BMW is 100 years old. It reached the century mark the hard way—by making motorcycles every one of those 100 years.
Okay, maybe the brand missed a couple years due to some weird international incident, but they never gave up on tooling.
Either way, while many motorcycling brands brag about their DNA, no major brand has an ancestry as solid as BMW. The company’s first motorcycle, the R 32, was a flat boxer twin, and it introduced its latest flat boxer twin, the R 1300 GS, at the BMW 100th anniversary party.
Even Harley-Davidson, which began with a vertical single-cylinder engine, had to evolve into its eventual twin heritage.
Oddly, though, the BMW DNA was nearly lost in 1984 when the company introduced the three- and four-cylinder horizontal-engine K models. That year, there were a few versions of the R 100 Last Edition flat-twins.
The move led to a public outcry from BMW’s ardent followers and a “Forget what we said,'' from BMW. The company committed to staying the course with the boxer and the 39-year run since then has proven the loyalty on both sides.
Owning the Event
To celebrate its centennial, BMW Motorrad took full advantage of its position as the presenting sponsor of the 18th Annual Barber Vintage Festival. Among the record-setting crowd and a slew of invited media, I got to ride the brand-new retro-inspired BMW R 18 Roctane at the event.
The ride reminded me that I’ve owned five different cars with smaller engines than the R 18. The bike looks great from its exposed (but hidden behind the stock side bags) chrome driveshaft to the rest of it.
There’s no denying it’s a striking big-bore cruiser with exquisitely detailed finishing touches. Despite the retro approach, the Roctane has cruise control, automatic stability control (ASC), and three riding modes: Rock, Roll, and Rain.
You probably already know that BMW stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, which translates to English as Bavarian Motor Works. The company began as a manufacturer of aircraft engines, but contrary to a popular myth, its round emblem with a white-and-blue center section was not fashioned to represent a spinning propeller.
Instead, it was derived from the coat of arms of the Free State of Bavaria, where BMW was founded.
In the Barber Vintage Festival’s Fan Zone, BMW had set up a massive celebratory display, taking up the central acre of the grounds. It included a covered dining area, tons of displays, and a stage for musical performances by Hot Rod Walt and the Psycho-DeVilles, presentations, and the unveiling of the BMW R 1300 GS.
In a separate area, BMW offered demo rides. They owned the event, in a good way.
The Mystery of the Vests
BMW is a unique brand much loved by its owners, with two clubs in North America whose members sport chartreuse safety vests. To help communicate BMW Motorrad’s history, a number of deeply immersed devotees shared their views of the BMW experience at Barber.
This, together with exceptionally curated displays by BMW and many of its associates, added up to a grand expression of the brand’s flavor and self-image.
Presenting various sides BMW’s narratives were tuner Udo Gietl and his son Eric, museum owner Peter Nettesheim, influencers Louise Coleen Powers and Sean Thomas, historian Fred Jakobs, road racer Steve McLaughlin, and many others.
We were able to speak to a number of these guests, but none mentioned anything about those safety vests, so they remain a mystery.
‘Time to Change’
Udo Gietl is famous for building the R 90 S superbike that took Reg Pridmore to the inaugural AMA Superbike Championship in 1976. Sponsored by the then BMW importer Butler & Smith, Pridmore’s bike was lost for years and only recently discovered and restored. Udo’s son Eric took it for a parade lap at Barber.
The R 90 S was first released in 1974 when BMW executive Bob Lutz (yes, that Bob Lutz) told the company staff, “It’s time to change.”
“You need to modernize. Stop making black motorcycles with white stripes on them,” Lutz said, as recounted by Gietl. That’s when Hans Muth was brought in as a designer, pushing the brand into the future. Geitl added sex appeal of championship performance to the bikes.
It was shocking to learn that Reg Pridmore was 37 years old when he won that championship. The next Superbike champion was 23-year-old Wes Cooley on a bike from the other side of the world.
A Real BMW Fanatic
Peter Nettesheim owns Nettesheim Museum, a private (and the world’s largest) collection of BMW motorcycles on Long Island, NY. It features about 120 BMWs, including an example of every regular production model from 1923 to 1970, and from 1970 on, there are about 30 more.
Nettesheim brought a few bikes from his collection to barber to showcase BMW’s history and participate in the parade lap with his daughter, Kate, and friend, Vinny, all riding vintage gray BMWs. Kate rode a 1958 R 50, Peter a 1966 R 60/2, and Vinny was on a 1963 R 69S.
According to Nettesheim, each of his restorations costs more than he could make from selling them. As such, his collection just keeps growing.
A Recreated Blast from the Past
As a particular highlight of the BMW show at Barber, we got to see a reproduced version of a rare motorcycle that never was. Nettesheim and a supporting team carried out the work based on old, forgotten blueprints.
Louis Lucien Lepoix, a French designer, created a streamlined bodywork for a 1937 BMW R 12 in 1947. He tried to sell his prototype to BMW that year, but the company was in disarray. Eventually the bike disappeared.
Nettesheim said: “I decided to reproduce the bike. Lepoix’s girlfriend, Miss Kuebler, still has all of Lepoix’s documents. She was very helpful in getting us numerous pictures.”
Nettesheim and his team scanned the images and, through modern software, created detailed blueprints and drawings. Builder Hans Keckeisen used them to create three-dimensional forms for the bodywork, which he then hand-shaped out of aluminum.
The reproduction project took five years to complete. Its end result, the completed and functional motorcycle, was revealed to the public in Munich at the same time the Barber even took place.
The Lucien Lepoix Society found out about it at one point and Nettesheim agreed to loan the motorcycle for an exhibition of Lepoix’s work in Vienna, Austria, opening December 8. So, although Nettesheim built this bike so he could enjoy it, it won’t be back in his hands for a while.
All in all, far too much happened at BMW’s 100th anniversary celebration for me to report. Before I had any interest in motorcycles, someone I knew bought an R 90 S in 1976. I finally understand why.