Tony’s one-owner Douglas Vespa to stay in the family

Douglas Vespa

It’s a sad day for Tony Towle as the Douglas Vespa he bought new in 1960 is strapped on to a bike trailer and driven away to its new home.

But while the scooter is heading 125 miles east of his Leicester home, the pain is eased by the identity of the buyer – his nephew by marriage Ian Chapman, who lives in Norfolk.

“I wasn’t over-keen on selling, but it can’t sit here forever, so it might as well go,” says Tony, 88.

“But if it hadn’t been Ian, then I quite possibly would have kept it.”

“We know that Ian is going to look after it, and we know Ian,” adds Joyce, who met Tony in 1962 at a square dancing evening in Leicester. “That’s why it’s not quite as sad as it might have been if it had just been sold on the internet.”

As well as the scooter, a Douglas Vespa 152L2 model, Ian is taking away a host of spare parts and accessories, along with the original log book, tax disc, and purchase receipt.

Retaining the patina

“It’s nice that all the original paperwork is with it,” he says, “and I’m looking forward to getting it up and running and using it as it is, with all the patina, to keep it as it is.”

But back to the early 1950s, and Tony remembers his first bike, a Panther 250 owned jointly with his brother Roger, then moving on to an Excelsior 200 followed by a BSA Golden Flash.

A couple of cars came and went before Tony, who lived and worked on the family farm in Burton on the Wolds, decided to order a brand new Vespa from Coalville-based dealer Autos Supply.

“I got it because it felt a little more like a car than a motorbike because of the weather protection from the leg shields,” he says.

He picked up the Vespa on January 2, 1960, paying £152 16s 2d, including 17s 6d for road tax, £1 10s for number plates, £7 12s 6d for a windscreen, £2 15s for a front leg shield pannier, and 17s 6d for mirrors, plus petrol and battery.

Douglas Vespas were assembled in Bristol, on the same site where the company had been manufacturing motorcycles since 1907.

By 1948, Douglas was on the verge of bankruptcy when charismatic managing director Claude McCormack spotted a Vespa on holiday in Italy.

He managed to persuade Enrico Piaggio to grant Douglas a licence to manufacture Vespas for the British and Commonwealth markets.

British-built Vespa

Production began in April 1951, with the early scooters almost entirely built in Britain with Douglas manufacturing engine and brake parts, and bodywork coming from Pressed Steel in Birmingham.

By the time the 125cc 152L2 model was introduced in 1959, more of the parts were imported from Piaggio in Italy, but items such as saddles, carburettors, tyres and some electrical components were still made in Britain.

Douglas ceased Vespa production in 1965, but remained as Piaggio’s British importer until 1982.

As he lived on the farm, Tony used the Vespa, his only transport, exclusively for pleasure in the early years.

“I used it for going out in the evenings and weekends to the cinema, holidays, all that sort of thing,” he says, also joining the Leicester Vespa Club almost as soon as he’d bought the scooter.

“It was mainly runs out on a Sunday, sometimes up to Derbyshire, and a meeting one evening every week. I don’t think I knew anybody until I joined it – I just thought it would be a good idea to go out on rides, and it was nothing to do with mods back then.”

Although Tony can’t remember for sure, Joyce says he had almost certainly ridden the scooter to Leicester for an American square dancing event one evening in 1962.

“I went because the girls I worked with knew somebody who went, and I had seen it on TV,” says Joyce, 80. “I said ‘I’d like to go’ and so one or two of us from work went, and that’s where we met.

“We then both put our names down for a tour round the new telephone exchange on Wharf Street (which is now flats).”

Vespa modifications

Not long after he bought the Vespa, Tony carried out a couple of modifications – fitting a ‘Flashing Signalators’ kit, and a secret switch that needed to be flicked to be able to start the engine.

“The indicator and rear light set wasn’t an official Vespa kit – it was actually a kit for a car,” smiles Tony. “And I fitted the security switch because there was no lock or ignition key for the scooter.”

It came in very handy on one night out in Leicester, as Joyce recalls.

“I remember when we were courting, we’d been to the cinema and we were sitting on some seats in the Town Hall Square, having a bit of a cuddle up and such like,” she says.

“Then all of a sudden, Tony shot up and said ‘my scooter!’ and someone was trying to steal it.”

“He was trying to start it, but he didn’t know how,” adds Tony.

“It was because of the secret switch,” says Joyce “You had to know where it was, and the chap just said ‘ooh, sorry mate’ and ran off.”

For several years, Joyce would ride on the back of the Vespa in all weathers.

Riding in snow and ice

“I had fun, except when it was really cold,” she says. “Our first big trip out was in September 1962 after the harvest, because Tony was on the farm doing the harvest. The weather wasn’t too bad, but when it was really frosty and snowy it wasn’t much fun sitting on the back.

“And I never used to like to wear my over-trousers that Tony insisted I wear. They weren’t very fashionable!”

Joyce digs out a photograph of the couple’s first holiday, to Betws-y-coed in Wales in ‘62, with the scooter centre stage with its tartan seat cover and pannier, and luggage box on the rear rack.

“I remember whizzing around Wales on it,” she says, “but we weren’t married at the time, and it wasn’t the done thing in those days to knock on a hotel door and ask for a double room.

“We knocked on one door and she said ‘we’ve only got a double room’ and we said ‘no thank you’, we both wanted a single room. It meant it cost us twice as much, but it’s just what happened in those days.”

Although they would ride out regularly on day trips as far as Skegness, they borrowed Tony’s father’s car, and then used their own converted Post Office van, for future holidays.

They were married in 1964 and, when their son Paul came along in 1966, Joyce’s days as a pillion came to an abrupt end.

Using the Douglas Vespa as a commuter vehicle

But Tony kept riding, the scooter now sometimes used as a commuter vehicle because he had moved out of the family farm and into the couple’s marital home.

In truth, the scooter you see in these pictures is not entirely the scooter Tony rode home on January 2, 1960.

“It’s had a new body,” he laughs, “and a new engine. There’s not much original there.

“I think I was in Burton, I came round a bend and there was a lorry on my side of the road and I think I hit the kerb or something.

“The front of the scooter folds back if you have an accident, and you can’t do much about it except have a new ‘chassis’, as they called it.

“Then the engine just wore out, I think, and I got another one quite cheap.”

The majority of the Vespa’s 71,000 miles were covered in its first 10 to 15 years, but Tony joined the Vintage Motor Scooter Club in the 1990s and attended meetings and rides out for many years.

He was still riding well into his 70s, “just an occasional ride out for pleasure,” he says.

Joyce remembers him returning from one such ride.

“Old man on a scooter”

“He told me he pulled up at some traffic lights in Birstall, and there was this boy in a car with his father,” she says. “The boy turned to his father and said ‘look at that old man on a scooter’.”

Tony now needs a walker to help him get about, and the Vespa has been stored in the garden shed for the past decade.

“I kept it partly for sentimental reasons,” he says, with Joyce adding that he’s “a bit of a hoarder”.

There it may well have stayed for some time but for a conversation between Ian and Tony’s son Paul about three years ago.

“Paul mentioned that his father had this scooter from new, and I said ‘ooh, I’d like to have a look at it some time’,” says Ian, 66, who rode scooters back in the ‘80s and still owns four Lambrettas and a Vespa.

“Then it came out that Tony was thinking about moving it on after having it all these years, and it went from there.

“Keep it in the family”

“I just thought it was an interesting bike, especially being one owner from new, and that it would be nice to keep it in the family.”

None of Ian’s scooters, which include three Lambretta Li150s and a 1955 Model D, and a Vespa T5, are in restored condition, and he plans a sympathetic recommission for the Douglas Vespa.

“It would be nice to get the indicators working again, and generally I’m just going to get it up and running,” he says.

“I’m not sure about putting the windscreen on – it might slow it down!”

Tony and Joyce say one final farewell to the scooter that played such a big part in their courtship.

“It’s been a very nice thing to have,” says Tony.

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