IN 1929 SAROLÉA WAS PRODUCING 75 MOTORCYCLES A DAY FROM ITS STATE-OF-THE-ART FACTORY IN BELGIUM AND WAS ONE OF THE LARGEST MOTORCYCLE MANUFACTURERS IN EUROPE.
NEARLY HALF A CENTURY ON, THE RIGHTS TO THE BRAND WERE PURCHASED BY TWIN BROTHERS FROM GHENT AND THE TENTATIVE STEPS TOWARDS A NEW MOTORCYCLING LEGACY WERE BORN.
The company was established in 1850 in Herstal (Liège) in Belgium as an arms factory by Joseph Saroléa.
In 1892, bicycle production started under the name of Royale Saroléa.
Henry Hanlet competing for the Royale Saroléa team
Joseph died in 1894. His sons took over the management of the company and it grew bigger and bigger.
In 1901, the company’s engineers made a lot of tests and wisely fixed a 1.5 HP 247cc petrol engine and a tank onto one of their bicycles and the first Saroléa motorcycle was born.
1901, the first Saroléa motorcycle
In 1902, Saroléa entered competition and won the Belgian championship of speed at the Liège velodrome with Martin Fagard onboard. He would later become the soul of Saroléa.
The year after, Saroléa sold race machines in Italy and one of them, ridden by Maffeis, tasted success at the Trotter of Milan.
It had been a brilliant start, but there was no time to rest on their success - racing is hard.
In the period before the war, there were many victories: Paris-Nice in 1912, Coupe de L’Express in 1909 and 1911, The Ravelli cup (1025 km race), and a Flemish hill climb race. They took no less than six gold medals at the Paris-Liège in 1912 and two gold medals at Liège-Paris-Liège in 1913. Most of these victories were obtained by great riders like Martin Fagard, Albert Dewandre, Albert Sers (alias ‘Speeder’), Charley and Dehaene.
In 1905, Saroléa prepared for the Exposition Universelle of Liège, with two new models equipped with a V-twin engine placed in the axis of the frames. One was 616cc and developed 5 HP and the other was 726cc and developed 6 HP. They had a wide power output for their time and were able to reach 80 Kph. Both had automatic intake valves and lateral exhaust valves. A limited series of exclusive machines were produced for the elite of the day - the king of Belgium owned one!
In 1907, Saroléa had a workforce of 200 employees and 4000 square metres of production facilities. Both singles and V-twins were made and they also supplied engines to a number of companies in several countries. In turn, Saroléa used a number of British components, such as Sturmey Archer gearboxes and AMAC carburetors.
1907, the V Twin with an open frame
In 1910, for the first time, the appellation of “Marque Doyenne” appeared. At the time, Saroléa was the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in activity. They used this designation for years in their advertising campaigns.
In their 1912 catalogue, Saroléa were able to boast about having sold over 10,000 motorcyles.
1912, in a leaflet of an Italian dealer, two new models – a 2.5 HP Lightweight 300cc and a 3.5 HP single speed, side valve
1912, Paris-Liège, J. Neyunt and F. Delamain (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)
Business was prosperous until August 1914, when the factory was requisitioned by German troops and production was halted.
Under the management of Martin Fagard, production restarted in 1919 with an improved version of the pre-war 500cc model, featuring a Sturmey Archer gearbox behind the drive unit.
In the 1920s, Saroléa were successfully involved in long-distance runs, reliability trials and hill climbs. They covered themselves in glory at the Liège-Paris-Liège race with three factory riders on the starting grid and finished with three gold medals. Martin Fagard also won the Belgian Championship that year (and the year after) with the 23A 500cc model.
1921, Marly-le-Roi, concours d'endurance de l'Union Motocycliste of France, Duverne and Lefèvre (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)
In 1922, Saroléa won many medals. Stobart won the Belgian GP; Vidal Claessens won the Seraing-Luxembourg-Seraing and the Circuit des Cretes GP. In addition, Paris-Nice yielded three gold medals and there was also a victory in the Italian GP.
In 1923, the factory produced 1250 motorcycles and 2600 units were sold in dealers. The year after, production was doubled.
February 20th, 1924, Paris-Nice, L Barret on his 500cc (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)
The commitment to racing increased in 1926 with the 25G Course model - the little sister of the 500s used in hill climbs. The 500 had a compressor - an indication of the company’s performance aspirations.
From 1927, the company began to make their own gearboxes and in 1928 the ultimate pioneering model, the 23U, appeared. It was to be the precursor of all their future models.
In 1929, the factory’s size was extended to 6000 square metres. Nearly all the bike components were made in-house and production capacity grew to 50 machines a day.
Later in 1929, a brand new state-of-the-art production facility was commissioned and this allowed the capacity to increase to 75 machines a day.
Under the direction of Arille Doris, the race department improved its factory machine – the 23U. They made considerable progress with its top speed and Vidal Claessens achieved 179.1 kph at the Flanders flying kilometer.
During the 1920s, Saroléa, thanks to its factory riders Bonivert, Mineur, Demeuter, Virgo and Carlson, won many races against the well-known English and Italian machines.
Saroléa Type 23U 500cc of 1928
Salon de Bruxelles 1929, on the Saroléa stand 23H, 23K, 23D, 23E etc
Saroléa type 25 O 350cc in 1929
The 1930 range consisted of six models: a side-valve and over-head valve 350, a side-valve 500 and no less than three over-head valve machines in the 500cc category.
Among these three 500cc bikes, there were Super Sports and Racing models – an indication that Saroléa was serious about its sporty image and, from 1930, a lot of Saroléa riders were regularly seen on the podium.
Saroléa was ready for the new decade and showed this by bringing out a fine new range of sloping engine ohv machines in December 1930.
In 1931, to be able to compete in all categories, Saroléa produced a special dirt-track machine – a 500cc named 31DT. It had a double exhaust, a single speed gearbox, a 3-litre tank on the frame, only one foot-peg on the right hand side and no brakes!
It was a difficult time in Europe, because of the 1929 crisis in USA, but Saroléa did not suffer too badly with its range of prestigious motorcycles and utility vehicles.
From 1932, Saroléa’s engineers worked seriously on the production of small two-stroke 147cc utility vehicles. Later on, they also made a more powerful 175cc and many variations of these two were manufactured until 1938.
1932 was a very good year of racing for the company. Robert Grégoire won the Belgian Championship for the second time. He also won the Meuse Cup and then teamed up with ‘Biribi’ to take victory in the sidecar class.
At the National Speed Championship in Spa Francorchamps, Grégoire put his Saroléa 500cc on the top step of the podium, with an average speed of more than 120 kph. At the same event, Felix Poncin won the Senior category. The manufacturer’s title went to Saroléa.
‘Biribi’ victorious at the Defoin Grand Prix in 1932 with his Saroléa 30C (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)
A year later, Saroléa’s engineers presented a race replica of Grégoire’s race machine – the Monotube, so called because it only had one exhaust. It produced 40 HP @ 6000 rpm and a top speed of over 180 kph.
1934 and 1935 were two very successful years of racing for the company, including the victories of Belgian rider Gilbert De Rudder and riders Georges Monneret, Wech and Cuny who won three speed records – six hours, seven hours and 100 kms – in Montlhéry.
Despite this success in sport, the global economic situation was not very good. The crisis impacted Belgian industry. Production slowed considerably, sales fell by 50% and turnover dropped by 60%.
Nevertheless, Saroléa continued to work hard and invested in a range of touring machines. In 1936, three models were proposed – a 350cc, a 500c and a 600cc – all equipped with side valves.
The 36A Touriste 350cc of 1936
Sportbikes were also well represented: twin exhaust models - a 350cc Supersport, a 500cc Supersport and a 600cc Supersport - specially built for the real sport rider. There were also six single exhaust models in the dealers, in two versions - ‘Course’ and ‘Racing’.
Gilbert De Rudder (alias ‘Grizzly’) on his Saroléa 350cc ACT in 1937.
At the request of Jacques Ickx, he took part in his first race at Zoete Waters the year before. He crossed the finish line seven minutes ahead of the second rider.
In 1937, Saroléa started to be involved in motocross competition with 'Grizzly' and Jacques Ickx.
Since the beginning, 'Grizzly' adapted very fast to this new discipline while still racing and winning on-track.
He won many races: Louvain, les Ardennes brabançonnes, la Dyle, Houffalize, Kontich, Marche.
In 1939, the two-stroke 150cc and 175cc utility vehicles were abandoned for a brand new 125cc, which was much closer to a motorcycle design. Around one thousand of the lightweight machine were produced until 1945.
At the beginning of 1940, for the second time in less than half a century, because of war, Saroléa almost stopped production. With a very limited workforce, they supplied the Belgian market with lightweight 125cc machines and bicycle and tandems were responsible for the majority of the production.
Activity slowly restarted at the end of 1945 with the production of five hundred 350cc models. A short time later, a 350cc and a 500cc, similar to their pre-war models, appeared and one thousand three hundred motorcycles were sold by the end of 1946.
The GP of Speed of la Cambre and the Chimay GP saw more success for 'Grizzly' again.
At the motocross of Herentals, Roger Laurent won the first post-war race for Saroléa.
In 1948, Nic Jansen won the Etoile du Hainaut and Pierre Strasse finished second.
Two thousand units were sold that year and that grew to three thousand in 1949.
1949, Bol d'Or, Fernand Venin, a legend from Montlhéry, with his 500cc Number 4
In October that year, there was a sad event, which became a turning point in the brand history – Martin Fagard, General Director since 1921, died.
But 1949 was also a date to celebrate at the factory, as it was their half-century anniversary. To mark this event, Saroléa announced their desire to create a modern bike. Previously, all their models had been based on designs from the 1930s.
A new motocross model was presented - a 500cc single exhaust – designed by Marcel Dumont. Nic Jansen took second place at the GP des Nations in England and later won the Belgian championship for the factory.
At the end of the season, Saroléa could be proud of its three titles in the Belgian motocross championship with Nic Jansen, Jules Guilly and Albert Meerts and also sixty victories in all competitions.
The year after, Gilbert Brassine was champion of France, Hennie Reitman champion of Holland, Marcel Meunier champion of Belgium and Nic Jansen won two major trophies.
In 1950, Saroléa presented two major innovations - the small popular 125cc Oiseau Bleu and the 500c Atlantic. The Oiseau Bleu (also named the 50 LW) was a two-stroke moped with an aluminium engine block, cylinder head and crankcase. It featured a three-speed gearbox, foot selector, telescopic forks and an articulated seat. It was finished in blue (like a bluebird) and could reach 75 kph.
The powerful 500cc Atlantic had a very British look and was equipped with a vertical twin cylinder engine facing the road. It was a modern machine supposed to enforce the reputation of the brand but, curiously, the chassis looked like the BL and SL models of 1948-1950 and it did not deliver the success expected. The successful commercialisation of the Renault 4L and Citroen 2CV at the time didn’t help either.
1950, 125cc two-stroke Oiseau Bleu
By the end of 1950, 2930 units had been sold.
In 1951, the Oiseau Bleu, Continental, Vedette and Atlantic were some of Saroléa’s new designs.
The Continental was a 350cc with side valves and the Vedette was also a 350cc, but with rocker arms.
One of the 600cc Touriste models became the Grand Tourisme, which accounted for sales of one hundred and ninety-one units. In that year, total sales amounted to 3780.
1951, 600cc Grand Tourisme, with rocker arms
In 1952, due to the growing popularity of scooters, Saroléa offered the public its own version - the Protecta - based on the Oiseau Bleu.
A new model name appeared in the 1952 catalogue - the Colonial - an evolution of the 1950 side valve 600cc.
Regarding the Atlantic, the order was full, with twenty-seven units for Belgium and eight for abroad.
In April thirty-eight motorcycles with the Précision sidecar were delivered to Touring Secours. Total sales for 1952 were 2765 units, sixty-nine of which were the Colonial.
In competition, particularly in motocross, Team Saroléa scored thirty victories by riders Rene Baeten, Nic Jansen, André Van Heuverzwijn, Mathieu Spiroux and Fige.
André Van Heuverzwijn at the GP des nations at Brands Hatch in 1952
In 1953, engineers used part of the Oiseau Bleu’s frame and installed a two-stroke 7.5 HP, 198cc engine. With a three-speed gearbox, sliding rear suspension and a top speed of 90 kph, the Regina was born.
In addition to these models, there was also a Vedette – a 350cc mono cylinder capable of 115 kph.
Special editions of the Atlantic were produced for the police and gendarmerie but, despite the best efforts of the engineers, the powerful Harley-Davidsons were a more convincing argument.
Saroléa only manufactured 1410 machines that year. The factory was working at only 50% capacity and so began to look for diversification.
1953, 350cc Vedette
In 1954, the Saroléa’s motocross bike was revised and improved and appeared in the catalogue with the name Saro 54.
Despite the success of Hubert and Van Heuverzwijn, the Saro 54 had difficulties dominating races, mainly because of lack of financial support. Only twenty were built.
The Saro 54, the ultimate motocross machine of Saroléa in 1954
Lucien Decoster in 1955 on his Saro 54
In 1955 the financial reports of the major European brands were not good at all.
Saroléa and FN (Fabrique Nationale de Herstal) were forced to sign a commercial deal to try and save the situation. Later, they were joined by another local manufacturer, Gillet Herstal.
At the same time, Saroléa’s shareholders conceded a number of shares to FN and Gillet.
The 1955 range was called the Gold Serie and included renamed Saroléa machines. The Oiseau Bleu was replaced by a 50cc – the Cricket. The Regina became the Montana and the 150cc and 250cc FN models were named Rubino and Simoun. The Vedette and the Atlantic remained the brand’s big bore bikes.
But the great innovation of 1955 was the Djinn scooter, which had a two cylinder, two-stroke engine and 6.5 HP. The Djinn was one of the few machines around with a four-speed gearbox. The frame was a lightweight monocoque and this superb machine was produced in Italy by Rumi.
Saroléa Djinn 125cc two-strokes, bi-cylinder, 6.5HP
1955, advertisement showing the popular Djinn
In 1956, Saroléa presented another version of the scooter with a 50cc JLO engine together with either a single or two speed gearbox.
The following year, the Regina received a Sachs engine with four speeds and was renamed as the Century.
At the time, Saroléa was using the Atlantic Major in motocross competitions.
1959 was the last year that the company had a complete range of models - from a bicycle up to an Atlantic Major.
A new model also appeared - the Benjamin, equipped with a 100cc Sachs engine.
Saroléa’s management decided to pull out of racing because of financial reasons - a sign that the end was near.
Production of the Djinn scooter and Atlantic Major stopped in 1960.
On the 31st of December, Saroléa dealers received two letters, one on Saroléa head paper and the other one from Gillet. These announced that Leon Gillet & Sons were taking control of Saroléa.
From that day, until the beginning of 1963, Saroléa built 50cc mopeds using engines from JLO, HWM and Mi-Val and motorcycles equipped with 100cc and 200cc Sachs engines.
Saroléa/Gillet supplied the army with spare parts until 1973 - the official date of the company’s cessation of activity.
In 2010, the Saroléa name resurrected when it was bought by twin brothers, Torsten and Bjorn Robbens who wanted to develop and build high-performance 100% electric race machines. A new production facility was established in Belgium, near Ghent.
Acquiring the Saroléa brand was not at all a coincidence. Since their youngest years, the twin brothers were immersed in the Saroléa's racing universe as their grand uncle was André Van Heuverzwijn - the well-known and victorious motocross factory rider of the 1950s.
The twin brothers from Ghent, Torsten & Bjorn Robbens
Up until 2014, the first SP7 race bike was built by hand at their workshop in Belgium. All components were designed and engineered by Torsten Robbens, who has an impressive motorsport background - McLaren F1, Porsche and Audi world endurance, aerospace (ExoMars, Proba-V, Solar Orbiter) and also in military engineering.
During the next three years, the prototypes underwent continuous improvement and, in 2014, Saroléa competed in the Isle of Man TT Zero. Skilled road racer, Robert Wilson took the all-carbon SP7 to an amazing 4th place, at an average speed of 93.50 mph, just 0.4 seconds off the podium.
Saroléa SP7 IOMTT 2014
There were significant technical improvements for the 2015 IOM TT Zero, which resulted in an increase in the average speed to 106.51 and a solid 5th place overall.
Saroléa SP7 IOMTT 2015
For 2015, the SP7 race machine moved from the track to the road and a 100% electric street-legal super-bike saw the light - the Saroléa MANX7.
The first Saroléa 100% electric road-legal bike, 2015
The same year, Troy Corser, the multiple world champion, tested the SP7 after the TT at Le Mans.
At the 2016 IOM TT Zero, Saroléa riders Dean Harrison and Lee Johnston raced a completely new machine which was built on the steady progress of the past two seasons. Practice and qualifying went well and the team were optimistic of getting on to the podium. However, just before the start, some unforeseen technical problems surfaced. So, rather than compromise rider safety, the difficult decision was made to withdraw from the race.
In 2017, the SP7 has evolved considerably and many innovations have taken place. Much work has been done on the dyno and the bike has been subjected to a rigorous testing programme – on and off track.
As in 2016, Yorkshireman Dean Harrison was at the controls of the SP7 round the demanding TT course.
Saroléa narrowly missed the podium, but finished a healthy 4th - with a time of 108.064mph.
In 2017, the company launched a limited series of their street legal super bike. The MANX7 is based on the same technology and performance as its SP7 TT race bikes.