Collecting vintage BMW motorcycles

A fast, comfortable classic that can go the distance on a daily basis? No wonder BMWs’ airhead-era models are gaining traction, says Simon de Burton

1975 R90S, sold for A$15,500 (about £8,865) at Shannons
1975 R90S, sold for A$15,500 (about £8,865) at Shannons

The BMW is famous for not giving mechanical problems on the road and that’s what he’s counting on.” So wrote Robert M Pirsig in the opening chapter of his bestselling 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in reference to his travelling companion’s BMW R60.

That fame for reliability has made BMW motorcycles the default choice of the hard-riding tourist for decades; and now celebrated models from the “airhead” era – as pre‑1995 machines with twin-cylinder, air-cooled engines are known – are steadily rising in value as a growing number of enthusiasts come to appreciate their combination of classic looks, superb engineering and continued suitability for long-distance riding.

The first BMW bike, the 486cc R32, was built in 1923, with the flat-twin “boxer” engine configuration that became a feature of the marque and is still used today. Later models included the 746cc R71 of 1938 and the hugely successful R12, which featured the first use of hydraulic front forks on a mass-produced motorcycle.

1987 R80G/S Paris-Dakar edition, sold for £14,375 at Bonhams
1987 R80G/S Paris-Dakar edition, sold for £14,375 at Bonhams

R12s were used by the German army at the outbreak of the second world war and succeeded by the R75, which was purpose-built for military use (despite about 36,000 having been made, the R12 has become highly collectable, the best examples commanding up to £25,000). But with the Munich factory flattened by air raids and motorcycle production forbidden under Germany’s terms of surrender, it wasn’t until 1948 that BMW recommenced building bikes, with first the no-frills, single-cylinder 250cc R24 and then, from 1949 on, a range of boxer twins that included the R51/2, R67 and sporting R68.

With their gentle power delivery, shaft drive and proven reliability, these machines established BMW as a maker of motorcycles for covering large distances in comfort, both as standard two-wheelers and when hooked up to luxurious sidecars by the likes of Steib or Stoye. One such R61 with Stoye sidecar made $24,725 when it crossed the block at Bonhams in Las Vegas earlier this year – and an R60/2 and Steib pairing made $17,550 as far back as 2007.

But it is the post-1969 bikes, built after BMW moved motorcycle production from Munich to Spandau in West Berlin, that are attracting both touring riders and collectors. “Before the move to Spandau, BMW motorcycles were expensive to produce and not sold all over the world. Each bike was assembled by an individual engineer, a system that was not financially viable and almost bankrupted the company,” explains Peter Ardron, chairman of the UK-based BMW Airhead Fellowship. “But production changed completely after that, because the plant shifted to more efficient build methods while retaining the existing standards of quality. That’s when BMW Motorrad really took off.”

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Ardron cites the R90S as one of the most sought-after classic models, around 17,500 examples of which were built from 1973 to 1976. Featuring an 898cc engine producing 67bhp, a small “bikini” fairing and a neat “ducktail” seat, the bike had a top speed of 125mph, effortless cruising ability and distinctive looks, thanks to its “smoke effect” paintwork in silver grey or Daytona orange.

Just five years ago, a good, roadworthy R90S could be had for about £5,000 – but that was then. UK dealer Classic Super Bikes is now offering a superbly restored example for £12,500 and another described as “a bit scruffy in places” for £9,995. Meanwhile, Australian auction house Shannons has hammered down a beautifully restored smoke-grey example for A$15,500 (about £8,870).

London-based fan Peter Simms has owned his 1976 R90S for 30 years, and has ridden it more than 200,000 miles. “I use it virtually every day, which, given its age, bears testament to the superb build quality. I have travelled all over Europe on it and can’t think of a bike, new or old, that could possibly replace it. It’s comfortable, fast, beautifully made and has bags of character.”

1952 R60/2 and Steib sidecar, sold for $17,550 at Bonhams
1952 R60/2 and Steib sidecar, sold for $17,550 at Bonhams

The fact that Simms has covered such a distance on his R90S comes as no surprise to Phil Hawksley, who recently retired after running a business specialising in maintaining BMW airheads for close to 30 years. “Values are going up because people are beginning to realise that these are classic motorcycles you can still ride on a daily basis and cover large distances on without much fear of breaking down,” he says, citing the rare and sporting R100CS – just 4,038 of which were built between 1980 and 1984 – as “one to watch”.

“Part of the appeal of classic BMWs is that, while they are very well engineered, they are also relatively simple, so anything that does go wrong can usually be repaired at the side of the road. Another plus is that most parts for bikes built back to 1970 are still available off the shelf from BMW Motorrad and firms such as James Sherlock, Motorworks and Moto-Bins.”

According to Ben Walker, Bonhams director of collectors’ motorcycles, a trend for customising classic BMWs by removing their touring accessories and altering their appearance to create a retro “café racer” look is influencing current values. “This is because some people want to buy bikes to customise and others want to buy original examples to preserve. I think the appeal of the customised bikes will fall once the fad has ended, making the remaining originals even more sought-after.”

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Walker has noticed a particular surge of interest in unaltered examples of the R80G/S (1980-87) and R80GS (1987-95), machines designed for on- and off-road use that have achieved cult status among long-distance adventure riders. Although prices hovered around £5,000 for years, Bonhams sold a less-than-perfect 1987 G/S Paris-Dakar edition in April for £14,375.

“We’re also seeing strong demand for the R100S – which superseded the R90S – and the R100RS, the first touring motorcycle with an integral, wind-tunnel-developed fairing. As a BMW enthusiast myself, it’s great to see these bikes, once associated with staid, middle-aged riders, being appreciated for what they are: superbly engineered, highly usable motorcycles that will keep going for decades.”

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