One of my favorite motorcycle websites is OddBike, a collection of musings by Jason Cormier in which he ‘obsesses over weird motorcycles from around the world’. I appreciate his writing because it’s thoroughly researched and incredibly informative – which is why I am excited to share yet another one of his pieces. Did you catch his story on Morbidelli V8 here on Bike-urious?
Today we’re going to France…it’s time to learn about the BFG (no, not the Roald Dahl character).
Long time followers of OddBike and Bike-urious will recall that one of my early subjects was the wonderfully horrid Brazilian Amazonas. It’s become one of my fondest profiles that was an important part of the development of the OddBike concept celebrating (and poking fun at) the weirdest motorcycles I could dig up. For those unfamiliar with the Amazonas, the short version is it is a thoroughly terrible overweight pig of a machine powered by a Volkswagen Beetle engine that was borne of the necessity of subverting punitive Brazilian tariffs on imported vehicles, in a desperate attempt to build a Harley-esque machine that could serve the local police forces.
Today on Bike-urious I present the Amazonas’ sophisticated French cousin, who is probably even more obscure than her Latin-American counterpart: behold the BFG/MBK 1300, another ill-fated attempt at stuffing an automotive engine into a heavyweight motorcycle.
The 1300, also known as the Odyssee, began as a concept for an inexpensive-to-develop touring machine based around an automotive powerplant and the use of as many French automotive parts as possible. The idea was developed by three Frenchmen in 1978 by the names of Louis Boccardo, Dominique Favario and Thierry Grange; put them together and you get BFG – no relation to the demon slaughtering weapon favoured by a certain slayer of Doom.
Favario and Grange were management teachers based in Chambéry who proposed the concept as a study in starting up a small business, to be presented to the Ministry of the Interior for grant consideration. Boccardo was a technician employed by noted Grand Prix constructor Alain Chevallier in Vendôme and served as the technical lead of the project.
Their idea of introducing a heavyweight machine and expanding the relatively small French motorcycle industry earned the trio a 50,000 franc inventor’s grant from the Concours Lépine in July 1978. A 200,000 franc loan was secured shortly afterwards and BFG was officially incorporated in 1979. Baccaro, Favario, and Grange developed their concept around an air-cooled boxer four pulled straight out of a Citroën GS. The prototype was developed with a very modest budget of 100,000 francs and a staff of ten people; to keep within the budget, the machine had to be developed using as many existing parts as possible. The engine was thus pulled out of the GS virtually unmodified, with only a cam-driven distributor, electric fuel pump, and dressier cam covers distinguishing it from its automotive donor.
The original business plan, as outlined in 1978, called upon cooperation between various European manufacturers towards the goal of creating a multi-national machine, citing the Airbus business model as inspiration. Unfortunately for BFG, few companies outside France were interested in playing along; even the potential French suppliers were skeptical, including PSA Peugeot Citroën. Attempts to purchase gearboxes from Moto-Guzzi and Laverda (specifically an adaptation of their V6 drivetrain) ultimately failed, forcing BFG to design their own unit, adding costs to the project.
The engine chosen was a well-proven powerplant in the French market; displacing 1,299ccs via a 79.4mm bore and 65.6mm stroke, the G13/646 was the ultimate evolution of the Citroën G-series of air-cooled flat fours. With 8.7:1 compression, this engine was used in top-tier GS and GSA models from 1978-1986 but the architecture of the G-series dated back to the mid-1960s, when it was developed by engineer Jean Dupin in a joint partnership between Citroën and Panhard. The design called for a light, simple engine that took lessons learned from the rugged 2CV boxer twins. Air cooling would minimize weight and ancillary components to maximize performance and economy in a compact or midsize sedan.
The result was a belt-driven overhead cam, hemispherical head 8-valve boxer four that would prove to be simple, durable, and well designed, with modest displacements keeping it within the cheaper end of strict French tax categories. Forced-air cooling via a crankshaft driven fan and ducting around the cylinders ensured adequate cooling. Introduced in 1970 in 1,015cc form as the G10 in the GS and Ami, the G series would go on to power 2.5 million GS variants (excluding 847 1973 Birotors that Citroën would prefer you forget about), plus tens of thousands of license-built machines produced around the world into the mid-1990s.
A tire shredder it was not. The first G10 made all of 55 hp, while the extra-spicy G13 pounded out 66 hp. Far from impressive numbers for a weird little 2,000 pound French sedan, but what if you stripped away about 1,300 pounds and two wheels?
In a curious bit of OddBike serendipity, the GS was also the source of an engine for another oddball European motorcycle: the Dutch Van Veen OCR 1000 used a twin-rotor Wankel rotary from the ill-fated GS Birotor, a car plagued with so many issues that Citroën attempted to buy back and destroy all examples.
Following a remarkably short period of development and testing a prototype, BFG supplied a pace motorcycle the 1980 Tour de France, earning high marks from the riders and attracting public attention to the project. The frames of the prototypes were produced by Boccardo in Vendôme; ultimately four would be produced, one naked test mule with a 1200cc engine, one fully-faired concept for show duty, one bikini fairing tester (GTA), and one full-fairing tester (GTB).
Boccardo would leave BFG in 1981 to develop his own version of a Citroën-powered motorcycle concept; that year he founded Moto Française which would produce the MF 650, a whole range of motorcycles powered by the V06 652cc flat twin out of the Citroën Visa…but that is a subject for another day.
BFG 1300 production began in 1982 at a facility in La Ravoire, Chambéry in the southwest of France. Capitalized at 800,000 francs and occupying a 16,000 square foot facility, BFG had a mere 25 employees and anticipated annual production of 500 units. Two models were announced: a 29,500 franc GTA with a fork-mounted bikini fairing and a 32,000 franc GTB with a fixed full fairing. Ultimately only the GTB would reach production, with the first examples available in February of 1982.
A proprietary five-speed straight-cut gearbox was developed by Soma of Grenoble and mated to a Moto-Guzzi/BMW-esque driveshaft to adapt the G13 to motorcycle use. The driveshaft housing did double duty as the swingarm, pivoting within the gearbox casing, with some parts of the final drive sourced from a Citroën Méhari. A longitudinal arrangement was used, with a single plate dry clutch between the engine and gearbox, again very much ala Guzzi/BMW. In fact the whole machine had more than a passing resemblance to the BMW K100/K75, in both chassis and aesthetic design – but don’t call it plagiarism, because the BFG beat the Flying Brick to the market by a year.
The frame was a steel tube design that hung the engine below a stout trellis spaceframe, utilizing the engine and transmission assembly as a stressed member. To accommodate the downdraught two-barrel 28mm Solex carburettor and intake, the fuel tank was a 22 litre rotomoulded plastic cell tucked into the centre of the machine behind the gearbox and below the rider’s seat. A dummy tank covered the airbox and frame spars, with a remote filler cap feeding the underseat tank. The remainder of the chassis was conventional early-1980s European stuff: twin-shock rear suspension with French de Carbon shocks, Spanish Télesco right side up forks, Italian Brembo twin-piston calipers, and Italian FPS 18 inch alloy wheels. Wheelbase was a rather long 1610mm (63.4 inches).
The whole shebang was claimed to weigh 267 kilos dry (587 pounds), 300 kilos wet (660 pounds). Horsepower was quoted as 70 hp at 5500 rpm, rated slightly higher than what Citroën claimed for the G13 in the GS. This netted a gearing-limited top speed of 197 km/h (123 mph). The more important number was the torque: 72 lb-ft peaking at a mere 3,500 rpm, with 50 lb-ft available at the 600 rpm idle.
The weirdness of the BFG 1300 continued with accessories pilfered from the European automotive parts bin. The mirrors were from a Fiat Panda. The headlight came from a Renault 16. The dash was from a Renault R5, modified to include a neutral indicator light. The fuel level sender was from a Citroën 2CV. In keeping with the original concept the only parts unique to the 1300 were the frame, the transmission, the final drive, and the rather ugly bodywork.
400 units would be produced in the first year, and reviews appeared to be mixed. Some owners reported quality issues and repeated component failures, though not with anything BFG specific; one needs to keep in mind pretty much everything was bought from outside suppliers, and the BFG transmission was notably trouble-free. Handling was balanced and reasonably nimble given the mass of the machine, certainly comparable to other heavyweight touring motorcycles of the era. Performance was on the leisurely side given the modest power and substantial weight – in spite of this a sidecar equipped BFG managed to win the 1982 Sidecar Tour de France.
Like many touring rigs of the 1980s, the BFG excelled at high speed, long distance work, loping along at modest revs with commendable stability at terminal velocity. To BFG’s credit it appeared to be about as composed as could be expected for a heavyweight touring bike aimed at conservative riders cross shopping with the Honda Goldwing and BMW RT; price-wise it was only slightly more expensive than the former, and matched the retail of the former.
Highlights of the BFG were its stability, wind protection, long-legged feel, and a notably smooth gearbox compared to the clunky units used by BMW and Moto-Guzzi at the time. Gripes were the weight, a grabby clutch, and the lazy character of the engine; the Citroën powerplant retained the long-tube intake runners and small two-barrel carburettor from the GS which muted throttle response. In fact only one barrel of the carb operated at part throttle, requiring a heavy hand to open both barrels and get a move on.
The ample torque and relaxed characteristics of the BFG made it ideal for hauling a sidecar, and many examples were fated to be bolted to a hack. A bonus of using an automotive air-cooled engine was the forced air system, which was retained on the BFG, with the fan and duct occupying the space where you’d normally find a radiator. This meant adequate cooling even idling at a stop in hot weather and under heavy loads.
Some sources incorrectly state that 100 examples were bought by the Gendarmerie Nationale police force. Truth was that 160 were ordered in a government contract to supply the GN as well as various arms of the Ministry of the Interior, but this order would never be completed by BFG. Twelve BFGs were purchased by the GN for testing purposes and they ultimately decided they weren’t suited for their use. Curiously these “administrative” machines were equipped with a 56hp, 1129cc G11 engine as well as additional electrics to run police equipment.
The Gendarmerie weren’t about to let a good example of national pride go to waste, so the test machines were retained and occasionally used for parade and ceremonial purposes. It would make the GN look a little more patriotic on TV screens if they were riding a French motorcycle rather than something bought from the Axis powers. All twelve machines made a public appearance in June 1982 when they were used to escort world leaders to the G7 summit held in Versailles, and a squad of BFGs was dispatched to escort Pope John Paul II on one of his visits.
Speaking of French patriotism, a BFG was used as a diplomatic device when French President François Mitterrand gifted one to Spanish King Juan Carlos I in 1982. Whether he appreciated it or was puzzled why the French gave him an overweight touring bike instead of something cool like a Citroën CX was not noted.
Things weren’t going well for BFG; debts were mounting and the lucrative government contract was being delayed to the point that bankruptcy would arrive before it was finalized. In a bit of ill-timed accolade, Francois Mitterrand awarded Dominique Favario the Médaille du Meilleur Ouvrier de France (“Award of the Best Worker in France”); Favario refused the award three days later in protest of the failure of the government contract. Details are scant but it appeared that politics had delayed the injection of government cash that would have kept BFG afloat, and they were bankrupt by December 1983.
In 1984 the whole works was purchased by MBK Industrie, nee Motobécane-Motoconfort, for 450,000 francs. Production was moved to MBK’s facility in Saint-Quentin and restarted in a more limited capacity. Much, much more limited. In fact only 150 MBK 1300s would be produced between 1984 and 1988, starting with the remnants of the ill-fated government contract.
Eighteen BFGs were purchased by the Ministry of the Interior to equip officers of the customs office, with one used as a training rig at l’Ecole Nationale des Brigades de Douanes at La Rochelle well into the 1990s. These bikes were produced by MBK and delivered in 1985, equipping brigades from the districts of Annecy, Arras, Bordeaux, Dax, and Dijon. They were distinguished by a solo seat, Krauser hard bags containing electrical equipment to run a radio set; unlike the Gendarmerie machines the customs bikes were fitted with the full-fat G13 engine of the civilian BFG. They were reportedly well liked by the officers, particularly those who were given one as an upgrade from the outdated BMW R60s the brigades had been using until then. In fact, four officers bought BFGs for their personal use.
Unfortunately the use of MBK/BFGs by the customs office was short lived, scarcely more than a year. The performance demanded by high-speed interception duty wasn’t there and quality/maintenance issues became apparent under hard use. They were ultimately superseded by the BMW R80RT and Yamaha XJ.
Following the cessation of production at MBK, the remaining parts were purchased as a lot by sidecar manufacturer SARL l’Atelier Précision in Seclin in 1989. They produced a handful of complete 1300s to order using this stock of spares and supported the BFG/MBK 1300 community until 1996, when the parts cache was purchased by the Moto Club BFG.
The Club, founded in 1982 at the introduction of the BFG, remains the principal supplier of parts today as well as the go-to resource for BFG/MBK fans. So if you have a hankering for a Citroën-powered orphan French heavyweight touring bike, Moto Club BFG should be your first stop. You would not be alone; BFGs maintain a cult status in European motorcycling, with some die-hard owners putting hundreds of thousands of kilometres on their machines. One example allegedly has north of 480,000 kms, per the last report, and there are numerous 1300s that have accumulated six-digit mileage. By the Club’s estimation somewhere around 350-400 examples of the 600-odd 1300s built remain in use today, and they are looking at resuming production of some of the scarcer parts that have been exhausted from their inventory.
It would seem that the BFG/MBK 1300 is one of the more successful failures I’ve covered, one that retained a remarkable longevity even after the dissolution of the original BFG enterprise. Unlike the unholy conglomeration of parts masquerading as a motorcycle that was the Amazonas 1600, the BFG was a well-thought out, well-engineered go at mass-producing an automobile-powered motorcycle. Despite its ungainly appearance and bizarre concept, the BFG 1300 worked and continues to win over a small contingent of fans across Europe. Its use of common French automobile components has given it a longevity that belies its modest origins and troubled history. The fact that 2/3rds of the production run remain in service 30-odd years after production ended is remarkable, and a testament to just how clever Boccardo, Favario and Grange really were – even if their motorcycle skewed heavily towards the weird side of the spectrum.
Moto Club BFG
Van Veen OCR
BFG 1300 in the Lane Motor Museum in Tennessee
Citroen GS Wiki
Citroen G-Series Boxer Wiki
Review of the pre-production BFG GTA and GTB
Citroenet information of the BFG and MF
BFG fan page with some handy parts cross references