Saturday, August 31, 2013


Ana Llorente and her 1956 Motobecane 175ZC salt flat racer
The 2013 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance celebrated, among other things, French motorcycles on its infamous golf course by the sea.  I was commissioned by Pebble to write a short history of the French motorcycle industry, incorporating some of the motorcycle marques present at the Concours on August 15th. The 2013 Pebble Beach program is beautifully illustrated, and my article looks great: copies are available here.  I've included the text of my article below, with photos from this year's Concours.
Evan Orensten from 'Cool Hunting' and the Best in Show winning '37 Peugeot 515SP with Bernardet sidecar 

French motorcycles are exotically mysterious to English speakers, as little is published celebrating the long list of 'firsts' credited to French ingeneurs, and the heritage of remarkably elegant machines which followed in the first half of the 20th Century. The dawn of motorcycling (1870-1920) is dominated by French inventions and experiments, and the French probably invented motorcycling; the earliest recorded concept of a powered two-wheeler, back in 1818, is an etching of a ‘Velocipedraisiavaporiana’, or steam-powered draisine (the 'hobby horse', a pedalless bicycle), supposedly demonstrated in the Luxembourg Gardens. Steam power was gaining traction all over Europe; the print may have been satiric, but the concept was right on - a motorcycle, ridden by a handsome young man, no less. 
Pebble Motorcycle Concours judges Jim Thomas, Tom Meadows, and Somer Hooker look over a second Peugeot 515, this a '38 model owned by Bryan Bossier of Sinless Cycles
The first documented functional motorcycle - still extant at the Sceaux Musée in Paris - was a combination of a new pedal-driven 'boneshaker' (invented by Pierre Michaux in 1863), and a small, single-piston, alcohol-burning steam engine built by Louis-Guillame Perreaux. Perreaux's ‘steam velocipede’ was patented in 1869, and was capable of 30km/h, as demonstrated frequently outside his Paris workshop on rue Jean-Bart. In 1874 Perraux headlined a paper discussing his inventions (also with three wheels) as 'a likely replacement for the equine species' - how correct he proved to be. 
It came late, but it did arrive: the one-and-only four-cylinder Majestic, with a Cleveland engine, the Franco-American hybrid many thought didn't exist, or was a replica.  I'll run a full article on this machine soon!
The perfection of the 'safety bicycle' in 1885 swept Europe (and the US) with two-wheel fever, and specialized racing tracks for bicycles - velodromes- became hugely popular attractions. This craze coincided with the advent of internal combustion moto-bicycles, often demonstrated on velodromes to provide a 'draft' for fast bicyclists. Crowds thronged the banked tracks, fascinated by these new 'pacers', on which riders sat bolt-upright atop an enormous, slow-revving motor of practically automotive capacity (often two or more liters), powered by a massive Buchet, Peugeot, or Marchand engine. Thus began the Age of Monsters; it wasn't long before these mighty pacers were pitted against each other on the banking, a sport which evolved into specialized 'board track' races in Europe and the US. 
1931 Peugeot P107S Tour de France in military spec
By 1896, pioneers like the Comte DeDion were building far more sensible motors of relatively high rpm (3000!) and modest capacity (400cc) which were soon powering bicycles and tricycles in France, England, and the US. The DeDion design powered the first motorcycles in the US and Britain, who copied French motors under license, or not! Engines were clipped into every imaginable position on heavyweight bicycles; above the front wheel, above the rear wheel, next to the rear wheel, beneath the headstock, under the saddle. Each of these positions shifted the center of gravity to locations with undesireable consequences, especially the 'dreaded side slip' (skidding). A dreadful combination of loose road surfaces (paved roads existed, if at all, only in the center of cities), and poor balance made falls a miserable certainty. 
Steve Brindmore points out a potential safety issue with the '31 Peugeot: perhaps 'original at all costs' has too high a price? Clearly, this machine isn't ridden, an important point given the requirements of Automobiles at the Pebble Beach Concours - every car is encouraged to drive the Pebble Beach Tour prior to the Concours, in order to be considered for judging.  Entrants to the Motorcycle Concours rarely ride the Tour - this year only Bryan Bossier rode on his Peugeot.  If the point of the 'show circuit' is to bring history alive and to the public, certainly motorcycles should be included. Otherwise, they're a sideshow...
In 1901 Werner patented the 'right' placement of a motor, in place of the pedal crank at the bottom of the frame, then one-upped themselves by creating the first-ever vertical twin motor (think Triumph) in 1904, before the death of the Werner brothers Michel and Eugene in 1907 finished the enterprise. 
The judges watch John Lawless start his 1949 Peugeot 156, a 150cc two-stroke single in original paint
Innovation was the very air of Belle Époque France, and marques like Buchet and Peugeot built the fastest and most reliable motors available in the 'Noughts. They were stalwarts of motorcycle racing, which had broken out of Velodromes, and French racing engines were suddenly the hot ticket in the US and England too; the inaugural Isle of Man TT was won by a Peugeot-engined Norton in 1907. By 1901 Clément made a very popular 'Autocyclette' by clamping a small 240cc motor to their own-make bicycle frame (most early motorcycle makers built bicycles previously, or were champion cycle racers); it, too, was raced, and with little competition at that early date, it did quite well, except up hills. 
John Light shares a 1960s video of his grandmother riding his 1945 Motobécane D45A Pebble entry, in original condition
Peugeot are better known for their cars today but are in fact the world's oldest still extant producer of powered two-wheelers (since 1898 - take that, Harley D!). Peugeot designer Ernest Henry halved the engine of their 1913 Indy 500-winning 'L45' four-cylinder race car, and created the world's first 4-Valve, DOHC motorcycle (without the car's Desmo gear - which left Ducati something to boast about 40 years later), the '500M' racer of 1914, a parallel twin so technically advanced it could have landed from outer space. The French dominated their competitors in sophistication, race expertise, and sheer engineering savoir faire, at least until the First World War intervened. 
The irrepressible Bryan Bossier with his Peugeot 515.  Note the chrome tank emblem - a Deco version of the Peugeot 'lion' logo in profile
Magnat-Debon emerged with an ultra-light racer in 1906, on which their #1 racing rider, Jules Escoffier, had success at Mt Ventoux and other important events. In 1911, Escoffier insisted M-D needed a more powerful v-twin, which they refused, so he stole Joseph Magnat's niece along the chassis design of the Magnat-Debon, creating the 'Mandoline' OHV V-twin; the new Koehler-Escoffier became a French racing legend. In 1927, Raymond Guiguet designed a completely new engine for KE, with a shaft-and-bevel OHC similar to the Velocette KSS of 1925. The '500 GP' had a crankcase flat ready for drilling to create a new OHC V-twin; the resultant 1927 Koehler-Escoffier 'Quatre Tubes' (four exhausts) is surely one of the most charismatic motorcycles of all time, although little known outside Europe, one of very few overhead-camshaft V-Twins produced before 1930. Alas only 7 were built, and while all survive, their owners are understandably covetous, and they never come up for sale. 
A short lineup on the Pebble lawn: 9 entries this year.  French motorcyles weren't imported to the US prewar, and appeared mostly in the 1960s/70s as mopeds.  American consciousness of French motorcycle history is only now dawning, and a few interesting machines are trickling across the Atlantic, but the best and most technically interesting French motorcycles are in France!  And jealously guarded there as national treasures; coaxing owners to ship their machines to California for the Concours proved impossible. Pebble Beach has no 'draw' among European motorcyclists, who have their own priorities.
As the 1920s progressed, French engineers were rarely at the forefront of global motorcycling technology, and the English usurped the top spots in racing and development...but none could compete with the French for sheer style. A wave of Art Deco swept the French industry, with the most Deco-to-its-bones being the 'Majestic'. The child of Georges Roy's fertile imagination, the Majestic grew from Roy's previous project, the humbly-named 'New Motorcycle', which had a radical monocoque chassis in 1925. In 1927, Roy used a car-type chassis of box-section steel, with hub-center steering and a Cleveland 4-cylinder engine, all wrapped in curvaceous metal bodywork. Nevermind that air-cooled motorcycle engines 'cook' without decent air flow (the Majestic has plenty of louvres, but no cooling fan), nothing quite like this machine had ever been seen, and it remains unique among production bikes even today. Roy may have only built a single Cleveland- '4' prototype (which makes its first-in-80-years public appearance on the Pebble Beach lawn); 'production' Majestics used Chaise, Train, or JAP engines, usually of one or two cylinders. The Majestic's robust chassis and excellent steering makes even a 'sports' engine of the day feel grossly underpowered. With such looks, it really ought to be the fastest thing on two wheels! 
Dashboard of the Majestic; pure Art Deco.  The 'cracquelure' paint job was an original option for Majestics.
By the 1930s, familiar marques such as Peugeot, Terrot, Alcyon, and Motobecane built boulevardiers of breathtaking Art Deco perfection, the two-wheeled equivalents of a Delahaye or Délage, which remain among the most beautiful and stylish motorcycles ever built. Being French, the industry continued to push the limits of technology with advanced four-cylinder OHV and OHC engines (Chaise, Train, Motobecane, etc), and radical chassis design. The MGC (Marcel Guiguet et Cie - he of the Koehler-Escoffier 'Mandoline') was a glorious failure of aluminum casting technology, having integral fuel and oil tanks within a very shapely all-alloy chassis; the porosity leaks were cured by cooking the frame in resin, but fatigue cracks plague enthusiasts of these rare beasts even today. 
John Light's sons will likely inherit their great-grandmother's Motobécane
Aircraft engine manufacturer Gnome et Rhone built the advanced ABC flat-twin motorcycle immediately after WW1 (licensing the design from rival Sopwith!), and followed this design years later with a much larger flat twin of 750cc housed in a pressed-steel chassis, reminiscent of contemporary BMW practice, but revealing the Germans a somber lot, compared to Gnome-Rhone's feminine Deco extravagance, suggestive use of chrome, and swelling curves. While no longer at the cutting edge of racing technology by the 1930s, highly competetive, even awe-inspiring racers yet emerged from French workshops, as marques like Terrot, Jonghi, and Magnat-Debon built magnesium-engined racers which won European and French national championships. 
Another view of the Peugeot 515 with Bernardet sidecar...look at those cast-aluminum mufflers!
Most memorable, though, is the magnificent development of Koehler-Escoffier racing machines during this period. In 1934, the very busy Guiguet transformed his 'Quatre Tubes' into a mighty OHC 1000 V-twin of brutal gorgeousness, so inextricably linked to its pilot, Georges Monneret, the name 'Monneret' is synomymous with the machine, as he developed it to win National Championships through the 1950s. The K-E 'Monneret' remains the crown jewel of French pre-war motorcycling. 
The grass wasn't the only place to find bikes at Pebble: MidAmerica Auctions pitched its tent of bikes too
Postwar, French motorcycles were stylish albeit generally small-capacity machines, rarely larger than 250cc, excepting the flat-twin police Ratiers built along BMW lines. No equivalent of the Citroen DS emerged, although irrepressibly talented engineers blossomed in racing circles. The Nougier family but put their stamp on history by home-building the fourth-ever transverse DOHC four-cylinder racer in 1953 (after Gilera, NSU, and MV Agusta). The machine was so good, Norton's Joe Craig attempted to purchase the design...but the Frenchmen would have none of it. Two decades later, the Elf team revived the Majestic's hub-center steering for their unorthodox racers of the 1970s and 80s. The first break in a 'lightweight curse' came from Voxan in the 1990s, with a sporting 1000cc OHC V-twin, which succumbed, sadly, to the Crisis of 2009. Except for these bright intervals, French two-wheeled industry has been dominated by scooters and mopeds, as amply evidenced on every street in Paris.
Alfa Romeo 8C; part of a 28-strong exhibit of 1930s Alfa 8-cylinder cars
Alloy-bodied Rolls reflects the morning fog
1914 American Underslung - nearly a motorcycle with such big wheels!
Looking like a 1950s Barris custom car, half coach and half Rolls...
Pets allowed
Seen on the streets of Carmel; Roger Rabbit's custom trike
1920s yacht with nefarious history; ex-Al Capone
His gold LV bag matched my shoes...
In the MidAmerica tent; a Crocker speedway bike
Deco upon Deco: where's Gatsby?
They're all babes, but for the day, they became the East Side Moto Ladies
The 'Preservation' class grows each year as Pebble wakes up to the burgeoning trend for original machines.  Roger Hoffman's '55 Ferrari 250 Europa GT V12 engine, pretty much as it left the factory.  Found in Sicily at an automotive mechanic's shop.
The inside of Roger's Ferrari 250 Europa, complete with priapic shift lever.
Twin superchargers for this '35 Frazer Nash TT Replica; Prewar Preservation class
The Indycar display's pop graphics helped banish the grey weather
10 vintage Indy racers, which sounded amazing when fired up
Can you hear me now?
Yes, your nails match the Ferrari; yes, you should buy it.
Styling does not equal Function, but it can raise a smile
Cool gear; vintage '24 Heures du Mans' Hermés tie, vintage Steve McQueen Persol sunnies
Euro-cop: Dutch 'Rijkspolitie' '74 Porsche 911 Targa.  Owner Guus Reinerink was blasting Euro-disco from the loudspeaker...
Porsche 911 Competition class
Even Indycar collectors enjoy a nice bottle of vin rouge now an then
PreWar Preservation Voisin Clairiére Berline from 1935, without the eye-watering Art Deco interior fabric designed by Paul Poiret... owner Bill Pope claimed not only that the leather interior was correct, but that many 'Deco' interiors were added much later...scandal!  Voisins have come out of the woodwork in the past two years, after winning Pebble Beach and other Concours...
Would you like your Indycar in yellow?  What shade?

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Anonymous said...

Great article!

- Greg Kolstad

Anonymous said...

I used to own a 150cc Motobecane Scooter which was really amazing in many respects. Alas I parted with it due to the difficulty of getting spares and keeping it running.

- Michael Oliver

Anonymous said...

Not a Z56C but a 175 ZC.

- Seb Bednarski

The Vintagent said...

Thanks Seb; I was going by Pebble's info...

Anonymous said...

Nice cases Ana.

- William Berndt

geordiebiker said...

Paul, outstanding reporting of a marvelous event! I'm jealous that you attended. As i probably will not have the stars align to be a a Goodwood FoS I'll have to make do with a trip to Pebble Beach. We have a vintage British Car & Motorcycle gathering here in Palantine IL next weekend. It'll work for me!

Dave Lawrie

The Vintagent said...

Hey Dave, unless you're a Concours fanatic, I'd rather be at Goodwood and watch the cars and bikes in action in a peerless environment, but maybe I'm jaded, as Pebble Beach is my 'local' show!

Anonymous said...

Correction: Every car is NOT required to run in the tour to be eligible for judging. Participating in the tour only gives you preference in the event of a tie. It is not obligatory. To be eligible for judging, a car or motorcycle is required only to start.

To give credit where it's due, the ONLY motorcycle to participate in the tour this year was that of Brian Bossier of Louisiana. Not a small consideration.

Anonymous said...

My two cents to add to your inference: Motorcycles are indeed a sideshow at Pebble Beach and have been for the whole 5 years they've been tolerated.

Come to Pebble for the cars, not the bikes. If you keep that in mind you won't be disappointed.

- MH

Anonymous said...

Paul, thank you for the great writing about French motos - they are a reminder that French design achievements like the DS, Concorde, and TGV had deep roots.
Alan Pizzi

The Vintagent said...

@ Anonymous; thanks for that clarification, I've changed the text to reflect that Most cars make the Tour, as it's considered a big 'plus' in judging, while very few of the Concours bikes are ridden - this year only Bryan Bossier on his Peugeot 515 did the ride.

Mark said...

Regarding the Goodwood Revival in the south of England, I attended in 2011 for the 50th of the E Type and it was fantastic all the way around. The place just seethes with great stuff, interesting people. The crowd is maybe 30% in "period dress", no modern vehicles are allowed into the display area and you can easily tour the pits, get REAL close to the cars, bikes and owners/drivers. Pebble is a great "car display" and has killer top flight vehicles. Goodwood puts it all in context, is a total experience. Plus, the Brits are just great to be around, fun to hang out with.
National Motorcycle Museum

Chris said...

Regarding the 515 Peugeot with the blue Bernardet side-car, I had the chance to be in Detroit at Classic & Exotic's office on Aug 3rd, 2013 when the bike and side-car were being put together and took picts that you can see on our Bernardet website:
Mrs Dreist is a subscriber of our Association (the red hair lady on your picts).
See our FB page and pict albums
Chris, grand-son of René Bernardet and webmaster of ACVB.