Highway Beemer

      

Classic BMW bikes are hard to come by and an immaculately maintained one is even harder. Shahwar Hussain comes across one and realises why long haulers across the globe prefer the BMW.

 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania

 

I never thought Africa would inspire anybody to buy a motorcycle. Africa is all about wildlife, but inspiration comes in even from the most unlikely places. Mohan Krishnaswamy was in Africa when he was a boy and it was the sight of the protruding cylinders of a BMW motorcycle rather than the rich wildlife of Africa that fired his imagination.

When he came back to India after his father was transferred, the fascination about the protruding cylinders continued, but he had to put it on the backburner due to more pressing work. This passion did the re-awakening act when he saw a friend riding a 1952 R68.

Compared to the plethora of classic British and a sprinkling of big American motorcycles, German motorcycles in India like the BMW are only a microscopic minority. So searching for a BMW motorcycle in Delhi was not the easiest of tasks. But luckily, Mohan came across an old gentleman who had three equally old BMW motorcycles for sale and he settled for a 1969 600cc R60/5. In 1986, Rs 50,000 was a lot of money and Mohan was able to pay the money over a year. You don’t get many such accommodating people these days I guess.

Mohan’s bike rides like a dream, but that was not the case initially. It wasn’t all that bad really, as the old man obviously took care of the bike, but it did need a little work. After he got the self-starter serviced and the rear brake shoes replaced, the bike ran admirably but something was still amiss. It was the throttle. The throttle cable has two separate ends for the two Bing carburettors and was operated by a gear. But since this gear was worn out, the throttle had lots of false play and Mohan was never able to open the throttle all the way. So this powerful bike but rode like a wimp. But once the gear was replaced it rode just like…. a BMW!

I have ridden a whole lot of classic British and a few American bikes but never really got to know a BMW quite like I wanted to. The Germans always make machinery with clockwork precision and this was personified in the R60/5. It’s a nicely packaged bike, but of course it’s not perfect although it comes mighty close to that. Before the R60 came along it was a general belief that BMWs were big boring motorcycles that hauled heavy sidecars. It was an image that

the manufacturers were struck with since the WWII. But the R60/5, and the R75/5 before that changed it all. The R60/5 is a gentleman’s touring motorcycle. It’s big; it’s powerful, highly dependable and extremely silent. In fact it was once compared to the Rolls Royce, but the comparison was later toned down to a less extravagant Mercedes sedan.

 

Riding this 33-year-old motorcycle was a revelation. It’s amazingly silent. If you think you can frighten girls and old ladies by revving up the engine, forget it. There is a rumble as the engine fires to life, but as I opened up the throttle, it became exceedingly quiet. The manuals boast that it touches 100kph in around 7.7 seconds but trying to do that with such an old bike is sheer madness. Well I did touch 100 but nowhere near what the manual said and certainly nowhere near Mohan. The bike has excellent road manners and even at low speeds, I was able to take sharp corners and the immaculate balance can be attributed to the finely engineered duplex cradle frame the low centre of gravity of the flat boxer engine and also to the rubber it rides on. The front is shodded with 3.25x18 and the rear has 4.00 x19 inch tyres. Initially, the engine-block seemed mighty tall, it was almost touching the tank in addition to the two protruding cylinders on either side. The large self-starter and the paper filter elements that reduce the intake noise under hard acceleration, are housed inside the block and this is what makes the engine look taller.

 

I have always wondered why the riders in most of the ads always wear boots with their pant cuff tucked inside while they are astride the BMWs. After riding the R60, I know why. It’s got nothing to do with style and everything to do with practicality. Since the Bing carburettors are very close to the shin, the pant cuffs, if they are a bit flared sometimes catche the fuel tickler of the carb and flood the bowls, which will leave you stranded for sometime. But a very few people wear bell-bottoms these days. Mohan had the foresight to get hold of a complete carburettor repair kit. But as of now, the carbs are performing splendidly.

Even though it has a non-synchromesh transmission, the shifts are practically noiseless and smooth. There was certainly no clank even when I rapidly shifted through the box. I rode the bike over some pretty uneven roads, although not really off-road in the real sense, and the suspension worked brilliantly, the front forks have a long travel of 7 inches while the rear shockers move almost 5 inches. Some people might feel that they were little soft, but it was perfectly okay by me. Make no mistake, this is a touring bike and makes no pretension of being a sports bike so I guess the soft suspension is perfect.

 

Shaft drive and BMW are synonymous and I guess that is the reason why an overwhelming majority of the inter-continental riders prefer BMW. It gives you reliability and freedom from adjustments and it has that inherent cleanliness. No matter how good the adjustments are, the chain driven bikes are always a bit nosier.

Ergonomically, this is one of the best classic bikes that I have ever ridden and it instantly makes the rider feel at ease. Most of the pre and post war motorcycles that I have ridden over the years have erratically placed controls but the R60/5 is different. There are minor exceptions of course but mostly everything falls easily to hand. A flip switch on the left hand side of the handle bar acts as a headlight switch and also doubles up as a flash switch. A similar switch on the right hand side operates the turn lights and also activates the self-starter.

Some things never change and the view from the seat is pretty much like that of the BMW

motorcycles of yore. The headlight dome is dominated by one single glass face that contains the speedo, the tacho and the ignition switch. The handlebar, which is of medium rise and width, suited me perfectly and the control switches could be operated easily. It would be a rare man who would find the R60/5 an uncomfortable bike.

 

The R60/5 owners had the option of choosing from two different petrol tanks; 18 litre and a 25-litre. The bigger capacity tank was nicknamed the Toaster Tank because it resembled the kitchen appliance. Mohan’s motorcycle is fitted with the toaster tank and because of its dimensions the rider has to stretch a little to grab the handlebar. But it is not uncomfortable in the least. Also, the bigger tank doesn’t take away anything from the look of the bike. And yes, do you think that the rakishly upswept exhaust pipes are there for style and ground clearance only? Well, they have their purpose. They are slanted down towards the exhaust header pipes so that the moisture that condenses inside the pipe immediately after stopping the engine can be drained back towards the hot header pipe thus evaporating the moisture and keeping out rust.

The later versions of the R60/5 underwent some changes like lengthening of the wheelbase, hardening out the suspension, and changes in the gear ratio. The lengthening of the wheelbase gave a welcome clearance between the shin and the carb.

 

The 5-Series were the first motorcycles to be manufactured by BMW in its West Berlin factory. In fact, it’s the same factory that produced the engines for the Fockewoolf fighter planes during the Second World War and they held more than an edge over the allied aircrafts. The war has long been over but the product from the West Berlin factory still holds an edge over many of its counterparts.

Mohan is just one among the countless enthusiasts who has fallen for the charm of the protruding cylinders and frankly, I have got smitten by the bug too but can’t afford one! Not by a long shot. If you want to ride a classic motorcycle without having to bother cleaning the dirty leaking oil from all over, try riding a BMW. Chances are you will like it. It’s not a terribly good looking bike but it’s beautifully engineered. A real travelling man’s bike! '