L’Épopée de la Moto

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
January 1 2011

As we meander between the pristine farms on the prairies that separate the Laurentians from the Appalachians, we realize what many people miss by taking the fast path. Just to the north of the four lanes of Trans-Canada Route 20, snuggled up against that great blue ribbon flowing from Canada’s hinterland to the sea, lies a wonderful highway that must have been designed specifically for motorcycling enthusiasts. It’s called Quebec Route 132, and with a realistic posted speed limit of 90 km/h, a random meeting with the Sûreté du Québec is unlikely. In fact, I find myself taking in the spectacular panorama while riding well below the speed limit more often than not. The year was 1966 when I last rode this scenic highway – it was the only route through Quebec to the Canadian Maritimes. I was on my first motorcycle, a 1965 Honda 305 Super Hawk, which incidentally, was the largest motorcycle Honda made at the time. How times have changed. Today, as we cruise along this same Route 132 on a motorcycle with an engine displacement larger than many cars, I wonder if there will be a Honda 305 Super Hawk on display at our destination, L’Épopée de la Moto.

Approximately 100 km east of Quebec City, we approach the wood carving capital of Canada, Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. Not only recognized for its wood carvings, the town is also known for L’Épopée de la Moto, literally translated “The Museum of Motorcycles.” Here we will get a historical overview of some of man’s early inventive and cutting-edge technology. The motorcycle has evolved considerably from its early days, but today we will peer back through the mists of time by virtue of the lifelong dream of two brothers, Jean and François Gagnon, to create a museum dedicated to motorcycles. Here we will visit some of the history of our passion.

Just past the museum on the left, we find the Auberge du Faubourg, our accommodation for the night. As we book in, I notice an immaculate 1970 Norton 750 Commando displayed in the lobby, no doubt provided by the museum. Our room, with one wall almost completely glass, gives us a picture-window panorama of the mighty St. Lawrence River. With the river in the foreground and the majestic Laurentian Mountains rising out of its northern shores, the view is worth a king’s ransom. As my wife unpacks, I take a walk along the rocky cliffs at the edge of the river. In the distance, an approaching mist of showers highlights the mountains silhouetted against the gray evening sky. Sitting on the cliff high above the river, I gaze at the delicate wild bluebells growing out of a wisp of soil caught on a craggy cleft, and I am in awe of the natural beauty that is so uniquely Canadian. As I behold the grand vista and the peace and serenity of being far from the madding crowd, I think to myself, what a perfect ending to a wonderful day of riding through the back roads and small towns of La Belle Province. After a perfect evening meal, we watch a magnificent sunset over the mountains.

The next morning, we stroll down the road to L’Épopée de la Moto. A lovely sign out front signals our arrival, as does a broken-down, rusty, old, wrecked motorcycle lying on its side on top of a pile of rocks at the entrance. It brings back a painful personal memory of an accident I had in 2006, but I can’t resist getting my picture taken – two broken-down old wrecks lying side by side. As we enter the museum, Jean Gagnon, who’s been expecting us, introduces himself. I have just managed to intercept Jean days before he leaves to meet his wife, Claire, near Brittany in the northwest region of France for their summer vacation.

The museum is a sideline for the two brothers, and although Jean says that it barely pays for itself, I can tell by his demeanour and the gleam in his eye that it is a labour of love. Jean’s main business, which he owns along with his brother and sister, is Plastiques Gagnon, which is also deeply entrenched in the motorcycle industry, as they make products for the BRP Can-Am Spyder.

The museum is on three levels. The main level contains an office, a small store where one can purchase motorcycle-related goodies, and a display area. The second level is completely devoted to displays, and the third level is a small theatre – complete with several authentic theatre seats – for viewing movies, including On Any Sunday and several others.

As we begin our tour, Jean informs us that he and his brother started riding at an early age. They would buy a motorcycle, ride it for a while, and when they bought a new one they would store the old one away rather than trading or selling it. The Gagnon basement became a motorcycle repair shop and storage facility. I can believe this is true when Jean takes us into the storage area at the back of the museum. I count at least forty collectible bikes in various stages of assembly and repair, and Jean tells us that he has another storage area with at least this many bikes awaiting restoration.

Once inside the museum, Jean exudes pride of ownership as he describes each bike’s history as well as his personal history of each exhibit. As he leads us to a corner on the main level, his eyes tell me that his pride and joy is one of his latest acquisitions, a 955 Ducati Desmoquattro, of which only a few were built for the factory-sponsored racers. This one arrived via a racer friend of Jean’s in Montreal.

Gerry Marshall, a former Canadian National Champion, past Canadian Motorcycle Association president, and friend, told me about L’Épopée de la Moto when we were both at Daytona Beach Bike Week. Gerry has a couple of bikes in the museum, one of them being an owner-built 250 cc Honda road racer. This racer is a symbol of what it was like to build your own racing bike in days gone by, when naked bikes were the only bikes you could purchase, and which you then purpose-built for the application.

A unique feature of the museum is its theme exhibits. Jean poses in front of the military exhibit, which highlights a fold-down minibike that was used in World War II. The minibike was parachuted behind the enemy lines, and the paratroopers would then use it to get around quickly without having to walk. The theme exhibit, “Le Rêve du Collectionneur” (The Dream of the Collector), presents a 1947 AJS and a 500 cc Imperial lying against hay bales in someone’s barn, waiting to be discovered. In the corner is Jean’s most precious exhibit. He calls it “Anyone’s Garage.” It houses a 1937 Indian Scout 101 and a pre–unit construction Triumph. Jean comments that for over seven years, the mannequin in the exhibit has been holding the carburetor in his hand, trying to figure out if it’s the right carb for this bike. Across the room is a police exhibit with an officer sitting on a 1931 Henderson KJ 1301, and across from it is a 1940 Indian Sport Scout, both popular police motorcycles of a bygone era.


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