Among the iconic designs of vibrant post-war Italy, few capture the essence of La Dolce Vita like Vespas and Lambrettas, the free-spirited motor scooters that brought mobility to the masses and became popular across Italy and later around the world.
While the two companies are still making scooters, these early models – whose wailing two-stroke engines emit clouds of aromatic smoke – are by far the most sought-after by collectors, some of which cost up to 25,000 euros. But just as vintage scooters reach new heights in popularity, a wave of emissions regulations to reduce pollution threatens their access to Europe’s inner cities. There is an opportunity in every regulation, however, and a lifelong scooter enthusiast has grabbed it by the exhaust.
The conversion should not affect the original design or setup of the scooters in any way. They do not cut, weld or destroy the original case. ‘
Niall McCart, who is from Armagh, got his first Vespa when he was 16 years old. The Vespa was also extremely handy for the youth who were on the rise in the mod revival of the early 1980s. “A two-stroke is a very simple mechanical structure,” says McCart with a humility common to mechanically gifted people. “I could fix it with a screwdriver and hammer” – a skill that would eventually serve him well in rallies along the English coast and on extensive tours of Europe and India.
In 1989, at the age of 21, McCart moved to London, where he worked as a mechanic in a scooter shop after working in construction and delivering packages on a Vespa. In 2000 he opened his own company in a garden shed. Today is his business Retrospective scooter, is located in a 325 square meter warehouse in Walthamstow, East London.
Retrospective Scooters is located in the East End of London in Walthamstow. Photo: Sophie Stafford / New York Times
As McCart’s business grew, so did the restrictions on older vehicles. The first low-emission zones in the European Union were established in 1996. There were more than 260 as of 2018, and they’re still on the rise. London has such a zone as well as a particularly strict zone with extremely low emissions in the city center. The stricter zone introduced in April 2019 will be expanded significantly this October. Polluting scooter owners face a daily charge of £ 12.50, or nearly € 15, or face hefty fines.
In 2017, with the end of cheap and dirty scooters, McCart asked a friend and scooter enthusiast, John Chubb, a question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make our old Vespas electric?” Chubb remembers vividly the moment. “We were sitting in a tent at a music festival in Cornwall and he said the future was electrifying. I said, “I think I could build one of these.”
He could also bring a range of technical skills to the project. Chubb is a retired Royal Navy commander with degrees in electrical engineering and missile science. He’s also an expert on anti-ship missiles, a qualification the utility of which, while perhaps unquantifiable, couldn’t hurt.
“These people were purists,” says Niall McCart. “They were against it when they saw it, but as soon as they drove it they had the biggest grin on their faces.”
McCart’s assignment was explicit. The conversion “shouldn’t affect the original design or furnishings of the scooters in any way,” he says. “They don’t cut or weld or destroy the original case.” And in order to maintain the value of a scooter, the process had to be reversible.
An encounter with a Chinese manufacturer at a motorcycle fair in Milan in 2017 turned out to be crucial. “The Chinese have been driving electric scooters for over 15 years,” says McCart. “You did it and did it and perfected it. They had created everything. “
Chubb meanwhile worked with the technical director of QS Motor, a company in Zhejiang province that makes motors for electric scooters and e-bikes. “We had a really good chat,” says Chubb. “I had done a number of first principles calculations about the performance of an electric motor and how it would work in an electric scooter. I’ve seen all of his equations and he and I did the same.
“Seeing this data was very interesting,” he continues, “because we knew exactly where the sweet spot was in terms of the specifications of what we were going to run as an engine, and we could do it more or less with optimal efficiency operate.”
The battery conversion on a classic scooter and (right) an electric motor and a swing arm. Photo: Sophie Stafford / New York Times
McCart and Chubb developed the basic plan: pull out the gas tank and insert a lithium-ion battery. Replace the scooter’s original swingarm (which supports the engine and rear wheel) with a custom swingarm that supports a wheel with a built-in hub motor.
Chubb set to work on the prototype and met regularly with McCart, who refined various components. In June 2018 McCart presented their creation at the Vespa World Days rally in Belfast – an electrified Vespa Primavera from 1976.
The initial reaction was skeptical. “These people were purists,” says McCart. “They were against it when they saw it,” he recalls, “but as soon as they drove it to the other end of the parking lot and back again, they had the biggest grin on their faces.”
One driver made a crucial suggestion: “You have to sell it as a kit.” McCart, who had planned to offer electrical conversions only as a service, accepted the idea. “I thought he was right: I really have to make it easy. The next step was to create a plug and play kit. “
Three years later, Retrospective Scooters is selling kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Each costs around 4,000 euros and contains a 64-volt, 28-amp-hour battery that can take a scooter to a top speed of 80 km / h and take it 50 km to 55 km on one charge.
The control box for a new electric scooter. Photo: Sophie Stafford / New York Times
Certain scooters can hold two or three batteries. A Lambretta GP, for example, which is equipped with three lithium-ion units, can travel almost 195 km between charges. However, McCart believes a single battery is sufficient. “Let’s not forget what scooters were invented for – traveling within 20 to 30 miles of your home,” he says.
Last summer, Danny Montoya, the owner of a children’s woodworking studio in San Francisco, installed a kit on his 1973 Vespa Rally 180. Montoya had owned the scooter since 1999 but had grown dissatisfied with its pollution in recent years, not to mention the constant smell of petroleum.
A skilled handyman, he initially considered cobbling together his own electrical kit using information from internet message boards, but when he came across McCarts he thought, “Whoa, this guy actually did the job.”
Although the Price gave him a break after corresponding with McCart, who promised to help with technical issues, Montoya said, “Okay, that’s legitimate.”
Montoya estimates that he spent 20 to 30 hours on the project. The most complex part of this, he says, was making sure all of the electrical connections were correct. McCart admits that at this point in late 2020, the installation guide was rudimentary. Since then, he explains, the kit’s design and instructions have been improved so that someone with basic mechanical skills should be able to complete the installation in about 16 hours.
In San Francisco, Danny Montoya used a Retrospective Scooters kit to rebuild his 1973 Vespa Rally 180. Photo: Jim Wilson / New York Times
These days, Montoya is looking for an excuse to drive his electrified machine, which works exactly as advertised, and can travel 50 km on one charge even in the hills of San Francisco. Montoya remembers his first trip and says, “It was very strange. A normal scooter is so loud you can only hear the engine. It’s so quiet, all you hear is the wind. “
One recent afternoon, while Montoya was driving by, a reporter tried to make out which was louder: the soft hum of the engine or the sound of the treads leaking on the sidewalk. The new incarnation is so secretive that Chubb states that “when you live in a quiet village, the people walk right in front of you”. He studies sound generators that can produce anything from the roar of a Harley-Davidson to the futuristic bat of a Star Wars podracer.
McCart, who commutes every day with his electrified Vespa, approaches careless pedestrians differently: “I yell at them. I say ‘Oi!’ – New York Times