Here is another of my irregular jottings about riding and the passion for one particular quirky two-wheeled machine, the Vespa. I usually start these musings of no consequence and little interest soon after the event occurs. I struggle terribly with the act of writing so they tend to take a year or so to finish. I guess life just gets in the way too. I’ve got several more stories half done. I try to push myself through to the end as a sort of exercise in self flagellation to punish myself for failing English Matriculation four years in a row. The title of this story is rather out of date now but anyway here it is, Ferguson's Last Ride.
Last March (actually March 2017) I took Ferguson, my 1979 P200E, on a ride with a bunch of other geared-scooter enthusiasts participating in the Victorian Classic Scooter Rally. It seems like a long time ago now. Our destination was Mount Beauty, a 440-km ride northeast of Melbourne via Beechworth. I had tested Ferguson on his first a big ride two weeks earlier on our club’s annual Walhalla ride after fully reconditioning his motor and fixing broken body parts. This scooter was originally sold in the UK and had somehow made its way to Victoria via NSW. Ferguson had 38,000 miles (61,000 kms) on the clock when I bought him. All went well on the Walhalla ride except for a minor ignition timing problem which you can read about here. The ride to Mount Beauty was going to be a bigger test of Ferguson's abilities in readiness to go on an even longer ride to the National Scooter Rally in Griffith two weeks hence. We all headed off on Friday morning from Clifton Hill.
In spite of the age of the participating machines, many of the old scooters have tricked-up motors that, shall we say, are rather more powerful and faster than standard. These classic guys and gals ride hard and fast non-stop between refuel points. John K’s 1959 VBA is probably the fastest 8” wheeled Vespa in Victoria easily buzzing along at 100-kms/hour with it’s little wheels spinning in a blur. After wrestling with road works past Yea where VicRoads were installing guitar strings to slice and dice motorcycle riders, lunch was at Mansfield. We then we headed north up the mountain to Tolmie past those spectacular views of the Victorian Alps at the top under the powerlines and then down into Whitfield. I was very pleased with the way Ferguson pulled up the mountain in top gear. As his brand new tyres had plenty of grip, Fergo and I felt we could have gone a bit harder into the corners than the two scooterists up in front of us allowed. But we were having fun. Some motorcyclists caught us at the top of the mountain. While most of these riders were patient and passed safely with a friendly wave, others seemed to be taking risks beyond their ability, passing on the outside of blind corners and cutting in without warning.
The road along the flats of King River Valley beyond Whitfield was an ideal stretch to see what Ferguson was made of. I decided to open him up and chase the scooters up in front. I glanced at the speedo, 50.. 55.. 62…! - miles per hour that is! Just multiply by 1.6. Noise from the exhaust disappeared, engine vibration smoothed out, in fact all went strangely quiet but for the wind in my helmet. This was totally unexpected. Ferguson’s motor must have been in a very happy place. I felt like I was flying on a cloud. Yay, at last I had an old scooter that would comfortably sit on 100-kms/hour. This was the reason why I had bought Ferguson - a longer pair of legs than my beloved Priscilla. Our last fuel stop for the day was at Beechworth followed by a thrilling twisty road descent down through Stanley with it’s groves of chestnut and walnut trees and over a mountain pass which dropped us into the Kiewa River Valley. We then rode directly up the valley in the warmth of blazing afternoon sunshine towards the distant blue mountains.
Mount Beauty is a pretty town surrounded by the Victorian Alps at the head of the Kiewa River Valley. There was a touch of Autumn in the air. Our well-grassed camp site beside the clear burbling river was sublime. Late in the afternoon Rolf and Beth showed up in a car. This was just days after his terrible accident. His leg had been pinned together by a wondrous metal contraption screwed into his bones but he was upright and walking on crutches. Good heavens! Some clever medication kept him pain free and strangely happy. That evening we all dinned on a spit lamb roast cooked under the stars. I had a comfortable night’s sleep on an air mattress in my teeny weeny tent. The plan for Sunday was to ride over Tawonga Gap to Bright for a pub meal and some lazy afternoon social drinking. Others talked about doing a ride over Mt Hotham to Omeo. As this area is such a long way from Melbourne, I wanted to explore some roads along the Upper Murray River by way of planning for a future club ride in the region. So instead Ferguson and I headed off north along a back road to Tallangatta.
The day was clear and hot. Away from the river, the earth was parched dry. It was March after all and the end of long dry summer was written into the landscape. We buzzed up a hill for a splendid view over the Hume Weir. Somehow Ferguson accidentally wandered onto the Cudgewa-Wodonga Rail Trail bicycle path, naughty bridge obsessed boy. After refuelling at Tallangatta we set out to explore what remained of Old Tallangatta after the town was flooded by the dam in the 1950s. The old butter factory was still standing and you could make out the former streets on the flood plain at the lake’s edge. Further along the Murray Valley Highway we stopped off to look at an old wooden trestle bridge, once part of the railway line to Cudgewa. Of course you did David. Shortly afterwards we rounded a corner and came across the charming Koetong Pub. It had an ancient vine tree rambling along the entire length of it’s verandah which looked so inviting. We just had to stop. I chatted to the lady publican then wandered outside to sit under the veranda with it’s luscious vine eyelashes. Now I’m not much of a drinker but I can’t believe how well an icy cold draft beer slides down a parched throat on a hot dry day. As past stories attest, I find it hard to pass by a quaint Aussie pub without taking a look inside.
Refreshed, Fergo and I headed further east to Shelly, once the site of Victoria’s highest railway station. I wanted to ride part of the Murray River Road from Walwa to Bellbridge. It is considered to be a bit of a Mecca for motorcyclists. For some 88-kms the road meanders beside the Murray and as you ride along past river flats, billabongs and majestic red gums, you can observe it slowly turn from a river into a vast lake, the Hume. As fate would have it, we took Shelly Road to Walwa. It soon turned into a gravel road used by pine plantation logging trucks. It was a rough ride since the road had been recently graded and was strewn with rather large-sized crushed rock aggregate. Ferguson’s suspension was all new and I was pleased with the way he handled the conditions. Nevertheless we were glad when the road finally turned to bitumen again. Time to gain some speed.
When coming out of a dip in the road we were suddenly confronted by three long scarified potholes. There was no time to avoid them as they were somewhat out of sight on top of a rise. They were side-by-side right across the road directly in front of me. Gulp, they looked very deep indeed. Now panic is a useless emotion in times of an emergency. I distinctly remember calmly thinking to myself, “Hmm, this will be interesting David” believing that I was about to come off the scooter and probably get badly injured. I had to think my way through this situation but I guess instinct and the experience of riding dirt bikes in my youth also automatically kicked in. The following reactions happened within fractions of a second. I braked hard to wash away as much speed as I could - this was my questionable panic reaction. I made sure the scooter was perfectly upright with it’s front wheel pointing straight towards the centre pothole. I hauled in the clutch to disconnect the engine from the rear wheel. I got up off the seat with bended knees to use my thighs as shock absorbers hoping I wouldn’t be bucked off the scooter. I released the brakes just as I was about to hit the pothole, shifted my weight to the rear while yanking up hard on the handlebars in an effort to make the front wheel as light as possible. The hole had a very sharp exit lip. Oh, I may have prayed too. BANG! The front suspension bottomed out hard but at least it had rolled out of the lip of the hole. A second bang, thud, crunch and screech! As the back wheel hit, the rear of the scooter suddenly collapsed to the ground. Sparks flew, the smell of burning rubber and melted metal filled the air. I immediately guessed what had happened. The force of the impact was such that it completely sheared off the casting on the engine case that holds the rear lower shock absorber mount in place. But hey, somehow I managed to stay safely onboard the scooter as it slid to a controlled halt. I hadn’t crashed and fallen off. I am sure a video of the incident would have looked rather dramatic. No need for CGI special effects. I began shaking. I think I was surprised not to have been hurt.
My mobile phone had a quarter of a bar of signal strength. Luckily I was able to get a text message out to the others at the rally about my misfortune. Nobody was sober enough to drive the support van. That was okay. I just wanted to inform the other rally goers that I wouldn’t be coming back to the campsite tonight or returning to Melbourne with the gang. John offered to pack up my tent and gave it to Rolf to take back to Melbourne in his van. Bless them. In any kind of adventure breakdowns have to be factored in as part of the total experience. It’s also kind of interesting when life isn’t smooth sailing. But this one was one hell of a breakdown and well beyond my ability to repair. I was in the forest and Walwa was about 15kms towards the north. The Shelly-Walwa Road was a lonely little used one. If worst came to worst, I would just have to sleep by the side of the road.
Ever the optimist, I began working on a solution to the problem. When the scooter collapsed the engine pivoted all the way forward causing the spark plug cap to crash into the engine cowl. It was completely misshapen fouling the flywheel cover and would have to come off. The rear shock was just dangling down from it’s top mount and had jammed between the mudguard and tyre. I managed to pull it out and secured it away from the tyre using a cable tie. The rear of the scooter was about 7 inches lower than it should be. The back tyre was rubbing on the underside of the frame and at the same time the entire weight of the scooter was resting on the carburettor air-box. I had in my kit a piece of wood cut off at an angle which I use as a chock when removing the brake drum. As there was a bit of lip left on the shock mount, perhaps I could use this chock to connect the suspension back onto the engine case. I wired it in place as best I could. This might just work.
The motor started up again. I mounted the scooter to test it but the whole thing collapsed. The solution seemed tantalisingly close so I tried sticks and branches of various shapes. I think I was delusional. No luck. Finally I shoved a towel between the top of the air-box and the frame to keep the rear tyre from rubbing on the mudguard. I was so sure this would work that I strapped my stuffed engine cowl onto the top of my luggage. Off I headed standing up with my weight well over the front wheel. Within moments the towel had worked it’s way loose and the tyre was once again fouling the frame. A quirk of the Vespa design is that the exhaust pipe pivots forward towards the ground when the rear suspension is under compression. So once again sparks flew. I tried again. Same result. By this time it was about 4pm. My hope that somehow I could get to Walwa where I knew there was a pub for an overnight stay was quickly proving a forlorn one. Let it go David, just let it all go. A night by the roadside won’t kill you. When I finally disconnected my brain from the problem and opened up to my surroundings, I realised I had got myself out of the woods and was within several metres of a farm house. At least that towel enabled me to wheel the damned thing so I hauled my broken scooter inside the front gates and started to walk up the long driveway to the house.
After overcoming his initial rural-folk suspicions about a stranger from the city walking onto his property, Rob a local farmer, was the angel that had been sent by the universe to assist me. He kindly drove me to the Walwa Hotel where I would stay the night. It was the close of a beautiful day as we drove along the pretty country road into town. The Aussie landscape looked magical as it always does in the late afternoon sunshine. The rocky flank of the 1300 metre high Mount Burrowa lay to our right, burnished to the colour of copper by the lowering sun. I had bathed in the waters of Cudgewa Bluff Falls on the other side of this mountain two years earlier. Behind this range the more distant Pine Mountain crept into view. Rob informed me that this mountain is actually one single gigantic red granite monolith, the largest in Australia being 1.5 times bigger than Uluru. Wow!
The idea that I could have some how ridden let alone pushed Ferguson this far into town was ridiculous. Rob declined an offer of a pub meal but we shared a beer together then said our goodbyes. The hot shower felt great. I called brother John to see if he could pick me and Ferguson up. Yes he could… the following day! Later that evening three other motorcyclists checked into the hotel. After dinner I struck up a conversation with them and related the story of my accident. Life is full of coincidences. It turned out that they had also ridden along the same road a couple of hours after me. They couldn’t believe a Vespa had come down that rough gravel road. I asked whether they encountered any potholes. Life is full of coincidences. They too had almost come off their bikes at the same set of potholes. When we compared notes, we reckoned the they must have been about 7-8 inches deep. So I didn’t imagine it. That’s a deep hole for a 10” scooter wheel to climb out of. Life is full of coincidences. One of the riders owned a Vespa and he said he loved it. Like proud parents we showed each other mobile phone photos of our Vespas. Life is full of coincidences. They also talked about seeing three old scooters near the Blue Duck Inn on the Mitta Mitta - Omeo Road earlier in the day. After further interrogation I figured it was Brendan on his 1953 German-built Maicoletta, possibly Ginchy and somebody else from the scooter rally. I could have ridden with these guys instead and would have avoided my fate. It turned out that one of the motorcyclists was actually being pillioning on another’s bike. Life is full of coincidences. Apparently he had an accident with a pothole and had written off his motorcycle near the Blue Duck Inn. Much later I talked to Brendan about this and he recalled being told at the pub of a motorcycle accident in the area.
Truth was I felt rather depressed about what had happened to Ferguson. I had spent a lot of time and money reconditioning him replacing all wearing parts. I had only clocked up 2,140 kms since this rebuild before I broke his back on that wretched pothole. Ferguson was effectively a newly run-in machine with lots of promise. To console myself I walked 800 metres towards the Murray River on an unlit road. I have always been drawn to this iconic Australian feature. It was pitch black, a moonless night. With only starlight to see by, the road was a murky smudge. Unseen things made sounds in the dark. The hairs on my neck bristled. Ghosts, goblins, bunyips or just cows chewing on cud? The night sky at Walwa was magnificent. In the firmament above, the Milky Way was a glorious streak across the entire sky made up of billions of stars against an inky black background. You can never see night skies like these in the city. Oh glorious starry starry night. Vincent was here with me. The flashing red lights of an aeroplane slowly wandered across this field of stars so high above that it made no noise. A few unlit clouds as dark as the night passed slowly by blotting out patches sky. Stars disappeared as if a magician’s trick, the reappeared again. I found my way down to the banks of the Murray and sensed rather than saw it’s powerful waters gliding by in the dark. In spite of the drama earlier, I was now very much at peace with the world.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. After closing the hotel door behind me I wandered over to the cafe across the road to have breakfast and a coffee. My only agenda for the day was to await the arrival of my brother and his trailer. The guy who had the motorcycle accident yesterday came over to the cafe and sat down at the table beside me. We took up the conversation of last night. He was waiting for his girlfriend to drive down from Sydney to pick him up. I was curious and asked if he had braked going into that pothole. Yes he had, all the way in. Oh dear. With the brakes on hard, his front wheel locked up and buried itself into the hole and didn’t come out causing his motorcycle to cartwheel around the front axel. It flung him down the road onto the embankment. Now brakes are most often very usefully things, but sometimes they can be your worst enemy. He showed me a large black bruise across his kidney and all the way up his back. But for his youth, full-armoured leathers, gloves and helmet, he wouldn’t be talking to me now. My pothole-brother-in-arms was picked up an hour later and shortly after noon my brother arrived with Imam in tow too. A nice surprise. We had a pub lunch together then headed off to Rob’s farm. Needless to say that Ferguson got tied down onto John’s trailer and had an uneventful journey down the Hume Highway back to Melbourne. Fearing that those potholes could cause a serious accident to others or even loss of life to a motorcyclist, I wrote to the Towong Shire the following day to alert them of the danger.
All this seems like a long time ago now but at the time I felt like chucking Ferguson away as a failed project. In fact I didn’t want anything to do with scooters ever again. However I had promised my brother a grand 10-day ride to the Griffith Scooter Rally (2017) in a little over one week’s time. Ferguson was supposed to be my beast of burden for this trip but he was now broken. I would have to take the slower Priscilla to the Griffith rally, but she was in bits all over the back room table. After 40,000 kms of thrashing her, I thought she needed a new set of rings. NOooo.. I didn’t want to fiddle with scooters anymore. Arrgh!
I got Priscilla back together again the night before our departure. I couldn’t disappoint my brother. The reward for my perseverance was an exquisite 2,670-km trip on roads we had never traveled before, but that’s another story. So in early April on our way back from the Griffith Scooter Rally, some three weeks after Ferguson’s demise, we were able to return to the scene of the accident. I wanted to photograph the potholes for insurance purposes and to make a much calmer assessment of why the accident occurred. Thankfully that whole section of road had been repaired right across it's width. Perhaps as a result of my email? I rode that section of road once more. The approach was coming out of a dip in the road around a slight curve. The potholes were out of sight just over the rise. You couldn’t see them until you were on top of them. I figured that the potholes had been constantly scoured out by logging trucks bouncing out of that dip at speed and ripping up the bitumen on the crest of the rise with some part of the undercarriage. I was content that without foreknowledge, I simply couldn’t have avoided them.
Well it took a long time to get Ferguson back on the road, eight months to be exact. He became a back-burner project, after-all I had another scooter to ride. I had to get an insurance claim sorted, wait for spare parts to arrive, get a cowl beaten back into shape, have a part machined up that I couldn’t source and pack up the project when we had dinner guests (I used the dinning table as a workbench) and then try to find all the bits and pieces once more. Thank you Famous for new engine cases and for agreeing to let me do the repairs myself rather than deeming Ferguson a write-off. In the meantime Priscilla took me to Brisbane for the Classic Scooter Mille in September 2017 instead of Ferguson as intended. One observation. The P200E evolved out of the Rally 200 released in 1972. It is the grand daddy of the PX range. Ferguson came with a Rally 200 style engine. My replacement engine cases were the latest iteration for the PX range. Although the arrangement of oil seals and bearings had changed, but for a smaller diameter layshaft fixed by a bespoke bush, all of Ferguson’s original inside bits and pieces fitted into the new cases perfectly. That’s amazing and a tribute to the very slowly evolving design of the Vespa engine across those 46 years.
Did Ferguson ever ride again? Yes he did, as many of you know. Ferguson roared back into life on the second kick 16 November 2017. Two days later he led the Milk Run Ride in such splendid fashion that I was so glad I didn’t throw him away as a piece of garbage. In January this year he led the Tarra Valley Dreaming ride. Just one little hiccup, his ignition lead came loose and fell off. A broken spring clip inside the spark plug cap. I guess that’s okay after 37 years. A piece of gaffer tape provided a temporary fix. Ferguson also had a weekend away at Cape Otway, a fast ride to Tallarook, a weekend in Alexandra and more recently he’s been to Canberra and back - the long way. The more I ride with Ferguson, the more those potholes fade into the past. My big red P200E has now done 7,000 kms since that accident. Ferguson, you rock!
In the words of an old Irish blessing…
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face…
Finally you got Fergie's story told David.... such a wonderful read, thank you for sharing your adventures and all I can say is thank goodness for your many years of riding experience, that allows you to be here today to tell this story.