Memories of Yesteryear

Part 5

A flashback to the mid-1920s

As history tells us, the period immediately following the First World War was extremely rich in the rebirth and subsequent development of both international motorcycling as a whole and the machines of the time in particular. Indeed, the pace and scale of development at that time would undoubtedly fill several books on the subject.

The sheer abundance of data and documents covering this period threw up something of a dilemma in that I had to restrict my choices and share with you some of the best and most interesting stories and visual nuggets.

So, continuing our journey through the memories of motorcycling and its evolution over the decades; here's a flashback via various photographic testimonies, mainly relating to the mid-1920s.

The American Gypsy Tours

The Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) listed 8,247 members in 1915, but with World War I draining potential recruits, the organisation ceased operations in 1919.

The AMA, (American Motorcyclist Association), was subsequently established in 1924 with the slogan: 'An Organised Minority Can Always Defeat a Dis-organised Majority'

Upon its founding, the AMA inherited the organisation of the Gypsy Tours, which became the biggest road-riding events of the year.

6 June 1929 - A group photo taken at the 9th annual Gypsy Tour in Amarillo, Texas

Gypsy Tours were held on a single weekend throughout the country. They featured a ride to a scenic location for a picnic and various motorcycle competition events. There were often races, including hill climbs, races and dirt-track events, along with field meets, involving such motorcycle games as slow races, stake races and plank riding.

7 June 1931 - 9th annual Gypsy Tour in Amarillo, Texas

In 1925, 212 individual Gypsy Tours were held on 20 and 21 June. The Motorcycle & Bicycle Illustrated issue of 19 March 1925, stated: 'The Gypsy Tour idea originated eight or nine years ago, the object being to set a certain date for an outing, where riders, dealers and everyone interested in motorcycles would tour to some convenient spot for a day's sport and a real old-fashioned good time.'

1925 - First 'FIM' Grand Prix in Assen, Berlin and Monza

On 21 April 1925, thirteen countries met in Paris for the FICM congress, (previously the FIM), formally recognised in the general sporting regulations as the only body representing motorcycling activities.

1925 - Nedham on Dot at the Grand Prix of Montlhéry

Motorcycling events in 1925 were so numerous that conflicts over the dates required were impossible to avoid.

1925 - Liaudois on Train 125 cc at the 'Journée des Records' in Arpajon

The year 1925 also saw the first German GP on the former racing circuit Avus, through the Grunewald forest, on the outskirts of Berlin.

1925 - Start of a race at the AVUS circuit on the outskirts of Berlin

That unique road served as a high-speed toll route between the city and the suburbs during the week, and as a venue for both car and motorbike races at weekends.

1925 - Rolland on Terrot at the Grand Prix of Montlhéry

The year 1925 also saw the very first 'Dutch TT' held on 11 July and organised by 'Motorclub Assen en Omstreken'. The 28.4 km long triangular loop race on brick-paved public roads went through the villages of Rolde, Borger and Schoonloo. In 1926, the Dutch TT moved to Assen on a new 16.5 km long track.

Start of the second Dutch TT in 1926

That same year a company was founded in Italy which at the time only produced electric capacitors: Ducati.

1925 - Hatton on Douglas at the Grand Prix of Montlhéry

The first FICM European Grand Prix was held in Monza in 1925. It was decided that the title of European Champion, (in each class), would be awarded to the winner of this race. The organisation was not yet in place to operate a championship run over a series of races.

Anderson on Indian at the Grand Prix of Montlhéry

In the Land of the Rising Sun

The first motorcycle race in Japan was held in 1913, at the Hanshin Racecourse, a dirt horse racing track in Nishinomiya, (near Kobe). Around 30,000 spectators attended, a record for any kind of race in Japan. Racing became more common at venues across the country and professional riders emerged such as the remarkable Kenzo Tada, the first Japanese rider to compete at the Isle of Man TT, in 1930, on a Velocette KTT.

Kenzo Tada, the first Japanese rider to compete at the Isle of Man TT, in 1930, on a Velocette KTT

A massive earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo in 1923, killing hundreds of thousands of people and the absence of motorised emergency vehicles added to the impassable road network heralded great change for the Japanese vehicle industry, and the road network itself. Tokyo was rebuilt with a more systemised road layout which doubled the number of vehicles in a single year, (1924), and led to a clamour for a more modernised country-wide road system.

To further promote the nascent Japanese vehicle industry, in 1925 import tariffs were imposed on foreign vehicles which led Ford in 1924, General Motors in 1927, and Chrysler in 1929, to establish factories in Japan. Harley-Davidson followed suit in 1929.

March 1926 - Winners of the Shizuoka Championship: K.Nose (BSA Super Sports), Matsumoto (H-D single-cylinder), and Kawabata (New Imperial)

Several small motorcycle manufacturers also set up shop in the mid-1920s, including the 350cc two-stroke Sanda, (Thunder), from Osaka, the SSD of Hiroshima, and the grand-daddy of them all, a 1200cc twin called the Giant, built by Count Katsu Kiyoshi in 1924. The Japan Automobile Company (JAC),started producing motorcycles in 1929, including 350cc and 500cc sidevalve singles and a 500cc v-twin on JAP lines.

1926 - A Japanese advertisement for Belgian Saroléa motorcycles

Disqualified for a spark plug at the Tourist Trophy 1926

In 1926, the second FICM European Grand Prix took place, this time in Belgium on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, with four categories, 175cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc on the programme.

1926 - A racing sidecar of the time in a German competition

Italian rider Pietro Gherzi was the first foreigner to try his hand at the 1926 TT, riding a Moto Guzzi. He finished second, but was disqualified for using a different spark plug to the one specified on his entry form.

Bol d'Or 1926 - Start of the motorcycles race

On May 22 and 23 1926 the 5th Bol d'Or took place on the Circuit des Loges, 5.8 km, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The Bol d'Or was first organised in 1922 by Eugene Mauve and was originally a race open to both motorcycles and automobiles.

Bol d'Or 1926 - Renaud on C.P

1926 - Robert Sexé and Henry Andrieux around the world

Motorcyclist, reporter, globetrotter and, tireless traveller, Robert Sexé, (1890-1986), brought back many photos and stories of his adventures which delighted readers of motorcycle and travel magazines.

In 1924, Robert Sexé and two teammates: Krebs and Dumoulin accomplished the Paris-Constantinople-Paris 'raid' on Gillet-Herstal motorcycles provided by the Belgian manufacturer. The following year, 1925, that same team added a Paris-Moscow 'raid' to their tally, also on Gillet-Herstal.

28 July 1925 - The Gillet-Herstal team departing Porte Maillot in Paris for their Paris-Moscow raid

On 14 June 1926, Robert Sexé, accompanied by Henry Andrieux, his teammate, hit the road in front of the public and the Paris press corps for the first round of the world motorcycle tour, again with help from the Belgian company Gillet-Herstal. This world tour was relayed by the editorial staff of newspapers all around the world.

During the 5½ months that the journey took, the two men covered 35,000 km, including 22,000 km on motorbikes. They faced extreme cold, hunger and fatigue, pushing their machines weighing around 220 kg on seldom used, desolate muddy tracks, especially deep in the USSR. They were the last witnesses of tribes and countries which have now disappeared.

The day before the start of their round-the-world motorcycle tour, Robert Sexé poses Porte Maillot on his Gillet motorcycle, both for the press and posterity

They crossed Belgium, Germany, Poland and the USSR, swiftly followed by entry to Japan where they had the chance to meet Mr Suzuki, the man behind the motorcycles of the same name, but which at the time didn't exist.

They then went through the United States meeting Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker along the way, an early motorcycling pioneer, who amongst his many exploits set dozens of cross-country records riding a variety of motorcycles and sidecars. They also rode on Route 66, then under construction in segments and often discontinuous ones at that. In fact Route 66 would not be entirely paved until 1938. They eventually reached New York with its skyscrapers still under construction.

The two motorcyclists finally returned to the Belgium Federation of Motorcycling's headquarters in Brussels on 3 December 1926.

Paris-Nice 1926

It was from 1913 that the prestigious 1200 kilometre Paris-Nice regularity motorcycle race took place in which most of the major motorcycle brands of the time were represented.

The 1921 Paris-Nice gold medal diploma awarded to a competitor named Pierre Duverne, riding a Rudge Multi in the 500cc category

The event was then organised in 4 stages, ending with the 'Critérium de Nice', comprising a cold start competition, a kilometre run test and climbing the Côte de la Turbie.

The formula was very simple. Competitors had to present themselves to the various control points on route and maintain a determined average speed throughout the stage, varying according to their categories. Any delay in these checks gave rise to penalty points.

Luckily for motorcycle memorabilia enthusiasts, this Paris-Nice 1924 medal has survived for almost a hundred years ...

Motorcycle clubs of the time located on the course lent all their support to the organisation. There were MC de France, UM Aube, MVC Dijonnais, MC Mâconnais, MC Lyon, MC Roanne, UM Forez, MC Dauphinois, MC Avignon, MC Marseille, MC Draguignan, and of course MC Nice.

Paris-Nice 1926 - The Harlette team on the day of the machines weigh-in.

Paris-Nice became a phenomenal sporting success. So much so that at the end of February / beginning of March 1924 the competition took place in 6 stages and brought together 80 competitors driving all the motorised vehicles on 2 and 3 wheels of the time: scooters and mopeds; 75 and 100cc, motorcycles; 175, 250, 350, 500, 750 and 1,000 cc, sidecars; 350, 600 and 1,000 cc and two-seater cyclecars; 350, 500, 750 and 1,100 cc.

Paris-Nice 1926 - Sauvet on Gnome Rhône

The 1924 route proved to be a very difficult one. For the first time competitors had to take the route des Alpes between Lyon and Sisteron, freshly opened to traffic in winter. Of 70 competitors who left Paris, only 50 completed the event.

In 1926, 91 competitors entered in the Paris-Nice, but only 81 were allowed to start since 10 of them didn't meet the checks and weigh-in requirements.

1926 Paris-Nice - The three BSA factory racers: Lunes, Berrenger, and Vache

Almost all of the major international brands of motorcycles, sidecars and cyclecars of the time were in competition: Peugeot, Monet-Goyon, Terrot, Gnome et Rhône, La Française, MagnatDebon, Motosacoche, Dollar, Prester, Le Grimpeur, CI Delage, Favor, Janin, PS, Stella, Jean Thomann, Royal Moto, Propulcycle, Dé-Dé, Arbinet, BSA, Triumph, Scott, Harlette, Harley-Davidson, Condor, Gillet, Sphinx, Saroléa, SIMA-Violet, D'Yrsan, Sénéchal and Morgan.

1926 Paris-Nice - Boulangier sur Stella

To conclude today's story on the mid-1920s, let's end with this extract from an article about the prestigious Paris-Nice, published in the French press at the time, reflecting what the machines of those years were then like:

Formerly, the motorcycle knew a rare period of prosperity: every cyclist dreamed of suppressing fatigue by adding an engine to his steel frame, and we saw thousands of 'petroleum bikes', uncomfortable and not very reliable, from which however the owners derived satisfaction.

Then the power of these machines increased without the commensurate addition of comfort and proper function following. The motorcycle, if it did not die from these faults, suffered terribly. She was despised among us as much as she had unleashed enthusiasm amongst her followers.

Since then, manufacturers, especially those across the Channel, have changed their minds. Instead of making motorcycles that are too fast and too powerful, they have provided us with machines that run safely and comfortably, delicious sidecars for a trip for two which are like light and pleasant small 'cars' to ride.

Again, the public's favour returned to the motorcycle, and interesting motorcycle events could be organised for these machines.

1926 Paris-Nice - Guibert and his outfit BSA 750 cc

1926 - The first ever motorcycle parachute jump from a 500ft cliff

It takes a certain kind of person to strap a parachute to their back, climb aboard a motorcycle and ride at full pelt off a cliff. To do so almost 100 years ago is next level crazy.

Filmed in 1926, the British Pathé film shows Fred Osborne attempting the first ever motorcycle parachute jump from the 500ft Huntington Cliff in Los Angeles, aboard a Henderson 4-cylinder motorcycle.

Without a helmet and wearing nothing but a jersey - with the slogan 'Just Freddie' scrawled across the back - jeans and long leather boots, the daredevil offers a nonchalant glance to the camera before accelerating to around 60mph and hitting the tiny take-off ramp.

Unfortunately, someone had got their calculations wrong and his speed and the height of the cliff weren't enough to allow for a full parachute deployment. Instead, Osborne and the motorcycle plummeted to the ground below, where the two-wheeler burst into flames.

Incredibly, the young man survived. He was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery. Reputedly, the telephone wires broke his fall.

- Jean-Francois Helias