Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mechanical Lessons

No Riding!

The scooter has been in my garage since trucking it home last Friday evening. It will not start. I've worked hard to diagnose the problem and get it back on the road. And I've learned a few things--about the Vespa and myself.

I am not a mechanic nor particularly mechanically inclined. Turning wrenches doesn't bring joy or satisfaction, particularly in a cold, messy, poorly lit garage. Making the decision to try and fix the scooter grew out of a desire to not feel helpless or vulnerable should the Vespa die on a trip. Like it did--last Friday.

I have the Piaggio Shop Manual for the LX150 and a Haynes manual too. The Modern Vespa forum is a great source of information and assistance, as well as my friend Paul. I assumed that the worse case would be to haul the broken scooter to our local Vespa dealer for repair.

My first lesson began at Modern Vespa. Searching posts on non-starting scooters eventually led me to post a request for help. Their Technical Moderator Gary, a motorcycle enthusiast and career engineer from New Jersey, took on the role of master with me the student. Troubleshooting a problem is not rote operation. At least not for me. Gary patiently instructed me on how the various components work together and generally demystified the mechanics of each step of diagnosis. His instruction allowed me to remain mostly free of fear, frustration and cursing. And witness the miracle of a functioning vacuum fuel tap and the free flow of petrol (thank you Mr. Charpentier) from the fuel line as I humbly sucked on the associated vacuum line.

My lessons were many but here are a few of the mechanical processes I now can engage:

1. Test functioning of vacuum fuel tap
2. Remove and install sparkplug
3. Test to verify functioning of starter relay
4. Test for spark
5. Test cylinder compression
6. Remove carburetor, remove fuel bowl and verify free flow of fuel through primary and main jets
7. Test high voltage coil
8. Test for spark while plug is in cylinder and firing under compression using an induction timing light
9. Assessment of battery voltage and grounding

Gary was extremely patient, available and able to provide expert information and instruction. I don't expect to any time soon be doing the Darth Vadar thing indicating I was once the student but now the master. Maybe in another life. Thank you Gary!

I worked on the scooter a little at a time over five evenings. Some other things I've learned is Kim is not turned on by a man wearing the engine, oil and petrol fragrance. And she is actively opposed to starting ether wafting through the house. Paul also helped me with moral support and to manufacture a crude scooter compression gauge from one designed for those big sparkplug holes of an automobile. Thanks Paul!

Riding experience has reached into the garage. The patience learned on the road was accessible during these mechanical lessons. I was able to pay attention and as thoughtfully as my skills would allow work on the scooter. And when things didn't go right or the thing still wouldn't start I would just move on to the next test.

I would like to announce here "The scooter starts and it is back on the road!" Sadly that is not the case. I have exhausted all things I can test and everything is pointing to a faulty CDI box. This is the electronic box that control ignition. Can't be tested, just needs swapped out and hope that solves the problem. I'm comfortable that I've exhausted all the things I can do and will haul the scooter to the dealer for this expensive bit of work. Bad luck on my part that none of the more common failures were in play.

Should you attempt this work on a scooter or motorcycle? Depends on you, depends on the scooter or bike. The Vespa is quite simple, doesn't require a lot of expensive tools, and information is readily available. The key is yourself. Do you want to do this? For me it was a good experience and I will turn the wrench again. I definitely feel I could fix a lot more things in the field now than I did last Friday. So for now I am on a holiday from riding in the sticks.


irondad said...

You are only on a holiday in a single physical sense. The only disconnect is that of your posterior in the Vespa's saddle. Riding, thinking about riding, worrying about getting the scooter fixed, reflecting on lessons learned on two wheels, are a part of you, my friend. It's too late, my young apprentice, you're already well down the path to the dark side. Soon you will be standing beside Emperor Charpentier and Dan Vader! Resistance is futile. ( I know, two different movie series )What the heck, it's a new year. I have all year to try to get serious!

Mick Gordon said...

Interesting blog, I run a travel site ( would like to repost one or two of your posts. We would link to you and blog roll you, are you interested? Please let us know. Mick

Steve Williams said...

irondad: Along the path was a sign --- Get a Second Scooter. That's left over from someone else's journey right? Dan Vader.... does this mean you're my father???

mick: Feel free to link the two articles to your blog and add me to your blog roll. I took a look at your Travel Net United Kingdom Blog. The posts are great and just made me wish my wife and I could rent a couple scooters and travel through the English and Scottish countryside. The Travel Net looks like quite an enterprise and any riders wanting to plan some trips would do well to explore your site!

gary said...

Sorry to hear that the gremlin afflicting your scooter has survived. They are tough to track down and kill when they hide in the microchips. It certainly looks as though you have exhausted all of your DIY options.

I hope you don't get abused too badly by the Service Department.

Ride well,

DaveT said...

Steve, I have enjoyed your blog for many reasons. Your photography is inspiring (I too am a photo addict) and your journey down the mechanical road is interesting as well.

As for your ignition problems, if you've managed to diagnose it to the CDI box, you might as well put it in. Not too hard to do and would make a nice wrap up to the story. :)

BTW, I love the deer story movie. That one strikes a little close to home as a nightmare though.

Dave T.

Dale said...

That truly sucks. When my bike isn't running, I go NUTS. Thinking about the problem occupies at least 98% of my time.

I hope you get it up and running again soon (and that the repair isn't too expensive)!

harleyghost said...

look at it this way ... at least it's keeping you off the streets ... oh, yeah thats a bad thing. keep pluggin'

HG --

Rick said...

I feel your discontent at being offroad so to speak. As a middling aged two wheeled conscript, I have the requisite backup scooter. Heck with the warmest winter on record, here in the East, being among the unridden would be a severe hardship. Your posts, site and Zen musings are very much appreciated. I suffered some general withdrawl with the recent dearth of progress posts. Godspeed! Rick, Queens, NY

Biker Betty said...

That's great that you have such great resources to work with. I would love to wrench on my motorcycle, as needed. My husband and I argue over this.

I was an aircraft pneudraulic mechanic, with two years as an assistance crew chief in Panama, for the first three years I was in the Air Force. My husband was a helicopter mechanic for 20 years and wants to do the rare wrenching required. I keep telling him that I need to learn how my bike works and he huffs, lol.

All I've done so far is change the headlight and put on the sissy bar, all under his ever-critical and helicopter mom watchful eyes, lol.

Hopefully it doesn't take much longer to get your Vespa running.

hrw115 said...

I am not sure I understand why you feel the need to fix everything on this little scooter yourself? Is the fixing supposed to be part of the experience? It certainly doesn't sound like fun - and it is hardly glamorous from what I am gathering.

As food for thought......
Every Christmas I order a fruitcake from the Gethsmani Monks - and I bring it to our holiday festivities to share with my mother and stepfather. This Christmas, my mother tells me how she could eat a fruitcake quarterly as opposed to yearly at just Christmas. My stepfather replies that we should learn how to make fruitcakes so that we can eat them whenever we want. Sure - it could be done - we could make fruitcakes so that we could eat them whenever we wanted, but I would much rather buy the from the Monks and let them do the work. The fruitcake just tastes much better when I pay for someone else to make it for me.

Bill Sommers said...

Good job, Steve. A lot of folks would not have worn "Essence of Unleaded" to impress their spouse.

At least you took it to the "When all else fails" point before turning the Vespa over to the tech guy. Good job, man.