The Motorcycle Diaries

The journey of restoring a 1957 NZeta 501 and a planned road trip

First published in Life and Leisure Magazine

At the end of WW2, an uncle of mine went to Australia from Holland. When I was a kid, he regaled me with stories of riding thousands of kilometers through the parched outback on his Vespa. Long roads, hot sun, not a soul in sight. Everything he owned was packed into a top box, strapped to a carrier, together with a jerry can of fuel. At night, he’d park under the stars, the moonlight casting a Vespa-shaped shadow onto the ground where he slept. If he got a flatty, he'd flip the scooter over and plonk on the spare. It took minutes. For the better part of two years, his scooter tracks criss-crossed the outback. Maybe he was getting the war out of his system.

Those stories shaped my imagination and desires. So when I was a teen, my first motorised vehicle was a scooter. It symbolised independence and freedom. And it had style - a way to stand out from the crowd.

The scooter had excellent provenance. The Americans parachuted a small scooter behind enemy lines in WW2, and Vespa (Italian for "wasp") modelled their now famous two-wheeler on this.

The scooter gave third-world countries like Indonesia and Brazil an economical form of transport. India shipped an entire Vespa factory from Italy, re-assembled it, and manufactured a Vespa branded Bajaj. It putters around today carrying towering loads, along with the entire whanau. And the Vespa gave Audrey Hepburn a ride behind Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.

In the 70's, I'd scooter around Auckland in lizard winklepickers and a long Russian overcoat. I was a decade out, a throwback to the 60's scooter sub-culture called The Mods.

Then came work and family, and 30 years sped by. The crisis of the middle years descended. I was travel writing, satisfying my globe-wandering urge, but I'd lost direction. When I saw a clapped-out scooter on Trade Me, with an odd, dominant proboscis, ending in a single car headlight, I felt my pulse quicken. This wasn't just a scooter. This was my uncle and his ride to recovery. And in some way, it promised my recovery. I thought: I'll ship it to Auckland and nurse it back to health, nut by nut, panel by panel. Then I'll ride my way through the midlife blues.

Only later did I realise I had neither a garage, tools, nor know-how to pull this thing apart and rebuild it. Not nut by nut. Not panel by panel. The fantasy collapsed. What on earth was I thinking?

The scooter had an oval badge on it. I looked closer. It was called an ... Nzeta. I was astonished to find I'd purchased a genuine piece of Kiwiana. In production from 1957 to 1960, it remains NZ's only manufactured scooter.

The Nzeta was a carbon copy of a Czeta, from communist Czechoslovakia, where it was manufactured during the post-war years as an economical alternative to a car. In a way that's hard to pinpoint, it looks communist.

In 1957, Aucklander Laurie Somers took the daring step of importing and assembling the Czeta, making certain components in Aotearoa and rebranding it the Nzeta. It cruised the streets for three short years.

Amazingly, I was able to source parts from the Czech Republic. I purchased new exhausts, footrest rubbers, mud flaps, and indicators.

A local mechanic removed the Nzeta's 175cc Jawa engine, and, over the next five years, it travelled up and down the country in pursuit of someone who could rebuild it from scratch. It went from Christchurch to Auckland to Dunedin. Up to Whangarei and down to Pukekohe and then to Manukau.

The engine was fitted with new bearings, seals, piston rings, and chain. The barrel was re-bored. The clutch was renewed. The gears adjusted. Wheels were refitted with high-tension bolts. And the seat was remade in a beautiful tanned leather, honey brown, with an orange peel texture. I bought the hide myself and delivered it to the upholsterer with a pattern I drew on the computer. I meticulously studied images of original Czetas and painted my Nzeta in two-tone - fire engine red and white.

But every time my scooter came home, it was never quite roadworthy. I felt ready to give up. This restoration dream is over, I thought. Then a chance encounter at a heritage luncheon changed everything. The guy next to me, Ken Woof, owner of the heritage home Whare Tane in Mt Eden, told me of his hobby of restoring classic cars. I asked him, between bites: "Who can fix my Nzeta?" He put me in touch with Ryan from Mac’s Garage. I had the scooter delivered there. My brief was simple: get this thing roadworthy.

A month went by. Lockdown came and went. Another month. Then two more. And then I got an email. It's done. Ryan had got it purring. "It's a great ride," he said. "Solid as a brick shithouse."

Getting the Nzeta registered caused further consternation. There were no previously known NZ owners. Working in conjunction with the Vintage Car Club, I filled in forms and signed a DOMAS certificate in front of a JP. The compliance center checked and recorded the chassis number. I filled in an NZTA Alternative Documents form and sent the package to New Plymouth for sign-off.

It took ten years to restore the Nzeta. My mid-life moment has passed. But it's not too late. I plan to ride the length of our country looking for the post COVID-19 New Zealand spirit. I'll park in some coastal town and fossick for stories before winding my way down the rugged west coast. And at the end of each day, I'll hunker down beside the shadow of the Nzeta, cast by a full moon, and look at the stars...

Then again, maybe I'll stop at a motel.