Words: Stan | Photographs: Gary Chapman
Every scooter has a history and in the case of Paula Rae’s Rally, it’s one that’s still being written.
Although it was first registered in Padova in early May 1973, the story of Paula Rae’s Rally begins in 1987 when Cambridge graduate John Portuese-Williams began his post-doctorate studies in Northern Italy.
“I was living out in the sticks with my wife Giulia and we needed transport,” he began. “A Vespa was the obvious choice, but it turned out that commuting was too scary so we used it for trips around Veneto and into the Collie Euganei, where we went walking at weekends. I added the indicators using a kit that Piaggio supplied at the time.”
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When John secured work at Florence University the couple moved to a beautiful little commune outside the city, and it was here that the Rally enjoyed an idyllic, almost fairytale existence.
“I remember loading a box on the back with groceries and going into the hills to buy wine from the contadini in a 5-litre demijohn, which I stuck on the floor between my feet,” recalled John.
“We also made camping trips to Volterra and Elba carrying the tent between my legs, bags of equipment on the rack and Giulia on the back. It never let us down, and always managed the hills. The only mishap was on Elba when someone broke into the locker and stole a bottle of wine.”
Of course, all good things come to an end and when opportunity beckoned back in Britain, John and Giulia packed up their belongings and moved to Cambridge.
By this time the Rally was showing its age. The sensible thing would have been to leave it behind, but as it was ‘part of the family’, it came along, making the journey by train.
Once registered, John began using the Rally to commute into Cambridge, but found the experience thoroughly unpleasant.
“I think drivers saw it as a scooter and insisted on passing, even though I was probably pushing 60 mph on it! I also got fed up with the indicators never working and in the end it was used for pottering around. When our kids came along it just sat in the garage, and after a while the engine seemed to seize up, which meant I couldn’t kick start it any more”.
At this point of the story it’s time to introduce Paula Rae, the woman who brought the Rally back to life, and an old school scooterist.
“I’ve had scooters since my teens and used to go on rallies with Trev and the gang, who went on to form Cambridge Lambretta,” she began.
“I’ve always loved the lines of 1970s Vespas and my ideal scooter has always been a Rally 200. I’ve just never been able to afford one.”
In place of her dream machine, Paula’s developed a long-standing love affair with the 150 Super, a model which offers the same look, but at a more affordable price.
It was while filling up her current ride that Paula was approached by an Italian lady who was both intrigued to see the Vespa and excited to see it being ridden by a woman.
“We’ve all had those conversations,” laughed Paula. “Giulia told me about the adventures she and her husband had in Italy on their old Vespa. I was nodding away and then she said that the Vespa was in their shed.
“Suddenly the conversation became far more interesting and we swopped details, just in case her husband may have been interested in selling it. She had no idea what type of scooter it was, but from her description I thought it was a Bajaj, maybe a 150 Super if I was lucky.”
A few days passed and just as Paula had given up hope of hearing anything, Giulia emailed to say the scooter was a Rally 200 and her husband may be prepared to sell it. “I couldn’t get there fast enough,” she recalled.
It was immediately obvious that although neglected, the Rally was complete and, most importantly, free of rust. It was also clear that John wasn’t going to part with it easily.
“John knew what the scooter was worth, both in its current and restored condition,” said Paula. “He’d refused to sell it previously, as he thought the buyers were going to tidy it up and move it on at a profit.
“The scooter meant so much to them that they wanted to know it would be loved. Quite honestly, I couldn’t afford to buy it, I couldn’t afford to pay someone to restore it and I lacked the skills to rebuild it myself. As we stood looking at it, I heard my voice saying that if he sold it to me I’d do the rebuild myself and bring it back to show them. To my surprise, he agree!”
Once Paula got the Rally home the reality of the task ahead sank in. “I’d no idea how or where to start and rather sheepishly went to see Viv McCann at M&M Motorcycles in Cambridge. I’ve known Viv for years and he’s always looked after my scooters.
“Having explained what I’d got myself into, we came up with a plan. If I worked in the shop for a day a week, booking MOTs, answering the phone and generally helping out, he’d supervise me in the workshop and loan me all the tools I needed.”
Paula paused before laughing, and then added: “Visitors to the workshop know that Viv rescued a Rook that couldn’t fly. Known as ‘Trevor’, it’s a friendly, noisy and messy member of the team. Thanks to Trevor, I can say that I literally shovelled shit as my part of the bargain!”
True to his word, Viv oversaw every part of the build, but as Paula’s proud to point out, there’s not a single nut, bolt or screw that hasn’t passed through her hands.
“Without Viv’s kindness, patience and expertise I wouldn’t have the Rally at all. He put up with a million questions and when I struggled he was there checking and correcting as we went along. On especially tricky bits I watched as he explained what he was doing at every stage.
“The only part of the scooter I haven’t been involved in is the barrel. Viv refused to let me have a go at boring it. Some things are best left to the professionals! I even persuaded the vapour blasting man to let me begin cleaning the engine casings.”
The result of all this labour is a Rally that’s quite simply stunning. Although it’s predominantly original, including the Femsatronic ignition, purists will note that it’s far from concourse and that’s intentional.
“I wanted a scooter that could be ridden without worrying about every scratch,” said Paula. As for its previous owner, John couldn’t be happier.
“It was a very difficult decision to part with the Rally as it was a reminder of some very happy times. I was pleased to see it go to an enthusiast, however, and am amazed at the outcome.”
In Paula’s hands the Rally remains much loved and the next chapter in its story is already planned. “I lived in Normandy for quite some time and this summer I’m going to revisit some of my favourite spots. I can’t think of a better way to travel than on a Rally, especially one with such a special place in people’s hearts.”
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