The Solex has a certain poetry. As an object of both freedom and pleasure, it would be used to travel to factories, churches, and bars. With a top speed of 22 miles per hour – and less than one horsepower! – riders could take the time to admire the landscape with the wind blowing through their hair. What’s more, its official status as a bicycle meant it could be ridden without a helmet or a license plate.
Sold only in black for many years, much like the Ford Model T, Solex wanted to offer a solution to the challenges of urban and rural mobility in post-war France. At the time, motorization was needed to rebuild the country, and Solex were first produced in Courbevoie in the Hauts-de-Seine département in the spring of 1946. Millions of models of the “bicycle that rides on its own” left the factories. At the time, a Solex cost the equivalent of a month’s minimum wage salary.
The bike only consumed a liter of Solexine, a blend of oil and gasoline, every 100 kilometers. Or “one coin per kilometer,” declared an advertising slogan in the late 1960s. The Solex was efficient, but rustic. Its two-stroke engine was noisy and struggled on steep hills, forcing the rider to pedal! With the frame attached to the fork above the front wheel, there was a lot of weight on the handlebars which made for a tricky driving experience – especially if it was raining.
But the vehicle was so well liked that these minor problems were ignored – at least, until the 1980s. At the time, the Solex had to compete with more powerful, virile mopeds and became unfashionable. Its sales dwindled until production stopped in 1988. The brand was eventually bought by the French company Easybike, which introduced an electric engine with the “Intemporel” model – its latest revamp – assembled in Normandy.
Solex and Uncle Sam
In the United States, mopeds have become “a time machine,” according to Howie Seligman, who patented the VeloSolex America brand in 2000. His customers include nostalgic veterans who spent time on U.S. Army bases in France, along with a crowd of aesthetes. “The VéloSoleX is not a mass-market item anymore, but a collector’s piece,” he says. “Some people even treat it like a religious object. They keep it in their living rooms!”
When The New York Times wrote an article about the French bike, everything changed. “That morning, at about a quarter to seven, my telephone rings,” says Howie Seligman. “I pick it up. It was someone who had just read the article and wanted to buy a Solex. As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. And it went on like that for the rest of the day! I had 30 people call me, and we sold a whole container in a few hours.”
While the frenzy has since subsided, Solex is still regularly in the news. For example, in 2008, a group of Dutch fans decided to ride Route 66 from Chicago to California. “Six-foot guys crossing the desert on a Solex, you get the picture!” There is even a cavalcade included in the annual Citroën parade on the streets of New York City for Bastille Day. Enthusiasts can order their own at Steve’s Moped and Bicycle World, a distributor in New Jersey that delivers nationwide. As an old ad used to say: “Sooner or later, you’ll have a VéloSoleX!”