Elefantentreffen

4-5 January 1969

10,000 machines and 25,000 people

By the end of the 1960s, the Japanese motorcycle industry had irrevocably established its presence in the world market. Their machines were no longer the preserve of fanatics, evolving from a passionate cult object into the fashionable consumer motorcycle for the common man, thanks to their ready-appeal, ease of use and obvious riding pleasure. The motorcycle became omnipresent; in the press, on TV, in the cinema, or featured in advertising.

It therefore followed that even in the most remote and inhospitable places such as the annual 'cold' meeting of the Elefantentreffen, normally reserved for the more die-hard riders, many of this new wave of younger bikers wanted to emulate the 'die-hards' by making the trip to the Nürburgring.

For these young people from the Parisian region on their way to the Eiffel mountains circuit on their mopeds, distance was no obstacle to their need for adventure, challenge, and the freedom a bike can bring

This new breed of motorcyclists, hailing from a plethora of countries, thus swelled the ranks of the 'annual faithful' attending each year, and greatly increased the numbers for the 14th Elefant meeting, which fortunately provided milder conditions than the previous year.

In the enormous crowd of people strolling in front of the stands, you may notice that the ban on cars entering the circuit, implemented in 1968, apparently only lasted for that year.

According to the BVDM (Bundesverband der Motorradfahrere.V.) in charge of the organisation, 10,000 machines and 25,000 people, (including visitors) were present within the circuit and its environs.

One can smile at the translation of the sign in German language seen in the foreground: 'Das betreten der fahrbahn ist verboten' (Entering the lane is forbidden)

More mopeds and small motorbikes

Although they were still present in large numbers, the annual reunion no longer brought together exclusively the 'green elephant' Zundapp, nor the traditional hybrid bitzas; half-motorcycle, half-auto created from scratch by ingenious mechanics. Neither did it bring the old vintage machines of yesteryear ridden only for the occasion.

Now, the field was wide open, and on show was the entire range of mopeds and small machines from Japan and Europe.

There were, as usual, many combos, as shown in the photo on the left. In addition there was a large selection of mopeds, like this Peugeot model 'BB' ridden by a young French rallyist. Note the leather face masks worn by these two rallyists, typical biker clothing of the time

According to the 1969 rally records, the participant who arrived from farthest afield was an Italian rider by the name of Mauritio d´Asaro. This BMW R51/3 owner had travelled a distance of 2800km.He started in Palermo, Sicily and rode all the way up the length of Italy to his final goal at the famous German circuit known worldwide for its 129 turns.

The winter journey accomplished on a combo by these two Soviets from their homeland to Eiffel was certainly not as hard and grueling as the Russian campaign during WWII, but nonetheless sufficiently remarkable that these two visitors from behind the Iron Curtain deserve a special mention

Young and Old, all generations represented

What child wouldn't give all their toys to share the travel and adventure of these lucky toddlers.

As for the older participants, who received a respectful 'nod' from the young, you will not be surprised to learn that the archives of the 1969 meeting once again record the name of the legendary French rallyist Robert Sexé who was 78 years old at the time.

Robert Sexé, a loyal lover of the Elefantentreffen since his first attendance in 1961, had over the years become a great friend of Ernst 'Klacks' Leverkus, the man who had the idea to set up the event in the mid 1950s.

Cap on head, (as was his custom), Ernst 'Klacks' Leverkus answers an interviewer's questions during the filming of a documentary about the rally for German television

Recently we recalled by phone with Jean-Marie Debonneville respective memories concerning Robert Sexé.

As Debonneville recalled, Robert spoke very good German. This earned him an annual invitation to join the ranks of the organizers during the welcome ceremony and to serve as spokesperson for the French attendees.

Jean-Marie Debonneville's VW combo bitza on the road to the Nürburgring. One more Elefant rally to add to his already long list of major international rally attendances

Each year, on the rally's Sunday conclusion, the same scene was played out: the sensitive and aging Robert Sexé said goodbye to his friend Klacks by confiding to him with sadness that it would undoubtedly be his last Elefantentreffen.

Klacks always reassured him, telling him with a smile that Robert had been telling him exactly the same thing since 1961.

Eight months after the Elefant rally 69, Robert Sexé photographed here at the 'Rallye des Petoires'1969 organised in Chatellerault by Pierre Gilard and AM de la Vienne. Robert took part in this event on his old trusty Gillet Herstal on which he completed his 35,000 kilometer (22,000 miles) raid across the world in 1926

As you might expect, in spite of his advancing years 'grandpa' Sexe was back the following year to take part in the January 1970 meeting. No mean feat as it involved a round trip distance of 1600km from his native Poitou, this time in the saddle on a good old 125 DKW-RT.

Robert was not the only veteran featured in the German motorcycling press who covered the event at the time. Richard Herfords, a mere 73 year old, was also mentioned in the Motorrad magazine report. Riding a Triumph, Richard lived in Bocholt, a city in the north-west of North Rhine-Westphalia, some 4 km south of the border with the Netherlands.

Apart from the veterans and the rally regulars, some faces in the crowd caught the photographer's attention. This pretty French brunette from Strasbourg (left) for whom it was the 5th Elefant rally (her first participation dating back to 1965). The two rallyists on the right show a certain flair for the uniform of the wild biker of future years

What's new in 1969?

This reunion remained similar in nature to others before it in the late 1960s. Its familiar atmosphere and ambiance are shown in the photos below.

The only difference in the landscape of the event was the obvious huge increase in the crowds and the number of participants. This is especially true of the visitors, tourists and those curious to witness the event for the first time.

Motorcycle festival ahead of its time or simply open-air motorcycle show? A giant fair of two and three wheels? There is no shortage of names to qualify the event at a time when international motorcycle touring meetings of this magnitude could be counted in single figures

The name of the rally, of course, suggests that it is supposed to be an annual meeting of pachyderms. However, the never-ending madness on the circuit throughout the weekend is such that one might wonder if in fact we are rather part of some sort of gigantic, ever-shifting 'anthill' of men, engines and steel.

A giant anthill of constant activity

The non-stop roar of engines reverberating everywhere; combos and solo motorcycles of all brands and colours displaying the licence plates of many diverse nations; coupled with conversation and voices all around in languages strange and unfamiliar... welcome to the largest outdoor winter circus.

No matter where on the circuit you find yourself, silence is not a commodity you'll find. Noise is king. This 'kingdom of motors' orchestrates a cacophony of sounds of all kinds that only the 'tuned' ears of a motorcyclist can tolerate and fully appreciate

No fun for Jumbo

The term 'circus' is perhaps not too strong on my part and undoubtedly appropriate in the circumstances. The German owner of a circus, seizing the obvious opportunity, had made the trip to the Nürburgring, bringing with him a young elephant!

Rallyists who wished to do so, (on payment of a small fee), could have their photo taken next to the animal. However, the freezing temperatures meant that the poor animal, hailing for much warmer climes, must have been the only 'creature' there not to appreciate the event's appeal.

At least these elephants did not mind the cold.

Healthy joys of the outdoors in winter

Once more, the Sport Hotel was invaded by hordes of customers who had no qualms paying the high prices for a good meal or a round of local beers to celebrate a reunion with old friends.

The less fortunate with 'smaller pockets', as well as fans of the joy of camping, obviously preferred to organise their own food outdoors, often cooked on a gas stove or simply over a wood fire.

Here is a talented handyman who has built a barbecue equipped with a rotating spindle, operated by a battery-powered car wiper motor. After all, being a die-hard rallyist is not incompatible with improvising a home-made rotisserie

Under the large majestic fir trees, tents and encampments of all kinds have been erected with participants able to spend the night in dry and sheltered conditions.

An English camper

With travel fatigue in evidence, (one of the best and healthiest 'sleeping pills' in the world), most rally campers had no problem falling asleep, despite the proximity of the neighbouring tents and the frequent bursts of laughter and loud songs and the sound of guitars.

It really didn't take much back then to feel happy. A few logs to warm up, jokes, laughter and songs, and that beautiful and healthy friendship between people sharing the same passion. The cold was the least of your worries as the feeling of happiness warmed your heart and soul

For the unlucky few, having fun and a good time was unfortunately not on the agenda for them.

Without help from the staff of the Varta racing assistance truck, (without whom many machines could not have been repaired), they tried as best they could to resolve their mechanical problems before darkness arrived.

Although his old Adler MB 250 seems to have a serious piston problem, it takes a lot more to demoralize its German owner who still seems to take things with a smile

With the imminent arrival of night, here and there motorcyclists prepared torches for the forthcoming traditional evening tour of remembrance on the 22km circuit.

A little further on, a group of German rallyists set up a mini fireworks display.

Campers busy, attending to the day's problems before dark

The metallic centipede lights up the night

The long-awaited time for the torch-lit parade finally arrived. The PA system invited the rallyists to present themselves on their machines in front of the stands. The spectacle on the straight, completely covered as far as the eye can see by machines was almost unreal; and unique to the Elefant.

All at once the roar of the engines stopped and an eerie silence took over. Suddenly the noise of engines was replaced by the sound of several hundred torches as they crackled in the cold air, their pallid gleams flickering in the dark. Speeches in memory of motorcyclists who died in 1968 were delivered. The emotion of the moment was palpable.

Suddenly a noise swells and grows. Departure time. The metallic centipede sets off. In the distance, the castle of Nürburg, magnificently illuminated, seems from its heights to supervise the show of sound and light embellished by the invasion of rallyists from far and wide

On the handlebars like dad

Among the children of rallyists, there are three exceptional mornings a year that they would not miss for the world.

Christmas day when they wake up and find out what Santa Claus has left in their stockings during the night. Their birthday. And that of Elefantentreffen Sunday where they can imitate their fathers, riding in a combo during the gymkhana specially reserved for them at each meeting.

On this NSU 125cc sidecar, these two German youngsters already look like professional speed racers

Not having to go to church to attend Sunday mass is no loss for them on this particular day. One can imagine the days of pent-up excitement, waiting to be able to perform in front of their parents and the spectators.

We can speculate if these youngsters of yesterday, who now must be close to 60, are still riding motorcycles in 2021?

In conclusion

To bring the curtain down on the stage of the 1969 meeting, of which Ernst 'Klacks' Leverkus joked that the slogan was: "Whoever comes is his fault", I invite you to watch the brilliant video below.

m.facebook.com/100011023965381/videos/1026514881059301

This French documentary directed by the late Maurice Dugowson, (the man who discovered actor Patrick Dewaere), takes you on the epic journey of two motorcyclists travelling in January 69 to the Nürburgring circuit to take part in the Elefantentreffen.

- Jean-Francois Helias

Images: JM Debonneville
G Gaudechoux
JF Helias

Addendum

Fanfan and The Druid will not let valuable photographs languish in obscurity. Here is another selection from their records

Don't let your photos fade from view. Send us scans of your ancient Kodak N‑prints and Agfa slides so that others can appreciate them.