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The Zündapp Riders of Alentejo, Portugal

Alentejo is Portugal's poorest region. In fact, it's the poorest region in the whole of Western Europe. Its name means “Beyond the Tejo river”. In many ways, the word “beyond” perfectly describes this part of the country. A vast, forgotten land, which covers almost a third of the country, yet is home to barely 7% of Portugal's population. This immense, desolate countryside is known for its fertile soil, with agriculture being its main source of income. However, it's often looked down upon by many Portuguese up-north, considering it a cultural desert with very little to offer. Young people have been steadily leaving the area for the promising opportunities of Lisbon and Porto, leaving it's older population behind to work on a land which saw very little change over the last half a century. After 41 years of dictatorship, the preferred party in Alentejo is the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), only adding to the feeling of a land lost in time and place.


The elderly farmers of Alentejo reveal another, less known chapter in Portugal's history: Its motorcycle industry. While cowbells are the main sound you will hear in the region, the real soundtrack of Alentejo is the rattling rumble of small 50cc motors which have been transporting farmers across this rough terrain for decades. Portugal had a burgeoning motorcycle industry for most of the 20th century which catered to its people's need for cheap, rugged transportation. Much of its industry relied on German motors made by Zündapp, a Nuremberg-based company which manufactured detonators for the German army and at end of WW1 turned to motorcycle construction. Portugal's neutrality in WW2 left it free to do business with Germany during, as well as after the war. The Portuguese need for quality motor engineering to transport its people led to a strong alliance with Zündapp which sold countless small, but well-constructed motors to the struggling country. Everything but the motor itself was manufactured in Portugal, keeping costs as well as the retail price low, and very quickly Zündapp-powered machines became the popular vehicle of the people. Local brands like Casal, Macal, EFS, and Famel are only a few of the 50 or so companies which manufactured Portuguese motorcycles built upon a German backbone.

Many of these beautiful vintage machines never showed up on the collecting market’s radar. They were considered inferior to their American or Italian counterparts and were ridden to death by their hardworking owners. Very few ever made it out of Portugal. In Alentejo however, a Zündapp bike is still a mark of quality and many of its elderly men ride them with pride. Dotted all around the region you will come across countless dusty old men riding these loud machines, complete with a brain-bucket helmet to match. Many of these men have had these bikes since their early twenties and still take great care to treat and maintain them. Nothing goes to waste in Alentejo and these bikes are no different. Facts and figures, however, carry very little weight in this highly traditional region. I asked many of them how old their bikes were. Nearly all replied “oh, very old” or “older than you!” (sadly not always true). It's still very much a word-of-mouth society, and much of the information gets dispersed in the local cafes, where the rural Alentejo riders spend their lunch breaks drinking Medronho brandy before getting back on the dusty dirt roads. In one cafe sitting I was told how in the old days they would ride Zündapps all the way up to Lisbon and back, an excruciating six-hour trip, when specialty supplies were needed to be brought over. Roads in Alentejo alone would be taxing on any vehicle. Nevertheless, Zündapps managed to endure Alentejo's harsh rocky paths, an endless supply of powdery earth, and the blistering heat, much like its own people.


Most of the Portuguese motorcycle industry is now gone. The arrival of Japanese and Chinese brands in the 80's made these machines obsolete and many of the local manufacturers went under or were purchased by their Asian counterparts. Very little has been documented about the golden age of Portuguese motorcycles but they are still hard at work, even if a little tatty, in rural Alentejo.


Ironically, the most recent inhabitants of Alentejo are an increasing number of young German families, looking to buy cheap farmland to settle into, escaping the European rat-race. Many of them settled in villages such as Sao Luis, Lameiros, and Reliquias. They've started purchasing these peculiar German-motored Portuguese machines as romantic vintage riders which somehow manage to connect these two seemingly unrelated worlds. Yet again German influence is slowly changing this area, which stood still for more than half a century.


These are the Portuguese Zündapp riders of rural Alentejo:

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