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Motorcycles from Munchen

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Mike Fishwick View Drop Down
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    Posted: 15 Oct 2013 at 3:54pm

BOOK REVIEW - MOTORCYCLES FROM MUNICH  1923-69             Mike Fishwick


I must have read all the various books which claim to tell the history of BMW, but have always been disappointed by the details concerning the formation and early life of our preferred manufacturer.   They are invariably contradictory, being a re-telling of what had already been written by another author, or a variation on the theme as was understood by whatever ‘expert’ the author had last spoken to.  There are at least four differing versions, with several popular alterations to each. 

I have preferred to take the view that the only worthwhile story is that which was carefully researched by Horst Mönnich for his company history ‘BMW – a Company in its Time’ the copyright of which is held by BMW.  Although this book is now available at the bargain price of £5 from Mill House Books, it is a vast tome, the English translation having been described as ‘turgid.’  It is not for those who seek a compact and definitive history of BMW in terms of its two-wheeled products.

Those who wish to gain an understanding of the factors which created the BMW of to-day – even if they have little interest in motorcycles – will find it essential to read a well-researched and informative book on the Company’s early years when car production was not a major part of the corporate plan. 

It was therefore with a feeling of relief that I read this book, the product of much careful research by BMW Mobile Tradition, finding that it provides an accurate and readable history.  The period covers the latter years of Rapp Motorenwerke, through the founding of BMW, the low points after two disastrous wars, with the high and low points afterwards up to the transfer of motorcycle production to Berlin in 1969.  This turbulent story is mainly told in terms of BMW motorcycles and the people who created them.  As a book which concentrates upon the production models, little detail is provided with regard to the racing and record-breaking machines.

BMW like to claim that their corporate pedigree extends to include Gustav Otto (son of Nicholas, the inventor of the four-stroke engine)  although this is somewhat tenuous.  Following the absorption of BMW by Knorr Bremse in 1922, the company was re-formed in the derelict premises of Otto’s unsuccessful Bayerische Flugzeugwerke concern, many unsold BFW-produced motorcycles being included in the sale.  Some good photographs of these are therefore included, the Flottweg, Flink, and Helios (at least it was powered by a BMW engine) making an interesting comparison to the first BMW motorcycle, the R32.

As one would expect, this book is profusely illustrated with photographs from the BMW Archives, and the authors are honest enough to state that some of the information on the early models is insufficiently documented.  Their honesty even extends to comments that, with the 35 bhp of the R50S  ‘BMW had for the first time sacrificed reliability for engine power,’ and that the teething problems of the much-revered R69S were not remedied for almost three years - not that today's 'Classic' enthusiasts will worry unduly.

Although it is concerned with production models this is the first book I have seen which covers the R28 prototype, the last purely-BMW single, which although it was a failed contender for a military contract, provided the cycle parts for the /5 Series models.

Separate chapters are devoted to the most important model ranges, such as the products of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, pressed steel frame machines, the war years and the post-war revival, the ‘fifties period, and the Earles-fork models.

Appendices provide details of motorcycle production during each year of the pre-and post-war periods.  These graphs provide a parallel to the recovery of Germany after WW1, the concentration on military production, followed by the German Economic Miracle after WW2 and the rapid fall in demand for motorcycles which inevitably followed.  Another interesting graph shows that although most people in this country assume the post-war singles to have been a minority product, they in fact accounted for 40% of the Company’s total production, with twins of the same period comprising only 23%.  To emphasise this, no less than 45% of total production was in the sub-250 cc category, this figure of course not counting the 10,000 single-cylinder engines produced for cement mixers etc.

Key points in the BMW story are clearly presented, and each production model is clearly detailed with a photograph, full technical specifications, serial numbers, and production quantities. 

This book covers the subject very well, detailing the machines whose profits permitted BMW to survive and enter the car market, and to embark on fantasies such as the 502 ‘Baroque Angel’ series and the 507, which while excellent cars did not generate a profit, and helped precipitate the bankruptcy of 1959.  It should also be remembered that escape from the great bankruptcies of the ‘fifties was made possible by the motorcycle-derived engines of the Isetta and 700 series light cars.  Like them or loathe them, motorcycle manufacture is an integral part of the BMW story.

As the first volume in the BMW Profiles series this book sets a high standard which other authors will fail to equal.  Although not cheap, it will become essential reading for those who are seriously interested in the history of the motorcycles from München.

(Motorcycles From Munich 1923-1969, by BMW Mobile Tradition.  BMW Part no: 01 09  0 035 256. £30 - VAT exempt. Available from your dealer

Edited by Mike Fishwick - 15 Oct 2013 at 4:56pm
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