Couple’s deep love for scooter rallies

Chris and Leigh Howlett Lambretta GP125

Two flight jackets, 30 years apart, are testament to Chris Howlett’s enduring love for scooter rallies.

The first dates from 1985, when Chris travelled to all 10 national rallies, from Dunbar to the Isle of Wight and Colwyn Bay to Great Yarmouth, and stitched on the Paddy Smith patches to prove it.

Fast forward to 2015, and a new jacket with another full house of national rally patches, this time completed with wife Leigh, who had been introduced to the rally scene three years earlier and instantly fell in love with it.

Flight jackets national scooter rally patches

When the couple met in 2007, Leigh had never been on the back of a scooter, only motorbikes.

“It was nearly the end of our relationship before it started,” she laughs, “because when we met we were chatting and he said he was into scooters, and I said ‘what, like mopeds?’

‘It’s not a moped’

“He said ‘it’s not a moped’. ‘Ohhhh, right, OK’.

“But I was converted fairly quickly. It’s much more comfortable than being on the back of a bike where you’ve got your knees up by your ears, and he also put a backrest on for me and that was it, I was sold.”

She remembers when they picked up their 1960 Series 2 Lambretta Li150 from Kent in 2012.

Lambretta Li150 Lambretta GP125
Lambretta Li150 (left) and GP125

“I followed Chris in the car, and this guy on a huge Yamaha came across four lanes on the M25 to give him the thumbs up,” she says. “I thought ‘oh, there must be something in this’.”

Since then, Chris and Leigh have attended well over 100 scooter rallies in the UK and Europe, as well as a two-week tour of the Alps on their Vespa 300 GTS, one of four scooters they can choose from.

“We’ve had some amazing experiences that we never would have had without the scooters,” says Leigh, “and I absolutely love being on the back.”

Chris Howlett Lambretta
A young Chris on his dad’s Lambretta

“While it’s still fun, and while we’re still physically able to, we’ll keep going,” says Chris, 56. “We’ve been to some fabulous places, and the one rule we have is that if you can’t ride, don’t bother going. We don’t take a back up van, just spares and lots of two stroke oil.”

There are two distinct phases to Chris’s scootering life, pre-1990 and post-2012, with a 22-year break from the scene in the middle.

Chris’s first Vespa

He got his first scooter, a Vespa 50 Special, at Christmas 1982, two months before he turned 16.

Vespa 50 Special
Vespa 50 Special, Chris’s first scooter

“I suppose it was the mod thing, which I got into when I was about 12 or 13,” he says, “listening to Secret Affair and The Jam and that sort of stuff with my mates at school.

“At school you were either a new generation mod, or you thought you were, or a rocker.

“I remember riding to school on my 16th birthday on my Vespa 50. The school was only about 200 metres away from my house, but I had to go anyway – even though it was in February and freezing cold.”

His first rally was a couple of months later at Great Yarmouth, Easter 1983.

“I went as a little mod, in a parka and everything, and when I got there the parka went almost immediately,” he remembers. “The whole mod thing wasn’t the way to go – it was almost completely a scooterboy thing already by ‘83.

“I also went to Skegness that year on my 50 – about 140 miles at 28mph. There were six of us, all on 50s, with a massive trail of lorries behind us. Looking back, tractors were coming past us, it was absolutely embarrassing.”

After a year of crawling along at moped speeds, Chris bought a brand new Vespa PX125 on hire purchase on turning 17.

Morecambe scooter rally 1984
On the PX125 at Morecambe in 1984

“That opened up the world, because all of a sudden you can go everywhere at 55mph, so in ‘84 I went to a lot of the national rallies,” he says, chatting at the couple’s home in Maldon, Essex.

Vespa P200E

“As soon as I passed my test, I sold the PX125 and bought a Vespa P200E, which was my rally workhorse from mid-1984 right up until 1990.”

Derbyshire Dales scooter rally 1984
On a scooter rally to the Derbyshire Dales, 1984

Not that the two-year-old P200E was in the best of shape when Chris acquired it from a farmer in Norfolk.

“It was a bit of a wreck,” he says, “because he’d used it as the farm runaround, bit of a curious choice for that.

“It was dented and the dark blue paintwork was crap, so I had it sprayed by a mate of my dad’s in an orange colour. It had a cut-down site panel because I couldn’t do anything about the dents, so I just cut them out.

Vespa P200E
Vespa P200E with cut out side panels

“Then in ‘85 I went for a full custom job on it, had a John Spurgeon airbrush design on it and lots of chrome and engraving.”

National rallies 1985

This was the scooter that carried Chris, then 18, on every national rally in 1985 to, in no particular order: Exmouth, Yarmouth, Clacton, Morecambe, Donington, Redcar, Colwyn Bay, Isle of Wight, Weston-super-Mare, and Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland.

Vespa P200E

“Dunbar was a long way, 300 miles from Norfolk where I grew up, and I took my mate on the back,” he says.

“I remember that rally because it was pretty rough. The locals didn’t take too kindly to the scooters being there and most of the pubs wouldn’t let us in.

Scootering Times 1985
As featured in Scootering Times coverage of Exmouth 1985

“I think we ended up having some cans in our tents on the campsite in the rain, a bit of a miserable rally really, and then we rode all the way back home again on the Sunday.

“It seemed to take forever, and we got home in the early hours of Monday morning.”

Isle of Wight riot

Isle of Wight 1985 was the scene of the infamous riot, not that Chris can remember much about it.

“I was camping on the campsite,” he says, “in fact, we could see the stage from our tent and it all kicked off, but I think I was so drunk at the time that I don’t really remember very much.

Lambretta GP125 and Li150

“There was a nasty National Front element that had infiltrated through the skinhead part of scooter riding, combined with a period of football hooliganism as well.

“It makes me wonder why I carried on.”

But carry on he did, until the 1990 rally at Skegness, after which he decided that enough was enough.

“I took my brother on the back, and he wasn’t into scooters, he was a biker,” says Chris. “But he was going through a difficult time, so I said ‘do you want to come with me and we’ll have a bit of a laugh?’

Lambretta Li150 storage box

“It was his first ever rally experience. We got there on Saturday lunchtime and went into this traditional seafront pub, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.

“It was quite boisterous, a bit rowdy, and there were people throwing things around in the main bar, but it wasn’t violent. Then the police, mob handed in riot gear, came in through the front door, grabbing hold of people and nicking people.

Lambretta Li150 headset

“We left by the back door as all this was going on, and he thought ‘bloody hell, I didn’t think it was going to be like this’. These things were always heavily policed, but I’d never seen a baton charge into a pub.

Ugly atmosphere

“Then later on in the day there were various disturbances and scuffles on the seafront, mostly scooterists against scooterists, and there was this skinhead element that was stirring a lot of it up. The atmosphere was ugly, it was horrible, and my brother hated it.

“We got up early the next morning and came home, and I thought ‘this isn’t for me anymore, I’ve had enough of this’. It had been turning a bit like that over a couple of years.”

Lambretta Li150 side panel

Chris didn’t attend another scooter rally until 2012, but carried on riding the Vespa P200E and carried on attending soul all-nighters.

“That’s one thing I’ve never stopped doing,” he says. “It’s always been a big part of it for me. At the rallies in the ‘80s, they were bringing over soul acts from America, and people like Edwin Starr appeared. I still do the all-nighters now.”

The P200E had survived the ‘80s while other Vespas came and went, but it very nearly didn’t survive the ‘90s.

“It was stolen in 1992 from outside my house,” he remembers, “but the police found it in a ditch, and that’s the only time it’s been out of my possession, probably for about a week.

Lambretta Li150 front mudguard

“The front mudguard was wrecked, and the legshield was all dented in on one side, so it pretty much wrecked the custom work that had been done to it.”

The engine then blew up one day when Chris was living in Brighton and using it for work, but when he met Leigh it was “all in one piece and running”, albeit little used.

It’s now in the course of a full restoration and under covers in Chris and Leigh’s garage.

Vespa P200E rebuild

“There have been various different rebuilds over the years, but the latest one is the most extensive,” he says. “The frame was pretty rotten because it had been standing outside for a while and it needed quite a lot of welding.

“I took it to The London Scooter Bodyshop, part of Retrospective Scooters, and the guy there is a perfectionist. He’s done a fantastic job on it.”

Until 2012, Chris had always been a Vespa man, but took the plunge with the Series 2 Li150 that has since done the bulk of the scooter rallies.

Lambretta Li150 badge

“I like the styling of Lambrettas, and I like the sound of them, and I also knew about the reliability reputation,” he says, “but thought ‘well, I’m an engineer so I’ll give it a go’. And you need to be with Lambrettas.”

“I’m an engineer now, never mind you,” laughs Leigh.

Their first rally together was the Big 7 event on a Kent hop farm, Chris’s first for 22 years.

“It wasn’t a national rally at the time but it was knocking on the door of being part of the national rally scene,” he says. “It was quite a big event, probably 2,000 there and lots of live bands. It was a bit of a rowdy spectacle really.”

Lambretta Li150 front wheel

“It was the first time I’d been in a tent,” adds Leigh, “and we had a great time. Our tent was a good way away from the main event, but Olas Boss was there and, lying in the tent, I could feel the whole campsite vibrating.”

John O'Groats Lambretta
At John O’Groats on the North Coast 500

The rallies follow a similar format to those of the ‘80s, says Chris – “music, drinking beer, custom show, parts dealers, people standing around talking bollocks about scooters is essentially the formula”.

Rally violence has gone

“They’re not really very different, apart from that people are older and the violence has gone, which is great. I’ve done far more rallying since 2012 than I did in the ‘80s.

Lambretta Li150

“But the thing for us has always been the journey there and back, particularly on the Lambrettas, because it’s a sense of achievement. ‘Should we have really got here?’ And quite a few times we haven’t.

“We’ve had quite a few breakdowns and recoveries over the years. Generally we’ve been on our way home, which is better obviously, and the breakdowns have ranged from the rear wheel falling off to holed pistons and failed stator plates.”

Part of the reason for so many breakdowns is because Chris admits to “chasing the speed”, with a range of engine modifications over the years.

“The guy who runs ScooterLab, Iggy Grainger, has a lovely description of a scooterist – ‘someone who takes an already unsuitable form of transport and then modifies it so it’s less likely to get to the intended destination’,” he says.

Lambretta Li150 exhaust

“That is spot on, and is exactly what’s happened with all of our Lambrettas. The Series 2 was a 185 when I first got it, and we went to our first Euro Lambretta to Austria on it, two-up, and we decided it was too slow.

“So I got a 198 kit for it and fitted it myself, and that didn’t make much difference. Then I made a big step up by buying an SST265, which is a fire-breathing 38bhp engine that will do 90mph plus.

“It was spectacular, and it would genuinely pull 90mph. We came back from the Lake District on it, down the A1 in the fast lane at 80mph overtaking everything, and it was shocking people as we were going past.

Innocenti Lambretta Li150 front badge

“But it doesn’t feel safe at all. This thing came out of the factory with 6hp, and it’s now doing 90mph – it was a beast of a thing.

“Unfortunately, it was no good for two-up because of the ground clearance on the exhaust. Every time you went round a right-hander it just ground out the down pipe. I tried everything – got a longer rear shock, and adjusted everything as much as I could, but it was no good. In the end I blew it up on the way to a rally in Scotland.”

The scooter is now fitted with a TS1 230cc unit, which is good for about 20hp – 80mph flat out and a comfortable cruising speed of 60 to 65mph.

More spares than clothes

This history of breakdowns has resulted in an increase in the amount of spares the couple carry on their travels.

Scooter rally Poland
The GP laden with spares and luggage entering Czechia

“If I think back to that first rally to Austria on the Lambretta, we didn’t take anything, just screwdrivers and a spark plug, now it’s a spare piston, stator and all sorts,” says Leigh.

“When we pack, the scooter gets this much luggage, and I’ll get a tiny little bit, a change of t-shirt and a change of pants and that’s it.”

The other Lambretta in our photographs is a 1971 GP125 with a 185 kit, one of the last Italian-built GPs and bought by Leigh for Chris’s 50th birthday in 2017.

Lambretta GP125 1971

It, too, has done its fair share of rallies, including to Poland for the Euro rally, and to the Derby 150 Lambretta Club Rally just before Covid.

“We were near Ely on our way up there when I pulled up to a roundabout and it just cut out,” says Chris. “I pulled over and there was no spark, totally dead. I diagnosed that the stator plate had gone, but I didn’t have a spare, or a flywheel pull or anything.

“So we phoned Cambridge Lambretta, the nearest dealer, and asked if he had a stator and if he could drop it over to us. He couldn’t leave the shop, so we called a cab, who picked up the stator and some tools that the guy in the shop lent us.

Lambretta GP125

“We changed the stator by the roadside, and about an hour and half after we broke down we were up and running again. You can do things like that because everything’s mechanical.

“For example, on the Ireland trip a couple of weeks back, one of the guys blew the head gasket on his GP, and I had one, so we did a top end rebuild in a petrol station.”

European scooter rallies

The couple’s European adventures have taken them to Ireland, Poland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Czechia, and the Netherlands.

Colditz Castle scooter rally
Outside Colditz Castle

One of the more memorable trips was to Scooterist Meltdown at the never-commissioned nuclear power plant at Wunderland Kalkar on the banks of the Rhine.

Run by German club Spirit of 84 Scooterists, it’s an all-inclusive affair held every February, with Chris and Leigh riding over in the snow in 2014 on the GTS.

“It was hilarious,” says Leigh, “because they’d drawn some pretty cows and pictures on the cooling tower, and that’s where they put the kids’ funfair. It was bizarre.

“Our accommodation was the old admin block, which still looked like an office in which they’d shoved a bed in and bathroom in the corner. A bizarre place, but fantastic.”

On the couple’s Alpine tour, they remember staying in a “beautiful” hotel at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, because it “the treat part of the holiday”, says Leigh.

Scooter rally Italian Alps
With the Italian Alps in the background

“I’m not sure what the maid thought, because there are all these very la-di-da people staying there, and there’s us washing our pants and socks out and hanging them around the room,” she laughs.

“When we pulled up they’ve got this big arrival archway, and there’s this guy unloading this Porsche or Ferrari, and then there’s us waiting in turn on our GTS, covered in flies and shit,” adds Chris.

As for the future, there will be more scooter rallies, more roadside repairs, and a rejuvenated Vespa P200E ready to rejoin Chris on as he relives the ‘80s but in a more mature, less violent environment.

Chris and Leigh Howlett Lambretta GP125

“We love it,” says Leigh. “It’s about the journey, going to different places, and meeting friends.”

Scooter stories is a series of articles exploring the lives and experiences of scooterists and collectors. Click on the Scooter Stories category link to read more.

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August 8, 2023