Cycles Automoto: Setting the Standard

AutomotoCycles Automoto was a pioneering French manufacturer of motorcycles and bicycles founded at the turn of the 20th century. Well regarded for thoughtful design and meticulous construction, Automoto grew in popularity until merging with the Peugeot group in the early 1960’s.

Part of that popularity is attributable to the wide range of products available from the company, whose bicycle line alone grew to include a full twenty models. Another less immediate part of that popularity is traceable to the Automoto mystique, one whose allure, synonymous with a passion for quality, somehow continued growing through a pair of world wars and burgeoning product availability.

Today, over a half century after the final Automoto left its Saint-Étienne birthplace, the timelessness of the company’s clover logo and transportation machinery it produced are as  meaningful as ever.

AutomotoOne hundred years ago, things were very different. Taking a train from northerly located Paris to southerly located Saint-Étienne meant an uncomfortable and unreliable daylong journey through central France down into the Loire alpine range, southwest of Lyon.

It also meant leaving arguably the world’s most culturally sophisticated city for among its most industrially minded. Unlike urban and chic Paris, St.-É’s, as locals sometimes call it, was ignominiously known for its mining operations and related industries. Inglorious as they were, these roots tapped deeply into abundant local iron and coal deposits, providing the essential elements necessary to seed and fuel what became known as the industrial revolution — or at least France’s contribution to it — and Automoto was squarely in the middle of things.

French cycling heritage, which is to say cycling heritage in general, originated in Saint-Étienne. Popularly referred to as the “cycling capital of France” by unbiased experts like Sheldon Brown and Saint-Étienne itself, the city gave rise to notable cycling companies like Manufrance/Mavic, Motobécane and Vitus.

Today its Museum of Art and Industry hosts the largest public collection of bicycles in France, from early forerunners to contemporary prototypes. What Coventry did for British advancements in cycling, Saint-Étienne mirrored for French advancements in cycling.

The summer of 1889 brought together four constructeurs from Saint-Étienne – Chavanet, Gros, Pichard and Cie – who formed a professional society named the “Société de Constructions Mécaniques de Cycles et Automobiles.”  These men shared a passion for powered and unpowered mechanical transportation devices, at the time meaning bicycles, tricycles and quadricycles, and desired a common forum to exchange ideas around them.

After a decade of doing so, all the while refining various designs and coalescing as a team, they formed a limited company in 1901 named “Société Anonyme des Constructions Mécaniques de la Loire,” or CML. Not until another decade passed did they assume their eventual name of Cycles Automoto on Tonton Velo in 1910.

Highly respected among the day’s other great marques – Alcyon, Clément, La Française, Gauloise, Hurtu, Peugeot – Automoto came to be a preferred ride of the racing elite. Automoto 1913 PetitBretonDuring a particularly stormy Tour de France in 1913, it was said Lucien Mazan rode “more quickly than the stars” aboard his Automoto. The event was memorialized in a popular Automoto postcard featuring the affectionately-known “Petit-Breton” riding swifter than a trailing band of heavenly apparitions. Unable to secure that year’s yellow jersey, the legendary Argentinian cyclist will nonetheless always be remembered as the first to win the Tour de France two times, in 1907 and consecutively while defending in 1908.

After the First World War, Automoto followed a number of prewar bicycle manufacturers and joined the La Sportive consortium in 1919. La Sportive was formed by various French cycling interests confounded by a deep desire to continue professional bicycle racing in the face of abhorred postwar realities.

Member companies combined resources to equip some half of the peloton under the “La Sportive” name. Cycling author William Fotheringham further suggests the consortium gave constituents the added benefit of controlling riders’ salaries. Member companies included: Alcyon, Armor, Automoto, Clément, La Française, Gladiator, Griffon, Hurtu, Labor, Liberator, Peugeot and Thomann.

Three painful years of rebuilding later, several La Sportive members – led by industry titan Peugeot – started promoting their own brands again. Prewar identities newly intact again, Automoto rose to its fullest prominence in the peloton. Its riders dominated professional cycling’s premier event, the Tour de France, from 1923-1926 with a series of convincing victories captained by riders with international appeal like Henri Pellisier (France), Ottavio Bottecchia (Italy) and Lucien Buysse (Belgium).

Abruptly as the mid-nineteen twenties ended, so too did the Automoto winning streak. In the summer of 1927 a talented Alcyon squad led by several riders from Belgium and Luxembourg established themselves the new champion, a label not relinquished until 1930. A label never again coveted by once venerable Automoto, with the standout exception of Fritz Masanek’s unheralded eighteen wins on the Mexican professional cycling circuit in the early 1950’s.

Automoto 1950 BermondAutomoto’s commitment to racing and success on the podium led to decades of loyalty in the marketplace. Its many wins brought increased recognition among buyers and consistently growing sales for the company. Management reinforced the relationship between winning and selling with advertisements featuring competition models alongside others with broader appeal. It also responded to demand by expanding the Automoto catalog to include bicycles intended for a variety of applications only then being discovered by the riding public.

In as complete an annual Automoto catalog as any on record, 1952 product offerings to the French market included: “grande,” “ballon,” “demi-ballon,” “tourisme,” “randonneur,” “demi-course,” “course” and “porteur” class bicycles, with many available in both men’s and women’s models.

Automoto’s exposure to the U.S. bicycle market seems limited to the early 1950s. Propelled by Masanek’s victories in Mexico, the company began limited distribution of bicycles via Edward Lynch & Son, a mid-century importer of premium European cycling goods based in Compton, California. The second printing of the Edward Lynch & Son catalog in the early 1950s offered a roundly representative seven Automoto models.

These included: The Deluxe Bicycle touring and racing models in eight speeds, A Fine Lightweight in three speeds, A Quality Lightweight touring and racing models in four speeds, and Track Racing Model and Deluxe Touring Tandem. Years later, an invoice mailed in May 1957 indicates Automoto directly exported a Professional Light Racer Bicycle (Model ACSP 30) to an individual in Essex, Connecticut. Further details on the importation of Automoto cycles into the U.S. remain murky. An informative pair of reproduction Automoto catalogs are available for purchase at at Velo Retro.

 

Automoto 1950 BermondThe Automoto legacy ended abruptly in 1959 when Indénor, a subsidiary of Peugeot, unceremoniously purchased the Automoto brand and soon thereafter ceased production, further monopolizing previously overlapping lines of business. Only a decade earlier, when an Automoto advertisement boldly declared, “Le Triomphe De La Qualite Française,” few in sound conscience would have doubted the claim. Such is the nature of business.

Half a century removed from the politics and persuasions of those days, the Automoto mystique — that of utmost quality and workmanship — endures. Even as fewer examples of Automoto bicycles exist, and those that remain command unprecedented premiums in the marketplace, the company’s commercial artwork is enjoying renewed appreciation among urbanites and vintage bicycle enthusiasts alike. Enlightening, in an era where the TGV hustles legions of passengers from Paris to Saint-Étienne in under three air-conditioned and air-cushioned hours many times daily.

Lucky collectors of Automoto bicycles especially appreciate the sculpted clover lugwork found on fancier frames and trademark fork crowns. Mated to long rake fork blades, the stylized square crown with clover coin inserts was “purposely designed so as to withstand the most violent efforts, especially braking strain, and suppress all vibrations,” according to 1957 company literature, and it achieves these objectives remarkably well in a passive suspension package.

Perhaps the four constructeurs back in Saint-Étienne were onto something. Their long hours spent drawing tubes by the fire, their dedication to understanding the geometry of champions, their jarred bones suffered from cobblestone field tests, none of it was for naught. The Automoto spirit continues living deep in many of us and forever will.

Ebykr Automoto article sources:

http://tontonvelo.com/Automoto_Eng.htm

http://www.cybermotorcycle.com/euro/brands/automoto.htm

http://www.sheldonbrown.com/velos.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Etienne

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucien_Petit-Breton

http://www.bikeraceinfo.com/tdf/tdfindex.html

http://www.theracingbicycle.com/Early_History.html

http://www.velo-retro.com/list.html

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Brooke says:

    I recently purchase an old bicycle and am hoping to locate some information on it. Listed below are the details. Can you offer any information you may have about it?
    Thanks

    blue with yellow painted letters and labels
    lugged
    Reynolds 851
    a long series of numbers and Nervex stamped in bottom of bottom bracket
    “La Sportive” in large letters on the down tube
    “Paris” on the seat tube
    one Huret downtube shifter for the rear 5 speed cluster
    no shifter or deraileur for the front 2 rings
    smaller front ring on the outside closest to pedal
    Wind double bolt stem

    I seem to be at a dead end collecting information. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks

  2. Oleg Ouchakof says:

    I have an Auto Moto bicycle from the early 1960’s. It was given to me by
    a French professional bicyclist who stayed at our home in West Hartford,
    CT. He was touring the US promoting the Tour de France

  3. bob sirkus says:

    i have a late ’50s Automoto 3 speed which was my bike as a teenager. i would like to get it restored. can anyone provide information on where to find parts?

  4. Mike D. says:

    I found what i suspect to be an early 60’s automoto 3 speed in very good condition for its age. Having alot of trouble finding out info on bike. It’s the first time even ebay couldnt gimme an idea of value, all they have is a poster of it. If you find any helpful sites let me know please.

  5. James B. says:

    I have also just come across an AutoMoto 3 speed, no wheels or seat.
    Very light & graceful lines. Unfortunately seat stays detached
    from frame due to rust. Any tips how to re-attach without brazing or weld. (shop wants $90 to look at it!)
    Brake levers have plastic shrouds.

  6. Thomas K. says:

    My parents bought me a 20″ Automoto model in 1955. I still have the picture of me proudly holding it up in front of the Christmas tree. Other kids in the Bronx NYC got Shwinns or Huffy’s but none could catch me on a long uphill climbs that make up the Bronx. Light durable and speedy it made me admire things French. It was one of the reasons I studied French in High School. I cared for the bike well and never forgot the name. One day I just tried a search and was shocked to see the green frame and red tires I had raced on appear on your website. Thanks for the connection..

  7. Ray D says:

    For Bob Sirkus or any other indivudual interested in restoring an Automoto bike. I found a bicyle restoration company in Vista California called Cycle Art. They have the orignal art required to restore an Automoto on file and professionally redid my Automoto. It looks great!.

    1. K. Johnson says:

      Question, did CyclArt really have artwork on file for an AutoMoto? Thanks, K. Johnson

  8. Vittorio Giannini says:

    Help! I have a nice competition Automoto, may be from the`50, and with number 437955.
    Components are from England and France, somebodys know what are originals?
    Welcome to see my site: http://www.fillarimuseo.tk/
    Vittorio

  9. Toni Pagotto says:

    I have in Pordenone(Italy)an Automoto original from Ottavio Bottecchia winner of tour France 1924.
    A great bike!

  10. Some antique collectors just have a passion for history. They like to be familiar with and to know why an individual object was used, how ıt had been used or who applied it. They are interested by the obvious ways which the world and technology possesses changed and grown. By collecting objects on the past they feel like they are partially connected to a period in which they for no reason lived, is long gone but somehow still survived.

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