Sunday, January 20, 2008

1937 DKW SB500 A

Sometimes when you're young, you don't really think that you're part of a big cycle, a passing of history from hand to hand. At the time of these photos (1988), I was just excited to have found an unusual old motorcycle for a good price, in great running condition, and totally original. What was also happening was the seller, Hollis Button, was letting go of his lifetime collection of old motorcycles, handing the torch to younger folks to carry on where he was leaving off.

Hollis was having health issues, but had been a member of CAMA (California Antique Motorcycle Ass'n - now defunct) and the AMCA for years, and had restored many motorcycles in his day. I recall a German enthusiast several years ago sending me photos of a 'San Joe Bee', supposedly ca. 1898, and made in San Francisco. Did I know anything about it? I did a little research, and it turned out that Hollis had built the thing out of spares to look 'antique' - he clearly had a sense of humor too!

The top photo tells the tale - there is Hollis looking anxiously on as I (dressed in period gear even at that tender age) acquaint myself with the hand-shift and controls on this '37 DKW 500cc twin-cylinder two-stroke. I had just purchased the machine, and was ready for the test ride. It turned out to be in perfect mechanical condition, and for the few years I owned it, remained so. We had many fun miles, the only bugbear was the prodigious smoke screen laid down whenever I opened up the throttle - I can remember one day going over the Golden Gate bridge, looking back at an enormous blue cloud behind me... not a very 'green' machine!

Second pic shows me under way. The 'Deek' would do 70+ mph, and handled very well. The frame and forks are pressed steel stampings, which can be seen clearly in the bottom photo (note holes in the engine plates below the gear-drive primary cover). I think the machine had come from Verrall's in the 1970's (note tax disc on bottom pic) - it had original paint and pinstriping, although Hollis had converted the original electric start mechanism (yep, 1937 e-start) for a Honda starter/generator. It was a stylish little machine, but ultimately it went away in order to buy my first Brough-Superior, an 11-50 model from 1937. I note that DomiRacer has a similar DKW for sale, and am tempted, but I rarely go backwards...

Some notes about the DKW story; at one time (1936?) they were the largest motorcycle factory in the world, and were amalgamated into the Auto-Union umbrella, which we know now as Audi. Their RT125cc two-stroke single was a huge seller, and immediately after WW2, both the Yanks and Brits 'appropriated' the blueprints and production facilities of the DKW factory - hence we had the Harley Hummer and BSA Bantam, both of which were faithful copies of the little pre-war DKW. After the war the factory in Zschopau ended up in East Germany, and the company became MZ (Motorrad Zschopau). MZ continued to develop motorcycles for road and race through the communist era (I rode a 250cc MZ across the Eastern Bloc in '88).

Their race chief, Walter Kaaden, used mathematical formulae to perfect harmonic resonance in two-stroke exhaust systems ('expansion chambers'), and the little made-on-a-shoestring racers became world beaters. Kaaden's protege, Ernst Degner, defected to Japan and sold Kaaden's secrets to Suzuki, who then went on to world championship status . Degner later committed suicide .... Who says there isn't drama and intrigue in old motorcycle history?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your ref to Walter Kaaden is a really significant part of bike history
but can be told in the context of Global Politics ie MZ's situation in
Eastern Europe after the Second World War. The stumbling development
of the rotary valve engine due to lack of private capital in the
communist sytem. Industrial Espionage when Degner defected (Was it at
the Swedish GP) and then the development of the two stroke engine in
Modern Japan.
I took a pic of a road going four cylinder bike in Belgium about
1968. It must have been an FN I will forward pic if I can find it.

liberty vintage said...

im currently restoring a 1936 sb500,,nice to see your story Adam Cramer - liberty vintage 267-973-9421