Manuel Soler was born into the Bultaco clan and left behind an image of a rider who was smiling, happy and talented. Above all though, he will be remembered as the best Spanish rider from the seventies. Manuel only ever rode machines built in his home region and we were privileged as he opened up his book of memories to us.
A talented child, you were much like Frenchman Gilles Burgat in that it was at a very early age you took up riding trials. At what age and with which machines did you start your riding career? I started riding at the age of three and my first official trial was at the age of 10. It was a trial with all the Bultaco factory riders at the Bulto family home in San-Antonio. What machine did you ride? It was a Lobito prototype adapted to suit my size. In 1974 at the age of 16 years old, for your first big competition, you rode in a round of the European Championship held in Spain and you finished third. A pretty incredible debut? I had a good ride and finished third, I was however excluded after some riders protested to the international federation that I was too young. When you finally reached the age of 17 you could legally ride in competition and in your first season became Spanish champion. You were the youngest ever champion? Yes, when I started the ’74 season I was 16 years old and by the end I was 17 years old. It was great to be the youngest champion on a Bultaco. To win this very competitive championship in your first year you must be a talented rider and have had a lot of trials experiences? I started riding a motorcycle very early, and that was already a big difference in comparison to other riders. That’s why they gave me the nick-name of “El Monstruito” or little monster!
In winning your first championship you started a long series of wins, it was followed by four more… as always on a Bultaco that excluded all others? Yes, it was a long and satisfying collection of wins. Did you practise often or do much other preparation on your way to becoming a top rider? At the end of the 1974 season the Bultaco factory sent me to England to practise with Martin Lampkin, as in Spain we did not have much in the way of muddy conditions. I left for two months of practice. The English were by far the best in these conditions, for which I had no experience.
Bultaco were keen on you to improve for the world championship in these conditions? When I arrived at the Lampkin household, Dougie was only a few months old, but I was made very welcome and Martin taught me all he knew about how to ride in muddy conditions. It was a great honour for me to practise with him. Thanks to Martin I became a talented rider in mud, and we remain good friends. From the beginning you rode in the world championship, which in the 70s was particularly tough with the great champions such as Vesterinen, Lampkin and Andrews. Was it difficult for you? It was very difficult as there there were also other great riders such as Coutard and Rathmell. There were many riders in each country who were capable of challenging for the title. In addition the politics of the factories at Bultaco, Montesa and Ossa were for the factory team to come from countries with the greatest sales potential. The sales in Spain were good but the factories were more interested in other markets. At this time Bultaco had no real interest in a Spanish rider winning the world title. It was in 1979 in Finland that you won your first grand prix. You were the first Spanish rider to win a round and also the first Spaniard aboard a Spanish made machine, it was a fantastic achievement! It was extraordinary and, more importantly, in Vesterinen’s home country. It was a fabulous day and for me probably the pinnacle of my career, because at that moment the Bultaco factory was in deep financial difficulties and at the end of the same year closed its doors. With Bultaco you had seven excellent years, with all your Spanish titles and a world round victory. Tell us about your first contacts with Bultaco, your first contract and who gave you this opportunity. I was born into the Bultaco family and am the nephew of Mr Bulto. However the story began way before this period as Mr Bulto was one of the founders of Montesa. He gave his first Montesa to my father at the age of 16 years. With my father he took the design dimensions of the Montesa to make a Bultaco, after Bulto left Montesa after some disagreements. I was introduced to motorcycles very early. My chance came from my family.
Why did you choose to ride in trials and not in motocross or enduro? Trials were very much in fashion at the time; I was kind of obliged to follow the fashion of the times. Why did Bultaco start developing trials bikes, when the other Spanish manufacturers had not done so? Bulto loved trials and thought the need for a foreign rider to develop his machine was vital so he contacted Sammy Miller. It was at his suggestion that they worked with the twostrokes, as at the time there were really only four-strokes and British machines.
Did it work?
Yes, Sammy came to Barcelona; he helped to develop the first Bultaco trials machine and in his first year he won practically all the events in which he competed. He had used our machine, the Bultaco, which more or less rendered the four-strokes obsolete.
A real success story you might say?
From this moment onwards it was the golden age for Spanish trials machines. It was during this period that I grew up. The Bultaco factory had many champions: Vesterinen, Coutard, Schreiber, Lampkin and yourself. You were certainly able to benefit from the Bultaco factory team and in the preparation of their bikes? Everyone was treated in the same way by the competition department. When there was a new prototype it was me that completed the first tests. Once we were happy we brought in the other riders to test the machine in their style and always listened to their comments to improve them.
Did you all practise together?
I rode with everyone and when they came to Spain, I was in a way their ambassador, I often went to their homes for practice. We had some really positive experiences in great friendship which even 30 years later is still present. In 1980 with Bernie Schreiber winning you made a one-two result at the French GP in St Christophe. This was a great way to end your association with Bultaco as it was also the last round they won. I remember this event very well; it was difficult to continue riding the Bultaco as the factory closed in December ’79. Another direction opened up for the team. After this round Bernie signed for Italjet and I signed for Montesa. At the time everyone thought you would sign for Italjet but finally you ended up as a Montesa rider? It’s a story that I have not told often as it was difficult for me: in principle I was going to sign for Italjet. Two months before the French round I was invited by Mr Tartarini. We discussed a contract and agreed on the formalities but a week after St Christophe at the moment of signing he presented me with a completely different contract. I discussed this with him and told him I was a man of my word and I refused to sign the contract.
How were you contacted by Montesa?
At St Christophe I was ill the day before the event. I had a high fever and the start of the event was risky. It was in section five that I came across the Montesa team manager who asked me how it was going. It told him that it was not a good day as it was also my last with Bultaco.
You told him of the situation?
Yes, Oriel Guixa asked if I was still free and we arranged a meeting for the following week. That was when I started my collaboration with Montesa.
How rapidly were you integrated into the new structure of team and machine?
Montesa gave me a really good project; we started work immediately after the French round. The beginning was difficult as there were many differences between the Bultaco and Montesa. Finally it all started to click. In the first world round of the 1981 season I won at Saint Llorenc, my first win on the white 349 Montesa.
Before the ‘81 white models, the red version from ‘80 was victorious in the Scottish Six Days Trial ridden by Vesterinen. Tell us about this machine?
Yrjo became the first foreign rider on a Spanish machine to win this legendary event. I didn’t think it was a very good machine. Itwas difficult to ride and not very stable. When I arrived at Montesa they asked me to work on the new model, which I adapted more to my riding style and this became the white model 349.
In 1981 you won three world rounds and finished up in fifth position in the final standings. This was your best result. Was the Montesa the best machine you ever rode?
I certainly had a good machine that season, I was also in good form and this was a machine that worked very well. I was however not consistent with my results and this dragged me down in the final standings. My last victory in the German round allowed Montesa to become the world constructors champion for the first time in their history.
You mentioned the prototypes, did you always ride them at both Bultaco and Montesa? Do you still own one?
No I don’t have any. In my Montesa contract it was written that they would give me a prototype on which I ended the season. In the end I got nothing.
The 1982 season did not go as well. What went wrong?
At the end of ’81 I damaged my knee, 1982 was a year of recuperation that lasted 6 months after the operation. Montesa were great employers and insisted I signed for the season. At the same time, in view of my condition, they signed Toni Gorgot who was available. They needed a top rider.
How were your relations with Toni? In his first year of the Spanish championship he stole your crown which you had worn for the preceding four years.
The year Toni arrived in the Spanish championship I left to do my military service and did not have much time to practice. He first concentrated on the Spanish championship whereas for me the priority was for the world rounds. We worked well together.
In the beginning of the ‘80s the Bultaco and Ossa factories closed. Was it difficult to find a ride? Yes, certainly difficult, but it was also terrible for the factory workers as the government never really helped these two firms! It was at this time that the Japanese came to Spain and Honda associated itself with Montesa, and that allowed for a stability which remains today.
In 1983 you signed for Merlin, which was a surprise.
The technician at Merlin was my cousin: Ignacio Bulto, he proposed a challenge, which was to continue the Bultaco project and keep the same philosophy; I asked myself why not?
The project never really worked?
We tried very hard to get the machine to work well but had many problems, a small budget and an engine which came from a Cagiva road machine. It needed a large number of modifications for use in trials. I was still convalescing after the operation on my knee. It was a difficult year but we tried to do the best we could. From the start of the project to the end of the year my health didn’t really allow me to continue. It was at this point we decided to part.
When did you notice the new generation of riders?
From the time of Thierry Michaud and Jordi Tarres; they had a different riding style and trials stared to change.
What did you do after stopping competition?
I have a Honda motorcycle dealership in Barcelona. I also work for the Spanish federation and the trials commission.
1970: San Antonio Trial
1967: San Antoni Trial – Bultaco Lobito Prototype
1971: Villadrau Trial1970: Navidad Trial1972: San Antonio Trial
1981: WTC, GBR
1981: Cingles Three Day Trial - Spain
1983: WTC, Spain
1983: WTC, USA
2011: Ventoux Trial, France
1983: WTC, Spain
1983 – With the Merlin staff including Ignacio Bulto
2013: Highland Two Day, Scotland
2013: Highland Two Day, Scotland