BMW International Assembly
Isle of Man

The same rally, but experienced rather differently

It was actually whilst reading Ted Trett's recent report on the Isle of Man BMW International Assembly that I was prompted to put 'pen-to-paper' so to speak and write today.

I was immediately drawn to the commemorative meeting badge shown at the start of his report, with the 3 'year' bars. I have exactly the same badge but with only 2 'year' bars. My badge relates to 1977 and 1978, the only two years I attended the TT races, whereas Ted had attended in 1976/7/8, hence the 3 bars. The only conclusion I can draw is that we probably crossed paths at that particular rally, not once… but incredibly twice…and at a time well before we actually knew each other!

What struck me even more was the fact that Ted, like myself, enjoyed simply taking part in all these owner club rallies more than the racing itself. We're definitely on the same wavelength on that score and I never missed an opportunity to attend all the allied events organised on the island during the TT.

So I thought it might be fun for once to share the report of the same rally but from a different perspective. I suppose it's much like a mixture of cultures, viewpoints and maybe even cuisines… 'Chef Ted' would place the first ingredient in the pot and 'Chef Francois' the second. After all that can only be good, can't it? Even though we are not professionals at 'cooking' refined prose, succulent paragraphs, exquisite reports, our recipes, like our approach, is straightforward and authentic. It is what it is: sincere, humble, without pretense. Our desire is healthy and simple: to share with you experiences and stories about rallies and motorcycling.

IOM 77 -The French connection at Glen Helen

As far as 1977 is concerned, what sticks in my mind from these owner's club meetings, and in particular the BMW Assembly, is to have been there with a bunch of old and very dear comrades. They were all well-known characters from the French rally scene, meeting up regularly throughout the 1970s at all kinds of gatherings organised in France and abroad. Among the group were: Alain 'B'SA' Chaux, Pierre Yves 'Bebert' Beranger, (both, like me, MC Dragons members), Philippe 'L'An 2' Escuillier, and Serge 'Raspoutine' Vollard.

IOM 1977 - Left to right: Pierre Yves 'Bebert' Beranger (white hat) and his BMW R90S ; Serge 'Raspoutine' Vollard (black helmet) and his twin Triumph; and yours truly (pointing to the photographer) and his Commando. The girl on the right was 'Didou', my girlfriend at the time

The only one of the group who came to the 1977 TT on a BMW was Bebert Beranger, mind you, at the time, Raspoutine was undoubtedly the one who had recorded the most miles in the saddle of BMW flat twin. This year, 1977 he had actually come to the TT on a Triumph twin.

IOM 1977 - Alain 'B'SA' Chaux (left) riding the Norton with pillion Louisette; Serge 'Raspoutine' Vollard (right) on his Triumph; and in the background wearing the white pudding basin helmet: Pierre Yves 'Bebert' Beranger

The hard life of a German flat twin in France

For my part, the one and only BMW I have owned was a very old and very tired R50 series 2. A machine whose extremely illustrious and noteworthy past deserves a tribute. To do so, I need to step aside from the BMW International Assembly of 1977 and 1978 for a moment.

Fresh from the German factory and brand new, this R50/2 originally commissioned by the French state landed somewhere in France, at the very beginning of the 1960s, and went straight into the hands of the French Gendarmerie. After a long police career on the roads of France, it racked up significant mileage as well considerable mechanical 'wear and tear' until it was finally 'retired' by the authorities and put on sale to the general public.

Following its sale the bike was relocated to Gueret in central France, and was bought at the very beginning of the 1970s by the father of Dominique Greffrath, a young member of the MC Creusois, (organiser of the 1970s famous rally 'Les Moulins' in the town of Gueret). This is a motorcycle club and a town that I know well, having spent my formative years there in a Catholic boarding school.

Gueret 1970 - Awards ceremony at the 'Rassemblement International des Moulins'

Dominique Greffrath's father was an engineer at Peugeot at the time and a fine mechanic. He had a very lucrative sideline though, buying lots of 10 or 15 ex-gendarmerie BMW motorcycles at auctions, restoring each machine to impeccable condition and reselling them to anyone who'd buy them.

In August 1972, this particular R50/2 took part in the very first major motorcycle raid. This was the legendary Orion trek, organised by the 'Guilde Europeenne du Raid' under the patronage of the magazine Moto Revue and the Automobile Club de France.

On the tracks of Kurdistan during the first Raid Orion in 1972, the two BMWs engaged by the MC Creusois. The R50/2 is on the right with its large capacity white tank

The raid started in Paris and was destined to finish in the city of Isfahan, 406 kilometers, (252 miles), south of Tehran, in Iran. This momentous journey covered 6,000 km of pure adventure, along unfamiliar roads, difficult tracks, through countries that were at times hostile to western travellers, and with populations wary of these strange noisy machines.

Raid Orion 1972 - Michel Mauve (left) and Michel Degaine (right) and Degaine BMW R50 serie 5 equipped for the track with its homemade protective grid supposed to protect against stones.

On the August 1, 1972 four members of the MC Creusois left Gueret travelling to Paris for the start of the raid on the Champs Elysees. Competing were my long-time friends Michel Degaine, (whom I mentioned before in my article on the Madonnina dei Centauri) and Michel Mauve on a more modern BMW R50/5, and Dominique Greffrath and Jean Francis Pons on the older R50/2.

During the round trip journey return trip from France to Iran, carried out in 14 days, these DIY protective grids turned out to have been very poorly designed. The meshes were too thick and the metal frame dangerous in the event of a fall

After a long career at the service of the gendarmerie, the 'retirement' in civilian life of the R50/2 was not the most pleasant. If this machine liked adventure, it was now teamed with its new owner, Jean-Francis Pons who clocked up many miles, not least of which was the painful journey along the Paris-Isfahan-Paris tracks of the Raid Orion 72.

The shaft is not to my taste

The bike then changed owners, but remained in Creuse. It was bought by Claude Champagne, a young member of MC Creusois and brother-in-law of Michel Degaine who added even more to the already formidable mileage.

Despite its tortured mechanical past, and knowing all about its history, I nevertheless bought it from Claude Champagne in 1974. The R50/2 therefore moved to the neighbouring county to live in my hometown of Montlucon in Allier.

Claude Champagne posing on the R50/2 that I bought from him in 1974

I had always wanted to own a German flat twin. My student budget however was obviously limited and since 1970 my meager means had forced me to acquire machines almost all second-hand. To begin with there were mopeds of various brands, followed by a 175cc Motobecane Z2C from 1954, then a 350cc Jawa from 1956, and finally a 1973 125cc Honda S single, the first machine I actually bought new. However, with the purchase of this R50/2, my dreams had finally come true.

But my experience on this machine turned out to be completely different to my expectations. Of course, it had seen better days mechanically, even before I acquired it, and its slight tendency to wobble at speed was perhaps forgivable, but for me, who had always ridden on chain transmission machines, I really didn't take to this shaft transmission bike.

However, the biggest fault in this machine was the emergency braking. On this R50/2, braking was kind of 'optional'. If I needed to brake suddenly, to avoid an obstacle for example, the near locking and skidding of the rear wheel when downshifting, quickly made me realise that shaft transmission was not for me.

As luck would have it, by chance I escaped a couple of potential accidents, realising that if I persisted any longer with the idiosyncrasies of this machine and my contorted reactions to it, the risk of serious accident would always be present. Reluctantly, but perhaps inevitably I sold it.

1974 - My R50/2 in Vise near Liege with my friend Dany Puiatti after returning from a rally together somewhere in Belgium. The two girls seated on it are in front Karine, Dany's girlfriend at the time; and riding pillion my Belgian girlfriend at the time, Sonia Patternote. I wonder how in the world my memory has been able 46 years later to recall her first and last names...

Second attempt on a Ratier C6S

Stubbornness is my one of my personality traits and shortly afterwards I had a second go at another shaft transmission machine;though this time a 600 Ratier C6S, a French made machine that I bought from a friend named Kuzmic. However, that bike was also a former ex-Gendarmerie machine, so perhaps I was tempting fate?

For those who have never heard of this illustrious French flat twin, I will paint a brief portrait of this machine and its history.

In the late 50s, Ratier decided to modify the 600 C6S model to produce a motorcycle which would enable the gendarmerie to pursue modern vehicles such as the Citroen DS, (launched in 1955), that were becoming ever faster and less easy to catch.

With its flat twin engine of 594 cc producing 32 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and reaching a top speed of 160 km/h, it was perfectly designed for the task

This new model borrowed heavily from BMW. Its engine already had much in common with that of the R75 'Russia', while the chassis and the gearbox were practically identical to those of the R71. On the other hand, instead of the Earles fork, then ubiquitous on BMWs, the Ratier C6S featured a very well designed telescopic front with two Lelaurin rear shocks.

The cast aluminum brakes were Ratier's own design and very effective with a 200mm double cam drum up front and a similarly sized single cam rear to stop this nearly 200 kilo motorcycle.

On resuming his duties in 1959, President de Gaulle decreed that all of his Republican motorcycle escort would henceforth be made up of Ratier C6S. The large 27-liter fuel tank then made it possible to complete the 280 km journey between the presidential palace at the Elysee Palace in Paris and de Gaulle's private residence in Colombay-les-Deux-Eglises without having to stop for fill up. In 1964, the presidential escort abandoned its Ratiers in favour of a fleet of BMW R69S

I persisted with the Ratier for a while. However, this second experience with a shaft transmission machine, although a little better than before, it nonetheless convinced me that my ideal riding experience could only be achieved on chain transmission machines.

So, at the end of 1974 I sold the Ratier and never looked back.

My best friend Michel Degaine sold his 750 Honda Four too. We each went to the Honda dealer in our respective cities and bought the identical model; a brand new 250 XL that we equipped for touring so we could travel together to the Elefantentreffen in early January 75.

After my experiences on the old used flat twins, the Honda 250 XL (here at the Nurburgring) was a real treat. It is on these machines that Michel and I took part in a multitude of rallies, mainly in Belgium. I parted company with it just before buying a Norton Commando MK3 in June 1975.

Since my two troubled experiences with flat twins in 1974, I have never touched a shaft transmission machine; the exception being a very short period in 1983 when my friend Clement Barraud lent me a 900 BMW for a month.

Back at the TT in 78 for more rallies

Now, let's get back to the BMW International Assembly in 1977 where as I recall only Bebert Beranger and I had registered!

Bebert was the owner of a R90S on which he did some impressive, (and pioneering for the time), wheelies. This was especially impressive on a machine that was simply not intended for such a manoeuver and doubly remarkable given that most of the time it was loaded with luggage.

Meanwhile, at the time, I was riding a Norton Commando, and accredited as a journalist to cover the events of the 1977 TT for the Europe Moto Magazine owned by the late Francois Vignes.

The following year, 1978 our group at Glen Helen was made up of almost the same friends as in 1977 but had grown in number. We had support from Bernadette 'Dedette' Blanchot, widow of our beloved club president Christian 'Kiki' Blanchot, together with life-long friends from both my hometown of Montlucon and its suburbs, Desertines: Guy 'Dresch' Rostand, 'Souris', Joel 'Jojo' Genneviaux; plus members of the Bitazelles MC from La Ceuille (86), led by my old friend Bernard 'Mouton' Sireau.

IOM 1978 - Bebert Beranger and his Harley Davidson Electra Glide

In the meantime, Bebert Beranger had re-sold his R90S, replacing it with a brand new 1978 Harley Davidson Electra Glide. The only BMW in our group of 'Frenchies' belonged to the late Jean Noel Fourre aka 'Toumon' or 'Max' of the Bitazelles MC.

IOM 1978 -The late Jean Noel Fourre‌ aka 'Toumon' or 'Max' riding his BMW R50/2 with pillion Bernard 'Mouton' Sireau, both members of the Bitazelles MC

I have one unforgettable memory of all the Isle of Man rallies we attended in 1978, although for the life of me I'm exactly not sure at which particular rally this took place.

On the way back from an owner club meeting, quite by chance we met a local resident who owned a Matchless G50. If my memory serves me correctly, I think that this legendary machine was inside his motorcycle accessories store. He was kind enough to take it outside especially for us, start its engine so we could hear its engine note, (creating for us great joy) and just listen to its sound, (a real 'eardrum orgasm'), and even to allow us to pose on it so that we could keep a photographic record of this memorable event.

IOM 1978 - Yours truly on the Matchless G50

- Jean-Francois Helias