hundreds overseas and keeping others for his personal collection. The history of Italian scooters in Vietnam, however, stretches back to the 1950s, during the waning days of French colonialism. That history continued into the 60s and early 70s, when the South’s changing global alliances influenced the boom and bust of the Vietnamese scooter market. For more than 25 years, Vietnam’s classic scooters would remain an undiscovered national treasure, hidden away like time capsules carrying stories from the Cold War.

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Throughout the war, businessmen imported what were previously luxuries— refrigerators, radios, motorbikes—rather than capital goods like factories and machinery

Our Story Begins in Italy
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of the Vespa and Lambretta, the same was also true of design. Today, both brands are widely regarded as icons of a bygone era, but in 1946 they provided a practical means to an end, a way forward in the post-war years when the country’s industry and infrastructure were devastated. Enrico Piaggio, head of Italy’s leading aeronautics company, faced a crisis on two fronts. Not only was Italy’s aircraft industry subjected to restrictions as part of peace agreements, but his two factories in Tuscany had been plundered by retreating German forces and were eventually reduced to rubble during strategic Allied bombing. After brokering the return of his machinery, Piaggio assessed the economic realities and social needs of post-war Italy. He decided that what his countrymen needed was an affordable and practical form of light transportation. Inspired by Allied motorcycles, he commissioned a design for a sleek, modern motorbike for the masses. Unhappy with the first prototype (the Paperino), Piaggio turned to aeronautical designer General Corradino D’Ascanio. The general disliked conventional motorcycles and took the opportunity to correct what he saw as their defining flaws. To keep the driver clean, he incorporated a shield-like front and replaced the greasy drive chain with a mesh transmission. By positioning the engine beneath

rather than in front of the seat, he left legroom to accommodate women. A supporting arm similar to airplane landing gear made the small tyres easy to change, and the handlebar-mounted gear lever made shifting a snap. Upon seeing the finished prototype, Piaggio is said to have exclaimed, “Sembra una vespa!” (“It looks like a wasp”). Italy shared his enthusiasm— the Vespa was an immediate success. Within a few years, demand led Piaggio to license production to factories across Europe and in Brazil and India. Another industrialist who saw his factory razed during the war, Ferdinando Innocenti, faced a longer road to success with his product—the Lambretta—despite having gone into research and development before the war had ended. Innocenti was inspired by the U.S.-made Cushman motorbikes and began to consider using his rolled tubing industry to produce a similar model. But even after Piaggio’s success with the sleek, aerodynamic Vespa, Innocenti insisted on a design with an exposed rear-mounted engine, which he found beautiful. Following months of buzz that fizzled into skepticism as Inncoenti struggled to get it right, public response to the first Lambretta model was lukewarm, and many of the bikes were shipped to Argentina. The second Lambretta incarnation dialed it in closer with better suspension and a handle bar-mounted gear lever. The third model, the 1950 Lambretta 125 LC incorporated a luxurious, streamlined body with sleek, elongated back panels. Innocenti finally got it right with 1951’s D model.

With both Vespa and Lambretta in full production, the stage was set for the scooter boom to explode into a craze.

Meanwhile in Vietnam
After Vietnam renewed relations with America in the early 90s, journalist Henry Kamm returned to Vietnam to capture the country at a crossroads. He’d been a correspondent during the war, and found that a few things had picked up right where they’d left off: “Traffic is at least as chaotic as it was in the earlier days, and Communist rigor has not prevailed against the penchant of the Saigonese to break the social contract for mutual safety symbolized by traffic lights or one-way street signs. The young have revived the grimly unromantic pre-1975 Sunday-evening mating ritual, in which endless swarms of boys drive their girlfriends on their two-wheelers, at maximum speed and noise levels, from the square around the Roman Catholic cathedral down General Uprising Street to the riverfront and back up the parallel one-way streets.” Kamm’s remembrances of Vietnam’s streets, as well as the archive of photos at Saigon Scooter Centre depicting proud owners posing on their Italian bikes, are evidence that Saigon was very much a part of the global scooter craze of the 50s and 60s.

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Indeed, both Kamm’s words and Joynt’s images run counter to the Saigon of the 60s that springs to most foreigners’ minds. Starting with the influx of American aid and subsidised commodities in the early 50s, South Vietnam’s economy and industrial production began to grow steadily, creating an urban middle class largely comprised of government and military administrators. Unlike the French colonialists—who kept Vietnam’s market closed, causing standard of living to stagnate for most Vietnamese—the Americans saw domestic development as a way to achieve their aim, self-interested and misguided as it was, of propping up a free market, anti-Communist outpost in Southeast Asia. It was, however, the French who first brought Italian scooters to Vietnam, importing them through the French subsidiaries of Lambretta and Vespa. Both companies had a presence in Saigon at least by 1954, at which point they were in fierce competition on the international market, with operations in over 100 countries. Joynt from Saigon Scooter Centre has traced the original Lambretta dealership back to a store on Hai Ba Trung Street near Dien Bien Phu (now a dress shop), and says that many of the early 50s models were likely leftovers from the French. However, judging from the scooters that can be found in Vietnam today, sales peaked in the early 60s and were almost exclusive to the South. “The further north you go,” says Joynt, “the fewer bikes there are.” With the exception of Danang, a major military outpost, there are almost

none past Hoi An and Nha Trang. Still, there’s something curious about the sheer number of scooters that arrived in South Vietnam. Piaggio and Innocenti designed their scooters to be affordable to the working class, but in Vietnam, the standard of living was far lower than in Europe. Mac Duy Linh was a pilot for the Air Force of Vietnam (AFVN) during the war and now runs his own motorbike shop. According to Linh, a Vespa or Lambretta was beyond most southerners’ means. “The only people who could afford them were government workers,” says Linh. “Factory workers would ride bicycles. The people who could save enough money would buy mopeds.” So the question remains: Where did all these scooters come from?

Italian Scooters, American Money
American veterans Gil Simpson and Thom Hutchings both served tours of duty in Vietnam starting in the early 60s. Simpson grew up fascinated with Indochina, and as a military man, jumped at the chance to travel to the region he fell in love with in the pages of National Geographic. He spent ten years here, and after a long stint in Hawaii, permanently relocated to HCM City. Hutchings, now a writer, did two years in the service and for a brief time after moving back, exported Piaggio scooters under Indochine Classic Vespas.

When asked where he’s from, Hutchings tells people that he was born in the States but grew up in Saigon. By virtue of his history in Vietnam, the same must be true of Simpson. Like any red-blooded American boys, they took a keen interest in the cars and motorcycles in their adopted home. “Going down a main boulevard,” says Simpson, “It was just like it was today.” “All you saw were the Hondas and Lambrettas,” adds Hutchings of motorbikes. But American soldiers weren’t just looking. Simpson remembers his military buddies zipping around on Vespas. “GIs would own them and run them around base,” recalls Simpson. “Guys would leave and sell it to someone in the barracks.” “The PX flooded the place” with consumer goods, says Hutchings. GIs had considerable purchase power during the war years. The official exchange rate was one U.S. dollar or MPC (military pay certificate) to 118 South Vietnam piastres, but Simpson and Hutchings say the rate was more than double that on the black market if you had American greenbacks. Simpson himself used black market loopholes to import a 1968 Toyota from Singapore for just US $1,000. At a 1970 congressional hearing, then director of USAID in Vietnam Donald G. McDonald put the black market rate at 356 piastres to the dollar. “There have always been two economies here,” says Simpson. “There’s no question about that.” The hidden economy was particularly vigorous during the war, due largely to the Americans’ inability to oversee the military and governmental
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Even the Italian classic scooter market dried up years ago. The country has been pillaged.
Patrick Joynt

offices they were supporting and the economic development programmes they had implemented, both of which absorbed billions in U.S. money. Take for example the pillar of the United States’ development efforts, the Commercial Import Program (CIP). The plan was simple. The United States pumped money into the Vietnamese Treasury and Vietnamese businessmen bought the USD at half the exchange rate from the government to import commodities subsidised at varying rates. The government then used the businessmen’s piastres to fund military and development spending. In theory, the plan would stimulate development and control inflation, but in reality, U.S. money (total CIP aid was 750 million dollars in 1969) disappeared in the black market, and throughout the war, businessmen imported what were previously luxuries—refrigerators, radios, motorbikes—rather than capital goods like factories and machinery. At the time, a Lambretta or Vespa cost about 15,000 piastres, roughly US $125. However, the average monthly wage of a civil servant was US $30, and government salaries were capped at $120 per month. But the black market and other loopholes made it possible for many to afford a scooter. According to Simpson, all of the Vietnam Air Force staff had motorbikes. They were notorious for their political connections and for filling largely superficial jobs that put them in positions to siphon off American money. One of the most common abuses was to overestimate personnel. An AFVN office might be drawing salaries for 127 men, says Simpson, when it only employed 88.

The question is how much money could have been lost through these channels. The answer is a lot; the AFVN grew to one of the largest air forces in the world, with 63,000 personnel at its height in 1974. And that’s only one U.S.-supported organisation. At the peak of its financial commitment in 1973, the United States spent almost four billion dollars that year in CIP subsidies, staffing and military spending. By the late 60s, it had become apparent that rampant corruption in the South Vietnamese government had crippled the efficacy of the CIP. In a 1970 report based on a 3-month survey of southerners published in the Christian Science Monitor and cited in McDonald’s testimony before congress, the surveyors concluded that “Too many Vietnamese have become dependent on handouts … Television, motorbikes, air-conditioning have been showered upon Vietnam without concern for the social and economic effects.” South Vietnam had become a fool’s paradise. The long-term economic stability and industrial development that U.S. money was meant to stimulate would never come to pass. Too few businessmen had invested in the means of production; they preferred instead to make a quick buck on imported consumer goods. By all appearances, the South had grown a middle class, but it was rooted in superficial and unsustainable economics. Thanks to U.S. dollars, South Vietnam was a nation on two wheels. But its people were going nowhere fast.

The Undiscovered Country
Stephen Mueller, managing partner of Vietnam Vespa Adventures, first travelled to Vietnam as a backpacker in 1996. Like many foreigners, he was immediately struck by the surfeit of vintage Vespas tooling around the South. After permanently relocating to HCM City in 1998, he set up a scooter restoration business. Once he started to learn a thing or two, he found that these romanticised design classics had endured considerable neglect while hidden behind the eastern iron curtain. When asked what the Vietnamese used to keep the scooters running in lieu of spare parts, Mueller replies, “Coke cans.” “From 1975 until the early 1990s,” says Joynt, “the country was closed. It’s a well known fact that people who couldn't afford petrol were swapping Harleys for bicycles, as the bicycle was more practical in daily life.” Joynt's visit to the home of a former Vespa repairman illustrates this point well. Hidden beneath the floorboards was a treasure trove of Vespa miscellanea: vintage catalogs, original spare parts and a full set of Vespa service tools. “He was mad as a hatter,” recalls Joynt, “but it was a one-off find.” Mueller, as well, found stockpiles wherever he looked. During his first years in the business, he would send a scout into the countryside to sit at

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To find them, you have to know the history of Vietnam since 1954.
Thom Hutchings

cafes and get to know locals before asking the question he’d been sent to ask: “Anyone have an old scooter?” It didn’t take him long to learn that the Vietnamese don’t throw away anything; not only did his scout return with truckloads of classic scooters, but in most cases, the owners still had the original registration, the key document needed to de-register and export the scooters. In addition to its unmatched stock of scooters, other factors made Vietnam the right place to set up shop. The Vietnamese are renowned for their mechanical skills. The broken-down motorbike tourist doesn’t wait long for help; virtually all Vietnamese are competent in basic repair. For Mueller, local skill in everything from bodywork to fabrication provided the second key to his business: cheap manpower. Mueller estimates that an average restoration takes 300 hours. Paying an American at $20 per hour would set his labour costs at $6,000 per bike. Still, it’s not a cheap business. Part of what’s made Joynt probably the most reputable dealer in Vietnam is the quality of his restorations. The cost of importing spare parts, which are heavily taxed, has perhaps kept competitors from entering the business. But that has changed in recent years. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” says Joynt of restoring classic scooters. “They’re not a few hundred dollars any more. They’re a few thousand.” Still, despite new competitors and other complicating factors, Joynt isn’t heading back to England any time soon. “It’s been a long 12 years. I don’t want to go back and start it up again!”

End of an Era
It doesn’t take long for expatriates to catch the vintage bug. But many new arrivals to HCM City may find that the golden age of the Italian scooter has passed them by. At the beginning of this year, Joynt said the market had begun to dry up over the last 18 months. He estimated that by 2010 Vietnam’s stock of classic Vespas and Lambrettas will be almost completely depleted. Mueller agrees. He still sends scouts out into the countryside, but the pickings are bare. “In one week, the guy could bring back 20 bikes,” recalls Mueller of his first years in the business. “Today you send him out and he might find two.” Back in January, Joynt estimated that about 300 scooters were being shipped out of HCM City each month. North Americans and Europeans still have a healthy appetite for Vespas and Lambrettas, but many are also being exported to Japan, where Joynt says buyers will pay top dollar for a classic scooter. And these bikes are not cheap: a restored 200cc Lambretta sells for upwards of US $10,000. With scooter buffs willing to pay that kind of money, Vietnamese restoration shops have entered the market. However, many of them are less than reputable and have given Vespas and Lambrettas from Asia a bad name. “It’s not that we’re sending out bad bikes,” says Mueller, “but a lot of guys have.” Joynt says it's not uncommon for foreigners to buy Asian restorations and sell them to unwitting bidders on eBay.

While Saigon Scooter Centre generally puts a minimum US $1,200 into a single restoration, local chop shops spend about 1,500,000 VND ($86) on body and engine work, selling their bikes primarily to foreigners for roughly $3,000. The tragedy for enthusiasts like Joynt is that once these bikes have been “restored,” it’s difficult and prohibitively expensive to undo the damage. Not only are the bikes poorly restored, but many of them are dangerous. In 2007, scoot.net, a popular scooter forum, sent out an alert about Asian restorations. It contained a laundry list of shortcuts: welding separate frames together to form a single body, using Bondo rather than steel, painting over rust rather than properly treating impurities, disguising cracked and faulty wheel forks with chrome and neglecting rusty brake drums. Classic scooters have recently become popular among locals, as well. Music videos, adverts and movies are influencing Vietnamese consumers, who saw Vespas and Lambrettas as peasant bikes just a few years ago. Now, fewer and fewer Vietnamese may be willing to part with their classics. “It’s something about the design,” says Tien Le Dinh, 30, of his 1965 Vespa Special. “It’s different. I think the design is very romantic.” But despite massive export numbers and the presence of chop shops, Thom Hutchings insists some of the classics will go undiscovered for years to come. “To find them, you have to know the history of Vietnam since 1954,” he says, pausing. “But I wouldn’t want to say any more because then everyone would know where they are.”
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Saigon Scooter Centre houses perhaps the best vintage scooter collection in Southeast Asia. Owner Patrick Joynt invited us into his showroom and told us the stories behind some of his prized possessions.

1939 Excelsior
During WWII, the Royal British Air Force parachuted these fold-up warhorses into the field. After running out of petrol, soldiers ditched them on the side of the road. Today the only remaining models belong to Saigon Scooter Centre, the British Museum and a bidder from a military auction in Australia. So how did this bike find its way to Vietnam? Joynt says it’s likely a leftover from England’s brief stint in the country at the end of the war, when the Brits helped remove occupying Japanese troops. Joynt bought the Excelsior from the chief driver of Vietnam's presidential motorcade, though the priceless bike wasn’t cheap—the guy sold it to him on the condition that he buy his collection of 24 motorcycles.

Lambretta 1954 Model F
This is the oldest Lambretta Joynt has found in Vietnam, dating back to the company’s turbulent adolescence. In 1951, Lambretta struck gold with its D and LD models, the latter being the first to feature a rear motor enclosed beneath its signature elongated panels. In 1953, Ferdinando Innocenti sought to expand that success by producing a more economical motorbike. The E model featured a pull-string motor and a simplified monobloc engine. However, it was rife with mechanical defects, and production was cut the same year. Innocenti made another attempt at economy with the 125cc F series, but despite its technical improvements, consumers were skeptical after the E series fiasco. Innocenti got back on track with a revamped line of D model bikes outfitted with 150cc motors.

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Lambretta 1961 Series 2 LD Malaguti 1965 Saigon 50cc
The Series 2 line of scooters was permanently retired in 1961, but at the end of production, Lambretta had 1,000 125cc Series 2 frames left. Rather than let them go to waste, the factory fitted them with engines and shipped them out. But instead of numbering the bikes where they left off—at 200,000—the factory stamped the engines starting at 300,000. When Joynt saw the engine number on a newly purchased Series II, he figured someone had re-numbered it. But after some research, he found out about the factory quirk. Joynt figures Vietnam received about 50 of the last series 2 bikes. Why they were sent to Vietnam is a bit puzzling; the bikes have a 125cc engine (the legal European limit), but 150cc bikes were more popular and only marginally more expensive in Vietnam. Like Vespa and Lambretta, the Malaguti bicycle company began producing motorbikes after WWII. Unlike Vespa and Lambretta, the company was lucky enough to escape the war with its factory intact. In the 60s, the company focused on producing 50cc models, including a line of scooters. When Joynt found this motorbike, it was a bit of a mystery to him. However, when he inspected the motor, he found the Malaguti name stamped all over it. His curiosity piqued, he contacted the offices in Italy, but a representative insisted that the company had never shipped motorbikes to Vietnam. Having seen the engine, Joynt pressed the matter, and eventually a Malaguti employee confirmed that the company had in fact developed a scooter specifically for sale in Vietnam: the Saigon 50cc.

Lambretta 1966 200SX Lambretta 1971 Cometa
Lambretta’s project Special X was launched in October, 1966 with the aim of turning out design-led scooters produced with attention to detail. While the 200cc version would eventually become Lambretta’s most collectable scooter, it was deemed too expensive to produce at the time and discontinued in January, 1969. In addition to the limited run, the numerous design changes made to the SX line over its short life contributed to its latter-day status as a coveted automotive keepsake. Joynt has had more than 20 200SXs, but says there are very few left in Vietnam—perhpas half a dozen. He picked this one up in Dalat and believes most of the 200SXs and Tv3 175s in Vietnam come from there. The engine capacity is ideal for the mountainous terrain. By the end of the 60s Lambretta was in trouble. Cars had become more affordable and scooters were quickly falling out of fashion. In a final effort to revive its flagging business, the company released a line of ultra-modern bikes designed by Italian car-styling firm Bertone. Bertone came up with a spage-age design that combined an ultra-modern frame with an exposed engine. The Luna had some success in circuit racing, but the 75cc lubematic engine model, the Cometa, was a flop. It's unlikely that the Cometa would have been imported en masse to Vietnam. Joynt surmises that this bike, which still has its original paint job, might have been a private import. He found it sitting in a bath tub in the back of a Honda shop. The owner thought it was some sort of weird Japanese moped.
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