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No, not a Dutch Volvo (née DAF) but a VéloSoleX. I suppose that because they're cyclemotors (or, strictly, mopeds) that we all feel that they are a small-scale industry. Not so. If you think about it, to have built the best part of ten million of la bicyclette qui roule toute seule even in forty years, some nifty assembling must have been going on. The game is given away in a beautiful, full-colour booklet in both English and French: "The Birth of the VéloSolex" published in 1967 by the then makers of the VéloSoleX, SINFAC (Societé Industrielle Nouvelle de Fabrications pour l'Automobile et le Cycle), at the address of 68, Boulevard de Verdun, Courbevoie, France - which is a sort of Parisien Longbridge.
"Mass production" says the booklet "demands precision and quality at all stages" and so it proves to be. Along with photographs, we learn from the text that the die-cast crankcases were automatically machined on devices capable of producing 2,000 units per day and that the crankshafts were balanced and checked automatically - fed from hoppers - to a tolerance of 0.004mm. Cylinders were automatically checked for porosity and machined, untouched by human hand, being then fed on a line towards the pistons and connecting rods, themselves turned and assembled by machine.
5,000 petrol pumps per day were made (were the extra 3000 for replacements on existing machines?) on other robot machines, as were the same quantity of fuel injectors. Human contact appeared, at last, for the final engine assembly, where each engine was put together by one man, but it didn't intrude into the frame areas, where large Spiert presses formed the sheet metal parts. Frame pressings were welded, painted and trimmed by another machine but, again, assembled into complete cadres by hand.
Wheels were spoked by machine, turned and balanced in one operation, before proceeding to tyre-fitting. Plastic tanks and other parts were bought-in. After mass running-in of the engines, they were assembled to the frame and wheels by hand on a production line and finally tested on a rolling road before despatch, although a proportion of the production went out in knock-down form to be sold in 75 other countries (being made locally under licence in three more).
This startling degree of automated manufacture was introduced for the Solex 3800 onwards, the earlier models with tubular frames and metal tanks not lending themselves so well to such methods, and is presumably the process in use today , though it seems that the evergreen 3800 is now made in much smaller quantities.
Truly a machine for Everyman, even if not every man helped to make it!
First published - April 1991
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