On a vacation to Vietnam two decades ago, Harmik Nazarian — known as Max —spotted a vehicle amid the chaos on the streets that would change his life forever.
“You saw a lot of bicycles and people on the street, just old-fashioned life,” he recalls. “And there were lots of scooters, lots of Vespas. Then one day I saw this thing, I didn’t know what it was, but I was just captured by the look of it, to the point that it took me three days to track it down again.
“It was chaos, and being a tourist I had no idea where I was. But I managed to find it again, and I approached it and looked at it. Oh my God. It was a brand new discovery for me, the world of Lambretta.”
Inspired by its function and beautiful lines, Max returned home to the United States, went searching online, and imported three Lambrettas from the United Kingdom. And thus the genesis for his workshop and museum, Planet Lambretta, was born.
Max wanted to create a place where enthusiasts could go, have their Lambrettas fixed, learn something, and be part of a community united by a shared passion. He’s created a treasure trove of memorabilia, and a fleet of chronologically ordered Lambretta models, in varying conditions, some roadworthy and others standing in their original glory as enduring works of art.
He has many clients who come to his location in Carson, California, with old Lambrettas in various states of disrepair, and end up staying for hours or days, working on the engine or the the body work, enjoying the camaraderie, sharing their mutual love affair for these vehicles of beauty, all steeped in history and stories that Max is keen to share.
“There was nowhere for me to learn, so I created that thing,” he says. “It’s like another world that attracts all types of people. I have two clients that are pilots, both that were interested in finding out how this motor works. They saw the beauty, but they want to see what’s going on underneath.
“There’s another gentleman who is a maintenance manager for multiple hospitals, so he’s dealing with Covid issues over and over. He comes here on Saturdays, and he ended up buying three Lambrettas from me. And when he told me he was taking a vacation I asked him where he was going and he said, ‘I’m coming here.’ So his vacation is coming here and wrenching! These are guys that share my passion for this, they come here and they are in Lambretta heaven.”
This career move, following his passion, has been something of a rebirth for Max. Armenian, and born with his formative years spent growing up in Iran, he moved to California as a teen when his father, unhappy with the restrictions and religious fanaticism, decided to move his family to the United States to begin a new life.
With a keen interest in how things were made, Max became an electromechanical engineer designing antenna for commercial satellites for Hughes Aircraft, which later was bought out by Boeing. But then, growing weary of the rigors of corporations, and the pressure to deliver innovative and groundbreaking technologies that saved the company millions while he had to make do with a weekly paycheck, Max made the decision to branch out on his own. For a while he became successful in the stock photography world, but with the advent of high-resolution phone photography, he began looking for something else again.
Having experienced many ups and downs in his life, which included living in his car after the breakdown of his marriage, Max realized the importance of self-care and immersed himself in books and seminars to help him get back on track and connect to a greater philosophy on how to live.
“Nothing comes to you until you get yourself straight,” he says. “That’s where it comes from. When you line yourself up with the universe, when you have that understanding, the world just unravels in front of you like a red carpet.”
So at aged 45, he made the leap — and set out a conscious plan which he thought would lead him to a more fulfilling life. “Because you can’t just meander through life, you have to have a plan,” he says. “So my plan was to follow my passion, doing what I liked to do.”
Part of what was clear to Max following his self-reflection was that he wanted to get back to that place of joy which was so abundant in him as a child, and he decided he could do that by creating a space where he and others could learn about Lambrettas together. He was committed to following a path which brought him satisfaction, and ensured his precious time was well spent, so embarked on creating the space in Carson – a somewhat unlikely mecca for this Italian brand — with the energy that naturally attracted other like-minded folks. Passion and enthusiasm are indeed infectious.
Max opened his Planet Lambretta space in 2017, after many years of working from his home, where he would have to hide the scooter parts he collected in the bathtub and behind the couch. A keen believer in the value of personal service and connection, Max has grown the location as a hub of community. Rather than get lost in questions on the internet from potential customers, Max encourages people, if they want to make a deal with him, to visit his domain. There, he’s happy to share a few hours of his day, offering his advice, skills, and know-how. And like any great collector, he’ll happily educate and delight you in the many aspects of the many different models amassed in his vintage collection.
Of course, he’s well aware of the benefits of social media and uses it to show off these veritable works of art, but also believes strongly in the benefits of word of mouth. Planet Lambretta is now beginning to gather an audience that is both fascinated and charmed by its standard of excellence and the inexhaustible knowledge of its owner.
Talking about his commitment to building his collection, Max recalls buying one model at a three-day swap-meet in Italy, breaking it down into parts, and sending it back to California in the post, accompanied with some blocks of local parmesan cheese. It took a year of wooing the Italian owner, two trips to Italy, a four-course meal at the seller’s home, and the usual happy banter of bartering to secure the deal. Once home, he then applied the philosophy he does to all his vehicles, which is to “give her all the attention that she needs to bring her back to her original glory, or even better.” And he feasted on the parmesan for about two years!
Restorations can take up to 18 months, and for budding enthusiasts who want to delve deeper into these iconic vehicles, these two and three-wheeled rarities that have carried lovers and workers, princes and paupers, over cobbled streets, farmlands, the stylish streets of Rome and the world over, Max offers up these important points.
“Like anything collectible, there are three factors. Number one is how rare it is. Number two, condition. And number three, which is very important, is desirability. You may have something that is very rare, but if nobody wants it, there’s not much value in it. So that also applies to the Lambretta world.
“There are models where 120,000 were built, there were models where 37,000 were produced. So popularity grows from that aspect, which also dictates the price. And since I’ve been involved with this, the prices have been going up. Models that you used to be able to get for $2k are now $5k. And back in the 1980s, when no-one was interested, you could buy them for $50 to $100.”
And he thrives on unearthing rough diamonds, known as ‘barn finds’, across the US. He says, “These scooters were purchased over the spring or summertime, and then the winter comes and they put them in the barn. Next year they go to start it up and it’s not starting because the oil and the gas separated from each other, and that’s where the expression ‘barn finds’ comes from. So some of these I come across, I take the motor apart and it’s literally brand new.”
And explaining the appeal of the Lambretta over its best-known rival, the Vespa, Max adds, “Lambretta was always trying to appeal to the intellectual mind. They’re a smarter, better build… Whereas Vespa always had the sexy girls on their ads.”
Taking your time to really breathe in Max’s Lambretta museum, there’s thousands of curiosities — from rare accessories, to original posters, overalls, vintage badges and memorabilia — to enjoy. Visitors are transported into a world that is simpler, more peaceful, and grounded in pragmatic engineering, beauty, and the romance of travel. There’s also an equally captivating presence of a man, determined to enjoy his life, inspired to share his delight and passion.