Endurance racing in the ’70s was an incredible spectacle involving an extraordinary diversity of machinery. None more so than at the 1976 Bol d’Or
he 40th Bol d’Or, held at Le Mans in the dying embers of a sun-kissed 1976 summer, was one of the most memorable race meetings I’ve ever been to.
It was the first big racing event I’d been to outside the UK. And while it produced a British victory with Alex George teamed with French ace Jean Claude Chemarin on the works Honda RCB900, it was the variety of machinery and magnificent atmosphere that left such a lasting impression.
The year marked Honda’s return to world championship road racing after quitting GPs at the end of 1967 and the new four-cylinder, four-stroke RCB proved competitive enough to give the previously dominant Godier Genoud Kawasakis a fright.
My mates and I had ridden over a day early to get acclimatised to the Pernod and frites, but stayed sober long enough to sneak into tech inspection and were left spellbound as Honda wheeled in four factory RCBs with 941cc motors, three of them run by Honda France (Chemarin/George, Hubert Rigal/Rene Guili, Roger Ruiz/Christian Huguet) and an AC Briggs entry for Jack Findlay and Stan Woods. Dave Croxford and Gary Green also got a works engine for their Japauto, the Parisian team running huge Moto Design fairings on both their entries, the other bike sporting Japauto’s own VX4 1000cc motor, based on the CB750 four.
The Godier Genoud team countered the Honda threat with four of their new-for-’76 Sidemm Kawasakis with Yoshimura-tuned engines in huge perimeter space frames, monoshock rear ends with weird cantilever parallelogram swingarms and QD one-piece bodywork that defined the free-thinking design potential endurance racing rules offered constructors back then.
Their riders were: Jacques Luc/Alain Vial, Christian Sarron/Denis Boulom, Michel Frutschi/Georges Fougeray while emerging GP star Jean-Francois Balde teamed up with Yvon DuHamel. We’d read about the French Canadian’s wild antics in American races on Kawasaki 750 triples and couldn’t wait to see him in action.
Jean D’Hollander’s Belgian-based Dholda team had two more Hondas – but in their own trick chassis and painted a ghastly shade of mustard yellow.
The diverse array of bikes was bolstered by two Brazilian guys who rocked up with a 550 Honda, while Honda Suisse entered a pair of Gold Wings with bulbous fairings that enveloped the cylinder heads along with trick one-piece bodywork in the vein of the Godier Kawasakis.
As if that wasn’t mad enough, there could not have been two more different approaches to running Yamahas. There was the Sonauto TZ750 of Pat Evans and Jean-Paul Boinet which kept going long into the hours of darkness – it was a joy to see Evans cranked over on the expansion boxes, laying a light show of sparks in the long Le Mans turns. The other was Eric Offenstadt’s tiny Smac TZ350, with its motor taken out to 398cc, slotted into a monocoque-style frame, rigged up with lights and the weirdest hub-centre steering.
Ducati sent three Franco Farne-developed 860cc V-twin factory machines in the colours of Val-d’Oise Competition for Virginio Ferrari/Benjamin Grau, Christian Bourgeois (a Grand Prix star and later to be in charge of the Kawasaki France endurance effort), and Tony Rutter/Roger Nicholls.
There were a couple of Moto Guzzis too, plus a selection of BMWs including one from Krauser. The Bavarian bombers were by far the loudest, most obnoxious bikes in the race, ensuring no sleep for us lads trying to doss in the grandstand opposite the pits, rather than trudging back to the campsite. We ended up taking breakfast of hot chocolate and brioche buns at dusk – 24-hour racing is a long day for the fans, too!
Honda had dominated the championship going into the Bol, having taken victories at Mugello, Barcelona and Spa, and didn’t falter at Le Mans, with Chemarin/George winning by three laps from the Sarron/Boulom Kawasaki.
As the final minutes of the race ticked by, three of the works Hondas rode in team formation past the chequered flag and the police, who lined the start/finish straight, were powerless to stop the traditional track invasion, the like of which we’d never witnessed in any of our rather reserved race meetings back home.
It was the perfect crazy end to a perfectly crazy weekend, but little did we know that we were witnessing a pivotal moment in the sport – the factory teams had started to throw big bucks at the series, to shove the privateers into the shadows. And sadly, not too far into the future, the rules would demand production bikes, killing off free-thinking experimentation altogether.
Words Gary Pinchin Photography Bauer Archive