The joy of Solex

Google “Brigitte Bardot Solex” and you will discover numerous images of one French icon perched upon another. There is also soft-focus colour film of the divine BB chugging delightfully – in mini-dress and floppy straw hat – along quiet French boulevards. My mum was Belgian and her mum owned a Solex too, though undoubtedly drew less attention than BB as she traversed the streets of Antwerp. My grandmother loved the English. We never learned the full details but believe her passion was sparked by an illicit, ultimately doomed, love affair with a young soldier during WWI. By the time the second global conflict came around my grandmother owned an Antwerp café, which she named Home Sweet Home. The name was written in English above the entrance door, which did not amuse the occupying German forces, but delighted the liberating Tommies when they arrived.

The café became a magnet for the Brits and was usually open all hours, in part because my grandmother was determined to find an English husband for her youngest daughter. The end result was that a few months after the liberation an eighteen-year-old girl (who would become my mum) stepped from a small passenger ship onto English soil for the first time, clutching a small, brown suitcase in one hand and a white leather handbag containing a £5 note in the other. She spoke just a few words of English and had arrived to marry a Scottish soldier, since my grandmother had decided that Scotland was close enough to England. The Scotsman was not my dad, but that’s another story, so back to the Solex.

The VéloSoleX, to give it its full name – although the brand has always been universally known as Solex – is a motorised bicycle, first marketed in 1946. The mass-produced bikes went through various upgrades and improvements and sold in their millions, until production in France ceased in 1988. Since then, the Solex has re-emerged in China and Hungary and eventually returned to France. Now, due largely to the popularity of the originals, an electric version is available. But it’s the pre-1988, French-built, two-stroke petrol/oil, engine-driven models that are in big demand. These are the cool machines ridden by the likes of Steve McQueen when making the 1971 movie Le Mans, and by Robert Redford in the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor. And being super-cool myself, I have one too.

My Solex is the 3800 model, made in 1966 in Paris, exactly the same as McQueen rode

My love affair with the Solex began as a teenager, well after my mum had finally sorted out the Scottish business, paired up with my dad and produced three kids. This was all followed by regular visits to Belgium. Most school holidays were spent in Antwerp, where we had a large Belgian family. My grandmother was a big woman and, according to my mum and her siblings, had been a hard, stern and, on occasion, ferociously violent parent. With her grandchildren, however – and particularly with her half-English grandchildren – it was the complete opposite. Tears rolled down her plump, red cheeks as soon as we arrived. She would clasp all three of us in an iron grip to her voluminous bosom while planting multiple wet kisses on our heads. We could do anything and ask for anything. So, when aged fifteen, I spotted her Solex resting against the back wall of the house and asked to try it, she ushered me away with a, “Go, go!” (having given me a quick demo on how to ride the machine). Off I went. Every day, day after day.

Riding the Solex was how I discovered the real Antwerp. Dodging tram rails and bumping over the cobbled streets, I rode alongside the mighty river Scheldt, down the Nationalestraat, around the wide Groenplaats with its packed café terraces and past the towering cathedral and the civic buildings of the Grote Markt. That bike took me to places I’d never have seen as a tourist and certainly would not have been taken to by my parents.

A few years ago, mooching around a brocante, I suddenly glimpsed a Solex at the back of the shop. It was covered in dust, had flat tyres and was priced at €200. To the obvious surprise of the owner, I didn’t even haggle – I just had to have it. It’s now fully restored, though not to pristine condition, as I don’t want it to look brand new. (Those ancient tyres currently need replacing.) Unfortunately, French bureaucracy means these days even the humble Solex must be insured, have a registration document and bear a number plate. I have all of these but somehow just can’t bring myself to fix the plate to the bike and spoil the look. And anyway, I don’t travel far: a few circuits of the village back streets are enough to dream and remember.

My Solex is the 3800 model, made in 1966 in Paris. It has a 49cc engine with a top speed of 39kph. It’s exactly the same as the one McQueen rode and in 2021 that particular bike sold at an RM Sotheby’s auction for $66,000. If my Solex went under the hammer I doubt it would make that much. But whatever its worth, as Antiques Roadshow guests say when their treasures are valued surprisingly high, I’d never sell it.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter

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