Monday, July 07, 2008


By John de Kruif

Rob is an advocate of the “Ride them as the maker intended” school. He arrived at my house last Sunday morning with his trousers covered in oil and blue smoke pouring from his bike’s engine. ‘It’s a racer’, he told me ‘It’s supposed to be fast so it should be perfectly OK to ride it flat out on the highway for half an hour’. Rob owns several old motorcycles; his Longstroke Sunbeam was featured in another posting on this blog.

Today he arrived on his 31R, a 500cc OHV sports tourer made by the Belgian Saroléa factory. Joseph Saroléa started an arms factory in 1850, in a small town called Herstal, near Luik (or Liege), close to the Dutch border. After his death, his widow and sons Joseph and Emile took over and hired the engineer Martin Fagard who designed the first Saroléa motorcycle engines around 1900. Saroléa did quite well, at one point even exporting engines and bikes to England.

From the 1920s on, Saroléa started building fast OHV models and Rob’s 31R is the predecessor of the more famous mid-thirties Monotube racers, also called the Saroléa ‘Grégoire’s’ after the famous racer Robert Grégoire who died racing one in 1933. Later models are less interesting and the recession of the 1930s combined with a fierce competition from England after the war finally finished off motorcycle production in 1957, a similar fate as bestowed to the two other main Belgian motorcycle manufacturers, FN and Gillet. Rob’s Saroléa 31R model is from 1931; the 31 tag denotes the year the bike was built while the R stands for racing. The bulbous Bosch electric components may look odd for a racer but they were fitted by the factory, see the catalogue pic. It does distract from the elegant lines of the bike that closely follows the design of British bikes from that era. The three-speed gearbox is Saroléa’s own design and replaces the Sturmey Archer boxes that were fitted until 1927.

The engine oil is carried in the sump, in front of the engine; the Bosch magneto is driven by gears instead of a chain. Nice details are the double float chambers on the carb and the exhaust baffles that hinge across the open end of the pipes, operated from a lever on the handlebars and my guess is that the ‘H’ on these baffles stand for Herstal.

A previous owner, who's name may have been 'F.van Brussel', fitted the St. Christophe amulet, tacked to the headlight for good luck. Also indicated by the dealer plate, the bike was once sold in Ypres, a Belgian town famous for a disastrous battle in the First World War. Overall, the bike looks very original and being restored some years ago it has aged very well and has that ‘used’ condition that I like so much on an old motorcycle.

Once the 31R had cooled down a bit, I took my 1929 M18 Norton from the shed and we went for a ride, to compare our bikes and find a nice café for a drink. Interestingly, the Saroléa is no match for the Norton as long as we stick to twisty country roads and dikes. Rob blames it to the short wheelbase of the machine that tends to drop into bends with an enthusiasm that is a bit scary. This order was completely reversed however when we headed for his house, and to spare some time, did a few miles on the highway. This bike is seriously quick and there was little more I could do than watch him disappear in the distance, overtaking cars, and catching up with him later at a traffic light, grinning widely. Nice one, Rob!

[John estimates that the Sarolea will do around 90mph, as his Norton has been GPS timed at 77mph]


Anonymous said...

An other Sarolea Racing built in 1932 ("32R" model)for sale at
Engine fully rebuilded 30 years ago with genuine parts, still in good condition (Rided 5000Km since that time).
No part missing, excepted rear light & speedometer cable drive mecanism on the front wheel small bracket.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm currently rebuilding a 32B. If possible I'd like to ask your friend john about the spark plug, which is missing on mine.
I'll be glad to hear from you, thanks in advance! crassesetbordelATyahooDOTcom

Anonymous said...

Hi All,
I recently purchased a garage lot of old bike spares and received a hand change gearbox that looks distinctly like those used on Sharolea bikes from late 20s or early 30s.
Can someone please drop me a mail on and I'll send them a photo to confirm what I have.

Worcester - South Africa