ABC Gnome Rhône, 400 1922 9Z de 60cv rotatif à 9 cylindres, c'est le dernier opérationnel de ce genre construit en 1920 en étoile 9 cyl, 1926

From Gnome & Rhône to Safran – 100 years of history

From 6 to 10 February 2019 at the Rétromobile show, the Gnome & Rhône motorcycle club and Safran museum will be taking a look back at the history of a major French motorcycle builder that is now no more: Gnome & Rhône, an ancestor of SAFRAN. The 100th birthday of the first model built by the firm will be celebrated by an exceptional motorcycle exhibition.

BEFORE SAFRAN, THERE WAS GNOME & RHÔNE

Nowadays a major multinational aircraft engine and aerospace company, back in 1915 SAFRAN was a firm set up to rationalise the manufacture of engines for France’s fledgling aerospace sector. The company arose from the merger – at the request of France’s Minister for War – of two rival companies: Gnome, based in Gennevilliers and Le Rhône, which operated in Paris. At the end of the war, around 20,000 engines were designed by the maker. But Gnome & Rhône needed to diversify and so turned its attention to building motorcycles, absorbing the British company ABC which had recently set up in France.

The French company took over manufacture in France of the «ABC» or «Type A» motorcycle in 1919. Very much ahead of its time with its pushrod flat-twin engine and both front and rear suspension, Gnome & Rhône’s technicians worked hard on enhancing its reliability and around 3000 were produced between 1920 and 1923. It was eventually replaced by the Type B, this time actually designed by Gnome & Rhône. This machine had a sidevalve single-cylinder engine, and was more conventional and significantly less expensive. It remained in production until the start of the 1930s and underwent a number of changes.

1930 heralded a major change in Gnome & Rhône’s motorcycle production, with a radically new design. The tube frame was replaced by an embossed metal frame, and the separated engine and gearbox were replaced by a flat single- or twin-cylinder engine bloc. This architecture was applied to other models and remained in production until 1944. 

THE ERA OF CHANGE

Things changed dramatically in 1945 when de Gaulle nationalised Gnome & Rhône. Alongside Avions Voisin, the company was absorbed into the SNECMA group, which was made up of several major aerospace companies, including Bugatti and Messier. The motorcycle division started building popular small-cylinder twostroke models. But in no way did they under-perform – as the 175 cc’s victory in the 1956 Bol d’Or endurance race confirmed.

Gnome Rhône, 175 Bol d'Or 1957 Dahan 2e
175 Bol d'Or 1957 Dahan 2e
moto-collection.org - © François Marie Dumas

At the end of the 1950s, the motorcycle market collapsed, and so SNECMA discontinued production of them and refocused on its initial sector. Henceforth, the company focused on producing ATAR engines for Dassault Aviation’s Mirages. SNECMA went on to become one of the world’s largest manufacturer of aerospace and space engines, and its history continues to this day in the form of SAFRAN, made up of a number of major aerospace companies.

This original exhibition will feature over 20 motorcycles in a 400 m² area between halls 2 and 3. They will include some of the most noteworthy models that the makers ever built, including a 1921 ABC and also a 750 X with Bernardet side-car Avion typethe most prestigious pre-war French motorcycles.

Gnome Rhône 750 X side Bernardet Aviation-117
750 X side Bernardet Aviation-117
moto-collection.org - © François Marie Dumas

 Aeronautics enthusiasts are also be in for a treat: Gnome & Rhône’s first ever aircraft engines will be on show. SNECMA will also be exhibiting the three-stage rocket engine that was used with Ariane.

Propulseur 3ème etage, ARIANE SAFRAN
Propulseur 3ème étage Ariane, Safran
© moto-collection.org