First Kick, Last Rites

I don’t know if it’s possible for a vehicle to be cursed, or if the trauma of this particular scooter is grounded more in human error than mechanics of the underworld.  I’ve been watching a lot of X-Files lately, so I’d prefer to think the Stella simply was abducted by aliens when I first brought her home with 70 miles on her odometer.  She was never quite right.

18th Kick’s the Charm

I had problems from day one.  I had to set my alarm clock 10 minutes earlier to go through the laborious process of getting her started in the morning.  By the 15th kick, she would at least start coughing, and by the 18th, the engine would finally turn over and start muttering.  The muscles in my left leg grew visibly larger than my right from this twice-daily ordeal.  At least once during the process, my foot would slip on the pedal wet with morning dew and I’d get a fat thwack in the calf from the kick lever.

Once running, she did okay, but it was slow going and took me some time to get up to 35 mph after stopping at a light.  For the first 500 miles, the scooter squealed with an eardrum-piercing cry coming from the front brakes.  People on the street would stop and turn, gripping their ears, to see what terrible fate was descending on them.  I took to wearing headphones to block out the sound.

I brought the scooter back to Ducati Seattle the following week, citing my issues with starting and the squealing of the front tire.  Because this was my first two-stroke scooter, I assumed I was just bad at starting it.  Maybe I’m too girlie and weak and not kicking it hard enough.  Never mind that I couldn’t use the electric start — a “modern” upgrade — because there was an open circuit somewhere that drained the battery every night.

They told me it should start on the first kick, no problem.  Obviously.  They shrugged off the brain-splitting squeal, and I had the suspicion they didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation and were writing me off as a whiny girl.  They had the scooter for three days and finally called me to pick it up.  When I got to the service department, they said they’d forgotten to look at the brakes and the mechanic would do it now.  I waited for an hour while he took off the wheel, wiped down the pads, found nothing, and sent me on my way.

On my way home, brakes still squealing, I noticed the speedometer no longer worked.  This was a slight problem as I was still learning when to shift the manual transmission, and needed the guidance of the speedometer since there is no tachometer.  I went by ear since they were closed for the next three days.

At least it was starting on the 8th or 9th kick now — a vast improvement.  But it was having trouble on hills, and bicycles were leaving me behind at traffic lights.  I still had no idea how it was supposed to perform because it was my first 150cc two-stroke manual scooter.  I thought perhaps these issues came with the territory.

When it stalled mid-way up the hair-raising incline on Denny and I had to kick-start it on the hill, I cried for the next 2 miles.

In quiet alone moments, I wanted my Honda back.  My hideous, 25-year-old spray painted rice burner with spaceship styling.  My $1,000 scooter that never once stalled, started quickly even in winter, and would carry me and a passenger up the daunting incline of Queen Anne Ave. without a second thought.  I was ashamed.  But I missed the Uberskoot.

Choking On It

Tuesday I brought the Stella back to the shop.  They had the scooter for a week this time.  It was the choke, apparently.  It didn’t go back in once it was pulled out.  The mechanic who test-rode it had no problems on hills so he had no clue what I was talking about.  Seemed fine to him. Anyways, he said, just use the electric start instead of the kick and it would be fine.  He could fix it, but didn’t have time today.  Also, he tried to install the windscreen I bought but it didn’t include the hardware it was supposed to be shipped with, so they had to re-order that.  Seeing as they were closed again for two days and this was my daily transportation, I decided to make do for the time being.

The battery was dead so the electric start was a no-go.  I continued my kicking ritual and endured the deafening squealing, which now seemed to peak only when it was warm out. I did notice that the scooter had developed quite a bit more pick-up, and definitely ran stronger.   Apparently the choke being open pulled too much air in, making the oil/fuel mixture too rich, which makes the bike run sluggishly.  I also started putting in cheap gas, and it ran significantly better.  I could almost ignore the squealing.

Then the rear tire blew out.  Since the scooter was in storage for years with the original tires still on it when it was sold to me, the rubber was cracked and dry. Luckily, the spare tire included under the cowl of the scooter is not just for vintage good looks.  It took two of us and some crazy curb balancing, but we managed to change the flat tire.

I stopped by Ducati to get the replacement windscreen hardware and my windscreen, figuring I could do it myself and save $75 in labor.  When I got it home, the hardware was for a different model and didn’t fit on the windscreen. Plus the directions from the Vespa factory were in Italian.

By now, at 800 miles, the front brakes had stopped squealing on all but the hottest of days.  It was July.  It was around this time that I noticed the front brakes required a vice grip to work. I started using the rear foot brake instead, figuring this was all just due to the fact that there are so many darn scary hills in Seattle. In reality, all the brake fluid had leaked out.

The Stella happily settled on eight as the number of kicks required to start.  We appeared to have reached an agreement.  The brakes stopped squealing since there was no more fluid left, and I got used to not having a windscreen, picking the bugs out of my teeth after long rides on state route 99.  Every once in a while the engine would die with the throttle wide open, but it always started right up again, so no worries, right? 

I was ready to put our troubled past behind us and start fresh for summer riding season.

Hair-raising Hills

It was around this time that Stella began protesting on hills.  She would zoom up the hill without too much trouble, but right before the hill leveled out, she would stall.  I often had to let my passenger off and either push the scooter up the hill or kick start her into submission.  Since the electric start didn’t work, I took to running stop signs and red lights in order to avoid this peril.

So I decided to move to Capitol Hill.  Essentially, I looked for the two scariest hills in Seattle and moved to the top of them.  From Eastlake to Broadway is a climb not for wimps.  Or, apparently, for my Stella.

If you’ve ever driven a manual car, you know how stopping on very steep hills can be tricky.   On a scooter, it’s positively harrowing.  The front brake and throttle are on the same handgrip.  So, you get either gas or brake.  There’s no way to ease from one to the other.  You can use the foot brake, and on steep hills it is required, but this means balancing the 300 pound bike and 200 pound passenger on one leg.

All that seems scary.  And then you try to re-start a stalled scooter on a hill with a line of cars behind you. In the rain.

I now have a head of gray hair.

Sill, re-starting a stalled scooter on a hill is preferable to what I ended up doing: pushing that stalled scooter up the hill that was steep enough to kill it.  Every day on my way home from work.

I tried to find alternate routes home that didn’t include Mercer, which has a big fat red light at the top of it.  Especially since my hand brake had totally stopped working and I was relying solely on downshifting and the rear foot brake to stop.  I experimented with taking the Roanoke route, coming up 10th the back way.  I got stuck at the light on Lynn, got it started again, and made it to Harvard.  That’s when the transmission started slipping.

I put the scooter into third, traveling 30 mph in heavy traffic, and it popped out of gear.  Thinking I just shifted wrong, I put it into neutral, then second, and accelerated.  The gears clicked in and it moved forward again.  Okay.  As I gassed it to take the turn onto 10th, it popped out of gear again, to the tune of grinding and a racing engine.

I pulled over to the side of the road so I wouldn’t get run over by angry commuters pissed that I was holding up their race to the next red light.  I looked at the scooter.  I’m not sure what I was looking for.  Perhaps hoping the Gremlin would stick its head out and wave, so I’d know.  I started it up again and rode the final mile home in second.

The next morning, in tears, I brought the Stella back to Ducati.

In my hand I clutched a laundry list of issues.  The rear basket of the scooter held the flat tire and the unattachable windscreen.  “I need you to fix this piece of shit so I can sell it,” I told him.  “I hate this scooter.  It gives me nightmares.  It makes me cry on a daily basis.”

To add insult to injury, parked in the dealership lot was a 2006 Vespa 250 GTS, four-stroke, automatic, top speed of 75 mph, in sage green.  Matching trunk.  Windscreen installed.  For the same amount of money I paid for the Stella — once you add in repairs, bus fare, and therapy appointments.  I groaned.  The scooter mechanic saw me drooling over it and shook his head.  “You don’t want that thing,” he said.  “It’s fuel-injected.”

“I know…” I said longingly.  “I hate my scooter.  I HATE it!”  I shook my fists and stamped my foot like a petulant three-year-old. I sulked to the service counter to talk to the manager.

In the past, they had been trying to fix the Stella quickly, in little spurts, because they knew I needed it to get to work.  I don’t think being rushed was helping them figure out what the hell was going on.  I handed over the keys and told them, “Just fix it.  I don’t care how long it takes.”

I also told them I was disappointed that I paid an obscene amount of money for a vehicle that is totally unusable to me.  I felt deceived and let down.  Stella had broken my heart, and Ducati was not helping me heal it.

Hope?

Since the previous ten times I was in, Ducati had acquired a new mechanic, whom they’d been bragging about.  He was trained in Stella School at the Genuine Scooter Company in Chicago, Stella’s manufacturer.  I had new hope.  Not a motorcycle guy tinkering with my girlie bike, but a Stella enthusiast who could give her the love and attention she sorely needed. 

Plus, he was really hot.

He pushed his black-rimmed buddy holly glasses up on his nose and tapped his pen on his clipboard as he circled the scooter, listening to my rant.  When I was done, he said, “None of this should be happening.  None of this is normal Stella behavior.  I’m sorry this has been your experience.  I’ve got some ideas.  We’re going to get this running perfectly again for you.”  A beam of golden light shone down on him.  Cute Scooter Boy was going to right things between Stella and me.  I was optimistic for the first time in months.

They kept the scooter for three weeks.

Apparently the oil tank had been defective. They replaced the old oil tank with a brand new one and finally fixed the choke. I tried to ignore the fact that the electrical system was still kaput and the windscreen was installed incorrectly, rendering the mirrors useless. When I got her back last week, Stella growled and purred like a new machine. She started on the first kick and took hills with a vengeance.

Until the next day when I was coming up Harvard Ave.  She slid out of gear, coughed wildly, and died.  The left hand grip, connected to the gear box, went limp.  I restarted the scooter in disbelief.  It hummed in neutral but I couldn’t get it in gear.  It started to rain.  I pushed the scooter under the highway overpass and caught the bus home, swearing like a Tourette’s patient.

Nail in the Coffin

I wasn’t sure what to do — I was in shock and all I knew was that I was not going to pay someone to tow that piece of shit anywhere.  So around 11:00 PM my friend Chris took me down to Stella’s resting place, put on her car’s hazard lights, and followed me slowly as I pushed 300 pounds of steel from the University Bridge to South Lake Union.  Roughly two miles.  Half of which is uphill.

I was delirious by the time I got the scooter to Ducati’s garage.  The kick start had nailed me squarely in the calf a few times, leaving a bruised bump the size of a grapefruit.  I left a note for them that said, “Stella no go.  Please light on fire and throw in lake.”

I crossed my fingers that the scooter would get stolen overnight and I could use the insurance to buy a nice old Mercedes biodiesel sedan.

When I called Ducati the next day, they told me it was just a simple clutch cable.  The part costs about $6 and it’s the kind of thing I could have learned to do myself, if I’d just been given a week to read the owner’s manual before she started breaking down.  I picked the scooter up begrudgingly after work, $55 lighter.

As I crossed the University Bridge once again, the sky was growing heavy and dark.  I turned onto 10th Ave E.

And then, as the stormy sky opened up, my tumultuous 6-month relationship with Stella ended.  There was the squeal of tires on pavement, the sickening smell of burning rubber and thick, oily exhaust.  The engine seized.  At 35 m.p.h., the rear wheel stopped turning. I skidded for 50 feet before nearly dumping the bike in the middle of rush hour traffic.

I dismounted the scooter, removed my gloves, and left it on the side of the road.

It’s a good thing I’ve got new walking shoes.

Update: Jeb at SoundSpeed has restored my faith in Stella. $1500 and a new motor later, the rebuilt Frankenstella is finally functioning like she should have when I bought her, with a little added power from the Sito+ performance exhaust. I love Jeb a little bit extra right now. He even fixed the electrical issue caused by a faulty wiring harness, and reinstalled the windscreen correctly so I can now use my mirrors. It’s the little things, you know?