While leaving the Montclair, N.J., restaurant Uncle Momo on Saturday evening I spotted a two-wheeler that is rare in the U.S. but a perfect fit with the eatery’s French-Lebanese theme.
The machine also stirred memories of a long-ago test ride that confirmed mopeds can be cool.
The Velosolex is a French motorized bicycle that was among several minimal, low-priced, vehicles that helped keep Europeans mobile following World War II’s destruction. Such bikes used little fuel, required little maintenance and could maneuver better than cars on rubble-strewn, bomb-pocked roads.
The latest versions use a 49cc single-cylinder engine that applies power to the front wheel through a roller that is specially shaped to engage the tire. A lever moves the entire engine on a pivot so it can be moved in and out of “gear,” although there really are no gears. This is a primitive but utterly functional system.
In 2009 I wrote about the Velosolex in The Wall Street Journal and made a video about the test-ride. The bike was a joy to use and was ideal for getting around New York. Of course you get more exercise and arguably get wherever you are going faster on a standard bicycle.
But the Velosolex has an appeal that other bikes, mopeds and scooters lack. Perhaps it is the oh-so French design or the fact that its drive train is unsophisticated but elegantly simple. And it works beautifully. For people familiar with “Three Days of the Condor,” it could be the Robert Redford effect.