Peak Rally

Their advance was slow and beset by challenges.

In the first days of January 1963 the dangerous icy road that had led them towards the border was made even more treacherous by a thick blanket of snow. Freezing weather was so cold it wouldn't have been unfamiliar to an Eskimo, and you can imagine in these conditions how difficult it would be, braving the elements on a motorcycle.

Exerting yourself physically in the face of fatigue and suffering; pushing the limits of what's possible and fighting the voices in your head that tell you to give up and turn around. These are the personal challenges that any rallyist worthy of the name knows so well.

Jean-Marie on his Ariel in combination version making his way to the Nurburgring, in the snows of a January day in the mid 1960s.

Jean-Marie Debonneville is one such rallyist. He belongs to this select band of fighters and winners for whom giving up is totally out of the question. Yet in this instance he had good reason to wonder if it was sensible to continue. He was on this occasion on two wheels not three, riding solo on his 1953 Ariel Square Four to the Eiffel.

After the Thunderbird came the Square Four

He had always coveted this British beauty designed by Edward Turner and produced by Ariel since 1931. Its production ceased at the beginning of the 1960s, another victim of the trend at the time towards small, high-revving modern power units. The Ariel's price of nearly £350 also contributed to its downfall, making it look very expensive against much cheaper models.

Elefant 1967 - Helene, his Russian companion posing in front of the Ariel combo, looks completely frozen. She was Debonneville's second girlfriend following him in all French and foreign rallies during the five years they were together.

However, just before he finally had the chance to own one, the young Debonneville found himself riding a good old Triumph Thunderbird.

This was a machine made famous for many reasons, not least of which was its appearance in the 1953 film, 'The Wild One' starring Marlon Brando. He played the role of a rebellious and rowdy biker. Mind you, this was publicity which Triumph could have well done without and the importers of the brand strongly resented the use of their Thunderbird 1950 6T machine in the movie.

Jean-Marie's Triumph Thunderbird pictured here in May 1963 at the Col de Bellegarde in the department of Ain

However, Debonneville was not on hand to act as an extra riding his Thunderbird. By contrast, since his first two wheeled outing in 1953, he has always felt an inner urge to ride a motorcycle swallowing up the miles.

In his hands, the Triumph 'pre-unit' model ate up so many miles that the odometer ended up showing an impressive 100,000 kilometers, (62,500 miles). Nevertheless, he managed to exchange it, (plus a little extra cash thrown in), at a motorcycle dealer in his region against the used Ariel Square Four of his dreams.

The machine badge on the front fender tab, bearing the number 14, is that of his then Lille club: 'Club des Amis de la Moto', chaired at the time by Noel Standart

He was a member of the 'Club des Amis de la Moto', based in Lille, near the town of Tourcoing where he was working at the time. The club comprised fifty members, the vast majority of whom rode on large-cylinder English or German motorcycles.

According to Jean-Marie, the production of French motorcycles, which was then based solely on the manufacture of 125cc and 175cc models, was no longer of interest to motorcyclists who wanted to ride much larger machines.

The production of French motorcycles from the 1950s was mainly based on the 125cc and 175cc. The market collapsed as soon as a 125cc license became compulsory. In the period 1950/1956, the French market for 125cc was around 150,000 machines per year; in 1961 it was down to 4,000 machines. Peugeot stopped its production lines in 1960/61; Motobecane and Terrot in 1962/63

Elefant 1963 and Dragon 1965

But let's return to the frosts of January 1963; to that snowy road that led Jean-Marie and his friend to the Elefantentreffen meeting.

In the snow, riding his Ariel Square Four solo, he obviously struggled to keep his machine upright; not a problem that troubled his friend riding a BSA with sidecar. This was his first Elefantentreffen and through clenched teeth he exuded the air of someone who had every intention of going all the way.

Having arrived at the German border, his partner was not very eager to continue at which point Jean-Marie made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He suggested borrowing his partner's BSA combo to continue the journey to the Nurburgring on his own, whilst his friend return home on the Ariel.

Nothing stops a determined rallyist, and certainly not a 'druid' en route to the Elefantentreffen in 1963.

Elefant 1967 - One more to add to the list of all the Nurburgring reunions he took part in from 1963

Two years later, he became the first and only French rallyist to participate in the 1965 Dragon Rally.

How could he know?

If you're wondering how back then in the 1960s, at a time with no internet or social media, a Frenchy 'eater of frogs and snails' like my compatriot Debonneville knew in advance the precise details of these great rallies of, the answer is simple.

It was certainly not through the French motorcycling press. In this particular case 'Moto-Revue', whose touring section at the time was as meagre as the contents of a tramp's wallet.

As passionate a rider as he was, he also possessed the intelligence and determination to overcome the foreign language barrier, subscribing both to the English magazine 'The Motor Cycle' and the German publication 'Das Motorrad', the rally enthusiasts two weekly 'must-reads' of the time.

The 1964 Dragon announcement and its application form in 'The Motor Cycle'

It was through these two foreign magazines that he learned of the meetings in which he wanted to take part.

A Ch'ti gifted for mechanics

Debonneville himself was born 85 years ago in the small town of Wattrelos, near Lille, a region bordering Belgium whose inhabitants are nicknamed the Ch'tis.

Having gained a diploma in shorthand and typing the young Debonneville took an office job working in the textile industry, the centre of which was Roubaix and Tourcoing.

In the 1960s and 70s the Liberty Club of Roubaix was a very large touring club in northern France. Its members represented it by taking part in numerous motorcycle gatherings of the time, both at home and abroad.

In the 1950s, this industry along with the coal mining and steel production were the three economic pillars of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, earning it the nickname 'France's factory'.

Working surrounded by hundreds of co-workers and colleagues using what were then mechanical calculators and typewriters, he found himself in the midst of countless machine breakdowns.

Jean-Marie quickly gained a reputation as the indispensable colleague who, like a miraculous sorcerer, knew how to fix everything. So much so that his career quickly and perhaps unsurprisingly took on a new direction. Marked out by the management for his mechanical skills, he was earmarked as an excellent candidate to repair the large machines at one of their textile factories in Auchel in the Pas-de-Calais.

His diploma in shorthand and typing was now very much obsolete and he was promoted to a new position, putting into practice his innate understanding of all things mechanical.

An example of machinery in an old textile spinning and weaving factory

His adventures on British soil

Calais is close to Auchel, where he worked and lived, and all he had to do was get to the dock on his motorbike, catch the ferry, and he's in Dover. From there, he just had to ride, (what he loves and lives for), heading straight to the rally.

In early 1965 he made his first trip to the UK, taking part in his very first Dragon. For him it's an unforgettable memory of a rally he attended with his first partner, Monique, his sidecar passenger.

Dragon 1965 - Jean-Marie and Monique; the very first Frenchman (and woman) to have participated in the legendary Welsh winter gathering.

He enjoyed the Dragon rally experience so much that he returned the following year. He actually attended the Welsh winter reunion five times in a row from 1965 to 1970 and returned briefly for a courtesy visit in 1997.

Dragon 1997 - Debonneville (right) in deep conversation with his friend Andre-Jean Mercorelli (left), owner of the MGC motorcycle seen here. The three initials of the brand are the acronym of 'Marcel Guiguet et Compagnie'. With the help of his brother Joseph-Henri, they made a few hundred motorcycles in Corbelin, in Isere, France

Asked which of the rallies he has attended in the UK is his favourite, he immediately replied that above all it's the Dragon rally, a memory that undoubtedly holds a special place in his heart.

As for other UK rallies, he attended an average of ten a year from 1965; including of course several stays on the Isle of Man during the annual TT races.

Tourist Trophy 1968 - An event that Jean-Marie did not miss either

Of these, he has particular fond memories of sidecar meetings (which he's attended several times) organised by the West Cumberland SCC.

West Cumberland SCC rally - A family gathering of sidecars at Easter 1965 which Jean-Marie has fond memories of despite the often rainy and occasionally snowy weather

This is a club that might no longer exist today. Like so many others from the 1960s that are not around anymore, these combo clubs in Great Britain were then at their most numerous and active. Back then they attended the Dragon or Elefantentreffen rallies in force. Indeed, for the 1964 meeting at the Nurburgring nearly 60 combos from the Oxford SCC took part.

West Cumberland SCC rally 1965 - When you drive a combo, you have to have strong arms. The 'tug of war' is therefore child's play for these sturdy sidecar riders and descendants of Vikings...

At Easter, the West Cumberland SCC at the time organised an annual family gathering in the Lake District, often in the rain and snow, but nonetheless sunny in friendship and good humour.

West Cumberland SCC rally 1965 - These ladies don't want to be outdone and are determined to prove to their men that they didn't marry weak women with marshmallow arms ....

In particular, in this part of the country, he remembers seeing many coal mines and meeting, Polish miners. To him this proved reminiscent of his birthplace in northern France where many Polish immigrants also worked in the mines. Coal mining in northern France declined from 1960 and ended in 1990.

Peak rally 1969 in Edale

Fifty years later, Jean-Marie of course finds it hard to remember which of his closest English rally friends advised him to attend the Peak rally.

Jack Gibbs' combo seen at a rally in the 60s

It might have been one of his closest friends: Paul Mullis, Tim Stevens, or possibly his buddy Jack Gibbs who had hosted him at his home on his return from a Dragon rally.

Jean-Marie remembers that Jack lived in a village not far from the famous Uffington White Horse, the oldest of the English prehistoric hill figures, in Oxfordshire.

The Peak Rally meeting, organised since the late 1960s by the Stockport & District MCC, was held in Edale, a small village in the Derbyshire Peak District.

Edale is the name given both to the valley between Mam Tor, Lose Hill and Kinder Scout and to its main settlement.

Views of the Peak District

As well as the main village there are several small farming hamlets strung out along the valley - Barber Booth, Ollerbrook Booth and Nether Booth.

Despite its seemingly remote location and stunning topography, Edale is accessible from both Manchester and Sheffield

In November 1969, Debonneville and his Russian companion Helene (the sidecar passenger) set off from the southern end of the Pennines to take part in their first Peak Rally.

He was riding a new machine, a BMW/Volkswagen bitza that he assembled from scratch and tested for the first time in January 1969 at the Millevaches rally.

Peak rally 1969 - In winter weather in November, the BMW/Volkswagen bitza with Helene seated in the sidecar. It's likely that this photo was taken in front of Rowland Cote Hostel in Edale.

Fifty-two years later, and at the age of 85, it's reasonable to think that Jean-Marie no longer has any precise memories of this particular rally. Who could blame him? He has experienced and achieved so much in a life dedicated to motorcycling that his 'memory banks' have probably mixed up the highlights of his travels, meetings and copious adventures.

A photo as sublime as this one, taken by him on the road leading to the Peak rally 1969, needs little description. The imagination of the viewer is all that's needed. One is magically transported to the atmosphere of the English countryside in November, the winter cold reddens your nose and sneaks into your gloves to chill your fingertips.

As you may have guessed, I'm an unconditional fan of 'swinging 60s' motorcycling. For me, it's a passionate nostalgic experience to revel in these photos from 'Le Druide' which have survived five decades to recapture past memories.

Peak rally 1969 - Camping in the snow

For an octogenarian he is still fit as a fiddle, and the tone and enthusiasm in his voice gives testament to an ardent vitality not often found in someone of his age, although he is very much aware that he's on the 'home stretch' of life.

'And Monsal, thou mine of Arcadian treasure, Need we seek for Greek islands and spice-laden gales, While a Temple like thee, of enchantment and pleasure, May be found in our own native Derbyshire Dales.'
(Eliza Cook - 19th century English author and poet)

As I told him sadly in our conversation the other day, when his time comes, a whole encyclopaedic chapter of French motorcycle touring will be closed and his knowledge will doubtless disappear with him, ending a great life and shutting the door on a time of adventure, daring and exploration.

Whilst he's still here, let's appreciate and share his enigmatic memories, together with his photos, the passionate visual testimonies of great moments of a life lived doing what he loved more than anything - motorcycle touring.

- Text: Jean-Francois Helias
Images : JM Debonneville & JF Helias