Italian handmade scooter seats the N.I.S.A. way | FEATURE
NISA is a heart-warming story in a cold, modern world. What would you do if your father died suddenly and he was the linchpin of your grandfather’s business producing seats for the Italian motorcycle and scooter industry?
For Enrico (pictured above) and Giulia Fabiani (below), who both had diverse jobs in totally different industries, the choice they faced in 2010 was stark. Either they closed a business which once employed 40 people making 400,000 seats a year, or they left their respective careers and learned how to run a seat-making company.
With the help of NISA’s employees, the brother and sister duo have pulled this historic firm, founded in 1953, back from the brink.
Nowadays they not only produce seats for historic motorcycles and scooters, but also for modern OEM brands. They have even diversified into making custom seat modifications for individual customers and even for MotoGP.
Lately, NISA have begun working with external stylists, such as PLC Corse, to produce new custom aftermarket seats for both modern and classic Vespa scooters.
They showed us around their amazing factory in Forli, on the ancient Via Emilia between Bologna and Rimini, to see the many different techniques that can now be used to make bike seats.
The 1950s boom years
In the 1950s Italy had a massive boom in the scooter and motorcycle market as the population remobilised after the war. Many firms set up factories up and down the Via Emilia, most notably Ducati but also Morini, Malaguti and many smaller brands.
Almost all of these firms had their seats manufactured by 3rd party specialists. NISA, which stands for Nuova Industrie Selle Affini (New Industry for Seats and Associated products), were one of the main suppliers.
The firm tracked the rise and fall of the Italian 2-wheeler industry. At one time they supplied OEM seats for almost all Morini and Malaguti production, half of Ducati’s as well as some Benelli and MV Agusta seats.
NISA also became famous in the Italian moped and scooter market for producing aftermarket seats. The grandfather’s invention of a dual-seat for the single-saddle Ciao, Boxer and Oscar College mopeds was a massive seller, with some customers purchasing the seat they wanted before even getting their bike. Another massive success was NISA’s humped Camel model for the Vespa which rivalled Giuliari’s famous Yankee seat.
Pictured left, Enzo Fabiani – Giulia and Enrico’s father
The Malaguti years
The firm was massively successful in the 1970s and ‘80s but production didn’t peak until the 1990s when Bologna-based scooter factory Malaguti were at their zenith.
New EU licensing legislation and a rise of cheaper Asian imported scooters spelled the end for Malaguti’s success, as Enrico explains;
“When Kymco first came on the market they were selling 40,000 scooters and bikes per year compared to 400,000 for Malaguti. NISA had to produce more than 1000 seats a day. By the end, when Malaguti closed, those figures were reversed.”
How seats are made
Production methods for seats have changed significantly over the years, from the days of sprung saddles made from welded steel and hand-stitched rubber bases to modern injection moulded plastic seats with moulded foam padding and stapled covers.
NISA have kept all the tooling for their historic seats so they are able to remake seats for many classic machines either to the original designs or to NISA’s aftermarket recipes.
Every seat starts with a base, but these can be produced in various ways according to the application and the quantity required:
- Fibreglass base. This is the cheapest method for small volume production of as few as 10 seats. Fibreglass moulds are not expensive to make but the unit cost of each seat base is higher as the process is slow and labour intensive.
- Vacuum-formed ABS plastic base. Like fibreglass, tooling for vacuum-forming is relatively inexpensive to make but manufacturing is less labour-intensive so the unit cost can be lower. Depending on the material thickness the ABS is not always strong enough for a seat, but NISA have worked around this by creating hybrid seats with ABS plastic tops and steel bases and hinges.
- Steel framed sprung seats. This is the old-school method used for saddles and seats made with metal springs instead of foam for cushioning. The three main problems with this method are tooling cost, labour costs and weight of the finished product. The labour costs are high because sprung seats require welding and assembly. A thick, stitched rubber mid-layer is also required so that the rider doesn’t feel the springs. Costs are also higher because all the springs must be laced by hand onto the frame. NISA still make classic seats this way because of demand for original equipment and because the tooling has paid for itself long ago.
- Sheet steel seat bases. This was the favoured method for most aftermarket seats produced in the 1980s. Thin sheets become very strong and stiff as soon as they are pressed and folded into a more complex shape. Sometimes it is sufficient to stamp the seat base into the finished shape with a heavy press machine but more often than not the base will require additional welding to reach the finished component. The main problems of pressed steel bases are the very high costs of producing the press-tooling and the labour required to finish the base. Pressed steel bases tend to be lighter than sprung steel seats but still heavier than plastic or fibreglass bases. This is one of the main reasons that manufacturers have switched to plastic bases. Every kilogramme saved on a bike or scooter gives a noticeable performance advantage.
- Injection moulded seat bases. Injection moulds are by far the most expensive method to produce tooling for, but once the moulds are made then the injection moulded parts are strong, rust-free and completely uniform. The tooling cost means this method is usually only reserved for Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM) or high volume aftermarket seats over 1,000 units. The high tooling cost is offset by a very low unit cost once large quantities are produced. The other advantages of injection moulded bases are that they are very light and also that they are quick to assemble because the seat covers can be glued and also stapled to attach the covers to the bases. For these reasons almost all modern bikes and scooters have this type of seat supplied from new.
Almost all modern seats use expanded PU foam mouldings to provide cushioning rather than physical springs. The shapes of these foams are created in large moulds that clamp together. A PU liquid, which looks a little like pancake mix, is injected into the mould and expands to form the foam. Various mixtures of PU may be used to offer different densities of foam. If production levels are very high then many foam moulds may be required because the time taken for the foam to cure would otherwise make for very slow production.
For older, simpler seat designs, the foam base may not be moulded at all, but cut from different thicknesses and densities of stock foam and these sections glued together and trimmed by hand to provide the finished shape.
Very little has changed for decades in this aspect of the seat production game. Vinyl is still the material of choice for most seat covers. A seat cover is usually made from several sections, stitched together on a sewing machine. Even though the cover is traditional, this is the part that can be used artistically. Different colours and textures of vinyl, over-printing, stitching or heat-embossing may all be used to give the seat its own style and character.
A layer of waterproof plastic is normally used between the seat cover and the foam to prevent water soaking through the stitching and degrading the foam. The cover is then pre-heated to around 40 degrees Celcius to soften it before stretching over the foam and base.
Seat covers are normally held into position with glue. Various secondary methods are used to secure the seat cover to the base. Metal frame seats often use special spring clips. Sheet metal seats may be stamped with little spiked notches to puncture and grip the vinyl. Plastic base seats are usually stapled.
With most local scooter and motorcycle production in Italy now gone, NISA have reduced the workforce from 40 people down to only 9 employees including Enrico and Julia; who now handle the administration between them.
Currently, NISA have a few OEM contracts that represent 60% of their business. They produce many seats for Italian off-road brand Beta and many of the seat covers for Benelli’s European-market bikes. More recently they have broken into the electric scooter market with OEM seats for Vicenza technology firm Askoll; whose scooter is totally made in Italy. The new Italjet Dragster showcased recently at EICMA also has a seat by NISA. Naturally, Enrico is keen to make more OEM contracts.
The next 40% of NISA’s business comes from aftermarket seats, with their model range constantly expanding thanks to collaborations with the likes of PLC Corse and Tutto Lambretta. The latter now owns the defunct Guiliari seat brand – once one of NISA’s main rivals – but Enrico has done a deal to produce Guiliari’s famous Yankee model under license. As a result, NISA can now offer both the Camel and rival Yankee seat for classic Vespa scooters. We’re trying to persuade the factory to remake the Yankee with rear light (let us know if it’s worth their while).
Besides complete aftermarket seats, NISA also produce covers for modern MV Agusta and Ducati models. The aftermarket motorcycle seat market is difficult because models only tend to remain in production for relatively short times before they are refreshed and altered. By contrast, the Vespa GTS has been in production for well over a decade and has been a consistently good seller.
The Vespa GTS Sella Deluxe Sports seat pictured above is by no means cheap but certainly looks the part. It comes in a variety of colours and can be further customised by adding race numbers etc. direct from the factory.
The remaining 10% of work is producing custom seats with individual requirements. In the past, this has meant seats for MotoGP bikes, but more often than not it is for someone with a tall bike who wants the foam modifying and a new cover designing to reduce the ride height. Seat customising is an expensive and time-consuming business but NISA have the skills base to cover it because many of their staff have been with the company their whole working lives. As Giulia explains:
“We have people who have worked here for over 30 years. Mirko who does much of the welding, spring assembly and pressing has been there since he was 16 and he’s now 42. Before that, his father worked there for 35 years. NISA is like a big family and often old employees come past to say ciao!”
After a bumpy introduction to the business when their father died suddenly in 2010 and things looked very grim, the Fabiani family and their dedicated workforce have turned things around and are now much more optimistic about the future.
Words and images: Sticky 2018
NISA Seats now available from SLUK
We’ve just started adding some of the NISA range to the shop so you can buy direct through us. We’ve currently only added some of the popular models but there are plenty more to come and some exciting Lambretta race seats, designed by PLC Corse will follow shortly. If you’re looking for a specific seat for a model not yet in our shop listings feel free to email us. They make seats for most modern and classic scooters, mopeds and lots of bikes.
Have a browse here and check back because there is more to come.
Check out the latest offerings from the SLUK Shop