Mobylette, noisy icon of rural France, is doomed

Andrew Clennell
Sunday 01 December 2002 01:00

First, people stopped wearing berets and Citroën 2CVs were pensioned off, then Yves Saint Laurent retired. Now yet another French icon is fading into history: the little moped known as the Mobylette is skidding to a halt.

Once, the trusty two-wheelers, whose distinctive high- pitched squeals echoed down French buzz, epitomised teenage cool. But tough European legislation has spelt the machine's doom.

First unveiled in 1949 and immortalised in the recent hit film Amelie, the last French-built Mobylette rolled off the production lines last week at the MBK plant in St Quentin, northeast France.

European anti-pollution laws in force next year meant the end; the bike's two-stroke, 49.9cc engine is too dirty to pass the new vehicle emissions standards, said the company that makes the bike. "For us, it was the turning of a very important page," said Pedro Alvarez, head of the now Japanese-owned MBK factory. "It pains the heart a little."

The end of the motorcycle is seen as another blow to French culture – following on perhaps from the beret's replacement by the hip-hop woolly hats of today's young.

Typically, Mobylettes are little more than a reinforced bicycle, with a motor where the pedals might be. But they are sturdy, reliable, cheap, easy to maintain and arguably the most famous moped brand.

Mobylettes carried young lovers on first dates. Farmers rode them to market. They were used to deliver mail. Teenagers, allowed by law to ride them without a licence from the age of 14, souped up the engines. But despite thispedigree, few self-respecting teenagers would go to school on one now. "Their friends would laugh at them," conceded Mr Alvarez. The demand is now for flashy scooters.

Since 1949, an estimated 30 million Mobylettes have been produced. But this year just 11,000 will be sold in France. MBK will now only manufacture more modern scooters and motorcycles. However, production will continue in Tunisia and Morocco, where environmental rules are not so strict.

About half of the Mobylettes made were a model nicknamed La Bleu, because they first sold in that colour.

"We are very proud of our little blue, but we have to face economic reality," Mr Alvarez said. He insisted the bike's end did not mean France was losing its identity. "I think its identity is evolving. We can't stay stuck with the same image for ever," he said.

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