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How They Brought the VéloSoleX from Romorantin-Lanthenay to Golden Valley

by Brian Dominic

My love affair with the VéloSoleX began many years ago: when I went to France on school trips as a teenager, all the youngsters rode them, particularly in Arles in southern France.   A question to my French master revealed the curious quirk in French law which meant that these machines did not need to be registered and could be ridden from the age of 14 without driving licences and, at that time, without crash helmets.  A journey through France to Portugal two years ago rekindled my interest, but there were noticeably fewer to be seen (though I did spot an ancient and grime-encrusted one near Bayonne).

When I returned to England, enquiries led me to (of all places) the Old Kent Road in London; where not far from the Thomas á Becket pub there was, wonder of wonders, a shop which actually sold VéloSoleXs, street legal and shining, but at a price.  Unrestored old ones were also available at more reasonable prices; and moreover help, advice and spares could also be obtained.  However, as a further visit to France was in prospect, I decided to bring one back myself; despite all the tales of doom and gloom ("They don't have a Registration document, Customs won't clear it without, you won't be able to get it licensed") I was given.

Thus it was that July 1989 saw me heading for Dover with small yellow van, wife, two boys, a trailer and a bike rack; Vélo hunting.  Orléans, our main base for the holiday, was a dead duck - "They stopped making it two years ago and we can't even get second-hand ones" - so I was a little disheartened.  However, once we got south of the Loire valley and into country areas, they started to appear.  Our first sighting was near Chambord where we spotted a young man riding a Solex whose frame was bright pink!  As we got deeper into the countryside, more appeared, ridden mostly by old gentlemen in tatty tweed jackets and flat 'ats.

The next big town on our route was Romarantin-Lanthenay, so we resolved to try here for one ourselves.  Unfortunately, we met that uncommon thing in France, but familiar in England; the dreaded ONE WAY TRAFFIC SCHEME, which told me to turn RIGHT when the likely-looking shop I wanted was on the LEFT!  Three circuits (and about 20 minutes) later (well it did go round the entire town) we succeeded in stopping outside the shop, which happened to be a Motobécane agency.  I boldly stepped inside and summoned up my best almost-forgotten schoolboy French.  No, they hadn't got one, but Yes, they could get one by tomorrow, and the price would be very reasonable.

Elated, we went to our camp site about 16km up the road, on a village green (but that's another story) and returned on the morrow to find a 3800 in the alley at the side of the shop.  A run up the road proved it went (and I already knew that if it went it would be all right) so the appropriate small sum of money changed hands and I became the proud owner of VéloSoleX number 4872281.  I also bought a front section of mudguard as the existing one had an advanced case of Tin Worm; and loaded the whole kit and caboodle on the rack on the trailer.

Come the evening, at our next camp site, a close examination and further trial runs took place.  It was fairly obvious that the machine had been stored for a very great length of time and had been somewhat neglected before that, as French road mud was liberally plastered over the front end and the rest was fairly grubby.  There were no real problems, apart from the condition of the front brake blocks, which on a Solex take a great pounding; and a certain reluctance to start which, with hindsight, was the result of lack of familiarity with the beast - now I know that a touch of choke is all that is needed to produce a more-or-less instant fire-up.  Unfortunately, the next morning my euphoria deflated with the front tyre.

During the day, a visit to another dealer resulted in the front tyre being replaced (and me discovering the very simple method of adjusting the front brake) and, once we had arrived in Paris, further forays to the Camp Shop (conveniently situated on the other side of the site) and to local shops for food and other essentials took place.  Our last camp was at a site just south of Calais, where the country lanes towards Cap Gris Nez provided a last opportunity for longer runs before the journey home.  It was here that the one fault I have so far encountered, a certain reluctance on the part of the plug lead to stay attached to its plug, reared its ugly head.  It was here also that I discovered that Motobécane had a habit of using odd bolts (like the 10mm thread bolt with a 9mm head which holds all the gubbins on top of the cylinder), but once all this got sorted a 12km round trip along the N1 to fill up with Deux Temps (2-stroke to you, mate) was a fitting last run before we loaded up for the ferry home.

Knowing the problems that could have occurred, I had collected what I thought were the appropriate pieces of paper: a Bill of Sale (quoting the engine number) for the bike itself, plus bills for the tyre, mudguard and one of the fill-ups.  As I was aware that importing a vehicle through Customs can take some time; I had arranged that when we reached Dover my good wife would go through the Green Channel with the van, trailer and children, with instructions to wait for me on the Other Side; whilst I with my own passport, paperwork and money (to pay the Duty) would go independently through Passport Control and into the Red Channel.

Thus it was that when we received the summons to return to the car deck, the Solex was unloaded and I wheeled it up to the bows of the ferry, to get off quick.  Understandably, there was a certain amount of interest from the crew, so much so that when the ferry had docked, I got off first and Brian and Solex triumphantly put-putted down the ramp, over the four-lane flyover, and through Passport Control into Customs.

"I want to import this into the country and register it - can I have a Clearance Document?  I've got a Bill of Sale and some other receipts..."

"Certainly sir... How much did you pay for it... I see...Hmm... The engine number agrees with the Bill of Sale... I shouldn't think there will be any great problem, but there is just one thing... I've always fancied a go on one of these, can I have a try?"  No sooner said than done - once we had ALL enjoyed the spectacle of Solex and HM Customs in happy harmony, and all the other Officers had come and had a nosy, we went over to the little office, I filled in the appropriate form (leaving blanks where the Solex didn't fit) and, ten minutes later, was given the required documentation with no Duty to pay!  I got out of the Customs Shed to find that the wife had just cleared Customs and organised a parking space.  The Solex was reloaded and we set off home.

The next day, a call to my Insurance Broker organised some cover (though the young lady didn't know what a motorised bicycle was - odd that) and the MoT (on the engine number) was a matter of "Front brake works, back brake works, tyres OK, lights work - it's passed".  Next to the Vehicle Licence Office where, apart from a curious desire to call it a Velocette, there were no problems in obtaining a "Q" registration which was duly endorsed on the MoT Certificate.  The number plate was attached to a wooden box on the carrier until something better was obtained.  Having obtained a number plate and helmet, there I was, street legal 24 hours after getting into the country.

I joined the NACC and discovered Bob Champ, who gave me a "date"letter so that I could obtain an age-related registration.  The bike was in fact built in 1967, so when I returned to the Licence Office (once they had decided not to inspect the vehicle) I was granted MVO 980E, which was duly endorsed on the MOT (again!).  I was rather pleased about this, as "E" is the rarest "old" letter (only used between January and July 1967).  I also obtained a copy Parts List and Instruction Card, and am currently trying to obtain parts from a dealer in Paris.

A visit to a local old bike specialist did not come up with a suitable "proper" rear number plate with brackets; but a specialist newspaper he had led me to a shop in Liverpool with a stock of Raleigh Wisp rear number plates and rear light brackets, which now it's fitted doesn't look too bad; though I suspect the extra weight may have something to do with the rapid demise of both back mudguard stays - thank goodness I've joined a Night School class in welding!  I haven't been able to get small white numbers yet; so I'm running on a small yellow/black one, which although not strictly authentic, at least has the virtue of making one more visible at night (and we all know how poor a Solex rear light is!).

Since my return, new brake cables and a set of new front brake blocks have been fitted, the stand has been modified so that the bike actually stands on it, both bust rear mudguard stays have been welded up and a great deal of oily greasy dirt removed from various parts of its anatomy.  After November 7th, when it will be ridden to mark the first anniversary of the end of production,a major strip-down is due to take place so the frame can be grit blasted and resprayed and the chromework redone ready for next year.

I am enjoying using it as a means of transport (rather than as a Vintage Vehicle) - I have used it for the thirty-mile round trip to work which is fine while the weather is good; but otherwise, my local preserved railway is only a mile away, and trips to the local shops are well within its capabilities.  However, should the need arise, a 100 mile journey (like the three laps of the Milton Keynes Grand Prix circuit completed on 1st October) is not beyond the bounds of possibility - I just wish the van I otherwise use for transport was as reliable!

First published in two parts in December 1989 and February 1990

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