I was looking up something about my Vespa. In grand Jockomo fashion I had forgotten what a particular indicator light meant on my scooter’s instrument cluster and after failing to find the information in either the Google or Google Images results I pulled up YouTube and entered the same criteria.
When the results came up, I saw something that instantly reminded me of my father and his legend, of my struggle with making new friends, and of the icon parked in my garage–the thing I’m trying to figure out, the thing I will never really figure out. I saw an image of Rolf Soltau on a Vespa. Rolf Soltau: Preceptor of the American Vespa Technician.
Immediately, I was taken back to the first rally I ever attended, IL Inferno Scorciante Due (or The Hottest Hell 2) hosted by the Vespa Club of Sacramento (VCOS). It was July of 2010, and I had recently purchased a used 2005 Portofino green Vespa GT 200L. On the Friday-night Meet & Greet, Billy, a member of VCOS, had walked up to me at Bonn Lair, an Irish Pub here in Sacramento, and shook my hand as if he meant it. He was so friendly, making it his honor to introduce me to all the club members that I nearly didn’t believe him when he said No to my query about becoming a member of VCOS.
It was Billy who, on the second day of the rally, introduced me to Soltau. We were now at The Shady Lady. Billy yelled in my ear over the music something like “I want you to meet Rolf Soltau,” as if I was supposed to know who Rolf Soltau was. Soltau looked like any guy in his mid-70s or so, but he was surrounded by adoring scooterists–many of them young enough to be his grandchildren. As Billy and I came closer, I heard others mention his name in reverent whispers. It was Déjà vu in the dark. Replace Vespa owners with Keaton Boat owners, The Shady Lady with a boat ramp or the Stockton Ski Club and Soltau with my father and it was the same thing. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but I was in the presence of a living legend.
Rolf Soltau was born in Hamburg, Germany. (As a student of journalism, I’m a man of dates, but as a particularly poor student of journalism, I haven’t been able to find an obituary or a death notice on the man. I only know he is dead because I accidentally stumbled upon the sad news in Modern Vespa one night some months ago.) It’s a crime that Wikipedia.org doesn’t have an entry for the man, but no one has come forth with enough information to post one, I suppose. (I would think someone at Vespa Club of America or his own Vespa Club of Los Gatos (VCLG) would have enough information to at least start a post. Hell, maybe if I ever find a death notice I’ll start one!)
Soltau worked for Porsche from around 1951 to 2000. In 2000 Piaggio (the company that owns Vespa) approached Soltau with a five-year contract to spearhead a training program for Vespa‘s newly formed North American division. Soltau trained over 700 technicians in five years across the U.S. and Mexico on how to fix these iconic scooters. He would go into semi-retirement in 2005 and work five more years in a similar capacity before finally hanging it up in 2010–around the time I met him. Soltau was living in the South Bay Area most of the time he worked with Vespa and, in retirement, was the celebrity (and I would imagine the heart) of the VCLG. He died in May of 2016. From the posts of that time period, it appeared the Vespa world wept.
So that’s who the old guy with the silver hair and glasses keeping the young scooterists in rapt attention was. Billy introduced me to Soltau. Billy told Soltau my name and what kind of Vespa I rode. Everyone stopped and looked at me with their judging vintage-scooter eyes. Soltau smiled and said hi and then said in a thick German accent, “GT 200? All you’ll need to do is keep oil in it, and it will serve you for years.” He smiled at me again then continued to explain how P125s or some other old Vespa needed so on and so forth. I walked to the bar and ordered some non-alcohol drink at an alcohol price while Billy and the rest of the vintage VCOS listened to every word that proceedeth from Soltau’s mouth.
That evening the rally moved to Midtown Scooters for a barbecue. Midtown Scooters is a tiny shop, in fact, it is a fragment of a larger property that is leased out to multiple small auto service business, but the word among the vintage crowd was that it is the place to get your older scooter fixed. “Tim is the only guy you want working on your scoot,” I recall someone saying when I asked how good the mechanic was. I doubt the person I was talking to knew I was one of the few Judases riding a newer Vespa.
I didn’t see Soltau there. I did meet someone else besides Billy from the VCOS though I don’t remember his name. He was tending the grill and explaining to me when Vespa cut over from the two-stroke motors to the four-stroke a little bit of its soul got lost or some BS like that. Despite that foreboding (and stupid) comment I decided to ask him if he thought someone would sponsor me with my late-model Vespa as a VCOS prospect.
He smiled, handing me a hotdog in a bun and said, “No. We’re a vintage club.” Then started in on how great it is to have a vintage Vespa. I wanted right then and there–hotdog in hand–to ask him rhetorically isn’t the whole reason the Vespa Club of America exists is to promote the Vespa product? Not these old ones (and maybe even not my five-year-old Granturismo, for that matter). Vespa does not get a dime from someone buying a rusty old 1966 Super Sprint. Of course, I held my tongue and ate the dog. My teetotalling ways probably won’t mesh with these excessive beer drinkers, anyway. After I finished the dog, I downed a diet soda and quietly mounted my ooooh so gauche GT 200 and left. Since I decided to never attend another VCOS rally (and hazard the chance of photobombing club members’ shots of all their K00L P125s, Super Sprint’s, and Rallys with my butt-ugly GT 200), I never had the opportunity to see Soltau again.
Belated vindication! Soltau is using a late model Granturismo in the attached videos. (Either a GTS 300 or 350; a Super by the looks of the detail.) Take that, VCOS vintage snobs! Soltau also took a swipe at vintage snobs in the first video, as well.
Sorry for the rag-tangent. This post is sounding like it’s about me rather than the Master Technician. Then again this blog’s foundation is principally made with first person singular cement. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I never turned out to be a club guy. I tried to hang out with the Sacramento chapter of the Royal Bastards Scooter Club. A club that happily accepted owners of all makes/models of scooters–Billy! After only a few awkward meetups and a Rio Vista run gone sideways I was reminded there’s a reason I’m a loner: whenever I make an effort to become a part of something beyond myself someone usually pisses me off. I’ve been riding solo ever since.
Anyway, below is the ten-part Vespa Tech Workshop I accidentally ran across. Strange I didn’t find this earlier. I don’t think any of my usual readers are going to go through the ten videos lasting over six and a half hours. I’m posting it anyway because I’m a hopeless hero worshiper and though I only saw him for a moment (and occasionally see his immortal image on many VCLG Facebook posts popping wheelies, eating, drinking, smiling, and laughing with his club members) he was a monumental figure in the scooter world, though very approachable. Kudos to Ryan Kirk who recorded and posted these on his YouTube channel back in 2012. Will I ever use these videos? Me? Ha! I’m the guy who struggles to replace an inner tube on his bicycle! No, I don’t think so, but my model is mentioned throughout the videos, so one never knows. I’m just glad Soltau and Kirk had the foresight to record these treasures and share them with the shooter world!
Postscript: While watching these videos, Rolf answered the question that indirectly led me to the discovery of this treasure trove: the light on my instrument cluster is a diagnostic LED for the electrical system. Now to look up the flash sequence codes to figure out what my ride is trying to tell me. So I did glean something from these videos.Thanks, Rolfie! You were a mensch!
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This is great seeing Rolf again. These classes were from his garage at his house. I miss Rolf. I worked with him for many years after he closed his auto repair shop in Los Gatos, and came to work where I worked.
He was funny as hell, and was a very good hearted person. I was at his house multiple times and we we would go to lunch sometimes and he always had great stories. We went to Laguns Seca one time and had an awesome day walking around and enjoying the races.
I was with him and his friends when they began the trip on their Vespas from San Francisco to the Vespa factory in Italy. We had Breakfast at the diner next to the Cliffhouse in SF, then they rode across town and I peeled off as they went East across the bay bridge to cross the USA then on to Europe…on Vespas!
He took about a month off work to make that trip.
An amazing guy. I still miss him.
So many, many more stories, some intense ones from when he was a kid growing up. I will never forget that crazy old German.