Spare Parts: The last shall be first

By Ernie Copper

If you’re lucky enough to be around motorcycles for a while, you’ll run across a few machines that stand out. The reasons they stand out can vary. Some are special because they have survived in original condition, others because they have been customized to the nines. Some of them you love, others, like the one you’ll be reading about here, you may not even particularly like. They’ve just been a part of your life so damn long you’d miss them if they were gone.

This little “bike” is technically a moped, a French-made Motobecane Mobylette or “Moby” for short. This Moby was built in the mid ’70s and bought by my Dad in the ’80s for about $150. This Moby was a top-of-the-line model 50v and I have personally topped 35 mph on her, in a crouch, on a slight downgrade with a tail wind.

The 50V has a tandem seat, front and rear suspension and a whopping 49.9cc two-stroke engine with a simple but effective variator belt drive system.

In his later years a lot of small to medium-sized bikes came and went through Dad’s garage but his Moby was a constant. If he needed to clear his head over a vexing problem, he’d hop on the Moby. It seemed to do the trick every time.

The combination of ethanol-infused gas, aging two-stroke oil and rare-to-occasional use proved problematic to the once-reliable little Moby, often resulting in two-stroke premix puddles around the drive. Dad even talked about selling it now and then, usually when it was in its non-running phase. A Saturday afternoon in the driveway spent working on the peculiar little bike usually brought he and the Moby back together again.

For Dad, the Moby clearly became his last stand, the last of the toys in his toy box and the last to languish in the corner, forgotten as Father Time came calling and just living became more important than living well. After he passed, I was getting his place ready to sell and I saw the bike as it sat alone in his shed, surrounded by empty nutshells cast off by the squirrels and other rodent intruders. Surprisingly it hadn’t been nibbled on or turned into nesting material. I couldn’t bear to part with the Moby even though it wasn’t running. I literally picked it up, put it in my truck and took to my garage, where it sat for several weeks untouched.

A day finally came when I had time to putter around with it to see if I could make it run again. If you’ve never had a moped, know this: there is a degree of physical activity involved in starting one that has been neglected. You pedal them like a bicycle until they start and that might be a while, especially if you don’t know which of the two positions on the on/off switch is which. The lettering had faded over the years. Eventually I got it to run with the choke about half out and I considered that a victory. The starting procedure was very reminiscent of bikes from the early 1900s.

The little bike cleaned up well, the finishes likely preserved by years of two-stroke oil fog. The Moby also has the distinction of being one of the few things left relatively unmodified by my father in his 30-some years of ownership—a true stamp of engineering approval.

My son expressed an interest in it, so I loaded it up and took it to him a few months ago when we went to visit. I showed him what little I knew about it and it was still running only with the assistance of the choke. We decided a thorough cleaning of the Gurtner carb was in order whenever he had the time, which, as it turns out, was about a week or so ago.

One day he kept texting progress reports on the little bike. Carb photos led to videos of a much-improved starting process which ultimately led to a point-of-view video of him taking it for its re-christening ride in a nearby National Park.

I was thrilled! I was happy for Dad that his little bike had found a new home. I was happy for the bike that it was in the wind again and I was happy that my son had found success in getting this Moby back on the road all by himself. The celebration came to an unceremonious ending when the chain fell off and the baffle backed out of the muffler chamber, but you can’t expect perfection right out of the gate. He put the chain back on and rode it home, where he is planning to repair the muffler. He has it starting with just a pump or two now.

It was an amazing feeling to watch on the phone in real time as my dad’s last bike became the first bike my son ever resurrected while the most basic elements of motorcycling spanned three generations.

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