Rare BMW Stars At Pebble Beach

The 62nd Concours d’ Elegance featured German motorcycles.

BMW R7

Beautiful BMW R7

It all began with a motorcycle. Really. In the 1880s, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach needed a test bed for the small gasoline-powered engine they were developing. What they built became the first motorcycle ever and, indeed, the first internal-combustion vehicle. In 1885, this wood and iron machine, supplemented by a small outrigger wheel on each side, motored into history.

This Daimler Reitwagen was the oldest vehicle (by 16 years!) on the fairway at Pebble Beach this past August at the 62nd Concours d’Elegance. Though the forerunner of the 220 antique, classic and generally spectacular automobiles on display, the Reitwagen was rightfully placed in Class X, German Motorcycles, along with 12 other two-wheeled machines covering the period up to 1968. This is the first time the original Reitwagen has ever left the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart. Its metal parts, now 127 years old, are original, but the wood frame was replicated in 1906 after being destroyed in a factory fire in 1903.

Daimler was only interested in making cars, so it was nearly a decade before the first production motorcycle came on the scene. The first factory run in 1894 by Hildebrand & Wolfmüller in Munich lasted only nine months, though the factory had orders from customers all over the world. The short production span is attributed to the difficulty of starting the engine and the propensity for the hot-tube ignition (no sparkplugs in those days) to initiate a fire or explosion. In any case, the beautiful example restored by Michael Kron and owned by Brian Bossier also failed to start in the cold Pacific air. But watching the fueling and engine-heating procedure made the spectators, circled three deep, thankful it didn’t explode.

1885 Daimler Reitwagen

The first motorcycle - the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen

The innovative nature of the early German motorcycles was striking both in mechanical ingenuity and artistic design. BMW’s flat-Twin and shaft drive was well represented by Evan Bell’s 1923 R32, whose serial number suggests it was only the 41st motorcycle produced by BMW.

Perhaps the wildest mechanical extreme was a 1922 Megola Touring owned by Virgil Elings and powered by a five-cylinder radial engine mounted in the front wheel. It was easy to start, even by onlookers who were invited to spin the front tire. “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno dropped by during one of these starts and was obviously captivated. But on learning that this push-to-start machine had no clutch, he quipped, “I wouldn’t want to drive this in LA traffic.”

An Imme R100 dating from 1950 had single-sided suspension on both front and rear wheels. A 1968 Munch Mammoth, a brutal combination of a motorcycle frame and an NSU inline-Four car engine, had the highest power-to-weight ratio (and cost) of any motorcycle at that time. Stunning design was most evident in the art-deco BMW R7 from the BMW museum in Munich and flowing lines and orange-vanilla-popsicle colors of Henry Davis’ 1965 DKW 155.

1934 BMW R7 examination

Judges Somer Hooker, Tom Meadows and Jim Thomas (l.t.r) give the 1934 BMW R7 a thorough examination.

Chief class judge Jim Thomas and his two colleagues, Somer Hooker and Tom Meadows, had their work cut out for them. The criteria, “originality and authenticity,” are simply stated but difficult in practice to apply to such a diverse and impressive collection of motorcycles. It’s also hard for the owners and restorers whose bikes are being judged to wait for what seems an eternity for the arrival of a Very Important Official late in the afternoon to indicate the three bikes that are to move to the staging area next to the podium.

Of the three selected, Dale Keesecker was first up, meaning his Munch, which he’d restored himself, had taken third place. That left two BMWs in the staging area, the one-of-a-kind 1934 R7 and a 1954 R68 immaculately restored by Tim Stafford and owned by Jeff Dean. Stafford got the next wave and rode up onto the podium, smiling all the way.

The R7, Best of Class at Pebble Beach, is the prototype motorcycle that never made it. It was never produced and remained hidden from sight, dismantled in boxes at the BMW factory for nearly 70 years. In 2005, a two-year restoration began with BMW devoting the efforts of in-house master restorers Armin Frey and Hans Keckeisen to the project. What emerged is a technical marvel wrapped in pressed art-deco steel. But it may have been too much, too good, too soon for a company that was looking at a mass market rather than a luxury product. So, it was dismantled.

Today, even in the company of the classic luxury cars at the concours, the restored R7 is perfectly in place. Seated on this truly legendary motorcycle in the winners’ circle, Klaus Kutscher of the BMW Classic Group reflected, “I was fortunate to manage this restoration project, which benefitted greatly from the expertise at BMW. To win at the Pebble Beach concours is wonderful, especially since this is our first time here.”

It’s the cache of Pebble Beach that makes possible this collection of motorcycles and cars, one that would be the envy of any museum in the world. Assembled at significant expense, it exists for a day and then is no more. Add in the auctions surrounding the concours, the classic-car tour and vintage races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, displays by high-end manufacturers and boutique vendors, and you have the mix that brings the crowds to the Monterey Peninsula and sends spectators streaming through the gates.

The small group of motorcycles at the far end of the fairway held its own in attracting an interested, curious and sizeable fraction of these spectators, the vast majority of whom drive rather than ride. For the motorcycle community, this is public outreach at its best.

The first motorcycle - the 1885 Daimler Reitwagen. From the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart (for display).

Restorer Mike Kron attempting to start the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller. The clear-liquid fuel came out of a can labeled "Petrol Ether, low boiling."

Evan Bell (center) and his 1923 BMW R32, BMW's first production motorcycle.

Detail of the R32.

This 1922 Megola Touring, owned by Virgil Elings, has a 640 cc, five-cylinder rotary engine in the front wheel.

Megola in motion - at least the front wheel.

Jay Leno had a great time talking with owner Virgil Elings.

Vicki Smith's 1950 Imme R100 has single-arm suspension on both front and rear wheels.

This 1968 Munch Mammoth, one of a series of only 20 machines, sported a 1000 cc NSU car engine and had the highest power-to-weight ratio of its tme.

Judges Somer Hooker, Tom Meadows and Jim Thomas (l.t.r) give the 1934 BMW R7 a thorough examination.

Were there a category for the most colorful, Henry Davis's 1965 DKW Hummel 155 would win it.

Color-coordinated upholstery and tires distinguish this 1930 Opel Motoclub Model T, owned by Jim Dillard.

Waiting in the staging area to be called to the podium: Dale Keesecker (Munch Mammoth), Tim Stafford (1954 BMW R68) and Klaus Kutscher (1934 BMW R7).

Tim Stafford rides up to the podium to receive the trophy for second place.

The beautiful BMW R7 at the far end of the winners' circle.

The fairway at Pebble Beach is packed with spectators.