In 1968 France was rocked by civil unrest and the country's economy was brought to a virtual standstill, even president Charles De Gaulle briefly fled the country — and it all started in May with student protest and riots.
The crisis quickly escalated to the level of a general strike, spreading to factories and industrial sites throughout the country and shutting down newspaper distribution, airlines and railways. By the end of the month, millions of workers were on strike and France seemed to be on the brink of a radical left-wing revolution.
But less than two months later some semblance of calm returned and rally enthusiasts were able to once again hit the road towards the French Alps to attend the 4th meeting of the Chamois 2770 rally held in Val d'Isere on the 14th and 15th July 1968.
An estimated attendance of nearly 1800 rallyists representing 13 nations
The very first Chamois rally, held in 1965, attracted only 205 enthusiasts. Three years later the numbers had jumped more than 8-fold for this 4th meeting to not far off 1800.
According to the Chamois 68 official figures given by the organisers, Jean Murit and the BMW Club of France, there were exactly 1652 registrants.
The large majority being from France with 1362 registered.
The official rally ticket cost 10 French francs
English rallyists, still loyal to major international gatherings, had come in smaller numbers than in previous years, and accounted for only 44 registrations.
The full list of entrants comprised 46 from Germany, 69 from Switzerland, up from only 21 the previous year, 33 from Holland, 30 from Sweden, 28 from Belgium, 20 from Italy, 8 from Denmark, 4 from Norway, 4 from Canada, 4 from the USA, and finally one from what was then Rhodesia.
As far as the Canadian and American riders were concerned, they were actually on a European tour on their Harley-Davidsons at the time and simply took advantage of the opportunity to take part. Their shiny machines drew a lot of attention from the crowds, especially from the younger, less well-off bikers who could never afford these fabulous machines and were often to be found staring in ecstasy at these expensive motorcycles that would probably only ever feature in their dreams. Mind you, it didn't stop them being the subject of much conversation with their owners.
Some of the Harley-Davidsons at the 1968 Chamois 2770
Machines of the Chamois 68
The vast majority of the motorcycle brands represented at the 68 meeting were BMWs, although perhaps in smaller numbers than previous years.
From the 1150 motorcycles officially registered at the Chamois 68, no less than 426 of them were BMWs, more formally known as The Bayerische Motoren Werke, hence the acronym.
A view of the brand mix
Another German motorcycle eagerly awaited at the Chamois 68 and whose owner, Mr Niot, had pre-booked his place, was the 1000 Munch T.T.
That model was then the only one imported into France. The 1000 Munch T.T and its rider never arrived though due to mechanical failure of the engine connecting rods.
The Honda brand was well in evidence
In second position on the official brand list was Honda with 163 registered machines, including a respectable number of 450cc machines which was then one of the favourite Honda models.
The 3 other Japanese brands represented: 52 from Yamaha, 30 from Suzuki, (including a rare T500 Cobra), and 9 from Kawasaki.
The rare T500 Suzuki Cobra model 68. Nowadays, an excellent condition model, of this classic Japanese bike would be worth at least 10.000 Euros on the French market. Have you spotted the unusual original tyre pump?
English motorcycles were of course still well in evidence with 104 Triumphs, 77 BSA, 68 Norton, 15 Velocette, 12 Matchless, 12 AJS and 2 Vincent.
A nice classic British cafe racer seen at the rally.
Among these British machines, the most studied and appreciated by connoisseurs of fine mechanics, was undoubtedly this amazing classic custom built 'work of art' seen below.
The owner of this magnificent mechanical 'work of art' (Ariel Square Four engine in a Norton Featherbed frame) came all the way from Jersey to Val d'Isere
The list of motorcycles officially registered at the 1968 meeting also included 13 Jawa and 13 Moto Guzzi, (some V7 models among them including one ridden by the legendary Charles Krajka).
But the Italian brand that aroused the most interest was undoubtedly Laverda, with a group of 9 brand new motorcycles. The big boss of the Breganze brand, Massimo Laverda, had made the trip for the occasion with five 750cc machines straight from the factory, some of which were driven by the winners of the 'Motogiro'.
The large Laverda 'family' met at Val d'Isere, combining both the enjoyment of the rally itself and of course the opportunity it presented to promote the brand. The French collaborators of Massimo Laverda were also in attendance. The Laverda importer for France: J.A Couturier, had come on a 650cc model, together with his three French agents, Richard on a 750cc and Beauvais and Besse on 650cc models.
Italian 'bella macchina' at the rally
Two other motorcycles which came from Italy by road, also attracted appreciative glances from connoisseurs of fine mechanics. A customised MV Agusta 600 Turismo also called MV Agusta 600 4C, (only 135 of this model were manufactured between 1966 and 1970), and a remarkable classic 500cc single cylinder Gilera.
The 500cc single-cylinder Gilera seen at the Chamois 68. Gilera dominated Grand Prix motorcycle racing after World War II, winning the 500cc road racing world championship six times in eight years.
The French brands were similarly represented with 18 Motobecane and 12 Peugeot among the entrants. The brave owners of these 'ancestors', mostly 125cc and 175cc from the 1950s, sometimes came from far away. The most adventurous of them, coming from the north of France, did not hesitate to venture forth on his 125cc machine for the long trip to the French Alps, close to the Italian border.
Well-deserved hats off for this young group who came to the 68 rally from Carcassonne on 49.9cc mopeds, involving a 6 day round trip! This friendly team from the A.M Audois club, riding mopeds only and nicknamed 'The Young Hares', had built a solid reputation at the time on the French rally scene by taking part to numerous rallies. Their leader (wearing black sunglasses) was a gentle and passionate rallyist by the name of Andre Cambies.
Well known rallyists of the Chamois 68
Among the most famous rallyists of this period was none other than the legendary Jean-Marie Debonneville, (aka 'The Druid'), who would never have missed a great international gathering. Debonneville had completed the long distance from Armentieres in the North of France to Val d'Isere, on his faithful Danish classic 4 cylinders Nimbus.
The 'die-hard' rallyist Debonneville on his classic Nimbus.
A celebrity of the French sports world occupied a real place of honour at the Chamois 68: Jean-Claude Killy. Killy was an alpine ski racer who dominated the sport in the late 1960s. He was a triple Olympic champion, winning all three of the alpine events at the 1968 Winter Olympics and also winning the first two World Cup titles, in 1967 and 1968.
Jean-Claude Killy signing autographs at the top of the Iseran.
Killy, a dirt bikes enthusiast, had arrived on a Bultaco Sherpa, accompanied by the great French Trial champions of the time, Coutard father and son, and Claude Peugeot.
An American TV channel was filming a documentary about him at the time and took the opportunity the rally presented to shoot sequences illustrating his interest in motorcycles.
He was granted the honour on Sunday morning of heading the column of more than a thousand motorcycles, riding his Sherpa and climbing to the top of Iseran, the meeting's final destination.
Claude Peugeot (wearing hat), one of the pioneers of Trial in France, in action at the Chamois 68.
The atmosphere of the Chamois 68
Above all the Chamois rally offered the pure joy of living for a weekend in the high mountains, green now in part in the height of summer. Countless narrow valleys echoed to the roar of immense waterfalls giving way to the gentle sound of numerous streams. The still snow-capped peaks climbed ever upwards and the steep, twisting roads chased them skywards, providing excitement and perfect strips of winding tarmac.
The snow-capped Iseran peaks in July
It was the perfect way to spend one's days. Seemingly long hours of daylight, we were tireless and eager, riding in endless lines of bikes, admiring the finest. Chance meetings along the way with old friends or rallying acquaintances glimpsed at previous meetings.
Rallyist in the streets of Val d'Isere
The rally also provided the surreal atmosphere of the Saturday evening snack; bread, cheese and of course wine, generously included in the registration fee. All this took place in the Manchet valley, a magical setting, around large campfires of pine logs, throwing their embers high into the sky.
Sunday morning meant a large gathering in the local town with the flags of all the participating nations present before the official climb up to the mountain pass. An endless stream of motorcycles forming a multi-coloured column, snaking its way in a fabulous spectacle stretching over 17 kilometres.
All along the route, were machines, riders and pillions, stopped at the side of the road, either admiring the landscape, taking photos, or perhaps even having to cool an engine suffering from the exhaustive climb and needing time to cool down.
Finally the end goal was in sight. The destination was 2770 meters above sea level and of course resulted in a monstrous traffic jam and the cars of holidaymakers driving to the top of the Iseran in the hope of some skiing made matters even worse.
Vacationers' cars did not help matters.
Over 200 meters, the road leading to the pass was clogged with stationary machines that could climb no further! A dense sea of bikers all massed in far too small a space, beside the Chapel alongside the Iseran Pass, and all awaiting the traditional rally raffle.
This raffle was eagerly awaited by everyone as the exceptional first prize was a brand new BMW R50 offered by BMW France. It was actually won that year by a rallyist named Pierre Laville.
Three runner-up prizes were also on offer in the form of three Honda P50s donated by Honda France.
A nice view of the rallyists gathering near the Chapel of the Iseran Pass
At the Iseran pass, the organisers had thoughtfully provided barrels of wine for picnic enthusiasts. Rallyists could enjoy lunch on the grass before hitting the road home on Sunday afternoon.
Although the 1968 meeting was essentially a success, the conduct and disrespect of a minority of wayward entrants was to be deplored. The deafening noise caused by the incessant comings and goings of a few idiots riding their bikes in free exhaust mode was of course not appreciated at all in this holiday destination.
Unfortunately there were other instances of deplorable behaviour with a small number of riders travelling at very high speed on main roads crowded with pedestrians. One rider was seriously injured during one of these futile exhibitions, falling at high speed after hitting another bike leaving a campsite.
- Jean-Francois Helias