Down a back alley two blocks from the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa, Dean Wright is busy welding an exhaust pipe onto a ’79 Vespa P200E. Working in site of a whiteboard crowded with notes on orders for custom paint jobs and engine adjustments, he has only a little time for conversation and none for dawdling.
“It’s going to be a busy day,” he says. “We have five scooters – some from as far away as Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Louis – that all need to be finished, polished, and ready for pickup by 6pm.”
Having just put in a 40 hour work week at his second job as a manufacturer engineer Dean picks up some tools and gets to work.
It’s no sweat for Dean and his custom painter/mechanic, Kris Hernandez, who since 2010 have been the country’s go-to team for Vespa and Lambretta maintenance and restoration. Hidden away in a windowless building, their vintage scooter shop Gran Sport Cycles certainly doesn’t look like a traditional store/workshop. But then again, there’s nothing traditional about fixing exotic Italian scooters in a back alley in Iowa, is there? They’re the best, though, and Mike has been going to Dean for scooter advice as customer and friend for almost 25 years!
“Dean and I worked in the same bike shop in the Quad-Cities during the late ‘80s,” explains Mike. “We both left to pursue personal passions. I wanted to open my own shop, and he wanted to study manufacturing engineering. The summer after he graduated, Dean came to help me out as I was opening my first bike shop in Iowa. With a background in bicycle frame building, he knows every inch of a bike. But soon after, Burley snatched him up as a tool designer and toolmaker for their bikes and cargo trailers.”
The job took Dean to Oregon, where he met and fell in love with his wife, Sarah. They were newly engaged when she joined the Peace Corps, temporarily leaving Dean with extra time on his hands. He’d grown up in a garage watching his dad work on muscle bikes and scooters, and that inspired him to buy an older scooter to restore as a welcome home present for Sarah: a green and tan 1959 Douglas Vespa, a nod to his British future mother-in-law.
“I told Kris what I had done and it turns out great minds really do think alike because he also had given his wife a scooter! The girls loved them. And it didn’t take long for us to realize we were going to need a way to get more play time with these machines. So we became founding members of the Knuckle Draggers Scooters Club. Along with 10 or 12 other riders, we rally across the Midwest promoting scooter subculture and sweet rides. And Kris and I wound up servicing club members’ Vespas so often that it made sense to team up and open a repair and restoration shop. We named it Gran Sport Cycle after the Gran Sport series scooters we had given our wives.”
“Dean appreciates every make, model, and edition of scooters,” says Mike. “If you let him, he’ll chat your ear off about the era of the model and its specs, and let you take one for a spin. His enthusiasm is infectious. After my first ride, I knew I was bit. I got bit so bad, that I traveled to Italy in 2001 and wound up buying an entire container load of scooters! Eight years later, I turned to Dean for help appraising an extremely rare scooter I picked on the show: a three-wheel, Piaggio APE Calessino. Between his travels and my previous trip to Italy, we were both left speechless in its presence. It was a memorable moment for us both.”
Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, hip young Europeans were zipping everywhere on their scooters – to work, restaurants, night clubs and bars – they were all breezing through cities and countrysides. That’s when the Grand Sport series flagship scooter was born and flourished, and Dean is determined to show Americans today that scooters aren’t reserved for the elite – they were and still are the common man’s ride.
“I love a jacked-up hot rod just like anyone else,” explains Dean. “But when it comes to my needs, I’m a very practical man. From my personal life to my car, I don’t require much, and that makes me an expert at building on what I already have. Vintage scooters are amazing as they are. They require no extra bells or whistles to enhance their already sexy bodies. That’s sort of how the scooter was created–out of something basic that already existed.”
Dean goes on to explain how at the end World War II, Piaggio, which at the time was a warplane manufacturer, was desperate to stick around even though its business was no longer relevant. After finding a German scooter amidst the war wreckage, Piaggio used it as a model for its version of a practical, inexpensive scooter built using airplane equipment already on hand. Dean says if you look at a Vespa you can see the airplane influence throughout, like how the wheel looks like a plane’s landing gear.
American rides are meant to be tough, solid and showy. But an Italian ride is sleek, stylish and most important, sexy.
The scooter was a carefully crafted machine enjoyed throughout Europe during the Mod years, and Kris and Dean aim to continue to preserve its legacy by not cutting corners and by staying true to the vintage style of the ride.
“Both of us fully understand the culture, each model manufactured, and even the dealer modifications,” says Dean. “One of the best parts about having such a specialty business is that the customers coming to us already match our passion by having a scooter they want to work on. Collaborating with them on their next big project is always exciting. There’s a lot of interpretation and personality that goes into certain projects. Others, like a concourse restoration, require every single nut and bolt to be the way it was the day it left the factory.”
So if you’re just looking for a quick “paint and run” job, you’re in the wrong shop.
Kris Hernandez. Photo by Quinn Kirkpatrick
“We’ve turned people away who are just looking for a quick fix. That’s not Gran Sport style. We are about preserving scooters as the mobile art they already are. We’re so specific, we even try to keep the scooters we work on between the vintage years of 1950-1984. If you come into the shop with a scooter that has turn signals, that’s too new for us.”
When the work day is done, it’s time to bring the scooters out of the alley and back into the garage. But trust that Dean and Kris never skip a second look on their way out the door at all the projects on the floor.
“When I look around this shop, I see my Dad’s influence.” says Dean. “All those years spent with him in our garage fiddling with parts and watching him fall in love with these rides, he’s the one who shared his passion with me. All those hours of father/son time logged in the garage are now mine to recreate with my own son, Shay. He loves to take things apart, clean up greasy parts, and use the sandblaster. There’s a special type of fatherly pride that comes with sharing a hobby with my son.”
And so the love affair continues…
*Special thanks to Quinn Kirkpatrick of Small Wonders Photography for theses photos
Check out Two Lanes by Mike Wolfe. American-Made adventure brand for this double-sided off-white graphic tee inspired by a vintage shirt Mike found.