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Battling With Betty

Julian Lakin

She came in an enormous cardboard box and needed precious little more than aligning the handlebars before venturing forth onto the Queen’s Highway.  She is nearly identical to her predecessor, last seen in a moped dealer in Aix-en-Provence in 1966.  But, so far, not as fast.  She is called Betty after my late godmother, whose small legacy funded her purchase.

By now you may have guessed that Betty is a Hungarian Solex 3800, bought new from the enterprising Mr Petersen of Oxford a year ago.  Why buy a new Solex in 1998?  I suppose the answer is part nostalgia, part practicality.  Nostalgia for those carefree student days in the South of France of the 1960s, and practicality for the need of a cheap runabout to use in Central London.

Betty’s Solex predecessor was the slightly older model with the round, rather than square, headlamp.  And I am convinced that she was faster, and better on hills.  I lived on a hillside above the town, and I have no recollection of resorting to pedal assistance on the way home.  But memory plays strange tricks 33 years on, and I suppose that I have put on a few pounds since.  Like a good wine (appropriately in her case a Tokay rather than a Burgundy, given the country of manufacture), Betty should improve with age.

The only weakness of Betty’s forbear was lack of drive in wet weather on the rather muddy track up to the house.  As a consequence, she was replaced with a racy motorcycle-style machine of mixed parentage.  Motobécane is what it said on the nameplate, but the engine was definitely Italian and the gear change was on the left handlebar, Vespa-style.  It sounded like a demented wasp, and was undoubtedly the fastest moped in Aix.  And I won’t bore you with the Magnat Debon which came next, nor the variety of larger motorcycles that transported me until the mid-70s when sanity set in, leaving only my wife’s Honda PF50 in the shed.

But back to Betty.  How would she cope with Central London traffic? Would she be frightened of the big red buses and clattering black cabs? Would she be the subject of contempt and abuse? The answers are OK, a bit and not yet!  Indeed, she does appear to turn heads.  Taxi-drivers, prone to drive elbow-out in the summer, frequently engage me in conversation at traffic lights.  Front wheel drive, I say - very modern!  Older citizens of Continental origin or habit smile and wave.  Small children just point.

The first thing to remember when Solexing in London is that it is not flat.  From the Solex perspective, Knightsbridge to Hyde Park Corner is Shap Fell.  A swift 20mph past the Hyde Park Hotel (funny looks from doorman) falls to under 15mph on the upgrade to the Corner.  23mph down the underpass becomes 12mph up the other side.  Bicycle couriers scream past at all times, derailleurs crashing.  Weaving through stationary traffic to the front of the lights is fine for the scooterists with their snappy acceleration, but a testing pursuit with only 0.5bhp under the bonnet.  Only worth hazarding if the drag to the next lights is short.  In London, cyclists do not stop for red lights....

Indicators would certainly be nice, as the inevitable wobble when slowing and hand signalling at the same time would be avoided.  Somewhere in the garage is a set I bought to fit on a Triumph Tiger Cub, which I expect could be adapted via a regulator and battery.  Any suggestions, club members?  At the moment the only extra lighting is one of those very bright clip-on cycle rear lights, which I use at night as it will show up when the engine is idling at traffic lights (and hence voltage is low and the normal rear light dim).  I have also fitted a cycle electronic speedometer/mileometer too, which provides evidence of the stupendous speed and distance capabilities of the Solex!

And what about bus lanes? Taxis and pedal cycles can use them, but not 20mph mopeds.  You get the faintly absurd (and somewhat dangerous) situation of being overtaken by buses, taxis and bicycles on the left and other traffic on the right.  Betty would be far safer in the bus lane.  On the subject of rules and regulations: I read that the authorities have decided to make it more difficult to ride mopeds by removing the exemption for car drivers to need a motor cycle licence.  Typically daft when every moped means one less car congesting and polluting, and we all know that some EU countries require neither licence nor registration.  Over to you, Two Jags!

What I really need now is a ‘bidon’.  My Aix Solex had one clipped to the front forks, the litre or so of extra Solexine enabling me to tour extensively (well, at least as far as Marseilles and the Camargue).  Anybody got one for sale? Meantime, the existing capacious reservoir seems good enough for London.  So far, the longest journey in the Metropolis has been Mayfair to Putney and back for a lunchtime meeting, not exactly of epic proportions.

Anything gone wrong so far? Only a dodgy HT cable, which I replaced with Champion product.  But the plug colour suggests that, even allowing for the oil mixture, she runs a bit rich.  Also, the idling speed is definitely higher than necessary, which cannot be good for the clutch shoes.  But the throttle is definitely shut as much as it can at idle.  In aggregate, however, nothing much to complain about.

I may lose the use of Betty next month, as my elder undergraduate daughter has a greater need.  It will be sad, but perhaps appropriate, as it was at university that I had my first Solex.  History repeats itself.

PS: Subsequent to writing this article, I have just discovered that my late grandfather had a cyclemotor (make unknown) during WW2, which he used for travelling between his London home and the Air Ministry.  It was subsequently passed on to my eldest brother, who used it in Northumberland in the early 1950s.  So ‘cyclos’ do indeed run in the family!

First published - October 1999

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