Monday, 14 January 2013

Obituary: Jean-Claude Olivier

In France, when you mention Yamaha, chances are that people will reply “Jean-Claude Olivier”.

For 45 years, Jean-Claude-Olivier, or “JCO” as many people knew him, was the face of and the brains behind Yamaha’s presence in France. So much so, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if Yamaha France was a one-man band. Of course, that’s not the case, but it is true that Olivier did a vast amount of hard work to durably implant Yamaha motorcycles in France.

A typical day at the office for "JCO"

JCO joined Sonauto in 1964. At the time Sonauto officially distributed Porsche cars in France and had recently acquired the rights to do likewise with Yamaha motorcycles, having recently taken over from early importers Levallois Motos. Auguste Veuillet, Sonauto’s boss was a close friend of JCO’s father, Gonzague, (the pair had notably won the 1955 24 Heures de Paris endurance race). Olivier Sr. asked Veuillet if he could take on his son as an intern. Veuillet accepted, and the young Jean-Claude quickly found himself at the wheel of a Peugeot J5 van with four Yamahas in the back (a 50cc, an 80cc, a 125cc and a 250cc), crisscrossing France in order to set up a stable dealership network. After one year, in 1965, the network had sold 117 bikes. Three years later, in 1968, that figure had risen to 1,000 units.

At the end of the Sixties, Yamaha brought out a range of dual-purpose trail bikes that instantly met success on the American market. JCO realised that these simple and easy-to-ride little bikes would be ideal for making motorcycling appealing to a wider client base. And so it was that, thanks to his circle of friends and business relations, he managed to get Brigitte Bardot on a small AT-1 for one day (presumably without any mishap to the French star’s person). Naturally, hordes of paparazzi and proper press photographers were on hand to immortalise the event. Predictably, Yamaha’s sales figures jumped sky-high. [...]

Jean-Claude Olivier had great business sense and was regularly able to intuit which bikes would be a sales success; but he was also able to suss out which bikes were missing in the range. Another example of this was when he convinced Yamaha that they had to import the V-Max, the forbear of all modern muscle-bikes, onto the French market. At first, they were unwilling to do so, and after a bit of arm-twisting by JCO, begrudgingly sent ten units to France. Olivier gave one to a jet-setting friend of his who was spending the summer in St.-Tropez. Once again, the move was a success: the bike turned heads and by the end of the summer, Sonauto presented Yamaha Japan with a firm order for 30 units, along with the 10 original bikes that had already been sold. He also played an important part in the production of the mythical 350 RDLC.

As well as having a great business mind, he was also a keen and proficient motorcyclist. Amongst his racing exploits are a participation in the 1969 Bol d’Or on a 250cc bike, the Abidjan-Nice on a XT500 and several participations in the Paris-Dakar, where he often rode as “domestique” (to borrow a cycling term) for the top Yamaha factory riders of the day, including a participation on a mad-as-a-box-of-frogs bitsa powered by a FZ750 engine. Also worthy of note are his 25 participations in the Le Touquet beach race. In 15 of his participations he finished within the top 20, which is no mean feat in such a demanding event. Still in the domain of racing, albeit off the bike, he played a capital role in launching and nurturing the careers of such emblematic French racers as Patrick Pons, Christian Sarron, Jean-Philippe Ruggia, Stéphane Peterhansel, Olivier Jacques and many more.

JCO retired from Yamaha France in 2010 after 45 years of service beyond the call of duty, as some might put it. This idyllic retreat was, however, brutally cut short on 12th January of this year in a road traffic collision on the A1 motorway in northern France, when a lorry jack-knifed across the central separation hitting the Mercedes SUV driven by Olivier, with his daughter in the front passenger seat. She was only lightly injured; however, Jean-Claude Olivier was much more seriously hurt and was pronounced dead on the scene by emergency paramedics. He was 67 years of age.

The Thruxtonian would like to extend its deepest condolences and sympathy to JCO’s family and friends, but also to everyone at Yamaha France, who have in a way lost a father-figure, and also to the French motorcycling community who have undoubtedly lost one of their own, “un vrai motard”, and who will mourn him for a long time to come.

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