The heavens opened, turning the evening road into a giant, rippling puddle. The horns honked as Parisian motorcyclists veered dangerously out of car-logged lanes towards us, two e-Solex riders, on the home run in the bus lane.
In Paris, buses and bicycles often share the road. It was just unfortunate that my partner and I had forgotten that we were not riding bicycles per se – as three traffic policemen at the end of the lane pointed out, while scrutinising our passports and ignoring the kamikaze motorcyclists behind.
“Is that a new Solex?” asked the first. “Your vehicle may have pedals,” said the second, “but it also has a number plate and a motor, so it is not a simple bicycle. That is why you wear a helmet and should not ride in bus lanes. Understand?” I nodded. “So, does it drive smoothly?” “Yes,” I replied. “Is it heavy?” I shook my head. After staring at the bikes like little boys in a sweet shop, the three gendarmes climbed into their car, emerging several minutes later with two €22 fines – the lowest they could give us. “Be more careful next time,” advised the third. Then, turning to a colleague, he announced: “I might have to buy an e-Solex.”
This favourable outcome was not the only positive attention we received cycling around Paris’s Villette and Menilmontant quarters, but it also confirmed a niggling truth: people were more interested in our bikes than us. It was perhaps inevitabe, given France’s long-standing affection for the original, petrol-fuelled Solex. Invented in 1946 by Marcel Mennesson and Maurice Goudard as a cheap, reliable, motorised bicycle for a decimated country, it became the symbol of postwar France – a sign of progress and French ingenuity. Helped by a handful of stars (in 1962 Catherine Deneuve posed on one for Life magazine, and in 1971 Steve McQueen rode his own Solex around the set of Le Mans), the Solex became hugely popular, used by everyone from students at the Sorbonne to grandpas in the countryside.
When Goudard’s descendant, Felix, died in 1974, the Solex became the property of Renault, then Motobecane and later Yamaha, before eventually falling into the hands of Magneti Marelli, a subsidiary of Fiat. To the French, however, the Solex remained resolutely gaulois, even after it was discontinued in 1988.
I felt that for many passers-by, seeing the new e-Solex was an emotional event akin to meeting with a more youthful reincarnation of a long-lost lover: the silhouette was recognisable, the personality the same, but what a face-lift.
Jean-Pierre Bansard, president of the outlet centre, transport and hotel conglomerate Cible, is the man behind the renaissance. He was in Paris, admiring an old Solex cutting through the traffic, when he had a brainwave: what if he created a new model? He bought the Solex patent from Fiat and hired Pininfarina of Ferrari fame for the design. It was a risk, but quite frankly, when I laid eyes on the sparkling retro-futurist contraption, a surge of excitement told me it had been one worth taking.
The “e” in e-Solex stands for electrique, but it could just as easily mean elegant, easy to drive or environmentally friendly. It is a featherweight, barely tipping the scales at 45kg. Its rechargeable, 400 watt, electric motor is ultra-green, consuming just €1 of electricity over 1,000km, and it takes just eight hours to charge fully in a standard 220v socket. The lithium-ion 36v battery slots neatly into the frame below the handlebars and only weighs 5kg, so a spare can easily be carried for extra mileage. The motor, started by twisting the right-hand handlebar, can reach a top speed of 35kmph, but a gear switch allows you to limit your speed to 25kmph (thus saving on power) if necessary. That, plus a recommended retail price of €1,150, makes the e-Solex a desirable and affordable green transporter.
For all its simplicity, it manages a variety of urban terrain unexpectedly well. I chose the Menilmontant and La Villette areas not only because, like the Solex, they nostalgically cling to their working-class history, but also because Menilmontant has several steep, cobbled streets, while La Villette is as flat as a crepe and a fine spot for gathering speed.
On the cobbles, the e-Solex’s spring suspension under the padded seat saved our backsides from excessive juddering. The thick, aluminium-spoke wheels gripped well to the uneven ground and when climbing, the engine purred only slightly more ferociously than on the flat. Around La Villette, the bike accelerated quickly and the front and back brakes were particularly responsive, even in the rain.
Menilmontant is a good area to explore by bike, peeping into its hidden ateliers, and sampling its urban development through the arts. Two examples of this are La Bellevilloise, on rue Boyer, France’s first co-operative, now a vast arts centre; and La Maroquinerie, an indie music venue cum restaurant/literary cafe. Further north-east, La Villette, the city’s former abattoir district, is now a futuristic park that straddles the Ourcq canal. As with le tout Paris, you don’t have to have an e-Solex to visit these parts, but believe me: it’s better with than without.
A new-generation, eco-friendly electric bicycle, based on France’s postwar VeloSolex or “Solex”
€1,150 (approx £925)
Top speed 35kmph (21.7mph)
Suspension fork under handlebars. Spring suspension saddle
Average 25-40km per battery, depending on weather conditions
Currently none in the UK, but French concessionaries can be found at www.e-solex.fr
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