BMWBLOG Special Feature: Back to the Future on BMW’s Classic R51/3

R51 horse  261 750x500 BMWBLOG Special Feature: Back to the Future on BMWs Classic R51/3

Words: Shawn Molnar Photos: Shawn Molnar, Horatiu Boeriu There is no better way to go back in time than to ride into the past.  Ducking …

Words: Shawn Molnar
Photos: Shawn Molnar, Horatiu Boeriu

There is no better way to go back in time than to ride into the past.  Ducking under the wind with boxer engine blazing, it felt of 1951.  And that is the exact year that the machine I’m riding was manufactured – all original, in mint condition, as preserved in the bountiful storehouses of BMW Classic, Munich.

You’re allowed to ride these things?  Isn’t there some law of the universe that ensures all works of art remain in the galleries, and all artifacts stay in the museums?  Apparently not, as I was pleasantly surprised by a BMW executive from Canada.  “We’ve made arrangements for you; you can choose between seven different classic vehicles to drive for the weekend.”  The list was lengthy and legendary from the Isetta 300 of 1962 to the BMW 3.0 CSi of 1973.  There was only one motorcycle on the list, and it stood out immediately.  An uncorked Remy Martin Louis XIII.  An untouched classic in glossy black paint.  Love at first sight.

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Only the task of returning such a perfect specimen in the exact condition given weighed upon my mind.  This was the second motorcycle built by BMW after the war.  It is steeped in the rich history and engineering competence of the brand.  Where is one to ride such a machine?  In a vacuum?  Where does one find such a vacuum near Munich?

Speaking with BMW, I was assured that mileage was not an issue.  It began to sink in that this machine, and this experience was to be savored and enjoyed.  It became my mission to enjoy the machine as it was meant to be enjoyed in 1951; not as an artifact of 2011.

Tally ho to the Alps.

If not on snaking mountain roads, where else was this machine to be let loose?  Conveniently: on the Autobahn between Munich and the North of Austria.  And so, I found myself in an aggressive tuck, searching for kilometers/hour one at a time, quite often in the fast lane.

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BMW’s R51/3 of 1951 arrived sporting a lightweight tubular frame, the best drum brakes of the time, swoopy, sexy looks, and the best sounding boxer-twin known to mankind.  Such luxuries as a well-stocked tool kit mounted on the gas tank, a comfy spring hinged seat, and miles of hand stenciled pinstripe paint established this motorcycle as the dominant luxury sport bike of the times.

“There is no better way to go back in time than to ride into the past.”

And so I set out on the road trip of a lifetime, to discover the winds of 1951 atop a classic BMW motorcycle; to discover the persistence, passion, and ambition of the brand.

Day one started off as many motor touring trips do: with a heavy douse of rain.  In fact, the showers were so heavy, and so persistent, that I delayed my departure by several hours.  But despite my best efforts to keep her dry, this BMW had to be ridden.  Late in the morning, with camera gear waterproofed and stored on back, I set off from Munich on the A8, and headed South East to the mountains.

Traffic was heavy and slowed to stop-and-go; minutes slipped away.  As traffic lightened up the rain crashed down – did I sufficiently waterproof the camera gear?  Finally, approaching the Alps a pause in the storm showed sunshine and the promise of a happier ride ahead.

Motorcycling is a sport rewarded by persistence, and a die-hard tenacity to cover the miles planned.  A schizophrenic sky could not make up its mind: rain showers then sun, more rain then clear skies… followed by rain.  Guilty thoughts of relaxing in a dry hotel room crept into my head, but at the end of the day I pressed on.  Even as dark clouds capped the Alps, I steered dead ahead for the jagged horizon, and kept the beat.

“Ducking under the wind with boxer engine blazing, it felt of 1951.”

Most people prefer the bad news first, so let’s talk about the brakes.  During a mechanical walk-through I was warned by BMW’s mechanic that the drum brakes would be difficult in the wet.  This could be construed as somewhat of an understatement.  While the rear brake remained positive in the wet, the front brake disappeared altogether; cold and wet, it offered nothing after grabbing a fist full of brake lever.  With the misty mountains looming closer, this was not reassuring news.  Braking in the cold rain became an exercise of engine braking and rear brake, not a technique favored by the physics of weight transfer.  With persistence and a death grip, friction began to mount, but the front brake just couldn’t offer stopping power.  Finally, nearing a stop, the shoes would lunge into the drum as if to say, “Sorry for the delay – let me compensate you right… now!”  Sudden lockup and ugly compression of the front fork resulted from such braking attempts, and after a steep learning curve, I learned to give the front brake the vacation it so desired from the rain.  Brakes should never be fair weather friends – but remember: this is 1951.

As if in a scene from “The Truman Show,” the rain cleared, clouds parted, and the Sun made an appearance from the moment I reached the base of the mountains.  Thank you, whoever, for flipping the switch.  Nothing could raise and dry my dampened spirits more than the glow of the sun reflecting full force off the snowy mountain caps.

“It belongs in a museum as a lion belongs in a cage.”

Do me a favor and Google any model production car from 1951.  Now tell me if it looks capable of pacing modern cars on the autobahn.  Didn’t think so.  And yet, with a boxer twin thumping gloriously under my chest I regularly stretched out 4th gear and held to the fast lane.  Simply unbelievable!  That a museum exhibit was streaking the Autobahn, passing countless cars to the right is magical beyond description.  No words could do that experience justice, and I will savor that memory for the rest of my life.

Like resurrecting Alexander the Great to participate in a spat of military games, unleashing this machine on modern roads revealed the raw and decisive power of a legend from the past.  A simple truth dawned: this machine must be turned loose – it longs to be ridden.  It belongs in a museum as a lion belongs in a cage.  Later on in my journeys a passerby remarked while gawking from behind his camera lens, “if I owned this bike I would put it in my living room, I’d never ride it!”  A lion poacher was clearly marked.

Getting to the specifics, the boxer-twin engine measured 494 cc in displacement and had a maximal output of 24 hp at 5,800 rpm.  The engine featured overhead valves and a perfectly square bore and stroke of 68 mm (2.68”), squeezing the air/fuel mixture to a compression ratio of 6.3:1.  A shiny metal-chromed drive shaft transferred power to the rear wheel.  Speaking of the wheels, they were 19 inch chromed spoke wheels wrapped in tubed tires which sported a suspiciously squared off shape, however normal for the times.  At more aggressive lean angles the tire would ride on the edge of its tread blocks, causing tire squirm and a very squirrely feeling while banked over.

“…the best sounding boxer-twin known to mankind.”

The front suspension did a good job of soaking up bumps and blemishes in the road surface.  It felt a touch soft, but I suspect the roads of 1951 were a touch rough.  The rear suspension featured a hinged-spring under the seat which would be pulled apart should the load increase over a bump.  It was impressively effective at providing a comfortable ride, and in conjunction with the rear sub frame mounted rear shocks, it averted any jarring or bucking from the rear over larger bumps.  The rear suspension did bottom out on a few rare occasions, but bearing in mind my weight of 200 lb, plus a 30 lb backpack full of camera gear, this was understandable.

The steering head came equipped with a steering damper that should definitely stay in the 1950s.  It featured a large twist type screw that increased steering resistance as it was dialed in.  After playing with it briefly, I found it was best to leave it nearly unscrewed in a loose position.

“Gear after gear, turn after turn, I wound the clock back in time.”

One novel feature was key; have you ever wondered what purpose was served by the teardrop shaped element on top of the headlight?  I guess I gave it away: this was the key, made of plastic and containing a metal pin that slips into the headlight fixture.  To turn on the ignition, one would push down on the key until it was seated flush against the headlight.  To turn on the parking light, one would twist the key to the left.  Twisting the key to the right would turn on the headlight, and the high-beam was added by flipping a thumb switch on the left handle bar.

Telemetry was limited to a green neutral gear indicator light at the base of the headlight, and an orange battery meter light mounted near the front of the headlight fixture.  The speedometer was mounted in the center of the headlight housing, and sparkled beautifully with a chrome ring wrapping the white gauge face.  The gauge showed a top speed of 160 km/hour, and on a downhill stretch of the Autobahn, I managed to swing the needle passed 150 km/hour.  This is blistering pace from a machine of this age and a tribute to the world-class engineering prowess of the brand – from its founding until now.

Exiting the Autobahn, I made my way to a refueling station, and then began my climb into the wandering mountain roads of the Alps.  Up shifts from first to second were a touch tricky and required careful motions.  Downshifts from all gears were a pleasure, and the teeth easily slipped in with a joyful blip of the throttle under braking.

“No amount of rain could dampen this visceral, vintage experience…”

Climbing steeper roads was accomplished with wide-open throttle, holding second or third gear depending on the incline.  The glorious thunder of the boxer-twin filled the mountainside with a symphony of mechanical sounds not heard in 60 years.  Gear after gear, turn after turn, I wound the clock back in time.

Fast sweepers gradually tightened into hairpins, multiple apex, as well as increasing and decreasing radius turns.  A rider’s paradise lay before me, and the R51/3 found its stride and made the most of it.  With a wet curb weight of 190 kg (419 lb) the bike was tossible and fun, giddy for the next corner.  Even the front brake redeemed itself once dry and hot with increasing feel and power – sufficient for the mountain blast, even on downhill sections.  Eventually, I found myself trail-braking into corners, banked over for the apex before going wide-open throttle to the exit.  I had now reached some kind of riding nirvana, a motorcycling climax of titanic proportions.

Finally, after a few blissful hours, more rain set in.  As if to punctuate this epic ride, it both started, and ended my Alpine journey.  Heading for the Autobahn I stretched her legs one last time, in a full tuck along the fast lane.  No amount of rain could dampen this visceral, vintage experience and I’m not sure if I should feel younger or older for it.

Reaching Munich, it was time to relax and enjoy my surroundings.  No matter where I parked, the R51/3 could not escape superstardom levels of attention.  I have never witnessed such an attention fiend in all my life.  By comparison, the S1000RR barely got a second look – whereas I had to carry a towel to wipe the drool from accumulating on this classic bike’s gas tank.  Women, children and men of all ages where mesmerized by this striking machine parked casually by the market, or waiting patiently by the restaurant entrance.  While completing photo and video shoots, I could barely get my elbows in for a slice of the action – there were so many competing photographers pulling the trigger on this beautiful bike.

“…I could not help but feel like the entire company’s history and future was under-seat.”

Like many of life’s finer things, this machine has only gotten better with age.  Its style, charm, soundtrack and thrilling performance set it apart as a pillar of BMW’s past and present design.  After enjoying a slice of heaven, it was time to come back down to earth.  The time had come to return this graceful machine, and while riding back to BMW Classic, I could not help but feel like the entire company’s history and future was under-seat.

Parking the bike and pulling the key, I closed my eyes for one brief moment.  The grass was greener, fuller.  The girl walking by wore a full dress with lace to ankle length.  Two mechanics were smoking pipes and talking of the sunny weather.  The air was crisp and fresh but smelled of coal fire.  A steam locomotive was heard far off, sounding its whistle.  The year was 1951.

BMWBLOG would like to offer our heartfelt thanks to BMW Classic, Munich, and BMW Canada for providing us with the unique opportunity to share this special motorcycle with our global readership.

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