Riding an ancient BMW

Unlike most vehicles, older BMW bikes' worth increases over time. (Photo: Frederic Bisson)

Unlike most vehicles, older BMW bikes' worth increases over time. (Photo: Frederic Bisson)

“If you’re worried about the performance of the BMW R65, I only have one thing to say: welcome to old age!”

Witticisms like this abound on the Facebook pages where owners of old BMWs and other vintage bikes share their stories, show off their restored pride-and-joy and swap useful information about repairs, spares and how to manufacture your own parts.

I stumbled onto this crowd through a series of events. My owning an old BMW — yes, the R65 — came about when my far more modern BMW F650GS was stolen, along with my friend’s bakkie, while at a party. We surmised that the brazen thieves picked up the bike, put it on the back of the bakkie, and then stole that. My insurance company only coughed up half of what I’d paid for the bike (citing depreciation) leaving me with the options of buying something for around R25 000, or taking out a loan to buy something similar to the GS.

I’d always fancied owning an old “BM”. My favourite varsity lecturer used to cruise around in one with his wife and his labrador, which lay sideways across her lap, and even had a leather helmet to stop its ears from flapping in the wind. So I posted a pic of one on Facebook, and found one for the appropriate price within a matter of days. Best of all, the bike was in Kimberley, which meant I could ride it back up to Jo’burg straight after buying it. The dangers inherent in riding a bike made in 1982 — and that I knew nothing about — halfway across South Africa never occurred to me, but I guess that’s just part of being a biker.

I got lucky in the end (not being a mechanic’s backside) with the bike I bought turning out to be in great shape, though it did take a lot of getting used to and it did need a few parts replaced. The scariest part was riding hundreds of kilometres back home with only one brake, as the back brake was, I discovered later, soaked in oil from a broken seal and had zero effect when stomped upon.

Once home, I had problems starting the bike, which was solved by acquiring a new choke cable. Remember those things? New bikes don’t have them, because bike manufacturers figured that they were too much of a hassle.

Even with the choke, starting the R65 is quite an art; I feel quite proud when I get it right. One has to remember to turn the fuel on; a step again dispensed with in the new regime of motorbiking. This is something riders of old BMWs simply have to become accustomed to. Leave your fuel on after riding the bike, and your engine floods. Not knowing exactly how the fuel tap goes onto reserve almost cost me my life, as I ran out of petrol while cruising down the middle lane of the N2 between Jo’burg and Pretoria. This is something you don’t have to worry about on new bikes, as a warning light comes on when your fuel runs low. Also, if you leave the parking light on by not turning the ignition all the way off — you can flatten your battery.

Patience is definitely something the owners of old bikes have to have, or acquire.

So what are the advantages of buying old bikes? Well, they can be fixed fairly easily, and they just keep running, for decades in fact, if you look after them. The old BMWs are renowned for this; I recently read on one of the classic bike Facebook pages that an old BM started up first time after standing under a tarpaulin for 30 years. Everything is accessible: even I managed to repair a couple of things on my bike, including replacing the oil filter, which I discovered afterwards will pretty much destroy your engine if you get it wrong. There’s tons of info about doing repairs on the net, though the “sages” online frequently contradict each other on the finer points. Parts are usually available, and there are still old mechanics who can fix these old bikes — although I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be around.

The best thing about the old bikes is their looks. Modern machines can outpace them, out-brake them (ABS was unknown on old bikes) and certainly have far better suspension due to the invention of the monolever shock, but they often look as if they were extruded in one piece, backwards, from a mould.

Unlike most vehicles that depreciate in value as they age, the older your BMW becomes, the more it’s worth. Bikes from the 50s often go for hundreds of thousands of rands, depending on their condition and how original they are.

A lot of old bikes are bought to be converted into “café racers” these days, which can enhance or ruin their style, depending on how much of a purist you are.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of modern bikes is their power. The R65 has 45 horsepower, while the modern equivalent has 71. But this is a double-edged sword, because while it means that you can accelerate out of trouble when one of those things riding in a box (a motorist) starts to cut you off, it also means all those horses under the saddle tempt you to ride at ridiculous speeds, and we all know what that means in terms of causing accidents. 

Riding the R65 has closed off some possibilities for me, such as crossing the country on tours, although there are plenty of hardcore enthusiasts on larger, touring BMWs such as the RT100 with leather bums who still do the “DJ” (Durban to Johannesburg), which began as a race in 1913 and then morphed into today’s leisurely rally.

On the other hand, my bike is perfect for commuting. It’s smaller than my previous bike, and about 95% of the time I really don’t need the extra power the GS had, simply because the roads are too full of cars. I can still get up to about 140km/h on a freeway, but riding “naked” (without a fairing) means I get all but blasted off the bike by the wind.

On weekends I’ve found some country roads where riding at 80km/h means I can actually enjoy the view. And I’ve worked out a route to work where the roads have less bumps, so I can still enjoy my ride with old-fashioned suspension. When it’s cruising, the R65 is as smooth as silk. Perhaps I’m just getting old. 

Derek Davey

Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches. Read more from Derek Davey