Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Had a Parisian friend not tipped me off, I would have entirely missed a one-two punch of vintage BMWs at an unlikely venue, Salon de la Photo, a photographic equipment trade fair at the Porte de Versailles, Paris.  What BMW of France had in mind bringing two of their most coveted and rare old machines to a camera show is outside my purview, but it provided moto-journalists with some exciting subject matter in a gigantic hall (one of 6), otherwise filled to the elbow-bump with photogeeks and bored models.

The BMW display included 8 machines of interest, 6 being new, 4 commissioned as 'art projects', one prototype (the 'Concept 6'), the 2010 French Superbike champ, plus the two whose vintage cred yanked me across Paris on a rainy day just before the show was shuttered up.  The BMW.Fr staff on hand was friendly but small, as their offices had been taken hostage that morning by a shotgun-wielding nutbag.  In the States we call this 'going postal', but in this case it was an extreme case of 'service feedback'.

BMW France is to be congratulated for a motorcycle-show-worthy display of fascinating machines, and of course, of special interest to readers of the Vintagent are the ultra-rare RS255 Kompressor Rennsport of 1939, and unique 'R7' Art Deco prototype.  The 'Concept 6' prototype (above) provided glaring contrast to the pair of vintage machines, being huge and heavy, immensely powerful, and designed to the hilt.  Still, an awesome brute, with a whiff of Terminator perfume lingering over its post-Transformers bodywork.

In the late 1920s, BMW developed a new chassis for its motorcycles from molded sheet steel, and moved away from the Bauhaus simplicity of their tube-frame 1920s designs.  With the petrol tank nestled between the twin halves of shapely pressed-steel frame,  the new models gained a contemporary Art Deco flair, tempered on most production models by simple mudguards and their typical basic-black paint scheme.  The pressed-steel frame begged an aesthetic question which proved too compelling to ignore, given industrial trends of the period for streamlining and 'Airflow' shapes.  I'm not certain if BMW automotive designers lent a pencil to the prototype 'R7' model on display here, but it breaks Teutonic motorcycle tradition with its exuberant embrace of the Deco aesthetic.

The tension between form and function on motorcycles is the very essence of their visual allure, and lovers of the mechanical celebrate those models which find balance, proportion, and harmony of exposed machinery, with the structure required to hold the sum together.  Philosophically and in the marketplace, motorcycles which read as design exercises in sheet metal were never considered successful - this was the realm of the automobile, the train, the airplane, whereas motorcyclists of the Vintage and Classic period, being almost to an individual dedicated gearheads, want the fiery beating hearts of their mounts visible in all their complication; this is our enduring delight.

That the 1934 R7 prototype is a design success is without question; it's a graceful and beautiful study of flowing lines, curves, and feminine masses.  Almost to a person, especially to non-motorcyclists, it is considered one of the most beautiful motorcycles of the 1930s.  Today it is the most blogged-about BMW of all, but photoblogs don't have much to say about the essential qualities of Motorcycling, or the reason why BMW chose not to proceed from this uniquely attractive design study. As good as it is, the R7 is a total philosophical departure from what is best about BMW during its first 60 years; restraint. The extravagance expressed by the R7 is shockingly French, more Delahaye than 328.  That the R7 was never serially produced breaks the hearts of many, but it makes complete sense.

The Type 255 Rennsport on display is in effectively 1939 spec, rare indeed although I don't know if this is the ex-John Surtees machine, reputedly the only late Kompressor in pre-war trim, as post-war, while German riders and machines were banned from international competition, they continued to race in German national championships, and the blown racers were developed and modified until 1950, when BMW was invited back to international competition.  Superchargers were banned from the GP scene in 1946, so BMW developed an entirely new line of racing machines without their famous Kompressors.

This RS255, while officially residing in the BMW Museum in Munich (click here for my story), regularly stretches its legs on circuits around the world. at Vintage events...and I note the front mudguard has a 'Goodwood 2010' scrutineering sticker, so it has been used recently indeed.

The late Kompressor BMW is an astounding machine, developed into the best racing motorcycle in the world during the three years it competed on the global stage.  Weighing only 304lbs (that's 30lbs less than a Works Norton, and perhaps 50lbs less than the rival supercharged Gilera 4-cylinder dohc machine), the single-overhed-camshaft engine produced around 60hp, ten more than the Norton, but ten less than the Gilera.  Measured top speed was in the region of 136mph.

The extremely light weight of the BMW gave it an advantage in all respects during a race, making it easier to manage, with faster acceleration.  The handling was good, albeit inevitably quirky with torque reaction from the shaft final drive.  The plunger rear suspension with friction scissor-type damping was identical to the Nortons, and while helping to keep the rear wheel in contact with the ground, defects in the design meant the odd rocking-horse feel was an acquired taste for a rider; not all found harmony.  Luckily for BMW, their star pilot was among the bravest fellows ever to grace a GP circuit, Georg Meier, and his tremendous skill combined with sheer toughness overcame whatever handling issues the BMW shared with its rivals, and he won most of the races he entered on the RS, including, most famously, the 1939 Isle of Man TT.

To crawl all over these machines at the end of a Paris trade show was an unexpected treasure, so many thanks to Martin Jouët for alerting me, so I could share them with you!