9/10 January 1971
11,000 motorcycles and 50,000 people
With 11,000 motorcycles and 50,000 people in evidence, what was once a relatively small winter gathering has by 1971 morphed into a motorcycle festival with a multitude of associated onlookers, visitors and temporary stall holders eager to sell their wares to a captive audience.
The sheer numbers of people at the event meant it was virtually impossible to find your friends if a rendezvous had not previously been arranged.
A mixture of rallyists, onlookers and traders
Such enormous crowds meant it was almost impossible to find a site to pitch a tent; with every available space taken up by traders, returning visitors and 'first- timers' just generally milling around, all keen to soak up the atmosphere. Indeed, along route 258 next to the Nurburgring, the lines of cars parked on both sides stretched for more than 3km and at the start and finish points there were 5 rows of motorbikes lined up along the south curve.
The winter touring motorcycle event of the year had once again far exceeded the expected number of attendees originally envisaged by Klacks and his gang. As well as the obvious rallyists, the crowd was copiously reinforced by hordes of curious onlookers, all there to see what all the fuss was about, plus the inevitable throng of traders, all looking for every opportunity to lighten everyone's wallets
The sense and spirit of the rally that Ernst 'Klacks' Leverkus had originally imbued into the rally at its inception in 1956 had disappeared by the mid-1960s, and the growth of the meeting itself and commensurate crowd numbers that followed year after year, had only served to drive the event further and further away from its founding principles.
A week too late and the thaw was already here
In 1971 the event was postponed for a week since the first weekend in January fell too close to the New Year itself and the organisers were later to regret this.
Had they stuck to original, and indeed traditional winter weekend the temperature at that point was -18C and the snow lay 30cms deep, but a week later on the revised weekend of the 16th, there was a rapid thaw!
They had come hoping to face the rigours of winter snow and ice but were faced with only cold winter sunshine instead.
However, there was still plenty of snow in the fields and pine forests, on the roofs of houses and the pavements; in fact, the snow was in evidence everywhere except the road! Even the road leading from Haguenau to the circuit was completely clean and free of snow and ice.
On this particular Saturday morning the temperature was around 4C. The cold was just sharp enough to confirm that winter was still present, although the weak sunshine was already drying the road surface which had previously been wet with water and salt.
Alongside the extensive line of stands, combos and solos of all shapes. sizes and marques formed, as they had in previous years, rows of multi-coloured steel and leather
Merchants in the Temple
Within the inner circle of the track the ever-expanding number of stallholders, selling accessories of all kinds seemed to be omni-present, offering their merchandise at prices which always seemed to increase year on year.
The busiest stand of all was undoubtedly where the official Elefant meeting badges were being sold. A big crowd of motorcyclists thronged the place, but each patiently waiting their turn to acquire the coveted metal souvenir. Any self-respecting rallyist would surely not want to leave the meeting without his commemorative badge, together with its engraved 1971 year bar.
It seemed in this respect that at the Elephant rally principles mattered very little. Indeed, some stallholders; little more than chancers, when the opportunity is there to earn a little more cash, were selling the year bars of previous years from 1967 through to 1970.
Another 'cash cow' business was the fee of 2 deutsche marks per machine, plus an amazing 1 deutsche mark per passenger, just to be allowed to ride your motorcycle around the legendary Eiffel circuit.
Like veterans displaying medals from wars they'd fought in, some rallyists liked to show badges from previous rallies in which they had participated. The experienced eye will no doubt recognise some of these worn by the two rallyists pictured. They are from the Elefant rally as well as various meetings of the Welsh Dragon.
There were many, such as youngsters, apprentices and students who had to watch their budgets carefully. However, for those with 'deeper pockets' the place to go and be seen was of course the legendary 'Sporthotel'.
It is there, amongst the constant hub bub of reunion chatter and laughter, that motorcyclists from all over the world enjoyed some 'down time'. The 'Sporthotel' was avenue to eat, down a glass or two of beer and get to know foreigners that the day before were strangers but who shared the common passion.
At the 1971 meeting, a female Asian ambassador seen on the 'Ring
Language barriers seemed not to exist among this crowd since they ended up understanding each other with gestures and sometimes even quickly drawn sketches.
The most intriguing part of this multi-national gathering was that it was often quite easy to recognise nationalities by their motorcycling outfits. National identity was not easily hidden here and many of the Dutch bikers even wore traditional wooden clogs.
Later though, as the evening wore on, the atmosphere became a little more fraught and the local police had to intervene when a few drunken bikers decided to climb onto the tables singing and shouting!
Sporthotel souvenir postcard
At the camp
The 'Sporthotel' was certainly not the only place to enjoy yourself though that Saturday evening. Outside under the big fir trees of the campsite various impromptu festivities were going well. Despite weariness from the journey for those who have driven long distances, everyone seemed intent on having a good time, creating unforgettable memories along the way that will last forever. There are those though, for whom the night's activities, (except for a massive hangover), will be a half-remembered blur.
It is in this almost surreal spectacle, punctuated by the crackling of numerous campfires, that animated multi-language conversations can be heard, together with ribald rugby songs, bursts of uncontrolled laughter and of course much drinking and eating. Many have improvised BBQs for the night, with simple food in evidence such as sausages as well as the odd exotic suckling pig or two!
The liveliest place in the camp is the Bones MC territory. A club founded in Germany in 1968, by seven active American military personnel stationed in Frankfurt and chartered as an American Social MC on U.S. military soil in Germany.
The Bones in the 1971 Elefant rally camp. Two of the club founders were Larry Coleman and comic artist Gene L. Thoms. Their club patch consisted of a bony hand on black fabric.
According to Coleman, "MAD had a story about the dangers of smoking. A bone hand holding a cigarette was shown as an illustration. We found the cartoon very funny and decided that this would be our Colors and we call ourselves BONES."
On this particular Saturday evening back in January 1971, the members of the Bones improvised an orchestra whose assorted instruments comprised saucepans, washboards and even a curious trumpet made from a heating valve! In addition, club members reserved a sad fate for empty beer bottles and cans. Their corpses are hung high and low from the branches of nearby trees.
On this Saturday evening, 9 January 1971, the band and the singers of the Bones choir give their recital around their campfire
Amateur videos of the 1971 rally
If you have made it this far you deserve a bonus. To give you an overview of what the 16th Elefant rally was like, I have attached some web links for you to enjoy as a graphic reminder of the rally itself.
There is nothing better than a movie or a documentary, even if it was shot by an amateur, to get a better idea of the atmosphere of an event. By chance, I found snippets of film shot by an unknown participant during the 1971 meeting. digit.wdr.de/entries/62380, digit.wdr.de/entries/62381, digit.wdr.de/entries/62383, digit.wdr.de/entries/62384 and digit.wdr.de/entries/62385.
More pictures of this 71 meeting
It would be a shame not to share with you all the pictures from 1971 in my archives. Here is a photo montage showing rallyists and various machines photographed during that weekend on the 'Ring.
Text: Jean-Francois Helias
Images: G Gaudechoux & JF Helias