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Grandpère’s Solex

February 17, 2011

In the late 1940s, France was licking its wounds, still reeling from the war years, and there were great shortages of practically everything. For most, life was a great struggle since so many men had disappeared or been disabled. Yet, in 1946, an astounding new machine was created that would revolutionise the way French people travelled. The VéloSolex was born! By 1950, more than 30,000 of these fantastically cheap and economical machines were on the French roads.

Grandpère and Grandmère

Grandpère and Grandmère

My grandparents were living on the island of Oléron, in the little village of Boyardville where Grandpère was in charge of the administration running the ferry service with the mainland. He would cycle to work every day, a short, easy ride though the mimosa bushes and the tamaris, greeting his numerous cousins on the way, dreaming of the weekend shoots or the next fishing expedition……He would be home for lunch at precisely 12h05 when Grandmère would be waiting, ready with his déjeuner. Back at work at 14h00, then home again at 18h00. Change of clothes and off to the garden which he had surrendered over totally to vegetables and fruit growing. Being a retired army officer, he was a very methodical and meticulous man. His garden was his pride and joy.

Then, the main ferry boat between Boyard and La Rochelle blew up on an old floating mine and the authorities decided to abandon that route and to use old war car ferries on a much shorter crossing at the south end of the island. Grandpère’s job was protected but his advancing years were beginning to tell. He didn’t have a car and his new place of work operated on a shift system that required him to be there at 05h00 on occasions. He and his colleagues could sleep in an old bunkhouse that had been crudely converted for the purpose and gradually, they all turned to the VéloSolex for their transport.



This was a new lease of life! Now motorised, Grandpère acquired a kind of freedom of which he hadn’t dreamed. Off he would go on his way to his three day shift, food in his panniers, fit for a king. Grandmère felt so sorry for him that she packed all sorts of treats, treats she could ill afford sometimes. As soon as he’d started on his journey his panniers bursting with goodies, he would meet up with his mates and they would ride together as a posse all the way to the work station. Now the journey took him through the salt marshes and the oyster beds.

Once he arrived and settled in the bunk house, food and drink were spread out and exchanged. He and his friends were little boys again, away from the wives and the house duties. I always thought my Grandpère looked magnificent on his machine, especially in bad weather, when he’d come home dressed in an abundance of weatherproof gear, floating towards home like a great ship.

Grandpère took great pride in servicing the Solex and kept it in top condition taking it apart and oiling all the delicate parts every week. With so much fine sand and sea salt in the air, neglect would soon have wrecked the engine and rusted the wheels. The machine was basically a hefty drop frame bicycle with a 45cc motor sitting on top of the front wheel. A handle could be pushed forward to engage the motor after Grandpère had cycled a few yards and the machine would then take over. It could go for miles, at about 17mph and used very little two stroke mix. Of course, running out of fuel was not a big problem as the engine could be disengaged and he could pedal till he sorted himself out. Somehow, I doubt that he was ever caught out!

Grandmère and Grandpère

Grandmère and Grandpère

One winter, Grandpère became poorly and stopped going to work, I suppose this is when he retired. I remember Grandmère applying “ventouses” on his back. These were similar to glass yogurt pots. She would slip a piece of cotton wool wet with medicinal alcohol and set fire to it, then quickly put the mouth of the pot to the bare skin of his back and it would stick to him, creating big weals of red skin all over. When he coughed, the pots would clink together and we, children wanted to laugh even though we were so sad for him. We were filled with horror when it was time for the mustard poultice that was to be applied to his chest. It looked and smelled diabolical. When he miraculously got better, the Solex was resurrected but Grandmère only allowed weekend sorties. The rest of the week, it stood immaculately in the garage.

Of course my brothers and I were allowed to sit high up on the saddle under his watchful eye, and ping his very loud bell. We dreamed that one day, we would put it on the road when we were strong enough to cope with its weight. Grandpère was kind enough to take us round the block when Grandmère wasn’t around. Riding pillion was always such a treat, hugging his great frame for dear life, getting high on the thrill and the fumes! As we were going into our teens, we graduated to our own rides and the competition was fierce. However, both grandparents were getting frail and soon, we weren’t staying there so much. When we did, we could use the machine to do errands as long as we returned it clean and oiled.

Then Grandpère died. By that time, I was married and had young children who very quickly got the Solex fever. My eldest son’s ambition, from very early on, was to sit high on the saddle and eventually to ride pillion with one of his uncles. Just like Grandmère, I wasn’t too keen to see him go off! When Grandmère passed on, the house was sold and somehow the Solex disappeared. I hope that it had become the object of someone’s desire and that it has found a good home.

Recently, I was delighted to find out that my eldest son is now the proud owner of his own Solex which he bought in a second-hand shop. Who knows, with the present problems on the road, someone is going to see a gap in the market for cheap and stylish transport?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

george February 18, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Lovely to read these memories. I have always wanted to know more about those bikes in France with the motor on the front. Charming photos too.


Doug Shaw February 20, 2011 at 11:59 am

What a lovely story! As a fan of two wheeled transport I have enjoyed reading your tale. Vive le Solex!


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