By the time Georg Meier was snapped “aviating” his kompressor-equipped, boxer-engined racer while on his way to the Senior TT win on the Isle of Man in 1939, BMW had become a high flier in the motorcycle business, just two decades after being grounded from loftier pursuits.
With his Tourist Trophy victory, Meier not only became the first “continental” to beat the bike-mad Brits in their own backyard island playground, but conclusively affirmed BMW was a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.
BMW Motorrad – as the motorcycle division that launched what has become one of the world’s best-known brands on two or four wheels is known – is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.
“Things must go on, friends. What are we going to make?” That was the question asked by Franz Joseph Popp, then boss of recently ex-aero-engine-builder Bayerische Motoren Werke, as the 1920s dawned. The emphatic answer, according to Horst Monnich in his company history, came from practical engineer and long-time bike enthusiast, Martin Stolle: “Motorcycles.”
In the aftermath of the restructuring of aircraft-engine company Rapp Motorenwerke, from which BMW emerged in 1917, and the end of the First World War, which brought with it stiff sanctions against aero-engine production, BMW’s survival plans had become ground-bound.
It dabbled in shoe-making machinery, pots and pans, air brakes and car and truck engines, but desperately needed a core product, which would turn out to be motorcycles.
It already had an engine, originally intended for industrial use, but which was already powering a motorcycle. Inspiration for this first flat-twin to be embossed with a BMW badge came from British brand Douglas, Stolle’s ride of choice.
According to Monnich, Stolle took apart the engine from his latest Douglas, a horizontally-opposed twin mounted fore and aft in the frame, and laid out the bits on a bench for technical director Max Friz.
The insights they garnered resulted in the M2B 15 motor, initially supplied to motorcycle maker Victoria Werke, and also to a former aircraft maker, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, for its Helios motorcycle model. BMW acquired the latter company in 1922 and, along with it, the poorly designed Helios and a motorized bicycle called the Flink.
The Helios proved hopeless, and was soon discarded in favour of what would become the first true BMW, the R32 of 1923, which proved to be something special. It not only launched the company into the two-wheeled world at that year’s Berlin Motor Show, but established the basic design that still defines the BMW bike brand nine decades later.
It was a handsome machine, with a triangular tank, adorned with BMW blue-and-white propeller badges, slung under the top tubes of its rigid rear/leaf-sprung, leading-link forks frame, and deeply valanced fenders, finished in gleaming black with white striping.
But it was the engine layout and final drive that really set it apart. The M2B33 version of the boxer engine now sat cross-wise in the frame, which solved the problem of cooling the inline version’s rear cylinder, and allowed for a shorter wheelbase for improved handling. British bike-builder ABC was the first to do this, in 1918, but was ending motorcycle production just as BMW was starting.
BMW’s cast-iron, side-valve unit had a displacement of 486 cc and produced 8.5 hp, and bolted on behind was a car-style clutch and three-speed gearbox, and shaft-drive to the rear wheel instead of a chain.
The 95-km/h R32 was pitched as a premium model from the start, setting the tone for the BMW-branded bikes and cars that followed, and also was the first to establish its name in motorsport.
Young engineer Rudolph Schleicher, who had played a key role in its design, promptly rode one to the best time of the day in the Mittenwalder Steig hillclimb, becoming the first rider to win on a BMW.
Schleicher designed light-alloy heads for the R37 of 1924 that won the German road-racing championship, which BMW went on to win on a regular basis. In 1926, a BMW won a gold medal in the off-road International Six Days Trial in England, impressing the parochial British motorcycling press. It would win the ISDT outright in 1933, 1934 and 1935.
The BMW Type 255 on which Meier bested the Brits in the 1939 Senior TT (another ridden by Englishman Jock West finished second) still had cylinders that stuck out on each side, but it was a pure racing machine.
It was powered by a supercharged, 492-cc, twin-cam engine that made 60 hp at 7,000 rpm, and could propel the 137-kilogram bike (with its drive-shaft) to a top speed of 136 mph. Its tubular frame was equipped with hydraulically damped telescopic front forks – advanced for the time, and pioneered by BMW – and a plunger rear suspension with friction dampers. Another novelty was a linked braking system with the bar and foot levers operating front and rear drum brakes.
European and German champion in 1938, Meier was on his mettle, fresh from setting the first 100-mph run of a road circuit (at Spa) on a bike, when he turned up on “the island” in 1939, to show the lads on their Nortons and Velocettes the way around.
BMW Motorrad stuck almost exclusively to horizontally opposed twins (it also built a derivative 250-cc single until 1967), until introducing an inline-four in 1983, then a three- and since then singles again, but still includes “boxer” bikes in its lineup.
Back in 1939
Work begins on the Atanasoff-Berry electronic digital computer, Hewlett-Packard is founded, and the first World Science Fiction Convention is held in New York.
John Cobb sets a new land speed record of 367.91 mph in his Railton Special at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids are the National Basketball League champions, and Joe Lewis is World Heavyweight boxing champ.
Born in Canada are future prime minister Brian Mulroney, hockey player Bobby Hull, skier Ann Heggtveit, and future governor-general Adrienne Clarkson. And elsewhere, race drivers Jackie Stewart, Clay Regazzoni and Al Unser.
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