Images of Yesteryear

The photo gallery whimsically entitled Illustrative Melange was inspired by images kindly supplied by my chum Francois who has also put together a series of excellent pictorial reviews of motor cycling in the equally excellent Leicester Phoenix MCC website (I strongly recommend a visit to which is a unique cornucopia of stories and pics devoted to motor cycling rallying, touring and club life). Francois and LPMCC editor Ben have allowed me to reproduce those features here so here are parts 1 and 2. As we used to write at the end of stories back in the day, m/f.

As Francois is responsible for the words and pictures on this page it seems apposite to tell you something of his motor cycling credentials. Since 1970s he’s done several hundred rallies throughout Europe and found time to write for Europe Moto Magazine and the daily newspaper La Montagne Centre France. Having founded the Gueux d’Route movement in the late ’70s he edited its monthly rally mag and organized a good number of road riding events. Nowadays he lives in Thailand but still gets to French rallies as and when.

Francois, mon ami, over to you…

Memories of Yesteryear. Part 1: Motorcyclists
ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE MOTORCYCLISTS of yesteryear depicted in these shots weren’t rallyists in the literal sense of the word, they were nevertheless keen motorcyclists like you and me, and amongst them were undoubtedly some true enthusiasts. Whatever these motorcyclists of days gone by used their machines for; social, domestic or competition doesn’t matter; the common brotherhood that binds us all remains the same. Whether it’s their pose, the outfits they wore or the machines themselves, everything perfectly reflects the atmosphere of the time on two or three wheels.


Memories of Yesteryear. Part 2: Speed racers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, the pioneers of motorcycling used their machines simply to enable them to move from one place to another, but on unreliable machines and unmade racks that passed for roads, this proved extremely difficult at times. Imagine riding at the end of the 19th century on mechanical monsters comprised of a simple frame, rudimentary engine, small tank and a primitive saddle; all with pretty non-existent brakes, and then launching yourself at full speed down roads with no smooth tarmac and no road signs!
The motorcycle owes much of its early development to WW1, when the motorbike became an indispensable military transport vehicle. Later at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s it became the symbol of freedom we acknowledge today, but the motorcycle has also benefited throughout its history from competitions which fostered innovation in design and performance. I have set out below a brief history of motorcycle competitions from the very first participation of motorcyclists in a race in Italy in 1895 to the first World Motorcycle Championship in Belgium in 1905.

May 18, 1895 sees the very first record of motorcyclists in a race. Indeed, two motorcycles and three cars participated in the Italian race Turin-Asti-Turin. The following month, from June 11 to 13, two motorised two-wheelers were on the starting line of the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, but neither of them reached the finish. Paul Millet fell during his outward journey to Orléans and Georges Osmont had to retire in Angouleme on the return leg.

The following year, in May 1896, a certain M Lotz on a Hildebrand & Wolfmüller machine finished the first stage of the Bordeaux-Agen-Bordeaux in last position and subsequently retired. On September 20, 1896, eight riders competed in the Paris-Mantes-Paris.

From the year in which the word ‘motorcycle’ was coined by the Werner brothers, things got better for French riders. In the first Critérium des Motocycles, organised on April 4, 1897, Léonce Girardot and Gaston Rivierre finished in 4th position on a two-seater, two-wheeler of unknown brand and on June 20, 1897, in the first Coupe des Motocycles, run between Saint-Germain and Ecquevilly, Gans de Fabrice managed to ride his two-wheeler Wolfmüller to second place among the competing cars. The inauguration of the Stade-Vélodrome in the Parc des Princes in Paris on July 18, 1897 was the perfect occasion for motorcycle; races. Gaston Rivierre on a De Dion-Bouton motor bicycle won the first series and posted the best time of the day at 40.8km/h. That same year, the very first motor bicycle’ race between two riders, also on De Dions, took place in England at Sheen House.

For the first time a competition was exclusively open to two-wheelers. The Critérium des Motocyclettes ran from Etampes to Chartres over a distance of 100km with Eugène Labitte winning on a Pernoo. From July 16-24 the first meeting of the Tour de France Automobile was held, with 19 cars and 25 motorcycles starting a course of seven stages over 2,216km.

In the summer George M. Holey, one of the few American pioneers, built his first single-cylinder IOE, (inlet-over-exhaust), winning the first motorcycles-only race in the US: the Boston-New York.

The story of city-to-city racing ended tragically in May due to eight fatal accidents in the Paris-Madrid. A new form of racing then appeared, but this time in a velodrome. These events were held most of the time at the Parc des Princes and at the Vélodrome d’Hiver. The two great champions of the age were Alessandro Anzani and Marius Thé.

On September 25 the newly formed Motocycle-Club of France (MCM) organised the very first international motorcycle race: the International Cup. It ran over 268km, with the French team competing against four others: Germany (DMV), Austria (ÖAC), Great-Britain (ACC) and Denmark. The resulting French victory gave the host the right to organise the race again in 1905. Following this event, delegations from the five countries taking part met on December 21 at the famous Ledoyen restaurant in Paris to create the International Federation of Motorcycle Clubs (FICM), the ancestor of the current FIM.

September brought the first World Motorcycle Championship organised inside the Zurenborg velodrome near Antwerp, in Belgium. Alessandro Anzani, won the race on an Alcyon equipped with a 330cc Buchet single-cylinder engine he developed himself, thus becoming the first world champion in the history of motorcycling. Born in Italy, Anzani moved to France in 1900 and became the most important engine manufacturer of the time.

I guess these great old timers, racing over a hundred years ago, must have possessed enormous courage and daring, to be able to challenge their competitors on such unpredictable machines, in the most crazy of events. Take a good look at them on the images below, testaments to the outfits of the day with their handlebar moustaches and daredevil appearance. The real men of yesteryear who knew no fear. I have only one word to say about them: Respect!

This is what we called an engine at that time…imagine the noise in that open exhaust!
Alessandro Anzani, the first world champion in the history of motorcycling.
Marius Thé’s greatest win was in 1904 when he won the Grand Prix de la République&, then organised both at the Parc des Princes and at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, ahead of Alessandro Anzani (Alcyon) and Joseph Collomb (Magali).
1904: Marius Thé on a prototype twin-cylinder two-litre Buchet.
1903: The champion Brault.
Naso, another good racer of the time.
Chauny, also a Parc des Princes public favorite.
Outfits were not left out.
In a sport said to be dominated by men, Fernande Clouet was the first French female racer to take part in track and road races on a Giorgia Knapp motorcycle, but also on Harley Davidson.
Lanfranchi, winner of the Coupe Hydra and holder of the 250cc 100km record.
1903: Maurice Fournier and his V4 Clément.
Road racing in Amiens, Northern France.
1905: The Coupe du Motocycle Club de France.
1905: A front seat tricycle known as ‘kills the mother-in-law’. The engine is a Villemain with opposite valves, liquid cooling and direct chain transmission.
1909: Will Cook (NLG with JAP engine).
Ravelli (Peugeot) at the Gaillon hill-climb.
Andre Grapperon.

Memories of Yesteryear. Part 3: 1914-1918—The Great War in the saddle

IT WAS DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR that the military motorcycle made its debut, although it had also appeared with the forces of Pancho Villa in the earlier Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa discovered that the big Indian motorcycles were ideal for his raiding parties, realising that motorcycles offered the speed and agility ideal for hit-and-run raids. The Great War set the tone for the mechanisation of war and the motorcycle proved to be a very viable replacement for the horse, with the military making extensive use of this new method of transport and communication. Technological breakthroughs are often driven by necessity during war and the Great War was no exception. The increased need for motorised transport unsurprisingly directly influenced motorbike production, greatly accelerating their evolution. These were bikes built out of, and during a crisis—bikes designed for rugged applications. It’s no coincidence that many early motorcycle manufacturers were also manufacturers of guns and armaments. Detailed below is a photographic record of some of those military machines of yesteryear.

A civilian and his children prior to Germany declaring war on the Russian Empire (August 1, 1914). Two days later, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. On August 4, the UK engaged its colonial empire in the conflict.
The requisition of motorcycles in Paris. In France, general mobilisation ensured the immediate right of requisition on people and goods. All motorcycle owners, (the ideal liaison vehicles), were required by law to present their machines to the authorities and motorcycles were systematically requisitioned.
Two British dispatch riders receiving information from a French sentry. Dispatch riders had the dangerous and demanding job of delivering messages to the front lines and carrying out reconnaissance work. Motorcycles were of course very maneuverable and able to get in and out of tight locations impassable to other vehicles. [Entente cordiale: The DR with the Duggie and the fag could hardly look more British; the sentry with the formidable bayonet and equally formidable soup strainer could hardly look more French.—Ed].
Two Royal Engineers dispatch riders on their Triumphs. Triumph motorcycles were started in Britain by a German mmigrant from Nuremberg called Siegfried Bettmann who set up his business in Coventry and also later a German branch n Nuremberg. Before the outbreak of war, the two companies were set up to operate under different names. In Britain they ere called Triumph whilst in Nuremberg the brand was TWN, (Triumph Werke Nürnberg).
A belt-driven Douglas. Manufacturers Douglas, Triumph, Royal Enfield, Norton,BSA, Matchless, Sunbeam, Scott, Clyno, lackburne, Rover, New Hudson, Hazlewood, Phelon & Moore, Zenith, Lewis, Kynoch and Torpedo all contributed bikes to the British war effort. It’s estimated that Douglas alone produced 70,000 bikes for the allied forces. Of these, 25,000 were 348cc twin-cylinder machines, specially made for the army’s newly mobile dispatch riders. Triumph, meanwhile, boasted a British order for 30,000, though it also supplied Greek dispatch riders with 550cc single-engine bikes. Royal Enfield also manufactured for the UK war department; notably winning a contract to supply the Russians too.
British soldiers and their machines. Carburretors were obviously very crude, and so more often than not there would tend to be problems with carburretion ignition systems, especially in arduous or damp conditions. Usually in the sidecars there would be petrol, oil and carbide for the lamps.
A soldier of the Signal Corps and his Douglas in the snow on the road to St Pol sur Ternoise, Northern France. The belt drive transmission was quite smooth as there was no chain to jerk about. But if it rained hard or if you were trying to ride in the snow, the belt would probably slip, sliding around on the pulleys. Riders used to have a ready supply of sand which they could simply sprinkle over the belt and pulleys to regain grip. If they found themselves in the countryside, then they’d simply sprinkle some earth over the belt.
A version of the Douglas as a radiophonic liaison station.
A workshop sidecar, also practical as the mechanic’s bathroom.
Phelon & Moore brand was the official marque of the Royal Flying Corps and then of the Royal Air Force. Three models were in service: the rarest being the 770cc V-twin; the most famous was the 500cc sloper (pictured); and a third model with a sidecar.
1916—A Royal Flying Corps NCO with a customised P&M equipped with two carbide headlights and racing style handlebars.
1915—RFC ace Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC (44 air battle victories) on a Hazlewood-JAP. During the war Hazlewoods suspended motorcycle production to concentrate on armaments.
A Zenith Gradua (under Norton control from 1914 to 1918), with variable pulley JAP 650cc V-twin engine. On the bike is Captain Denis Carey of the Royal Naval Air Service, who threw the hammer for Great Britain in the 1912 Olympic Games, finishing a creditable 6th.
A French postcard with the title “French remember!” Showing the arrival of English soldiers and their motorcycles in Peronne, in the Somme, during the reconquest of France in 1917.
Repainted and without any other modification than a registration number on the tank, the requisitioned Peugeot twins were the French motor cycles most often found in the hands of French soldiers. First installed in Vincennes, the motorised military park was transferred to the Montluçon artillery park, where the first motor cycle sections were formed, equipped with new machines from Clément-Gladiator, (two or three dozen), and Triumph (one hundred); the only two brands selected by the park manager.
December 1914—French soldiers on Triumphs. The machines are identical but ‘480’ was obviously requisitioned because we can just about see the remains of a civilian registration on the front fender.
The French motor cycle soldier of the Great War had a soft spot for British motorcycles because the French requisition motor cycles, already few in number, quickly reached their limits in terms of performance and reliability.
Vintage drawings showing French dispatch riders in action during the Great War.
…and here are two more, of another French DR and one of his Tommy comrades—Ed.
French soldiers at the front, (seen here with a BSA outfit). All wore the ‘kepi’ when on duty; the ‘calot’ (field service) is worn at rest. The metal helmet did not appear until 1915, when trench warfare began, which was responsible for many fatal head injuries.
Circa 1915—French soldiers and their machines in ambush. The gaudy color of their uniforms, their helmets, and their machines at the time didn’t help with camouflage…
The first German motorcycles to make their way to the front lines were the Wanderer (left), the NSU (right) and the TWN (Triumph Werke Nürnberg).
German Wanderer machines were of advanced design boasting unit construction engines and front and rear suspension as early as 1915, at which time they were supplied to the German army. Wanderer supplied almost half of all machines used by the German forces during the Great War, and by 1918 had built over 10,000 motor cycles. Baron Klaus-Detlof von Oertzen arranged the sale of the motorcycle business to NSU in 1929. The Wanderer design was licensed to a Czech manufacturer, resulting in the Jawa brand.
A German Wanderer equipped with a machine gun. In the summer of 1914 both sides deployed 2,000 machine guns to the front.
Although the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I the Dutch military motorcycle squad of the Royal Netherlands Army was mobilised throughout the conflict, as belligerents regularly attempted to intimidate the Netherlands and place demands on it.
The Russians were not left out with outfits also equipped with machine guns. Here are soldiers from the 39th Infantry Regiment of Tomsk.
Being at war does not prevent Easter from being celebrated with a good improvised Russian lunch and washed down with a lot of vodka…
Although Russians didn’t have any motorcycle manufacturer a century ago, they were riding American motor cycles (Indians and Harley-Davidsons) during the Great War.
On April 6 1917, the United States declared war against Germany. World War I was the first time in American history that the United States sent soldiers abroad to defend foreign soil.
The first American troops arrived in Europe in June 1917. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) did not fully participate at the front until October, when the First Division entered the trenches at Nancy, France.
It has been estimated that the US ordered over 80,000 bikes for military use during WWI—clearly the motorbike held an important place amongst the troops. By the end of 1917 Harley-Davidson had provided around 15,000 bikes for the war effort. Approximately one third of all Harleys made in 1917 and 1918 were bought for war use.
At the outset of World War I, Indian was at the forefront of the motorcycle world. When the US announced its entrance into the conflict, the manufacturer dedicated nearly all of its production resources to the war effort…
…The result was 50,000 Indian PowerPlus Big Twins, which were both faster and, thanks to a swanky rear suspension, more manoeuvrable than their Harley counterparts.
The American army in France, in Saint-Nazaire. The first 14,000 US infantry troops landed in France at the port of Saint-Nazaire, Britanny. The landing site had been kept secret because of the menace of German submarines.
Motorcycle ambulances were an innovation in WW1, used by the British, French and American militaries, as well as non-governmental support groups like the Red Cross.
Four-wheeled ambulances were very heavy, underpowered, poorly suspended and used solid tyres, making them slow, unwieldy, bumpy and likely to get stuck in the rough, muddy ground common near European battlefields. Smaller, lighter ambulances were required, and motor cycles with sidecars proved useful near the front lines to move wounded soldiers away from the heat of battle.
American forces and the Red Cross used Indian and Harley-Davidson motor cycles for ambulance and medical transport duties. Both makes had reliable motors and three-speed gearboxes with robust clutches, and were very lightweight. The faster an injured soldier was treated, the more likely he was to survive, so getting them away from the front as quickly as possible was crucial.
No, he’s not a motorcyclist on his way to a rally at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic! Armies quickly produced gas masks that gave protection as long as sufficient warning was given of a gas attack. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was around 40 million. Estimates range from around 15 to 22 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it amongst the deadliest conflicts in human history. Disease, including the 1918 flu pandemic (and deaths while held as prisoners of war) accounted for about one third of total military deaths. To put things in perspective, the confirmed global virus deaths due to the current coronavirus pandemic, on April 5 2021, is around 2.8 million.

That concludes Part 3. Part 4, covering 1920-25, will be uploaded soon so watch this space. You’re in for a treat—the images Francois has selected really are excellent. He’s also sent me a good selection of uncaptioned pics from the Great War; these, with a number that I’ve accumulated, can be found in the Illustrative Melange. And, of course, there are plenty of stories and images from the war in the main Timeline—Ed.