Moment in Time: 60s Mod scooter mechanic | RETRO VIBE
Who: Nick Patterson
What: Scooter mechanic
Where: R Agius Ltd, London
Why: A job for a Mod!
I started in 1963 (I think) at R Agius Ltd in Edgware Road London W2 as a very inexperienced scooter mechanic – in fact, no experience at all but I was very keen and willing to learn.
Claude Agius still runs the shop but back then it was his dad who was the boss and he had started the business in 1951.
He was getting on then but we all knew who was in charge even though his two sons Claude and John were very much involved in the shop/workshop.
The shop still occupies the same site all these years later and a recent visit was like I’d never left!
The shop front had the scooters on both sides with the small counter at the rear of the “showroom” while the workshop was behind the showroom and the spray shop was one room further back. The spray shop also had the only sink and tap that served for washing hands, washing cups/plates, cleaning various engine and body bits etc. However, nobody ever got sick from it so we must have had inbuilt immunity back then.
At the rear was an open yard with all sorts of scooters in various states of repair awaiting final decisions (often from insurance companies) on their fate. This yard also had the only loo but at least it had a door!
You’d never get away with it today but back then, no red tape, no special regulations, no health & safety – happy days!
When I started as a very green but very keen aspiring Mod I was anxious to learn all there was about Vespa and Lambretta scooters. There was also an experienced mechanic from Morocco called Ignas (pronounced Inyas). He was a wizard mechanic who could tell what was wrong with a scooter just by listening to it.
My early jobs included basic servicing (very simple back then), replacing inner cables, bulbs, fitting accessories such as crash bars, front or back carriers, spare wheel carriers, repairing punctures etc.
Anything requiring electricals such as additional lights (loads of them), custom rear lights etc were left to Ignas, as well as major engine rebuilds.
My other job was to manually scrape the accumulations of oil and grease from the workshop floor – a task that was as grubby and hard as it sounds and I dreaded it when it was due.
However Mr Agius started to show me various tips on other works such as how to re-route an outer cable through the chassis without losing the leading end somewhere in the scooter bodywork!
He also showed me how to remove, strip down and rebuild a Vespa engine – something that became essential knowledge for me as I had a habit of regularly seizing the engines on my own Vespa GS150 VS5.
Vespas and Lambrettas in the 60s were two-stroke engines that required two stroke oil to be added to the petrol at a certain percentage when filling up.
The trouble was that this (essential) practice also had a restrictive effect on engine performance (speed to you and me!) so we all tried to reduce the amount of oil so as to maximise the acceleration and top speed of our scooters. Some Mods only ever put a shot of Redex upper cylinder lubricant to a gallon of petrol!
Get it right and you had a faster scooter than the other Mods. Get it wrong (and I often did) and you ended up with a seized engine and a possible relatively expensive repair.
If you were particularly lucky and you let the engine cool down, you could sometimes drop some oil down the spark plug hole, wait a bit and get away with it but if it was a “solid seize” then off to R Agius Ltd for a new barrel and piston!
My worst record was needing to replace three barrels and pistons in one week on my own Vespa GS (not a record to be proud of!).
He also showed me how to strip down and rebuild Lambretta clutches, engines & gear assemblies as well as how to completely strip both Vespas and Lambrettas down for repair or respray (more of that later!)
This was the era of the Mod and scooters were never left as “standard” and the full range of accessories were essential additions to any scooter. Claude was a master at getting hold of accessories from suppliers that no one else had – many of these were design prototypes and were just not available anywhere else. You were a privileged customer if he let you purchase one of these specials for your scooter.
I confess to having one or two items of these “special items” on my scooter claiming “employee preferential rights”! However, this was conditional on there being no staff discounts available on these items!
I did manage to source a very special official Piaggio accessory of my own – a spare fuel tank which fitted inside the spare wheel attached to the inside of the front legshields – I know that Claude also has one of these to this day and it must be worth a bob or two!
The walls of the shop were covered in these chrome accessories together with new seats, wheel trims, chrome wheel rims, side panels and front mudguards, mini screens, floor mats, spotlights etc.
No helmets though, as these weren’t a legal requirement at the time and no self-respecting Mod would wear one as it would spoil the hairstyle!
In addition to cramming as many accessories as possible onto their scooters, Mods also were after custom paintwork on their scooters.
After I stripped down the scooters to their bare essentials, Ignas was the man who would normally prepare and respray scooters with what were known then as “standard” custom paint jobs but if you wanted a very special respray then there was only one man to do it and that was Claude.
His resprays were legendary among the Mods at that time and they would pay a premium to have him spray their scooters.
He also had the knack of mixing unique “one off” metallic colours combined with chrome front mudguards and side bubbles (Vespa) or side panels (Lambretta).
One of his best combinations was a metallic mid purple body with copper plated bubbles and front mudguard on a Vespa. All panels were also lacquered giving a deep shine – the Mod who owned it was envied by everyone.
Claude never mixed exactly the same colour twice so what you got was a unique, one off exclusive colour for your scooter. Claude didn’t do that many scooters in a year so to have a “Claude Original” was considered to be a bit special.
While Claude ran the showroom and was the occasional respray artist, his brother John was the one who collected the scooters, stripped them down, rebuilt the damaged units and sourced the ever growing demand for used and second hand spares for the exploding scooter market.
“Several times, I was summoned assist him with stripping down scooters that had been written off by insurance companies so that the useable parts could be re-used – recycling was alive and well in the 60s!”
However, it was their dad who made the lasting impression on me. A man who had started the shop in 1951, knew the insides and outsides of most the scooters around at the time, who could reputedly speak seven languages, didn’t stand any nonsense from the crowds of Mods who frequented the shop every Saturday and who made possibly the worst coffee ever!
The words “Nick, Claudie, take the coffee” struck fear into my taste buds twice each day!
I swear he didn’t pour it out, he cut it with a pair of scissors when the mug was full!
For all his apparent gruff behaviour, he was a good teacher and boss who also gave his time to me. In common with most shops in those days, the shop closed on Thursday afternoons.
On the last occasion that I seized my engine (the third in a week), he told me to stay behind on that Thursday.
He stayed behind as well to help me repair my scooter – an action that made me appreciate the positive effect that a supportive boss could have on a junior employee and a lesson that has stood me in good stead throughout my working life.
Saturdays were manic as Mods from all over West London would descend on the shop to meet, discuss the latest trends, fashions, scooters, music and to get their scooters serviced, repaired, tuned etc ready for the weekend or maybe to even buy a new scooter.
It wasn’t unusual to have upwards of 40 scooters parked outside the shop in Edgware Road (no parking restrictions then!) – it was like a Mod convention. All the Mods would congregate outside the shop with many of them inside looking at the newest accessories, the latest stock of scooters or trying to get Claude to agree to spray their scooters!
Every now and then, a number of them would jump on their scooters and shoot off to Kilburn for some food only to return later on and park up outside. Mod Central as Claude used to put it!
For my part, I was a very popular member of the scooter fraternity as they had their very own scooter mechanic in their midst and who carried various spares, bits & pieces and tools that could get them out of trouble when out and about.
When you’d spent the whole evening chatting up the girl you’d fancied for weeks and she’d agreed to let you take her home on the back of your scooter, the last thing you needed when it was home time was to find your gear or throttle cable had broken or you had a puncture.
I earned the undying gratitude of a good number of mates by being able to carry out the repair there & then thus enabling them to carry out their promise to make sure that the girl “got home safely” whatever that was supposed to mean!
To be fair, we would think nothing of going to a party on Saturday night (there was ALWAYS someone who was having a party on Saturday!) and jumping on the scooters in the early hours of Sunday and riding to say, Southend to have a game of ten pin bowling and grab a free breakfast if you got your game in before 7.00 am!
Then we would ride back home, sleep until mid afternoon and meet up again that evening in the local coffee bar (pubs weren’t that popular then).
The rivalry between Vespas and Lambrettas was an ongoing element of Mod life with each make having its dedicated followers – the general rule was that if your first scooter was a Vespa then that’s the only make you ever had, whatever model you aspired to.
For me, it was always a Vespa and in particular the GS150 VS5.
This scooter (and I had three different ones in my time) was produced between 1958 –1961, had a single cylinder two stroke engine of 145.6cc (not quite the 150 cc that was generally accepted as being correct).
With a compression ration of 7.1:1, it required a 6% petrol/oil mix to run properly (however, see comments above!!).The 10” wheels distinguished it from other Vespa 125 and 150 models which used 8” wheels.
Other Vespas popular at the time were the little 125, 150 and 150 Sportique.
The most popular Lambretta models included the Li125, Li150 and the TV175.
However, there were still quite a few of the older shaft drive LD scooters still around. They kept the shop busy as the drive shafts couldn’t take the punishment being dished out by over enthusiastic acceleration – we became very efficient at exchanging them!
When the Lambretta Slimstyle TV175 came out, I must say I was very tempted to switch allegiance as it was good looking and a very fast scooter by the standards of the time. When the GT200 and SX200 models were introduced, my loyalty was sorely tested – however, I remained faithful to my Vespa GS.
Claude’s favourite was the Vespa GS150 VS5 Messerschmidt – a German produced version of the model but that always seemed to have a slight edge in reliability and performance over models produced in other countries.
They are as rare as hen’s teeth now although I was fortunate to see a well restored model at the Classics on the Common show in Harpenden.
There is always a good show of scooters, nearly all of which are Lambrettas so it was a pleasant surprise to come across the GS restored to original specification and livery and complete with the Messerschmidt ID plate on the footplate. Needless to say, I had a long chat with the owner who was only too happy to chat about his scooter and it was good to see that he really appreciated what he had.
Looking at the today’s market for original early Vespas and Lambrettas, I’m amazed at the prices they are fetching.
Upwards of £5,000 can be achieved for a restored original Vespa GS 150 and over £7,000 for a restored original Lambretta TV175! Even restoration projects are several thousand pounds!
Later models of similar specification, but manufactured in India and other countries much more recently, are available and appear to be in plentiful supply – they may be newer but they’re NOT the same as the originals nor will they ever be!
Going back to the shop 50 years later, seeing the same design shop fascia, the same shop/workshop layout, seeing Claude (who still looks as young as he did back then) and remembering all the great times we had as Mods, the fashion, the scooters, the style, the freedom and the music – weren’t we the lucky ones to be doing it all in the 60s?