Only after having done it did I discover that riding a Solex around London’s Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch roundabouts was considered a brave, but foolhardy lifestyle decision. Ironically, it seemed perfectly safe at the time, and it was only while travelling along the King’s Road the following day that somebody tried to kill me. It can’t have been for any personal reason that the woman in the silver BMW 328 coupÃ© tried to knock me from the machine, as I’d never seen her before. I’d recognise her again, though.
In the event, the Solex’s brakes performed admirably, bringing it, and me, screeching to a stop unharmed.
The Solex, for those who don’t know it, is a design classic. In the French sense. It ranks alongside the Citroen 2CV, Gitanes cigarettes and the beret as a strange-but-true fact of rural Gallic life. It is a bicycle with an engine attached to the front wheel. With optional pedal power supplied conventionally to the rear wheel, it is in effect a two-wheel-drive bicycle.
First sold in 1946, the machine was designed by engineers Maurice Goudard and Marcel Mennesson. It couldn’t be much simpler: A single-cylinder, 49cc, two-stroke engine is positioned over the front wheel. To get motoring, you operate a lever to lower the engine on to the tyre, and pedal a few feet while pressing the ignition button to fire it into buzzing life.
The bike, now made in Hungary and on sale in the UK for the first time, is still essentially the same as when it was first introduced.
Riding it is certainly an experience, if for no other reason than observing the reactions of other people. Older French tourists are entertained to see something from their childhood ride past, younger ones scream with laughter and shout remarks about letters to you. Postmen used to ride Solexes in France, I deduce.
A Yamaha rider on Brompton Road maintained a conversation through two sets of traffic lights, so interested was he in the strange device. He left impressed by its 200-miles-per-gallon economy and cheap insurance. None of the Soho couriers I asked were prepared to trade in their standard-issue Kawasaki GT550s, but the Solex certainly put a smile on their faces. Only a pair of boy racers in a souped-up Peugeot showed any disrespect to the bike, but their attention was diverted by a woman driving an MG, an aspect of modern life they evidently found even more unacceptable than the Solex.
In fact, questions from passers-by are the only things to slow you down on a Solex. Narrower than a scooter, it can cut through traffic like Miss World in a rugby scrum. Better sprung than most modern bicycles, it even has a comfortable saddle. After some practice, achieved by performing multiple laps of Sloane Square, I managed to achieve full speed cornering, with an impressive angle of lean. And, short of the odd burst of pedalling to aid acceleration, it’s effortless – no need to arrive at the office in need of a shower and change of clothes.
Excellent short-distance, fair-weather transport, then. The Solex is like other bikes, but better. Or should that be more French?
The Solex is available from The Solex Centre, 408 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW10, priced £750. Contact: 020 7795 0175.