Curbside Classic: Motobecane Moped – A Veteran Of The First Great Moped Mania

Motobecane moped

It seems like every time gas prices take a sudden jump, so do the number of mopeds and other little buzz-bomb two-wheeled devices. Each wave lasts about as long as the price spike of the moment, and then most seem to disappear, perhaps never to be seen again. But this Motobecane has weathered numerous such spikes, and is still (or again) in use, even in the snow. Bowen Flat-Black66 shot this in Montreal, and it’s a subject I’ve been waiting to catch for some time myself, since there’s an almost identical one in Eugene that I’ve missed at least once.

For those of you too young to remember, as a result of the first energy crisis of 1973-1974, the first big wave of mopeds was imported from Europe and the Motobecane was one of the top sellers;  actually, I should have said tsunami, because that first wave was truly enormous and lasted for a number of years. But even a year before it hit, I helped “legalize” a French moped in Iowa by some unusual methods.

Allstate MopedCoralCream1961

Of course, the European history of the moped goes way back, but in the U.S. they were quite rare  (although I do remember seeing “Allstate” mopeds in a Sears catalog back in the sixties). I instantly recognized them as fan-cooled Puchs, made in Austria and a common fixture of my childhood. Back then, they had to be licensed in the U.S. as motorcycles, which substantially dulled any wider interest. In Europe, the moped’s appeal lay in the ability to own and ride one with very little of the typical hassle and expense, but no such laws existed in the U.S.

According to Wikipedia, a certain Serge Seguin, with a small grant from Motobecane, began to open  doors in various states starting in 1972.

Peugeot moped

But his influence hadn’t made it to Iowa in 1973, where a fellow actor in a theater troupe I was in bought a Peugeot moped (above) in Paris and had it shipped back.

Just one problem: In France, mopeds didn’t need brake lights: Like a bicycle, they were signaled by hand, so when he tried to license it in Iowa, as a motorcycle, he was turned down. So it sat in a basement, unused, until he told me about it. I bought a universal six-volt rear light, a six-volt lantern battery (stored in the saddlebag), some wire, and a switch from an old Honda that I adapted to work off his right brake lever. When I took it back to the DMV, they gave it the green light.

In exchange, I got ready access to it, and had some fun summertime rides out on Iowa’s country roads. The little 50 cc two-stroke mill hummed along at a top speed of about 30 mph. I was more into my Belgian ten-speed bike then, and the two of us rode together all over the place; a bit of an odd couple for Iowa in 1973.

Motobecane dealer

image: heeters.com

Anyway, the Great Moped Mania took off like Beatlemania had ten years earlier, and soon every town and city was buzzing with Motobecanes, Puchs, Peugeots and other, lesser contenders. In 1974, Peugeot set its all-time moped production record of over a half-million units, thanks to booming US sales. What’s more, the First Great Moped Mania lasted for several years, well into the later seventies. When Energy Crisis II came along in 1980-1981, a lot of these well-built European mopeds were called back into action, or else could be bought on the cheap.

With the dollar falling in value, new mopeds from the eighties forward no longer came from Europe, so of course all manner of Japanese, Taiwanese and, ultimately, Chinese mopeds and moped-licensed scooters have taken over the market, ready whenever a gas price-spike brings a new wavelet of demand. I’m not exactly seeing very many on the streets right now, except for that one vintage Motobecane a couple of weeks ago…