If travel broadens the mind, then scooter travel wears it like a sombrero.
Frankenstein scooters to Dracula’s is a book written to inspire 2-wheeled travel.
In 2013 three adults and two kids toured Eastern Europe on two bike-engined ‘Frankenstein’ scooters and one barely modified Indian GP Lambretta.
If you would like to know a little bit more about the people behind ScooterLab then please enjoy this first chapter of the book for free…
There are easier ways of crossing continents than using half-century old scooters. Equally, mountaineering would be so much easier if you could just get a helicopter to drop you at the summit. That’s not really the point though, is it?
Achieving targets by taking the easy option is boring. Where’s the novelty in walking from Land’s End to John o’Groats when hundreds have done it before you? However, if you run the length of Britain carrying a fridge, like charity fundraiser ‘Tony the Fridge’ did in 2013, then suddenly it becomes newsworthy.
The unique element of our ride to Istanbul — which scooter riders have tackled in the past — would be our choice of steed. Neither my Lambretta nor my wife’s Maicoletta have been left standard. Instead they are Frankenstein’s monsters: unique hybrids of scooter chassis and motorcycle engine cobbled together with many one-off parts and garden shed ingenuity.
There’s a certain level of responsibility involved when your entire family sets off on a ride to the next continent on a collection of bits you’ve built or assembled with your own hands. In the months of preparation in the shed, I wondered if our mutated classic scooters would prove to be as good as the factory originals.
Therein lay our challenge, and also the metaphorical fridge on my back.
I saw the Harley Davidson in the distance pulling up to the traffic lights before the motorway slip road.
‘Let’s have some fun.’
Fun, in this instance, came in the form of a scooter I’d just built for my wife, Tracy, to ride on a forthcoming odyssey to Istanbul; a big, hulking rarity called a Maicoletta, produced in 1959. Its German manufacturers, Maico, would go on to become leading players in the Motocross world until the Japanese overtook them, in every sense.
This was no standard Maicoletta though. It was bought without its original 277cc two-stroke engine and instead I’d surgically inserted a 40hp 400cc 4-stroke Japanese enduro engine. That’s lots of numbers, 4s mostly, but not many compared to a Harley. Still, it should be enough to give the rider a shock if he was slow off the lights.
Never underestimate the acceleration of a Harley; they may not be aerodynamic but 1,340cc is a big engine for a motorcycle and the throbbing V-twin produces ample torque. In the first few feet the Harley rider knew something was wrong, so he wound on a fistful of throttle. I didn’t manage to lead him from the green light, but I kept up all the way up the slip-road. At 75mph he thought he’d done enough and glanced in his mirrors, but the old scooter was still there, accelerating. His response was to blast out into the fast lane at speed to overtake a few cars. Then he pulled back into the left lane at a steady 70mph; which is as fast as you want to cruise on a Harley without any form of wind protection. No doubt he thought that was a sufficient buffer to stamp his authority.
My plan was to sail past him at top speed, sat bolt upright. I knew that the Maicoletta would easily do 85mph before its primitive suspension started squirming like an eel posted through a letterbox.
As I drew alongside though, things didn’t feel right. The Suzuki engine — which had been perfectly smooth on Tracy’s first test ride to Santa Pod drag race track a week earlier — now felt extremely rough. It was making all kinds of knocking noises when I opened it up. Rather than making a triumphant and impressive overtake, I could only creep past on the unhappy Maico before veering off at the very next exit. There was no victorious elation when I pulled into a convenient lay-by, only the grim foreboding of mechanical disaster. The engine ticked over fine but it knocked horribly when I revved it. Glancing behind I could now see that the exhaust was belching clouds of white smoke whenever I commanded any revs.
I switched the motor off to prevent further damage and looked around to locate the problem. A tiny drip of coolant from the radiator hoses splashed onto the tarmac below the scooter. That wasn’t right. I tugged it to check the security of the connection but the hose came off in my hand, spewing a hot cocktail of water and antifreeze all over the lay-by.
‘Bollocks’, I muttered, as the significance of my actions finally dawned. Our departure to Turkey is next month and I’d just blown up the freshly-rebuilt engine by racing motorbikes on the motorway. Six months of intense work unravelled like a jumper caught on a nail, all because I couldn’t resist a race.
Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.
Jerome, the jovial proprietor of Readspeed Scooters in Stourport-on-Severn, took the news on the chin when I phoned him. He’d built the engine once and to do it again would be ‘no sweat’.
At home I’d stripped off the head and cylinder but couldn’t see what was wrong apart from all the components being oily and black. Jerome assessed everything and rebuilt the engine with new valves.
‘It’ll be fine’, he assured me.
With only a few weeks left before our departure I returned the engine to its snug new home in the Maicoletta frame and tried again. It wasn’t fine. The engine ran as rough as an elephant’s scrotum; misfiring and smoking.
Bollocks, in fact, big hairy elephant bollocks.
While testing the engine a small amount of fuel dribbled out of the carburettor onto the workbench, but it hadn’t evaporated in the way petrol is supposed to do. I dipped my gloved index finger into the liquid, rubbed it against my thumb and held it under my nose. Something wasn’t right.
Minutes later I had confirmation in the form of a receipt from my wallet. Two miles prior to my race with the Harley I’d topped up the fuel tank, but the receipt clearly stated that I’d added 3.2 litres of Fuelsave Diesel, not petrol. This was one of those moments where you feel like pummelling your own face with a cricket bat.
Thankfully, I did not have a cricket bat to hand, only a hammer. Filling up from the wrong fuel pump didn’t really call for that. Not quite.
Miraculously, with the tank and carburettor flushed out and given a fresh drink of neat petrol, the engine ran beautifully. As it should, after the second rebuild in only a month.
I begged forgiveness from Jerome, but as ever he was philosophical about the situation. At least the engine now had fresh valves, so he had more confidence that the Maico would survive the trip. We might be behind schedule, but at least we were back on track for Istanbul.