The Screamin’ Beemer

The graybeards out there in motorcycle land may relate to this account:

April 15th, 1974. My dad was overseas on a work assignment and so it would be up to me, at sixteen years of age, to negotiate the purchase of my first highway motorcycle.

Building Up My Experience

My first bikes all really belonged to my dad but were mine to ride. A Honda CB50 at age eight, a CB90 when I was ten, a CB160 when I was twelve, a Hodaka Ace 100 when I was fourteen, and a Harley Davidson SS350 Sprint when I was fifteen. During that time, I had also leveraged my way up with my own two-wheeled contraptions. I’d used money from my paper route to purchase a basket-case minibike at age twelve. After my dad helped me fix that up, I sold it for a profit and bought a higher-end minibike with a seized motor. Again, my father helped me repair it and I sold it for many times what I’d paid for it. Two Vespa scooters later, (plus some savings from after-school jobs), I had a thousand dollars in the bank.

You Want a What??

After eight years of riding motorcycles in the dirt and of ingesting countless stories from my dad from his motorcycle life on the open road, I had no interest in buying a dirt bike or even one of the “street bikes” that were favored by my high school buddies. To them, the ultimate ride was a Yamaha RD350, XS650, or a Kawasaki Mach III. When I told them I was looking for something like a used Moto Guzzi Eldorado or a BMW, I was met with perplexed stares.

“But those are old men’s motorcycles,” my friends moaned.

No, I thought – those were motorcycles that could carry you across continents.

For that past year, my dad and I had made plans for the summer; a plan that included he and me, two motorcycles, and my two younger brothers. We would load our bikes with camping gear, put my brothers on the back seats, and then head out across America. Dad had recently purchased a 1973 Honda CB750 “Four” and had outfitted it with Bates saddlebags, a Wixom fairing and had laced up a 16” rear wheel to beef up the back tire to handle the loads. Now it was my turn to find a ride.

Just What I Was Looking For!

The classified ad described a 1966 BMW R60/2 with an aluminum fairing with full windshield and a pair of quick-release saddlebags. The asking price was $1200.00, just a tad over my budget. I called the number and spoke to the owner, a college student in Orlando who’d ridden the bike from Maryland to Florida and had never had a problem. When he said he was willing to negotiate on the price, I set up an appointment to see the bike.

Before proceeding, I should remind younger readers of BMW’s reputation circa 1974: BMW still did not, at that time, import very many automobiles into the United States and, outside of Germany, the company was primarily known for producing homely but reliable motorcycles. Nothing high-tech – nothing sexy – and nothing that appealed significantly to the under-40 crowd.

My mother drove me to Orlando where we met the seller in a shopping center parking lot where he stood beside a hulking black Bavarian boxer twin. I jumped from my mom’s car, gave the owner a nod, and began circling the bike.

Lovely Jugs!

I couldn’t help but first focus on the twin cylinders protruding, one on each side of the motorcycle, straight out from the eerily-smooth vault of an engine casing. For many, their initial sight of a boxer engine is like encountering a hunchback for the first time – your eyes cannot help but be drawn to the abnormality – you’d almost be embarrassed if the bike’s owner caught you staring at the oddity. These enormous “jugs” extended ten inches outside the frame on each side just in front of the footpegs. The engine block itself looked like an aluminum loaf of bread and offered little clue as to where it concealed its various mechanical systems.

Motorcycle engines are generally designed to tuck tight into the bike’s cradle and they usually beckoned the eye with voluptuous castings, polished or chrome, that excite the senses even before the ignition was fired. In a world of Harley shovelheads, Triumph vertical twins and triples, and Honda Fours, this Beemer’s engine escaped traditional bounds and begged to be stared at. BMWs were the Quasimodo of the motorcycling world.

Function Over Form

The saddlebags were square, designed for function, not fashion, and a large luggage rack protruded over the rear fender. Good, I thought, plenty of space for loading gear.

The fairing and windshield were expansive and promised good protection from wind, bugs, and rain. The fuel tank was enormous – great for extending the riding range – and its teardrop shape was appealing to the eye. The turn signals were simply small translucent amber spheres at each end of the handlebars. “Peculiar”, my dad would call them. “Weird”, my friends would say.

The seller gave me a tour of the bike, showing me how the saddlebags released; how to access the tool kit hidden under a cover atop the fuel tank. He explained how to use the peculiar ignition key, (that looked like a cockroach on a pogo stick), and how to insert the key into a hidden recess to start the bike and to work the lights. He showed me how to “tickle the carbs” to load the float bowl with fuel before starting the bike. He demonstrated the quirky left-side kickstarter that swung out and away from the bike as it was activated.

And then he fired it up.

Beemers were not supposed to sound like this. “Sewing machines”, some had called them. “Mild-mannered” was a term often used. That’s not what I heard.

Fruity, Dulcet Tones

The exhaust note was reminiscent of a Triumph Bonneville, with a deep tone and an even beat. At idle, I could hear the tappets clicking within those protruding jugs as they kept time with the base timbre of the pipes. Paul explained that he had exchanged the stock mufflers for a set of Bates pipes and, as I would later discover, they could really talk when the throttle was opened up.

After a thorough overview, I took the bike for a slow spin around the parking lot and that was enough for me. We agreed on a price: $950.00. I paid him in cash and then I rode away, following my mom’s car east on Highway 50, the 40 miles to our home on the shores of the Indian River – A forty-minute ride that was a decade in the making. At last – a motorcycle of my own, capable of transporting me to rendezvous with those adventures I’d dreamed of since climbing up and into the saddle of Dad’s steel stallions, beckoning silently in the shadows of the garage.

Looks, Even a Mother Would Struggle With

As expected, my enthusiasm for this new purchase wasn’t shared by my teenage riding buddies – even my girlfriend thought the bike was ugly – but I didn’t care in the least. I proudly rode my hulking trans-continental two-wheeler into the high school parking lot to park next to the “sexier” stuff from Japan. Once my dad returned from his business trip, he gave the Beemer a once over, took it for a spin, and pronounced it a capable mount.

The 1970’s was just a cooler place!

My inaugural cross-continent ride was then three months away and I had just obtained my ticket – a 500-pound Bavarian beast that was pure beauty, even if it was only beautiful in the eye of this beholder.

(More such stories are found in my book, “Molded On A Motorcycle – A Rider’s Journey” available on Amazon)

Originally posted in the home for BMW Boxer fans

Words and Pictures: Wes Stephenson and reproduced with his permission