If one uses the term motorbike in the most literal sense of motor + bike, this thing is the second best selling motorbike of all time - only second to the Honda Cub.
The French it seems, have a hard spot for front wheel drive. There was a period of time when the French just could not stop figuring out new and novel ways to work front wheel drive into vehicles. They even made front wheel drive mopeds. The Velosolex is one of those front wheel drive mopeds. And what, in vehicular terms, could be more french than a front wheel drive moped? Nothing of course. But is that the most French design feature of the Velosolex?
I had the fortune to obtain a 1970s era Velosolex. By this time Solex (yes the carburetor people) had refined the design, which originated in the 1940s, to about the point where the engineers said “fuck it this is stupid anyway”. The 4600 model for the U.S. market included such improvements as a sealed beam headlight, and a hand throttle that worked properly. Believe it or not, the French version had a reverse throttle - twisting the hand grip closed the throttle - the default position was wide open. Those wacky wacksters. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds because the engine puts out less than 1hp and the top speed is about 20mph, so the pegged open throttle is sort of like cruise control. It leaves a hand free for smoking cigarettes while riding.
What other weird things could French scientists work into just one bike? How about a carburetor with no float or float bowl? When most mopeds relied on a cheap, limitless supply of gravity to move fuel to the carb - not so Solex. The fuel is moved by a diaphragm pump worked by the pulsing crankcase pressure of the 49cc 2-stroke engine. And no float in the carb? Simple, the excess is channeled back to the fuel tank through an overflow tube - so the gas just keeps circulating endlessly between the tank and the carb. Sort of like one of those old timey lemonade fountains.
Weirdness for weirdness sake not the most French of French things? How about practicality taken to the extreme? Almost the entire bike - including the frame is held together with 9mm bolts and nuts. And there is a 9mm wrench in the tool kit. Anybody who’s played with an erector set has essentially trained to become a certified Solex mechanic.
But lets get back to the front wheel drive part. Front wheel drive makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons for cars. It doesn’t quite make that much sense on a two wheel vehicle. You have to put the engine on the front fork so the center of gravity is quite high, and you’ve also got to put the fuel tank there too unless you want to deal with some complex plumbing. Another issue is that whereas front wheel drive in a car provides excellent traction, on a moped where you weigh about 20,000,000 times more than the motor - and your weight is distributed mainly to the rear wheel - front wheel drive actually means less traction. Driving a Velosolex uphill in the rain is an interesting experience. And you know what is great for handling on a two wheeled vehicle? Wheel spin. Wheel spin of the front wheel. The wheel that needs to be steering you away from mailboxes, buses, and large open pits inexplicably located on rainy roads.
The other thing that is interesting about riding a Velosolex in the rain is the front brake. This a is a caliper brake that acts on the front rim - so basically a bicycle brake. Have you ever ridden a bike in the rain, and then tried to stop really fast? It’s like that - you don’t stop. Ever. This is not a matter of increased braking distance. This is a matter of infinite braking distance. Luckily Solex thought of this too, and for safety sake the rear brake is a tiny little drum that’s rain proof, so you only lose 50% of your braking power in the rain (not accounting for whatever you lose through wet tires).
The nicest thing though is this: the Velosolex gets about 200mpg. Maybe more. The gas tank doesn’t even hold 1 gallon, and you still might only fill it up once a month. That’s amazing. The thrift of this machine has caused it to be popular for short periods of time around the world. The tooling for this thing has literally been around the planet. When the French got tired of making the things - China and Hungary took turns making them. And when they got tired of making them, the tooling went back to France and the French started making them again. They’re still making them now (or maybe they stopped in 2011? sources are unclear).
Of course the love of French for front wheel drive motorbikes didn’t start with the Velosolex. They’d been hammering away at the idea for decades by that point. Here’s an add for the front wheel drive Werner of 1900, courtesy of wikimedia commons: