French Constructeurs: Motorcycle and Bicycle Makers With Savoir Faire

Reflecting on history

vintage peugeot motorcycle ad
Peugeot has a rich French heritage of bicycle, motorcycle, scooter and automobile manufacturing.Peugeot archives

The MotoGP circus descends upon the fabled LeMans Bugatti circuit in France this week, and with French rookie Johann Zarco lighting up 2017 race action so far it's the perfect time to reflect on the history of French motorcycle and bicycle manufacturing.

With Japanese and Italian manufacturers providing the lion's share of the MotoGP machinery, one has to turn back the pages of history to see when the French were among the dominant makers of motorcycles. It's telling that their reign ran concurrent with bicycle production. It's also telling that the same two companies -- Motobecane and Peugeot -- are still producing two-wheeled machines. The former is now called MBK, a subsidiary of Yamaha Motor Company producing scooters, while the latter is sponsoring the Peugeot MC Saxoprint Moto3 team with its MPG30 motorcycle.

peugeot logo
Peugeot logo.Peugeot archives
eddy merckx bicycling action
The mighty Belgian racer Eddy Merckx shows his heels to competitors while racing for the Peugeot team in 1967.Eddy Merckx archives

For more than 100 years, between 1882 and the late 1980s, Peugeot produced bicycles in France. The Beaulieu company won 10 Tours de France between 1903 and 1983, and counted several superstars of the tarmac among its sponsored riders, including Charly Gaul, Eddy Merckx, Roger Pingeon, Tom Simpson, Bernard Thévenet and Stephen Roche.

VIDEO: Peugeot Bicycles 1985

motobecane logo
Motobecane’s logo.Motobecane archives

Established in 1923, the name Motobecane is a compound of moto, slang for motorcycle; becane is slang for bike.

Motobecane’s first motorcycle was a 175cc single cylinder two-stroke-engined bike first sold in 1923. Seven years later Motobecane was producing a complete range of motorcycles. In 1933, they produced their first four-stroke machine, a 250cc. During the 1930s, they manufactured a longitudinal shaft-drive inline-four-engined motorcycle in 500 and 750cc. Motobecane won the challenging Bol d'Or endurance race.

luis ocana bicycling action
Spaniard Luis Ocana unseats Merckx to win his first and only Tour de France in 1973, on a splendid orange Motobecane custom racer.Luis Ocana archives

After World War II Motobecane produced the single-cylinder D45 motorbike that filled a need for cheap transportation. Its successor was the Z46, equipped with modern suspension. As for many European motorcycle manufacturers, the 1960s proved difficult for Motobecane as cars became affordable. As a result, sales decreased. The arrival of cheap, efficient Japanese motorcycles also hurt sales. They continued to produce two-cylinder 125cc motorcycles throughout the 1970s. They also manufactured a small number of two-stroke, three-cylinder 350cc and 500cc bikes.

thierry espie racing action
Frenchman Thierry Espié racing a Motobecane during the 125cc championships in 1979.Motobecane archives

For a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Motobecane competed in Grand Prix motorcycle racing claiming several victories in the 125cc class and finishing second in the 1980 125cc road racing world championship.

The company fell on hard times by the late 1970s, and by was defunct by 1981. Yamaha Motor Company took over after creating MBK, which primarily sells scooters around the world.

moto3 saxoprint team race action
Peugeot is a major manufacturer of scooters, but is still keen to make engines for Moto3 racing for the Saxoprint team.Peugeot MC Saxoprint

Peugeot built their first motorcycle, powered by a De Dion-Bouton engine mounted at its rear wheel. This model was shown at the 1898 Paris Exhibition but was not produced. Peugeot was the leading French motorcycle manufacturer until the 1950s and as of 2012 Peugeot is the sole remaining French motorcycle maker. In October 2014, Mahindra acquired a 51 percent controlling stake in the company. In 2015 a Mahindra-Peugeot MGP3O racer took the Riders’ and Constructors’ titles in the Italian CIV Moto3 championship in the hands of 16-year-old Marco Bezzecchi.

VIDEO: Peugeot Motocycles en Moto3

Peugeot currently produces 14 different scooter models with engines ranging from 50 to 500cc.

Boulanger is keenly proud of his mixed French/Belgian heritage, which evenly splits his love for motorcycles and bicycles.