A few months ago, my old friend, the venerable Jean-Marie Debonneville, a role model for so many rallyists, sent me some interesting pictures to add to my already burgeoning archives, all taken during his 'polar expedition' to the 1969 Dragon rally. These pictures depicted one of the most brutally icy years of this legendary Welsh winter meeting.
Although he has now given up riding for health reasons, his passion for motorcycling and rallies remains as strong as ever and has never faded. The same however cannot be said for the thousands of archive photos, some now over 50 years old.
These photos provide a unique record of his travels around the world on two or three wheels. He is now well over 80 years old, but he continues to travel enthusiastically down memory lane, from rally to rally, using the medium of photography in the albums he has created, discovering a new hobby along the way: that of keeping a scrapbook.
He doesn't show any signs of slowing down. He has thousands of slides, prints and 8mm films documenting his motorcycle accomplishments and it will take him many more years to complete his artistic endeavours. So, I wish him long life and time enough to enjoy the beautiful years he still has ahead of him, making us dream by sharing his memories and experiences of the past as he has now enabled us to share his memories through this site.
The photos he took of the 1969 meeting were a superb record of events encapsulating the conditions at the time. Not only that but they are in colour, which was then becoming popular, taking over from simple monochrome.
So here they are shared with me... and now with you.
My initial idea was to write a straightforward report on this meeting, inserting Jean-Marie's photos along the way. To do this effectively, I just needed to call him and interview him over the phone to get a better, more in-depth understanding of the rally itself. I already had a few questions prepared, and wondered if his memory would be good enough to recall anecdotes that took place 53 years ago.
I needn't have worried. For his part, Jean-Marie sent me a press article that he'd written upon his return from the rally in order to promote it to French motorcyclists. So rather than use my words I've decided to use his... almost verbatim, but with some edits. It's a brilliant report recounting his epic winter ride in Wales in February 1969.
- Jean-Francois Helias
Report by Jean-Marie Debonneville
The Dragon Rally is certainly the most popular rally in Great Britain, a bit like the Elefantentreffen that many French people know. On the other hand, this gathering, which can attract up to 3000 people, is much less popular for the French. Yet what a marvellous rally, and what an unusual sight.
I believe I was the first Frenchman to have taken part, back in 1965 and this year I went for the fifth time, astride my special VW with Jean-Pierre Mullier as my friend and passenger.
We took no special equipment other than good waterproofs for the almost incessant rain in Wales in February. Alas, snow equipment would have been more useful this time around.
Debonneville took to the road in the Welsh rally only a few weeks after testing his latest machine, a self-built 3-wheeled bitza powered by a Volkswagen engine, in the climatic hell of the icy Millevaches rally in December 1969.
There were several options to cross the Channel from France, but I preferred the 2.30am departure from Dunkirk, which disembarked around 7am, allowing us a full day in the UK upon arrival.
So, on Thursday, we arrived at the port and had a pleasant surprise: two German riders, (on 650 AJS and 450 Honda solos) from Wupperthal, and three Frenchmen from the BMW Club de l'Ouest (on R69S solos). We all arrived in Dover together but there we left each other, each of us having a different schedule.
We had no problems until around Friday noon when we left Birmingham on the A5 towards the Dragon. There the snow storm began and in less than an hour the snow lay so thickly that any progress on 4 wheels or more proved impossible.
Debonneville's VW combo pictured here on the A5.
We drove without interruption for almost 18 hours covering hundreds of kilometers. Lorries stuck sideways in the hills caused queues of cars sometimes 20km long. We had to ride on the verges or on the pavement, or sometimes even against the flow of traffic on the dual carriageways. In short, we were trying to skirt around the delays, getting stuck and bogged down nonetheless, and generally trying to avoid all the stranded vehicles, abandoned by their owners who left on foot to seek shelter.
The best part of the journey was crossing the Llanberis Pass, located just prior to the finish, which we did in the early hours of the morning, from 1am to 5am. We later found out it had been closed to traffic, although we'd missed the sign announcing its closure as it was completely covered in snow.
In 218 BC, Hannibal, his soldiers and his 37 African fighting elephants crossed the Alps, to the surprise of the Roman Empire's army. The extreme challenge of crossing the Llanberis Pass at night in these dreadful conditions does not appear in the history books.
Whilst ascending Llanberis we passed two completely stranded BSA 650S combos. However, my VW having a 4.50 tyre and enormous torque at low revs had a clear advantage over them.
We completed the journey ahead of the rest, sometimes with the help of a shovel, and sometimes with all six of us having to push as well.
The storm was so intense at the top of the pass that the path we had cleared in the VW was obliterated in less than 15 minutes, and the following bike, a BSA, had to clear a path all over again.
That proved the downfall of the BSA. It was completely 'drowned' and refused to start, instead letting itself be pulled to Llanberis.
After vigorously shovelling snow and pushing or towing each other's machines like demons possessed, Debonneville and his companions finally reached Llanberis. Jean-Marie's VW combo is seen here briefly resting in front a bed and breakfast before completing the last leg of the journey to the rally site.
At dawn the army cleared the road and all day the 'Dragonists' arrived solo or with sidecars. During that day a disparate world of motorbikes assembled itself, resembling a weird collection of enthusiasts and their machines.
Whether they arrived on 2 or 3 wheels, as rider, pillion or a sidecar passenger; on a moped, a scooter, British motorcycle or indeed any other brand, each participant had faced and overcome the horrendous elements. This Welsh rally of February 1969 deserves to be recognised as one of the toughest meetings in the history of the Dragon rally.
On Saturday evening a tour of the local pubs meant copious amounts of beer were drunk. Needless to say, some glasses got broken and there were many people worse for wear.
The road to the rally was long and testing, but it was as nothing compared to those with Sunday hangovers. Returning home that Sunday morning dictated that some riders would need the icy wind in their faces for the first hundred kilometres to help them get back into shape.
On Sunday the roads that had been ploughed and salted were much smoother but also more aggressive for the machines themselves.
A view of the camp and some machines, in the snowy Welsh countryside, photographed on Sunday morning by Debonneville.
This 1969 Dragon is finished and for us it was the best rally ever. Hopefully next year there will be a contingent of Frenchmen to rival that seen at the Elefantentreffen.
A last scene photographed by Debonneville who, on his return from the Dragon 69, wrote in the French motorcycle press that this meeting was the best rally he ever had the chance to attend.
At the Dragon rally, the entry or participation of cars is strictly prohibited. This rule is enforced in respect of pseudo rallyists who came this year by car to the Nürburgring, disguised as motorcyclists, and who are sounding the death knell of the great German rally.
Report: Jean-Marie Debonneville
Images: JM Debonneville & JF Helias
This contemporary account from Dave Richmond was published in the Blue 'un.
Report by Dave Richmond
A 59 Club party, on the way to the Dragon Rally on Friday, had stopped at Watford Gap after a brisk run up the M1. "We've come some 80 miles, one-third of the way, said Father Graham Hullett. "And it looks like being the best third," retorted Jacquie Blendell as the first flakes of snow came flurrying down the motorway. How right she was. All three days of the Dragon were reminiscent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
On Friday, slushy sleet became a raging blizzard; main roads were soon blocked with slithering lorries. Many baffled rallyists sought relief at the Double Zero Club, whose young members did sterling work running an all-night buffet.
Those who made a start early on Saturday morning were lucky, particularly if they were from the West Country. Tudor Rees of Bristol, a Harley sidecar driver, left home at 5am, crossed the Severn Bridge and encountered little serious snow until Shrewsbury. Norton Villiers teamsters John McDermott (Commando) and John Wood (Mercury) made the 250-mile journey from London in 12 hours flat. However, Saturday did bring mini-blizzards of astonishing ferocity. The Llanberis Pass was officially closed to traffic when Jean-Marie Debonneville reached Pen-y-Gwryd with his BMW-VW special at 1am. But this lion-hearted Frenchman recruited a group of like-minded sidecarrists and together they heaved each other's outfits to the summit. "It took us four hours to make 12 kilometres," exulted Jean-Marie when he and his friends reached the rally site.
Jean-Marie Debonneville aka le Druide, in different weather conditions.
By the afternoon conditions in the pass were easier, thanks largely to the sturdy efforts of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team who hacked a rideable trail through hard-packed snow and frozen slush. Under such conditions they were indeed a hardy band at Glyn Padarn.
The final count, nearly 1,900, was the smallest ever recorded, but as Yorkshireman Colin Bembridge succinctly pointed out, "Every one you expected to get here has, and those you didn't couldn't."
As if the snow wasn't enough - a blessed puncture!
As the traditional bonfire flames crackled skyward in the frosty night air, snowballs flew in tremendous volleys. Everyone joined in the glorious battle.
Sunday morning came, and bikes had to be dug out of still more snow. Yet another struggle over the Llanberis Pass glissade lay ahead. Across the wild moorland by Cerrigydrudion snow squalls reduced visibility to a matter of yards.
Yet still occasional headlights would loom out of the murk, pressing steadily into the mountains towards Glyn Padarn. These stragglers had fought long, desperate battles against weather and mechanical disasters.
The Conway Club kept the control open long after sunset to award that coveted prize—badge of the Dragon 69, fiercest rally of them all.
- Dave Richmond
From The Motor Cycle