Steel Horse Rally

The third Steel Horse rally took place on September 19th and 20th, 1970. Once more we were blessed with exceptionally good weather for such a late season meeting, with nearly 1500 motorcyclists converging on the Belgian rally site from all over Europe.

By late Friday evening the Loppemsee campsite venue had already been invaded by hundreds of keen rally enthusiasts and by the following afternoon the control point had registered over 500 motorcycles. Amazingly at the end of the weekend this number had swelled to over 1500 motorcycles.

For a modest fee, at the time, of 100 Belgian Francs, entrants were given a beautiful commemorative badge, free entry to the campsite and a Saturday evening concert.

Having pitched their tents, those who had the foresight to bring swimming clothes could enjoy all the pleasures the lake could offer from swimming and diving to simply playing around in the water. Those who preferred dry land could either enjoy simply watching the various water sports, which also included water skiing, or just meeting up with friends and chatting with the locals who were coincidentally spending their weekend break there when the rally invaded.

Swimming was a welcome refreshing treat for some bikers attending the rally.

Walking around the campsite revealed a myriad of solo motorbikes and sidecars familiar to us from their presence at the famous international rallies of that period. As well as several really beautiful Vincent bikes among the many other classic British bikes, there was as usual a healthy crop of vintage and contemporary Harley-Davidson models.

A Panther seen at the Steel Horse 1970, one of the most iconic British motorcycles of all time.

We spotted several Honda CB750s which were introduced into the European market the previous year, 1969, the very first Japanese so called 'superbike' of the 1970s; and standing out like a shining star in the midst of that huge collection of machines was an extremely rare and flashy brand new Meccanica Verghera Agusta 4.

You can see the influence of the 1969 Easy Rider movie on the owner of this customized Honda CB750 at the 1970 Steel Horse rally.

In the early evening a procession of motorbikes wound its way towards the Belfry Square in Bruges. For over half an hour an impressive snake of lights stretched from the campsite to the Bruges' main square. There, a crowd of over 2000 spectators and entrants jammed themselves into every available space until the square was completely full. A sea of people replaced what only an hour or two before had been an almost empty town square.

To witness the invasion of the Bruges' Belfry Square by an armada of 'steel horses' and their riders was always impressive.

It is in the Belfry tower itself, the symbol of the freedom of the city, that several hundred bikers gathered, their heavy boots resounding against the old stones of the broad interior staircase. The large wedding hall, the meeting place for the day had been decorated with multicoloured streamers and very quickly filled up. In fact, so full was it, that Jean Blanckaert later told us he was concerned that future ceremonies would demand a much larger space, which he worried would be difficult to secure.

Steel Horse 1970 - Jean Blanckaert was already worried about finding a room big enough to host the ceremony for such an ever increasing number of bikers.

It was time for the ceremony to begin. After the usual speech about our passion for motorcycling, translated of course into several languages, random rallyists were chosen from the crowd and initiated into the 'Knights of the Order of the Steel Horse'.

For many, that moment alone was worth the entire trip.

Finally, Jean Blanckaert asked the crowd to fall silent to observe a minute's silence in memory of motorcyclists who had recently died.

Respects were paid in particular to Jean-Pierre Drexler, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine 'Les Motards' who died in tragic circumstances at the Montlhery circuit testing a bike.

To Santiago Herrero and Brian Steenson, both Grand Prix racers who died from their injuries sustained while competing in the 1970 Isle of Man TT.

Finally to Ferdinand Kaczor, also a racer and later a BMW engineer. He is renowned for building a 500cc racing machine based on the serial bike BMW R50/2, making it roughly twice as powerful as its standard production sibling and riding the bike to a new lap record of the Nurburgring circuit in 1969. He also tragically died in a racing accident in 1970.

The nocturnal atmosphere of the Order of the Steel Horse 1970.

At the close of the ceremony around 9.00pm some rallyists stayed in Bruges to enjoy a night time tour of the medieval city, but most returned to the campsite where a 'big top' awaited them. Under this huge circus tent, a British band had been hired to provide live music and whether dancing to the music, or chatting over a beer or two, everyone had a great time.

The atmosphere became louder and louder and lots of bikers seemed to have plenty of energy left for drinking, singing and dancing. However, the celebrating may have been a little too raucous and the party too wild for some, because a group of unbridled and excitable English guys had to be firmly reminded by Jean Blanckaert himself to behave in a more restrained manner!

The evening continued with dancing and music and ended around 3am. It seemed that 3am was in fact not too late, or indeed too early for taking a bathe in the lake as the calm air was punctuated by the sound of splashing water as a few hardy individuals chose the chilly lake for a dip.

Gradually as first light illuminated the camp site, the thick fog that had enveloped it the night before dispersed and the camp came alive. Early morning open-air mass was celebrated and back in the town a classical concert took place. After a frugal Sunday breakfast, a few knights were already starting their homeward journeys, whilst in contrast, some late comers were only just arriving at the camp site.

The 1970 Steel Horse rally was over and it would be another year before we could once again head back to the "Venice of the North" to attend another of Jean and Magda Blanckaert's famous and celebrated meetings!

- Jean-Francois Helias