Sunday, January 04, 2009


Item #2 Worth Investigating at the Las Vegas auction.

Talk about 'rare spares'. This oil-cooled Windhoff 4-cylinder ohc engine was found in Sturgis, South Dakota, propping open a barn door, which several hundred thousand Harley-crazed bikers had stumbled over in their search for a Knucklehead supposedly inside the barn itself. Just kidding.

The Windhoff is an impressive machine from the late 1920's - I first came to know of this marque when a complete example was found in a basement in Chicago (?) in the 1980's. The Windhoff has risen from total obscurity to absolute cult collector status in the intervening decades, and just last Spring, a restored 1928 746cc Windhoff sold for $177,000 by Bonhams, at the Stafford show, making #12 on my 'Top 20' auction list.

The creations of Hans Windhoff began in Berlin with radiator production for cars, trucks, and aircraft. In 1924, they entered the burgeoning motorcycle market with a ladepumpe water-cooled two-stroke machine in 125cc - an excellent although expensive creation, with the engine built under license from a design by Hugo Ruppe, whose ladepumpe (extra charging piston to compress the fuel/air mix) design was used most successfully by DKW in their GP bikes. The factory had much racing success with these smaller two-strokes, although enlarged racers of 493cc and 517cc were less reliable.

By 1926, a totally new machine was offered; the 746cc overhead camshaft, oil-cooled 4. Only Granville Bradshaw (creator of the ABC) had successfully used an 'oil boiler' engine in a motorcycle, and the new Windhoff was a technical tour de force. The engine, designed by Ing. Dauben (later to join Mercedes) had no external 'plumbing', using internal oilways to keep everything cool, and all castings and pistons were in aluminum.

The chassis construction predated the Vincent concept of engine-as-stressed-frame-member by several decades, as the motorcycle is built around this large lump of an engine, with a cast headstock bolted up front, and the rear frame tubes emerging straight out the back of the gearbox castings.

Front forks use leaf springs, with no rear suspension, and shaft final drive was employed. All-up weight was 440lbs, a bit heavy for the day, but certainly not by today's standards, and the 63x60mm short-stroke engine produced 22hp at 4,000rpm. Apparently it was a very comfortable and durable touring machine, with excellent handling, undoubtedly due to the rigidity of the central 'frame' member!

The price when new was 1,750DM, a bit more than the 1,600DM of a BMW R63. A bit expensive, a bit unconventional, and a bit slow on sales, nonetheless the machine ranks as a landmark of vision and development, and is understandably very sought after these days.

This engine will no doubt form the basis of a new machine - such things are not beyond the wit of man - and there are a number of complete machines extant to copy; I've seen three in Germany. The photos of the complete bike were taken in the excellent Deutches Zwierad Museum in Neckarsulm; worth a visit if you have a spare engine! The free-standing engine is under restoration in Bavaria; all photos were taken last October, 2008.


bikerted said...

And check out the Nimbus in the background.

Anonymous said...

ok your ranking goes back up with the windhoff bit , it aint half ansom gov , but as heard it told three members of the umc broke toes on it while looking for the barn find , lol dave

Jeff Stracco said...

Always loved the look of that bike, but wondered, like so many of these storied machines, if it could possibly live up to expectations.

One must admit, it is strange how so many machines which were seriously technically impaired go on to become collector's items while machines that are technically adept get forgotten.

For example, only in recent years have Japanese across the frame fours from the 70's been getting their due but still command significantly less interest than British or US bikes of the same era, despite their excellent technical execution.

It's taken the Windhoff even longer to get notice. So one wonder's is it a case of overlooked technical prowess, or a technical leap too far that results in a poor machine??

vintagent said...

That's a very good question Jeff; contemporary reports are glowing, though. I'll let you know what I think when I ride one, and I'll make a point of doing that if possible next time I'm in Germany.

I'll say this about the reputation of 'top bikes': In my experience, they are deserved. All motorcycles have their limitations, and looking backwards at decent bikes tends to make them better. But, with a combination of contemporary tests, race or competition results, modern tests, and general esteem, one can arrive at a reasonable picture of a motorcycle's quality. It is also instructive to see what a motorcycle has NOT done (eg, no road-racing for Broughs)to see its limitations.
Thus, success in competition generally means a reliable and good-handling, balanced bike, with an appropriate spread of power for that type of event - trials, scrambles, sprints, reliability events, racing.
I've made it a point to be obnoxious and beg rides on as many 'top bikes' as I can, just to see for myself. I have only been disappointed once, and I think my BMW R63 was simply a very bad restoration - friends who have them speak highly.
Obscurity is another matter, and in this case must have something to do with language. It's possible that the Germans have 'always known' the Windhoff was a superbike, and because little is available in English about them, they simply dropped off the radar for everyone else. There are still very few articles in English about the Windhoff - the recent ones are about the bike which sold for a huge sum.
But, Tragatsch wrote a piece in Classic Bike (Dec '82), which gives a full account of the company. Not much press, considering how many Bonneville articles they've published in the past 27 years!

Jeff Stracco said...

I should add, that it would look even better if it were paired with a period Stoye sidecar. dream.

Ugg bike said...

Ugg. I've seen uglier motorbicycles before, but not lately. That closeup photo of the front end shows so much. The fender, axle, headlight brackets, horn mount, etc. all look agricultural (tractor-like) or homemade. The silencer is uninspired, the rear rack is crooked, and the bike just doesn't do it for me.

But I know all about beauty. 'tis in the eye of the beholder! :)