Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Had a Parisian friend not tipped me off, I would have entirely missed a one-two punch of vintage BMWs at an unlikely venue, Salon de la Photo, a photographic equipment trade fair at the Porte de Versailles, Paris.  What BMW of France had in mind bringing two of their most coveted and rare old machines to a camera show is outside my purview, but it provided moto-journalists with some exciting subject matter in a gigantic hall (one of 6), otherwise filled to the elbow-bump with photogeeks and bored models.

The BMW display included 8 machines of interest, 6 being new, 4 commissioned as 'art projects', one prototype (the 'Concept 6'), the 2010 French Superbike champ, plus the two whose vintage cred yanked me across Paris on a rainy day just before the show was shuttered up.  The BMW.Fr staff on hand was friendly but small, as their offices had been taken hostage that morning by a shotgun-wielding nutbag.  In the States we call this 'going postal', but in this case it was an extreme case of 'service feedback'.

BMW France is to be congratulated for a motorcycle-show-worthy display of fascinating machines, and of course, of special interest to readers of the Vintagent are the ultra-rare RS255 Kompressor Rennsport of 1939, and unique 'R7' Art Deco prototype.  The 'Concept 6' prototype (above) provided glaring contrast to the pair of vintage machines, being huge and heavy, immensely powerful, and designed to the hilt.  Still, an awesome brute, with a whiff of Terminator perfume lingering over its post-Transformers bodywork.

In the late 1920s, BMW developed a new chassis for its motorcycles from molded sheet steel, and moved away from the Bauhaus simplicity of their tube-frame 1920s designs.  With the petrol tank nestled between the twin halves of shapely pressed-steel frame,  the new models gained a contemporary Art Deco flair, tempered on most production models by simple mudguards and their typical basic-black paint scheme.  The pressed-steel frame begged an aesthetic question which proved too compelling to ignore, given industrial trends of the period for streamlining and 'Airflow' shapes.  I'm not certain if BMW automotive designers lent a pencil to the prototype 'R7' model on display here, but it breaks Teutonic motorcycle tradition with its exuberant embrace of the Deco aesthetic.

The tension between form and function on motorcycles is the very essence of their visual allure, and lovers of the mechanical celebrate those models which find balance, proportion, and harmony of exposed machinery, with the structure required to hold the sum together.  Philosophically and in the marketplace, motorcycles which read as design exercises in sheet metal were never considered successful - this was the realm of the automobile, the train, the airplane, whereas motorcyclists of the Vintage and Classic period, being almost to an individual dedicated gearheads, want the fiery beating hearts of their mounts visible in all their complication; this is our enduring delight.

That the 1934 R7 prototype is a design success is without question; it's a graceful and beautiful study of flowing lines, curves, and feminine masses.  Almost to a person, especially to non-motorcyclists, it is considered one of the most beautiful motorcycles of the 1930s.  Today it is the most blogged-about BMW of all, but photoblogs don't have much to say about the essential qualities of Motorcycling, or the reason why BMW chose not to proceed from this uniquely attractive design study. As good as it is, the R7 is a total philosophical departure from what is best about BMW during its first 60 years; restraint. The extravagance expressed by the R7 is shockingly French, more Delahaye than 328.  That the R7 was never serially produced breaks the hearts of many, but it makes complete sense.

The Type 255 Rennsport on display is in effectively 1939 spec, rare indeed although I don't know if this is the ex-John Surtees machine, reputedly the only late Kompressor in pre-war trim, as post-war, while German riders and machines were banned from international competition, they continued to race in German national championships, and the blown racers were developed and modified until 1950, when BMW was invited back to international competition.  Superchargers were banned from the GP scene in 1946, so BMW developed an entirely new line of racing machines without their famous Kompressors.

This RS255, while officially residing in the BMW Museum in Munich (click here for my story), regularly stretches its legs on circuits around the world. at Vintage events...and I note the front mudguard has a 'Goodwood 2010' scrutineering sticker, so it has been used recently indeed.

The late Kompressor BMW is an astounding machine, developed into the best racing motorcycle in the world during the three years it competed on the global stage.  Weighing only 304lbs (that's 30lbs less than a Works Norton, and perhaps 50lbs less than the rival supercharged Gilera 4-cylinder dohc machine), the single-overhed-camshaft engine produced around 60hp, ten more than the Norton, but ten less than the Gilera.  Measured top speed was in the region of 136mph.

The extremely light weight of the BMW gave it an advantage in all respects during a race, making it easier to manage, with faster acceleration.  The handling was good, albeit inevitably quirky with torque reaction from the shaft final drive.  The plunger rear suspension with friction scissor-type damping was identical to the Nortons, and while helping to keep the rear wheel in contact with the ground, defects in the design meant the odd rocking-horse feel was an acquired taste for a rider; not all found harmony.  Luckily for BMW, their star pilot was among the bravest fellows ever to grace a GP circuit, Georg Meier, and his tremendous skill combined with sheer toughness overcame whatever handling issues the BMW shared with its rivals, and he won most of the races he entered on the RS, including, most famously, the 1939 Isle of Man TT.

To crawl all over these machines at the end of a Paris trade show was an unexpected treasure, so many thanks to Martin Jouët for alerting me, so I could share them with you!


David Blasco said...

As always, magnificent photos explained by intelligent text. I know little of the subject (except that old motorcycles sure do look swell) so I really appreciate the context.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul:
We haven't met, but I've seen your name on the Bonhams expert list.
What a great item, interesting info and terrific pix.
Couldn't be anyplace else but Paris, with those two girls, could it?.

ps: I read the "going postal" story. Now THAT'S an unhappy customer. I'd love to know the basis of his dissatisfaction. There must be some hilarious internal reports.

YJH said...

absolute beauty

The Velobanjogent said...

The #49 supercharged 500 BMW you show is pretty likely to be the ex John Surtees machine. Apart from the fact that he always had #49 on it, the number Schorsh Meier used in the 1939 Senior IOM TT which he won on a such a BMW, it has the white faced Smiths ATRC type tachometer that I made for him in my instrument business .
JS was quite fussy about not over revving his bikes, the original BMW racers had no tachos on them at the TT in 1939, so he asked me to "create" a dial from the scale of a Smiths 9000 Manx type ATRC tacho and the text from some early German tachos he had that came with the bike post war an d build a new ATRC tacho for it to the calibration of the tacho drives later used on them...2-1...
All very interesting...

Anonymous said...

Yes this is surtees bike. BMW uses this bike for some events. Nr. 1 at the Museum you will never hear bark again. Mike 'the Bike' Kron build this from scratch. Last time I visited your german host a few years ago he had one of these nearly finished only the supercharger was missing. Nice Smith rev counter I have 3 of them anticlock to 12000 rpm on my bikes way better than anything else from this period. The other bike was restored partialy by Hans Keckeisen who did a superb job.

Regards H. Schubert

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I just looked at your site.Your writing is so good and clear and concise.
yours, Leigh

Anonymous said...

Is there any way that we can print your R7/RS255 blog in the Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners magazine?

-Darryl Richman

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I saw your photo of the R7 in yesterday's Vintagent posting and recalled seeing it in the BMW museum this September.


Since it's a one-of-a-kind I figured it was in Paris on loan from said museum. I read further and found your link to your story of two years ago, which I enjoyed reading.

We've covered the same ground, only I'm a dollar short and two years late. But the the BMW Riders Association magazine On The Level doesn't care, so they're happy to publish my little story in their November issue:


While you were visiting the BMW museum in 2008, I was headed to Harley-Davidson's new museum,


I thought it interesting that these two iconic motorcycle manufacturers each opened their new museums within a month of each other.

Bob Stokstad

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul:
We haven't met, but I've seen your name on the Bonhams expert list.
What a great item, interesting info and terrific pix.
Couldn't be anyplace else but Paris, with those two girls, could it?.
Paul Duchene

ps: I read the "going postal" story. Now THAT'S an unhappy customer. I'd love to know the basis of his dissatisfaction. There must be some hilarious internal reports.

Anonymous said...

Nice peice on the bmws.

I just love this photo (BMW RS from above). It looks like a delicate shimmering insect or a creature from outer space.

Gwen Terpstra

Anonymous said...

great reading, just like to add that 'Star'-frame is a common mistake. Starr is in fact German for rigid, Rahmen is frame. So all BMW without rear suspension have a Starrrahmen, not just the pressed-steel ones.

Red Fred said...

Hi ya Paul!
We miss you back home here in SF. Great essay on the BMWs. I thought they never had any soul!

Good on ya, RF.

camerabanger said...

as usual a wonderful article. The form v. function debate will be with us for ever. The art deco lines of the R-7 will have its following but, in my opinion, lack the timeless quality that classic, exposed "motor, wheels, seat and tank" configuration presents to a rider. There is just something about that big ol' boxer engine in its cradle that is not "improvable".

The function of body parts that give one wind protection and comfort I understand. But the stripped down naked R motorcycle is something one may dress-up but not necessarily improve upon. To each their own.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

My name is Jeff Yost. I am President and Founder of the reorganized Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners club, the largest vintage BMW Motorcycle club in the world. The VBWMMO is a not for profit organization with HQ in Ohio. My staff are all passionate volunteers. Quarterly we publish "The Vintage BMW Bulletin". It is sent to our members.

Ed Youngblood suggested I contact you. Your website is stunning! Absolutely brilliant work! May we print your "Off The Hook Parisian BMW Display article along with respective photos? I'd love to include this in our upcoming Winter issue that goes to print mid-December. Of course you will be given the credit was well as us promoting your website within our magazine and our website.

During the annual meeting of the BMW Council of International Clubs, in Queenstown, as an Observer for the BMW RA, I learned that the VBMWMO is recognized by BMW as the largest BMW Vintage motorcycle club, as well as the largest BMW vintage club. Needless to say this was interesting news that motivates me to continue to make additional positive changes.

Here's what is happening so far:

Currently I am looking for a passionate vintage Editor in Chief. This individual has to possess a vision that creates a publication that covers ALL BMW Motorcycles that are 25 years or older. (We're stuck on Pre-War and SlashTwos). It must appeal to the younger generations. After all, they are the future blood that will become the stuarts of our collective passions. They have to be creative and keep up with today's graphic standards. As with any organization the publication and website are the major reasons people join a club. So content and compelling graphics are the key to building readership. If you know of someone who might be interested please let me know. Unfortunately, it is a volunteer position.

The new year will bring a new editor, as well as a publishing team of visionaries. If we don't have them now, I will find them. The old "Bulletin" will have a new name, a fresh new look, sporting at least a color cover, filled with broader content (we're not all about pre-war or black bikes), more international flavor, and will be mailed on time. Last, but not least, the bottom of the new cover will have the tag line "World's largest Vintage BMW Motorcycle Club" or something like this. We are going to rapidly move away from our small club persona. People will read about /5s, 6s and 7s, including early GSs and K Bikes.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your consideration.

Best Regards,

Jeffery L. Yost
Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners