Vespa Small Frames
The Vespa had been extremely popular throughout the 1950's, but by the early 60's it became clear that new designs were needed to keep Piaggio at the forefront of scooter sales. One problem hindering sales were new rules and regulations in place in much of Europe that limited who could qualify for a motorcycle license. Fifty cubic centimeter motors were exempt from these license and age restrictions, and Piaggio decided to jump into this niche with a new scooter. It was an area of the market that had previously been the exclusive purview of mopeds. Piaggio's decision to enter this market and build the smallframe Vespa proved to be one of the best choices they ever made. The Vespa 50 ended up being the highest selling scooter in Piaggio's history and one of the highest selling vehicles of all time. Indeed, they were so popular that the classic-styled smallframes were produced from the early 1960's up until just a few years ago.
Smallframes sold in fewer numbers in the U.S. than their largeframe counterparts, the fast freeways and wide boulevards of the U.S. didn't lend themselves well to the small displacement smallframes. Since American tastes tilted towards the higher displacement models, we saw relatively few of the versions of the smallframe that the Europeans grew to love. However, over the years, we did get at least one version of all of the motor sizes available, the 50, 90, 100, and 125, and there are still significant numbers of these scooters here. As far as I have been able to determine, the Vespa 90 was only sold here in 1964 and again for a short period in the mid-70's. The 125 and Primavera 125 were sold from 1966 to 1977. The 100 Sport was sold from 1978 to 1981. And finally the 50 Special was sold from 1978 to 1981, but the four speed 50 was only sold in 1978.
The smallframe Vespa was one of the last of the Vespa designs to be penned by Corradano D'Ascanio, the designer of the first Vespa. Nevertheless, it was totally different than all the Vespas that had come before. All the smallframes shared a common basic body. It was a simplified and streamlined version of the larger Vespa. The simplified design had far fewer parts, was elegant, and was almost astounding in its simplicity. The frame was essentially one unit, and although a small door on the right side of the scooter allowed limited engine access, there were no removable cowlings as on previous Vespas. As befitting its status as an economy model, there were no adornments on the scooter, such as aluminum trim, or chrome accents. In scale with the frame, the front fender was simplified and made smaller. The floor had only two floor runners on each side, rather than the three that the largeframes had.
Although contemporary Vespas had a glovebox either on the left-side cowl, or behind the legshields, the early smallframes had no glovebox at all. There was space for a small tool-roll and some oil in a small container under the seat, in front of the gas tank. Apart from that, the smallframe's miniature proportions did not allow space for any integral storage compartment. Although there was no internal storage, there were threaded attachment points behind the legshields for a spare tire rack that was similar to those found on the Vespa 125 and 150.
The essential frame remained a constant for over 15 years, however changes were made to the design over time. After the first series of smallframes, the body was altered and made slightly lower in the rear. European Primavera ET3 models had a small locking glovebox built into the left side of the scooter. U.S. specification models and European electric start models had batteries, and incorporated a battery tray into this area. In those models, there was a large door built into the left side of the scooter to allow access to the battery, regulator, and fuses. This door was flush mounted to the frame, and apart from the electric start 50, is unique to North American smallframes. Later, after turn signals became mandatory for all American market motorcycles in 1974, the battery compartment served an extra purpose to house the extra electrical equipment needed to run this system. Finally, later model smallframes had a larger removable panel on the right side in order to allow easier access to the motor and spark plug.
The badges on the smallframes were also different than those found on other Vespas. Early smallframes had very thin metal script badges on the right side of the legshields. In the center top of the legshields was a small Piaggio shield badge. There was no badge at the back of the frame on the early models. In the late 60's, Primavera models had a “Primavera” script badge located at the rear of the frame behind the seat, and a “Vespa 125” badge on the legshields. When Piaggio changed from the shield to the hex logo, smallframes had a small hex badge at the center top of the legshields where the shield badge had previously been. In 1973, when all Vespas switched from script badges to block badges, the smallframe badges changed also. At the front, there was a “Vespa” block style badge on the right side of the legshields. All smallframes at this time had block-style model designation badges at the rear of the body behind the seat.
Early smallframes had a new and unique taillight. It was basically two squares, one on top of the other. The top square was smaller than the bottom one and the one-piece taillight lens covered both of them with no break in-between. The top part of the lens held a square reflector, and the bottom held the running light and brake light. Later U.S. smallframe models abandoned this taillight in favor of the DOT mandated rear lights that were common to all U.S. specification Vespas. These were of two different designs. One with a round lens and metal housing, and later with a more square design and built in side reflectors on the lens. Both of these taillights were mounted on a bracket that also had an integral license plate holder. In addition to these three smallframe taillights, a few Vespa 125's (VMA1) were sold by Sears in 1967, and these had the oval Siem taillight with two hanging reflectors that was common to Sears Vespas of the time. This taillight was also found on some Super Sport 180's at that time.
The smallframe headset was also markedly different from earlier models. It had a shape that was less rounded than the G.S.'s and 150's that were sold along side it. The headset was open at the bottom to allow access to the shift and throttle tubes, and had threaded attachment points for mirrors or a windscreen. The headlight was set into the headset with two metal tabs, and held in at the bottom with an adjuster screw and tab. There was no chrome ring on the outside of the headlight on the early models. There was a small electrical switch on the right side of the handlebars that ran the lights, horn, and provided a kill-switch for the motor. There were no other indicators or adornments on the headset. Later models abandoned the early headlight design. The standard U.S. model sealed beam with three screw tab attachments was fitted, and a chrome ring was added. European models had a replaceable bulb type headlight. On post-73 smallframes, a switch was added to the top of the headset for ignition and lights, it used a blank key which was common to all Vespas at the time. The last smallframes imported to the U.S. in the late 70's, the 100 Sport and 50 Special, used the same key system as the contemporaneous P-series Vespas, which incorporated individual keys.
The speedometer was also of a totally new design. It was much smaller than those found on the other Vespas of the time. Early smallframes had a small, round speedometer that was about the size of a silver dollar. Later smallframe models had a small speedo that was common to all late 60's Vespas, and was loosely based on the “clamshell” shaped speedometer found on G.S.'s. Some base model European 50's did not come with a speedometer at all, and had a blanking plate in the speedo hole. However, all smallframes destined for the U.S. had speedometers as standard equipment.
Smallframes came with several different seats as standard. First, there was the saddle seat. It was similar to those offered on Vespa 125's and 150's of the time. It attached at the front of the scooter and had a triangular blanking plate that covered the small toolbox. It swung forward to allow access to the toolbox when necessary. Along with the front saddle there was also a frame that attached to the rear of the gas tank that could either serve as a parcel tray, or a buddy seat attachment. The second standard seat was the dual saddle. It was probably the most common seat offering, and came on many smallframe models. It covered the whole gas-tank area as well as the toolbox, and came with a grab-handle for the passenger. The last seat offering came on later Vespa 50's, and was a single person slope-back seat. It covered the same area as the dual saddle, but had a sloped back that did not allow for a passenger to comfortably sit on the rear.
The motor design for the smallframe Vespas was totally new. Everything on the motor was designed to be as compact as possible. Instead of the trusty horizontal design utilized up to then by Piaggio, the smallframe motor had a 45-degree cylinder. The carburetor was not mounted on the motor, but inside the frame like on the 1950's handlebar Vespas. A long, slender manifold connected the carburetor to the motor through a hole in the bodywork. The entire motor was much smaller that those on other Vespa models and designed with a very efficient use of space. It had a new clutch and primary drive system as well as a new kickstarter mechanism. The early smallframes had a very basic ignition and electrical system and no provision for a battery. The smallframe in all of its incarnations had a very long production run. There were numerous internal changes made to the motor on all the models. It is best to have the motor number handy when ordering parts so the shop will be able to get you the correct part. Be aware that parts for some of the early model motors can be difficult to get in the U.S.
Initially the smallframe motor came only in two sizes, 50 and 90cc. There were two 50's, the 50 N and the 50 S. The 50 N had 1.5 h.p. and a three-speed gearbox. The 50 S had slightly different porting, and produced an incredible 2.5 h.p. It was equipped with a four-speed gearbox to handle the extra power. Both 50's used a tiny 14mm Dell'Orto SHB carburetor. The 90 on the other hand, produced a whopping 3.1 h.p., and could reach the dizzying speed of 42 m.ph. Nevertheless, it had only three gears.
Later in 1966 a 125 was added to the smallframe program. The Vespa 125 (VMA1) produced 4.8 h.p., and had a four-speed gearbox. The carburetor on the 125 was a 16mm Dell'Orto SHB body. A few years later Piaggio improved on the 125, and created the Vespa 125 “Primavera” (VMA2). The Primavera debuted in 1968 and it had an improved motor. The cylinder had better porting, and a larger 19mm carburetor was fitted. This new motor produced 5.5 h.p., and could propel the little 125 to a top speed of around 50 m.p.h. The last incarnation of the Primavera was the “ET3.” It started production in 1976, and incorporated even more motor improvements. It had different motor porting, a new exhaust, and most importantly… electronic ignition.
Another interesting smallframe model imported to the U.S. was the 100 Sport. It had a 100cc motor that was nicely ported. It had almost as fast a top speed as a 125 Primavera, although a three-speed gearbox hampered its overall performance. One interesting feature of the 100 Sport was that it was equipped with a 12 volt electrical system. No other smallframe had this excellent and much needed electrical improvement.
The front suspension on the smallframes was similar to that employed on the G.S. 160. It had a one-piece front dampener and spring unit and a very small swing arm. Early smallframes used four-lug rims similar to those on the G.S. 150 VS4. They came in two sizes, nine inch for the Vespa 50 N, and ten inch for the Vespa 50 S and the Vespa 90. Later smallframe models abandoned the four-lug design in favor of the same split rims used on all ten inch wheeled Vespas of the late 60's on.
Despite the fact that many more largeframes were sold, the smallframe Vespas are still relatively common in the U.S. today. Since there were so many different models for sale over the years, it is relatively easy to get a nice scooter at a decent price. Prices are low, in part because many scooterists look down on the smallframes due to their small size and generally slow speed. Nevertheless, although they are often under-appreciated, a Vespa smallframe in the right hands can be a really fun machine. They are light, very stable, and super maneuverable. Primaveras in stock trim are fast enough to be no problem on today's city streets. Lower displacement models really are too slow to keep up with modern traffic, but there are a multitude of economical ways to rectify the situation. There are many tuning cylinder kits available for smallframes that can significantly improve their performance. In addition, there are loads of other tuning items that are made specifically for smallframes. You can get everything from carburetor kits to exhausts, which in conjunction with a cylinder kit, can turn your smallframe into a veritable pocket-rocket. Since all smallframes share a common motor design, many of these items fit several different models, and give the smallframe owner many options to choose from. All things considered, the smallframe Vespa is probably the best Vespa to tune, and one of the most practical Vespas to own.
Footnote: Smallframe production ceased with the introduction of the PK line in 1984. However, Piaggio pulled out the old machinery, and began production again in the early-1990's specifically for the Japanese market. This was a very limited specialty production, and I do not believe that these scooters were available outside of Japan. Though production ceased again in the late 90's, there was a time in recent memory when one could get every part for late model smallframes directly from Piaggio.
? (50), ? (90), ? (100 Sport), ? (125), ? (Primavera 125)
1963-83 (50), 1963-84 (90), 1978-84 (100 Sport), 1966-67 (125), 1968-1983 (Primavera 125)
1.5-2.5 h.p. (50), 3.1 h.p. (90), 3.1 (100 Sport), 4.3 h.p. (125), 4.5 h.p. (Primavera 125)
- Rough but restorable = $300-500 (50), $400-700 (90, 100), $500-1000 (125)
- Drivable, but not show = $500-800 (50), $800-1700 (90, 100), $1500-2500 (125)
- Restored or Excellent Original Condition = $800-1200 (50), $1700-3500 (90, 100), $2500-4500 (125)
Note: Prices for the 50 Special are quite low in the U.S., but they are more desireable elsewhere.