Monday, July 12, 2010


In 1958, Walter Zeller ordered a very special BMW from the factory, to be built entirely to his specification and to suit his riding style.  As Zeller had been the principal Works racing rider for many years, gaining several German championships and 2nd in the World Championship in 1956, BMW management granted him this solitary exception to their rule of 'no custom orders'.  That the factory presented the finished product as a gift for his services to BMW is the stuff of legend; the ultimate BMW trophy.

The machine is a mélange of interesting parts; a 600cc ohc Kompressor motor from Max Klankermeier's '49 sidecar racer (blowers were still allowed in German national championship races after '48), housed in a special Rennsport-based swingarm frame, utilizing telescopic forks from the 1951 Works development racer, instead of the Earles type on the racers and contemporary BMW roadsters.  The forks are a very interesting choice; did Zeller feel that his racing BMWs  handled poorly with their Earles forks?  If Zeller 'voted with his feet', the answer is yes, he preferred a standard telescopic fork to the Earles item.  Quite a statement for a Works rider to make, actually!  To quote Josef Achatz (the foreman of the build team for this bike), "Walter preferred telescopics".

Lighting was added to the front and rear, again interesting choices, for while the headlamp is as per the roadsters, but with a tachometer replacing the speedo, the taillamp is a seriously prewar item, as used on mid-30s machines; the Bosch equivalent of the ubiquitous MT110 Lucas taillamp, used on just about every British bike in the 30s and through WW2.

The tank is as per the Works machines, as is the seat, while the exhaust is the fishtail type as used on the R51 and other models pre- and post-war.  It would have squelched the power of the blown engine, if any baffles were fitted, which is an open question; why have a supercharged engine with a power-strangling muffler? But, the original TUV specification papers state the sound output as 73db; terribly quiet for a racing bike.  Top speed is quoted at 112mph (180kph), which is certainly down on any of the supercharged racers, which were at least 30mph faster through the speed traps.  Weight is quoted in the TUV document at 388lbs (176kg), but Zeller had the machine weighed at a steel factory (St. Anna-Huette; Zeller's family business), which quoted 317lbs.  This is very close to the '39 TT-winning bike of Georg Meier, which was 30lbs lighter than the competition.

Zeller kept the machine for many years, and used it occasionally on the road.  As there is no kickstarter, he bump-started the bike; in this, his racing years gave him expertise.  According to news reports, it took him 'ten or a dozen starts' to sort out the right combination of throttle, magneto, and air levers - after this, his technique was flawless.  Once the bike was warm, the plugs would be changed to a harder grade... it's clear this one-off BMW required a bit more forethought to ride than the typical 'no fuss' flat twin.  As there was no room for a generator, the lights are total-loss, making this strictly a daytime ride.

Contrary again to the TUV papers, Zeller reported the bike would acclerate from 0 to 100kph in under 5 seconds, and that 200kph (124mph) was 'no problem'.  In 1958, there was only one other road-going machine capable of such speeds, and the Vincent Black Shadow had double the engine capacity, was 140lbs heavier, and had been out of production for 3 years!  Zeller must have cut quite a romantic figure on the Alpine roads he favored (Queralpenstrasse and others), passing literally everything on wheels, drawing a large crowd whenever he stopped, then bump-starting away, leaving only a fantastic noise, and a slight haze from the 2% oil mix lubricating the supercharger.

Alas, times were difficult for Zeller's family business in 1963. He had been pressed by a persistent pesterer, a schoolteacher no less, to sell the machine.  Norbert Reisbeck phoned Zeller every month for over a year, asking again and again if he could buy the magical BMW.  In what must have been a black month, Zeller caved in, and sold the machine for 7,000DM in 1963.

After the death of Reisbeck, a new owner began to advertise the machine for 3million euros a couple of years ago.   As a reality check, the ex-Georg Meier '39 TT winning BMW Rennsport sold for around £250,000 six years ago, according to rumor, so a machine with no racing history but an intriguing story should surely sell for far less.  The price dropped to only 1M euros this year (via an ad in Motor Klassik last April), and the bike is currently still available  Any takers?

(The source of photos 2-6 are from an article on this machine by Ernst Leverkus in The Classic Motorcycle, April 1986)


brianb said...

Thanks for the great write-up, were you able to find more current info then the old add/article?

I found another 256 RS54 for sale a while ago at

pipsqeek said...

Amazing story.

Anonymous said...

I always thought Zeller and Lachermeier used this engine for their 1946 Kompressor bike. I think that bike went to Japan. He was a hell of a talented rider but unforunatly a very untalented businessman. I will never forget seeing him ride his RS at some classic events at Hockenheim.

YJH said...

As much as I consider myself as a true BMW fan and supporter of the brand, this price is incongruous. Not even a matter for a laugh, in times where so much must be done for urgent causes, some idiot wants to sell this motorbike for 3M€ and then 1M€ : the only worth person than the seller would be the buyer. Discernment is a major human quality : we can create a better future by reawakening our primordial instinct for survival. Thank you Paul for another "enriching drama" : your blog is pure journalism.

neale Gentner said...

1. I believe the engine and gearbox are documented as being from an ex works pre war and probably post war sidecar.
2. I believe the frame is not ex 256, type 256 is the BMW engine designation i.e. 600cc version of type 255 500cc supercharged engine.
3. I believe the mid 50's short stroke machine designation 256 is erroneous and not of BMW origin, these were actually types 253d and 253f etc.
4. The frame appears to be the front section of a type 255 spliced to the rear section of either a type 253c or RS54, possibly an old prototype frame. Butt welds are evident on lower tubes between footrest and toe-pieces of pedals.
5. The telescopic forks appear to be from the #1 RS54 which was apparently changed to Earls forks before sale.
6. I believe the specification of the tele fork is also related to the fact that the Earls fork would not clear the blower.
7. The front wheel appears to be standard production RS54.
8. The final drive appears to be from an early 253, possibly a 253b. Probably from the transition phase between plunger and swing arm rear suspension.
9. Relative to RS54 and carburettored versions of the 253c, the fuel tank outlets have been repositioned, however, tank may be from fuel injected 253c which had a fuel filter on right side just forward of fuel outlet.
10. Type 253d and later appear to have used totally different tanks.
11. I could go on, but suffice to say the Zeller machine appears to have been built in the BMW race shop, by BMW works mechanics and engineers, mostly from authentic but then obsolete ex works racing components, all of which have their own real, though possibly not immediately verifiable histories.
12. Add to this the "Zeller" factor and this is truly a unique machine in every sense of the much abused word.
13. As for what its true "value" may be, only the market will decide.
14. I believe BMW would like to regain ownership.


Thomas Brown, VBMWMO # 7185 said...

As far as I know, choosing the telescopic fork over the Earle's fork is not a matter of handling, per se, as it is the reduced weight (especially the unsprung weight) vs. the Earle's.

vintagent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vintagent said...

Yes, the bike was cobbled up in the race shop from parts left after the factory shut the Works team in '57. It took some modification to get the blown engine in the swingarm frame, hence the visible welds and modification to the chassis.

Don't get me wrong, I think this machine is the ultimate BMW café racer, and I'd love to take it for a spin!

I also think the 'fishing expedition' on price says something about the seller, as YJH has accurately mentioned.

BMW would like the machine back, but are as vexed by the seller as everyone else.

Finally, the Works mechanics mention that "Zeller preferred telescopic forks". This reflects the opinion of everyone I've met who has owned/raced an RS54 and variants. MV Agusta also experimented with Earles forks, and dropped them when Gary Hocking was killed at the TT. Earles were only used on racing machines for a brief period in the 1950s.

Anonymous said...

Hocking was killed in a Lotus. Les Graham was killed with the Earls MV four.

vintagent said...

Quite right re; Hocking and Graham. Thanks for the correction.

VMCC Sprint said...

Hi Paul, Great Post as usual. For those lucky enough to have copy's of my all time favorite publication the much lamented UK magazine 'Classic Motorcycling Legends', much more on Zeller and his BMW appear in No. 29 (Summer 1994). Hope to meet up again sometime Paul, Regards, Chris.

Anonymous said...

As a new vintage BMW owner and hobbyist - when reading up and seeing pictures of Walter Zeller, I am always impressed with his knowing, confident smile. His enjoyment of the machines is infectious to this day.

WRXr said...

Interesting machine, which I had read about before. I always assumed the frame was RS54 but with a telescopic fork.

Don't know what the complaint was against Earles fork (anti-dive? Too heavy?). I've always found them to handle just fine.

Concerning the brakes: I am assuming these the real BMW magnesium racing hubs...or are they Hoske aftermarket bits? Any indication?

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