Bombed in Ukraine

Soviet made 1965 Vjatka VP-150

It can be said that age and experience cements certain facts into place. For this writer, comparing patterns of the past to current events concludes history repeating is a stone cold certainty, as is knowing people are people, wherever you go. Instead of celebrating these cultures and colors, we allow a powerful few to expose whomever they wish to violence for power, profit or worse. Few would willingly embrace this sort of tyranny, but the real tragedy lies among those who have no choice. Here, we learn about one such individual, and his remarkable motorcycle.

Never formally agreeing to join his research team didn’t stop journalist Neale Bayly from including me anyway, but we’re old comrades. Born in Britain but relocating to North Carolina years ago, the relationship goes back to our days together at Moto-Euro magazine. Bighearted, often selfless and with an engaging personality, the long list of Bayly’s humanitarian and relief efforts have fostered public awareness, generated fundraising, and inspired some fascinating stories. Finding yet another on a recent tour of Ukraine with award-winning photographer Kiran Ridley, these photos were taken just after 15-to-20 missiles landed in the city of Mykolaiv. Under tight military security and under the deafening blare of air raid horns, Neale meets Ilia and his bomb-proof Russian VP-150, dug out from the wreckage.

(I’m told the remains of IIia’s workshop sits directly behind his scooter in this photo. Nary a scratch. Just a short while before it was discovered, IIia’s daughter sifts through what’s left of their home) 

Wearing Vespa badges and with Vespa-branded items tucked into its compartments, Bayly and his team could hardly be blamed for the false identification. “Once back in North Carolina, I sent photos of IIia’s 1965 Vespa to my contacts at Piaggio,” explained Neale. “Instead of the historical background I was expecting, news came that the bike was a ‘Soviet clone’ – the infamous Vjatka produced in the USSR.” Stumbling across an old wound that may still bother some in Italy, I never learned who made the changes, but clearly homage was paid to Vespa by removing the VP-150’s Red Star fender emblem and replacing its Cyrillic nameplate. What we do know is Ilia (now 75) bought the scooter in 1965 at the age of 18 – an ownership span of 57 years. “It appears fairly original, otherwise,” Bayly concludes. “He had repainted it, covered the seat and added some lights. IIia’s neighbors said it’s been part of their lives seeing the “old man with his Scooter” riding through the neighborhood.”

To my surprise, there’s an abundance of Vjatka info on the outerwebs, and various theories exist as to why Vjatskie Poljary Mechaniceski Zavod (VPMZ, Siberia) produced it. Most likely a State issued, postwar economy booster that provided affordable transportation, others maintain the order came directly from Nikita Khrushchev after seeing “scooters everywhere” on a visit to the west. So while some questions remain, there is no doubt that charges of intellectual theft apply. Not made under license (as PGO, Bajaj and others were) and wholly rejected by Piaggio. We’ll just call it the Cold War discount; saving time (and possibly lives) by re-popping the iconic 150GS, VPMZ had running prototypes by 1956, then produced nearly 300.000 units over the next 10-years. It was replaced by the mid-engine VP-150M in 1967. “The motorcycle craze did not escape Russia,” reads a quote from one Russian journalist. “As one of the first Soviet made motor scooters, the VP-150 generated a very large following.”

(Smartly restored Vjatka VP-150 verses the Vespa Grand Sport it was patterned after. Some differences are evident, Vjatka is over 20-lb heavier)

Combing through scooter forums for info, we learn VPMZ followed Vespa’s engine specs and dimensions faithfully. VP-150 owners report most Vespa rebuild kits fit perfectly, including many aftermarket hi-performance and uprating options (like 12v electrics) currently available for the Italian model. Pulled from a report published by RM Sothby’s, we gain more insight into VPMZ’s early struggles as a motorcycle manufacturer: “Previously building 450,000 gramophones and under severe time constraints, the company looked about for the best Western-made product: the 1954 Vespa VL1. They would build a copy that combined the economical 150cc single-cylinder engine with the chassis and tall wheels of the GS model. Ten prototypes had been quickly built under enormously difficult conditions. For example, of the 10,000 VPMZ workers, only one had a motorcycle license!”

(Cash for more tooling and experience boosted VP-150 production – 100.000 units by 1962. Note wider 4.00″ wheels, and a very busy engine bay) 

In the role of a workhorse/mule, the Vjatka’s durability gives it a clear advantage. Stamped and welded at an outside facility, the sheet metal body, covers, and front fender use thicker gauge steel, making it incrementally larger, if not functionally identical. At the front is a sprung, leading link fork, brake and shock (also manufactured offsite) that directly copies the Vespa, but the VP fits wider (10” x 4.00”) wheels. At the driveline a hollow, pivoting swingarm fastens the VPMZ-made engine/gearbox unit with direct-drive wheel, all suspended by a large coil-over shock. Reliable but not especially powerful, the forward facing 148cc two stroke single is slightly under-square (57 x 58mm) with a single tickler carburetor. Top speed: 45-mph. Issues? A couple. Despite its positioning and cooling fan, overheating could be experienced due to the full enclosure panels, and the engine’s high output magneto regularity fried through the contact points. Properly looked after, the VP-150 would run on for decades.

In a procedure no doubt memorized by IIia and many other VP-150 owners, opening a door under the seat gives access to the fuel tap and choke lever. Completing the circuit by turning a key on the throttle-side function switch, a kick or two brings the two-stroke to life. Even in freezing weather. Clutch out and using plenty of throttle to get things moving, two more clicks of the three-speed grip shifter has the Vjatka humming towards its destination. “The floorboard foot pedal activates the rear brake with linkage, not cables,” says one proud owner. “Indestructible!”

Not really, but the Vjatka VP-150 is tougher than most. Not lost on me, the irony of IIia’s situation and the depths of despair suffered by his countrymen brings more introspection than anything. Is it possible to be angry and thankful at the same time? While in the early stages of this project Neale offered to set up a connection with IIia, but couldn’t guarantee anything due to the constant shelling in that region.  Usually, the completion of a bike feature brings some sense of accomplishment, and while studying Vjatka history was interesting and educational, this one has left me feeling a bit empty. All that’s left are the hopes IIia and his bomb proof 150 live to ride another day. Nolan Woodbury

Specs: 1965 Vjatka VP-150
Manufacturer: Vjatskie Poljary Mechaniceski Zavod
Origin: Oblast-Kirov, USSR
Production: 290,467
Engine: VPMZ 1-cylinder, two-stroke
Displacement: 147.9 cc
Power: 5.5 hp
Length: 5 ft. 6 in.
Weight: 245-lb (dry)
Top speed: 45-mph

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