A Little History of Motorrad

By Adam Arcane

Fellow riders, this isn’t meant to be a complete history by any means.  Rather just a simple general progression of BMW cycles from the beginning that might whet your appetite for vintage bikes, either as riders or investments.  So kick back, maybe grab a pint, and take a look at a thumbnail history of the marque we ride, and many revere.

Photo: 1925 R32, by Steve Smith

Back in post WWI Germany, the economy was reeling from the devastating blow caused by the punitive Treaty of Versailles.  Many scholars agree that this punishment, which may have been appropriate at the time given the heinous war that destroyed much of Europe, led directly to the phenomenon called National Socialism via the ruin of the German economy.  But by 1923, BMW presented its first motorcycle, the R32.  Its boxer engine, now mounted transversely in the frame unlike the Victoria brand which used the same BMW engine inline, was a design made popular in England via the Scottish-designed Douglas.  Incidentally, Douglas made its last boxer-engine motorcycle in 1957.  BMW is now seeing a rebirth of the addictive torque monster design that many of us have come to revere, especially in the R nineT lineup: vintage boxer racer, a plain boxer motorcycle, a replica of the R80 G/S, and the Scrambler.  Let’s look back to the old days first.

Photo: The 1918 BMW airplane engine, by BMW Classic

On July 20, 1917, two engineers, Friz and Popp along with a wealthy Vienna financier formed BMW and focused on the needs of the fatherland – airplane engines for the Luftwaffe.  The Red Baron flew with BMW power.  Their first mill was the straight six, liquid cooled, 19 liter, with 226 hp, the IIIa.  It was a high performance mill, but the Allies dominated the air and the rest is history.

Photo: ’23 R32, by BMW Classic

The Versailles Treaty then grounded the German aircraft industry, so young BMW built railroad brakes and other profitable bits of metallic engineering, until their first two wheeler, the R23, arrived. We all know the boxer design has two opposing pistons, each canceling out most of the vibration. Twin pistons moving away from each other and toward each other, perfectly balanced, symmetrical, and torque-laden.  This machine had one-piece cylinder and cylinders heads, cast as one unit.  The 498cc side valve engine produced 8.5 hp at 3,300 rpm.  The R32 founded a 97 year-long boxer tradition that’s still going strong with the hugely popular BME R series.  Back in ’23, the new BMW was launched in Paris, with its hand-shifted 3 speed gearbox and exposed drive shaft, single carb and 68mm x 68mm square bore/stroke, and relatively lithe at 265 lb dry.  It was expensive at 2,200 golden marks, and with British competition capable of 75 mph, the BMW only did 60, so their work was cut out for them.

Along came Rudolf Schleicher when Max Friz went back to aircraft design, and in 1925 and ’26, the R 37 production racer produced 16 hp at 4,000 rpm, with its light weight alloy heads now separated from the steel cylinders, with improved cooling fins and more.  A very basic, well-crafted machine, with many originals still running regularly.

Photo: 1927 R47 by Steve Smith

Photo: ’28 R62 by Adam Arcane

Photo: Original 1928 R63 by Steve Smith

By 1927 BMW had built several thousand motorcycles, and in 1928 entered the 750 class with the R62.  Then in ‘29 came the R63 with its overhead valves, and BMW added a supercharger (kompressor) and an aluminum fairing which Ernst Henne rode to 134 mph.  The kompressed boxers remained on top with the best until WWII.  In 1939, the final year before the war, Schorsch Meier won the holy grail of racing, the Isle of Man TT.

Photo: Ernst Henne, by BMW Classic

Photo: ’29 R11 Jack Wells, the noted vintage mentor and BMW role model, with his Cannonball R11, ridden cross country in USA.  By Adam Arcane

Photo: ’29 R63, by Adam Arcane

Back to the early ‘30s, when BMW used pressed steel frames on their side valve 750 R11 and R16, which was good for 75 mph with its quieter roller chain cam drive.  In ’35 the R12 was the first production machine with hydraulic forks.  Bye bye friction-damped girders.  The ride was greatly improved, but the R12’s 18 hp was an under-achiever.  The ’35 R17 was more like it with 33 hp, and was BMW’s then most powerful machine.

Photo: 1931 R16 by Steve Smith

Photo: ’35 R12 By BMW Classic

Photo: ’33 R4 by BMW Classic

In ’36 the 494cc R5 made 24 ponies and added left foot shifting but retained the right side hand shifter to placate clientele who didn’t trust nuance.  The engine case was one piece, and top speed was an unheard of 85 mph.  Rudolf Schleicher, new development head of BMW, added a welded oval tube frame to replace the former formed steel frames.  In ’38 they added plunger rear suspension and the last side valve R71 was produced.

Photo: ’36 R5 by BMW Classic

Photo: ’37 R17 by Adam Arcane

Photo: ’34 R7: This machine is one of a kind, is pure art deco, and is priceless.” By Adam Arcane

Photo: 1938 R51 by Steve Smith

Photo: ’38 R17, by Steve Smith

Photo: ’43 R75 by Adam Arcane

Photo: ’43 R75-2 by Adam Arcane

In 1939 all things changed, as the wehrmacht annexed Austria and violently raided Poland.  They needed two wheel drive sidecars, as well as airplane engines.  The 18,000 R75 sidecar rigs built between ’41 and ’44 were 745cc and made 26 hp and would go just about anywhere, from Russia to the Sahara.  They towed trailers and cannon, and are seen in many collections to this day.  But, by ’45 most of the factories were bombed to ruin, and the rest were plundered by the Allies.  Things were bleak, but by 1948 BMW were turning out bicycles, farm equipment and kitchen utensils.  Fortunately, the U.S. Marshall Plan paid BMW the fortune owed to them by the wehrmacht for sidecars and armaments.

Photo: ’48 R24, by BMW Classic

Photo: Production line of R24s in 1948, by BMW Classic

When BMW were again allowed to build motorcycles, they were limited to single cylinder 250s, like the 12 hp R24.  These bikes were affordable and sold well – 10,000 in 1949 and in 1950 they sold 17,000.  But East Germany held most of the tooling, which was then under Soviet control, so production was very challenged and was provided by the individual dealerships.  The first post war boxer was the R5/2, followed by the R51/3 which bristled with advancements like four ring pistons and a gear driven camshaft and a revelation – a neutral light glowing green in the headlamp!  The bike produced 24 hp and could achieve 80 mph.  But, it was obvious that BMWs needed more power to compete with the more powerful British machines.  So in 1952 the R68 came along with larger carbs, more compression and 35 hp.  This was the first BMW motorcycle that could reach 100 mph.

Photo: 1951 R51/3 by BMW Classic

Photo: 1954 R68 by Adam Arcane

In 1955 BMW introduced a modern swingarm rear suspension, and added an Earles type leading link fork to the R50 and R69, which they say improved the handling, especially with a sidecar. Sport riders, not so much, as they preferred the telescopic fork.  In 1960 the R69S and R50S appeared, with the former delivering 42 horsepower and 110 mph.  The R50S proved unreliable and was canceled in 1962.  In ’69 the leading link also became extinct.  In 1970 BMW introduced the all-new R75/5 with an all new engine and telescopic fork, but it competed with English and Japanese machines that were noticeably more powerful.  The R75 made 50 hp.  Then in ’73 the R90/6 appeared with 60 hp, followed by the iconic R90S with its 67 hp that would do 125 mph  A special version of this machine took the inaugural AMA Superbike series title in 1976.

Photo: ’60 R50 by Adam Arcane

Photo: ’60 R69S by BMW Classic

In 1976 the R100/7 appeared as did the legendary R100RS with its full fairing, a first in motorcycling.  It had 70 hp.  In ’77 the blocky black valve covers appeared on the R80/7.  Soon after the R80 G/S arrived but nobody knew what it was for.  BMW had inadvertently created the budding dual sport market!  These bikes are much sought after today.

We hope you enjoyed these marvels of hand-built historical machines from Bavaria, land of Alpine Mountain Rowdies.  Stay tuned for our next installment, where we take you all the way to the unbelievable S1000RR and its iterations, and the best all round moto on terra, the R1200GS, and the rest of the rolling stock coming down the Autobahn from Das Kompany!

Photo: R90S unknown photog

Photo: R60/5 by BMW Classic

Photo: R80 G/S by BMW Classic