11,000 bikers in a mega fair estimated at 40,000 spectators, traders, and onlookers

For this meeting, which took place on 5 and 6 January 1972, we can no longer speak of Europe's biggest winter motorcycling event, but rather of a gigantic fair, a mega open-air motorcycling fair, having nothing whatsoever to do with the original spirit and vision of the intimate gathering that its founder, Ernst 'Klacks' Leverkus, wanted when it was created in the mid‑50s.

In 72, his rally was not yet considered to be completely dead, but it was already quite moribund. His health report in the specialist French press gave him little hope of survival.

Elefant 1972 – Like every year, machines of all brands and ages gathered on the Nurburgring on this first weekend at the beginning of January

For the record, a mini Elefantentreffen was organised by invitation that same weekend, at an undisclosed location somewhere in Germany, by people close to 'Klacks' Leverkus.

More 'coffins on 4 wheels' than motorbikes

When the number of cars on the 'Ring’ outnumbered the number of two and three‑wheel motorbikes — as was the case in 1972 — there was certainly cause for concern, and for some to question their personal motivation for taking part; and for the more purist among rallyists, to weigh up the pros and cons of wanting to return once again.

Faced with such a scene, I dare not imagine the thoughts of the poor motorcyclist arriving chilled and frozen after a very long journey in the saddle, sometimes for more than a thousand kilometers of winter road...

As you approached the circuit, the long queues of cars that had to be passed one by one in order to make their way to the final destination were a foretaste of the large number of motorists.

Among them were countless tourists and curious onlookers who had come to the rally. We can't blame them, since the media's huge advertising campaign to promote this annual event had seduced them, like insects attracted by the warm glow of a lamp lit in the dark of night.

Elefant 1972 – The opportunity for a Sunday walk with the family; like this couple for example with even their youngest child in his pram

And then there were the others, who had also come by car, but for reasons known only to them, had disguised themselves for the duration of the meeting by donning the uniform and panoply of the motorcyclist of the time, so that they could pretend to be part of the rallying crowd.

The campsite was full of these four-wheeled vehicles carrying fake rallyists who wanted to pass themselves off as the real thing. It didn't take the flair of Sherlock Holmes to spot a leather-clad driver, for example, getting out of his Mercedes and enthusiastically polishing his boots with a rag to keep them clean and shiny...

Another example, very close to the campsite, at the wheel of his American car, and wearing a leather jacket on which various badges are attached including that of the Elefantentreffen, a 'motorist-rallyist' as so many came to the 1972 meeting

The largest European motorcycle accessories shopping center

Traders and sellers of everything to do with motorbikes were of course present in the 'ring' to do good business.

The Elefantentreffen meetings of the 70s had no problem revealing their commercial vocation. And even though the German exhibitors were selling their items at much higher prices than they normally did in the shops, the prices were still very competitive compared with those in France at the time.

I doubt that the owner of this imposing DIY combo, whose basket presents such a plump rump, would need to buy accessories from the ring traders to make it more pleasing to the eye. Its practical side seems to take precedence over its aesthetics. The bottom of the giant basket hides an NSU 1200 engine propelling the monster...

Those who rode BMWs were favoured to be able to mechanically improve or beautify their machines. They were spoilt for choice. At the 1972 meeting, some twenty dealers in the 'ring' offered a whole range of accessories and parts for all models of BMW machines, including superb custom tanks.

View of a stand selling accessories for BMW motorbikes such as a selection of fuel taps, tank caps, custom large-capacity tanks, etc.

And what about the die-hard motorcycle touring fanatics in all this?

Rest assured, in what had become of this gigantic, infernal circus of the Elefantentreffen, betrayed by its growing success over the years, and in very bad shape at the beginning of the 70s, there were still enough enthusiasts to pledge their fidelity and loyalty towards the meeting then considered to be the holy shrine of motorcycle tourism, where any rallyist worthy of the name had to go on pilgrimage, even if only once in his life.

Among these brave fellows were some old-timers, like the legendary Robert Sexé who, at the ripe old age of 85, had once again made the long journey from his Poitou region to the Eiffel circuit.

Elefant 1972 – (left): The late Robert Sexé (1890-1986); (Right): ‘Pissenlit’ and ‘Jo’, two well-known French figures from the motorcycling scene of the time

Welcome to youth, the new blood that motorcycling needs

But what was most pleasing to see among this friendly army of centaurs of all generations, coming on two or three wheels from the four corners of Europe, and representing the true and pure faction of sincere lovers of winter reunions; those not dismayed by the great distances covered in the saddle in all weathers, were all those very young people who had come on small mopeds, most of them less than 50cc.

Left: A mini racing sidecar built on a Honda Monkey base. Its rider, although tall, made the entire trip from Paris lying on his machine at ground level and followed in his courageous adventure by a young girl on the handlebars of a Peugeot P101 moped; Right: Splendid flat twin combo in front of the stands

Their teenage machines were packed with rucksacks and sleeping bags, more or less protected from the rain and bad weather by nylon bags or pieces of tarpaulin.

These very young rallyists with extremely limited financial means, still students or apprentices, most of whom were dressed in clothes that barely protected them from the cold, and riding mopeds, were dragging themselves along the roads at 40 km/h, often covering distances of several hundred kilometres to the Nurburgring circuit, in the freezing cold of the first days of January.

Elefant 1972 – View of the campsite

These were kids with a lot of patience and a lot of courage. They needed a good dose of it to embark on this winter adventure and find within themselves the iron will to make it to the end, to the final goal, whatever the cost.

These people, unlike the motorists who came to the Elefantentreffen in the cosy comfort of their cars with interior heating, deserve my total respect for the rest of my life.

Imagining their respective adventures moves me, all the more so because I can put myself in their shoes, having done exactly the same thing - to put it mildly - and at exactly the same age.

The time when getting together with other enthusiasts to chat around a campfire somewhere in a remote rally - even though the road to get there sometimes seemed long and interminable on our mopeds - gave us wings...

More pictures of this 72 meeting

It would be a shame once again not to share with readers all the photos from our archives relating to the meeting on 5 and 6 January 1972. Below is a photo montage of these showing rallyists and various machines photographed that weekend.

Text: Jean-Francois Helias
Images: G Gaudechoux & JF Helias