Resourcefulness is a good trait to have, but when it comes to building a scooter it can have unusual consequences.
When it came to building or working on our scooters there was always one thing in the way and that was money. The high unemployment rates of the early 1980s found many school leavers ‘accepting’ a place on the Government’s Youth Training Scheme. Though its fixed wage of £28 a week was welcome, it was nowhere near enough to keep a scooter on the road. To do that required weeks of saving or extreme ingenuity.
On such a meagre income there was no chance our scooters would see the inside of a professional’s workshop; the only option was to do the majority of the work yourself. The Lambretta ‘Home Workshop Manual’ became a holy object and the instructions found inside were treated like ancient scriptures that had to be followed to the letter. Taking over the garage and demoting the family car to the driveway was all part of the fun. However most of the scooters in my club looked like badly managed building sites where the developers kept running out of money. Work would stop for several months until fresh cash was found and the project would lurch forward a few steps until the money, inevitably, ran out again.
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Several of us had bought Lambrettas from a local shop that looked more like a scooter graveyard than a showroom. A few pounds would secure you one of ‘the world’s finest scooters’ – well, that was what it said on the tatty workshop manual that was often stuffed in the toolbox. Most of these wrecks hadn’t seen the open road in 20-odd years and required a lot more than just a bit of petrol and a new spark plug to get them going. The reality was they needed a full rebuild from the ground upwards and with the bank of mum and dad firmly shut, it was down to that small fund of money from the Government to set you on your way.
Norman was part of that Lambretta gang and was as keen as the rest of us to get his machine finished. We were all in the same boat and it slowly started to become a race to see who would be first to hit the open road. He had a slight advantage as he was an apprentice bus mechanic. Working on big, diesel-spewing buses was a long way from the refined engineering of a Series 3 Lambretta but Norman knew an opportunity when he saw one. To start with, he made friends with the bodywork section at the depot. Here the paint was stripped and panels carefully reshaped, all for the cost of a few pints. More importantly, he was well ahead of the rest of us in being the first to get finished. Competition among club members to finish their steeds was now approaching the kind of frenzy only previously seen between the Americans and Russians during the space race.
We were all still trying to scrape and sand the paint off our frames as Norman raced ahead but soon things began to unravel. Then, as now, the cost of a paint job was high and it was this that was holding many of us back. Even the cost of rattle cans soon added up. One evening Norman proudly announced his Lambretta was getting the full works down at the bus depot and by the finest painters in the county. There was just one problem, the company colour was bright red and Norman had to accept this choice or go elsewhere. Everything was being painted in one fell swoop. Panels, forks, hubs, rims, the lot. It was, undoubtedly, the cheapest way forward, but what the hell it would look like was anyone’s guess.
There was one other thing to note. The paint had a slightly luminous effect, something to do with being able to see a bus safely at night. When we went to check on Norman’s progress it was like visiting a nuclear reactor. The light escaping from the gap between the garage doors looked like something radioactive was hidden inside. When he opened the door, the light was blinding, sunglasses were needed just to look at the partially assembled Li. However Norman liked it, and he would say that because the paint job was free, but everyone else just stood there in stunned silence.
By now Norman had the bit between his teeth and he could see finishing line getting closer every day. The wiring loom, which had been knocked up by the depot’s electrician, looked like cable trunking from the national grid and there was barely enough room in the headset to accommodate it. The seat had been re-covered in the vinyl that until recently we’d been daubing with marker pen on the way to school and was another of the rebuild’s unique additions. The finishing touch was some sort of industrial plastic beading. This may have been ideal to trim the number 11 bus, but as Lambretta legshield trim it fell very wide of the mark. It was far too thick to follow the exact contours of the Italian bodywork and even with numerous creases it barely fitted.
Once finished, to everyone other than Norman, it looked like a smaller version of the local public transport. He was just pleased to have beaten us all to the finishing line, even if every journey he made was like taking a busman’s holiday.
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