Marco Raymondin & Valentin Mordacq
In the ’70s, Marco Raymondin became the first person in France to restore British motorcycles. Today he is a legend. In his grandfather’s workshop, he learned to love the smell of gasoline, the grime and the engine’s vibrations. It is his secret for endless youth.
It’s hard to guess Marco’s age. He is wearing a coarse sweater, spotted chinos and he could be a fisherman from Normandy – the kind who doesn’t care about wind and rain as long as he can still go drink a glass of red wine in the evening with his friends. But Marco is no fisherman; he’s a motorcycle rider who turned his great passion into a career 50 years ago. He is cheerful, restless, with thoughts that overtake his English skills.
“When you’re young, you’re usually very interested in your grandfather, because he lets you do things your father would never let you. My grandfather explained to me how an engine works, how the valves open and close, the pistons go up and down. I was maybe ten years old then. I liked the smell of the workshop, the grime, the oily fingers…I think that’s how it started”. Marco is a legend. He is far too modest to describe himself as such, but that’s what other people are there for. Like, for example, VALENTIN, who is the same age as Marco, and HERVÉ. Both of them are into the workshop today, to be at Marco’s side for the interview.
“My father had a friend with a small motorcycle, a 125 cc. He wanted 50 francs for it”. Barely 16, Marco works several weeks at a butcher’s shop so he can afford the machine. He embarks on his first trips in the area, visits England, which is in the middle of a genuine cultural revolution. Marco is fascinated by the energy of the new BEAT GENERATION, its music, its lifestyle and its boisterous yearning for freedom.
Only a few of them can afford a car, but all have enough for a scooter or a motorcycle. Thus a new status symbol is born. The owners are called MODS or ROCKERS. Some wear ties and military jackets, polishing their two-wheeler like a mother does her silverware. The others follow their rough-and-ready role models, wearing leather outfits – sweaty and oil-smeared – like a second skin.
“We were at a concert once. The mods came with their Vespas, and started a fight. Then it really got started…we didn’t even like the same music”. A generation in revolt? “I can’t remember that we revolted against one person or one thing. It was about what we loved and what was important to us and what was important to them. Back then, I practically slept in my leather clothes”. Do you still have your first leather jacket? “Of course, but at this point it’s shrunken somewhat…“ And there it is again, this cheerful smile, jealousy-inducing, that gives you the feeling you missed something.
When did you decide to turn your hobby into your career?
“After that I studied engineering in Paris. At the same time, I was travelling to England more and more frequently and I started to deal in replacement parts for motorcycles”. In 1972, Marco buys a garage with a friend outside of Paris and becomes the first person in France to repair British motorcycles and restore them. In his spare time, he races off-road and speedway, chasing records on asphalt and mud.
He breaks bones, again and again, but continues undeterred. The photos from that time seem archaic, like war photos, showing him dirtied, in his armour and helmet, defying wind and weather. He mostly rides heavy machines, primarily TRIUMPHS he had tuned himself – and partly run on nitrogen and alcohol – in order to squeeze the last bit of power out of the engines.
On the side, he founds a motorcycle club, meets with other ROCKERS in public places in the middle of Paris. Hundreds come to these events. They exchange ideas, rev their motorcycles, drink and have a lot of fun. His friends become his allies in the fight against time, its relentless progression threatening to push him out of the market. “The great era of the British motorcycles was over in 1972. After that came the Japanese, with plastic and a lack of character”. Honda, Kawasaki are the new MODS, the enemies, who, instead of wearing tattered military parkas, ride in outfits made of streamlined neoprene and modern carbon-fibre. They are young and in the majority and begin pulling ahead – and not only on the world’s racecourses.
People like Clint Eastwood, Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen call TRIUMPH the most beautiful motorcycle ever made, but it barely helps. The new racing machines from the Far East are fast, sexy and ridden by younger movie stars for whom the only thing that matters is the thrill of victory. The zeitgeist marches on relentlessly, overtaking Marco and his peers. A dinosaur that becomes a legend, even outside of France.
“I think it was 1974 when this guy here came to me in the workshop”. Marco points to VALENTIN, grey, robust, respectably dressed and definitely the intellectual of the trio that has gathered here, outside of the Périphérique, the monumental highway ring which separates the tourists from the Parisian suburbs, as people call industrial Paris. Marco grew up out here. It is his world. Always has been. Whoever wants to see him comes here. Valentin speaks of his 35-year-old son, who sometimes comes to visit him and take one of his six old motorcycles for a joyride. “He says he wants to ride something with character. To the office. I say to him, “To the office?’ Don’t do it. You’ll never get there on time…” Valentin laughs. Marco too. Nobody bothers to explain the joke to me.
“I go to the United States a lot. There’s a guy, he’s married, just turned 27. He customises old Triumphs”. Marco says that in the ’60s most British machines were exported to the US or to Europe, and now it’s the reverse. “We find them everywhere, or people just bring them back to us. Like these ones here, from a guy who was too old to use the kick-starter”. The two laugh heartily, again, based on some secret understanding. The third in the bunch, Hervé, holds himself back and continues working on an old machine. He hits the breaks again and again, trying for a while to get it started. I learn he is the president of a motorcycle club to which they all belong. He doesn’t understand a word of English, which is why he doesn’t join in on the laughter.
I ask Marco what his moment of greatest happiness is: “It’s right before the start of a race. You step on the starter, again and again. The engine doesn’t start. That happens a lot. You concentrate, give a little gas, then step again – and then finally the “clunk clunk”. When the motor catches, rattles, it’s a really good moment“.
Amongst these hundred motorcycles, which one is the most reliable?
“I wouldn’t use ‘reliable’ to describe these machines”. I follow him to a motorcycle that consists only of steel tubing, a motor and the most important mechanical parts. “This is a racing machine. A Triumph T110 from 1955. Special tuning, special transmission, everything special. Doesn’t run on gas, but on methanol. We went to Bonneville, Utah with it, to break the world record. We almost did it”. Marco continues, “196 kilometres per hour was the record. We made it to 194. Then the motorcycle caught fire”.
What does he think of the new trends? Environmental friendliness? Electric scooters? The two men look at each other, baffled. Valentin answers: “The people today often think that reliability and effectiveness is the most important. For us, it’s not”. Marco jumps in, “For us it’s about working with motorcycles. The feeling it creates, the smell of the gasoline, the vibrations of the engine. That’s much more important to us. I don’t know how else to explain it”.
Suddenly in the background, the motor of the one-cylinder ’65 Triumph Bonneville on which Hervé has been working for the past hour rattles dully to life. He looks over, surprised, and once again there’s this silent understanding among old friends. For a moment, they completely forget I’m there.
The three men grin, beaming with happiness. That seems to be it, the secret to endless youth. Valentin yells to me loudly, as the rattling becomes more deafening and the room begins to fill with thick wads of smoke, “If you step into this world, you stay 18, forever”.
Text by Jo Weissgerber
Photos by Martin N. Kunz, Jo Weissgerber