Well, I done did it.
After about a decade of web-surfing, forum-lurking, Craigslist-checking, and general Beemer-fantasizing, I finally did it. I took the plunge and got myself an airhead (luftkopf in German).
For the uninitiated and to be clear, airhead does not refer to a bimbo trophy wife, at least not here. While airheads do inspire a peculiar brand of mid-life obsession and covetousness (much like vintage Porsches or teak-trimmed catboats), they are far less expensive and complicated, and your present wife and kids will still talk to you after you get one.
I mean, how can anyone get upset with you for falling in love with this?
In this case, “airhead” refers to a particular sub-genre of BMW motorcycles known and loved for their two-cylinder engines. Each cylinder head protrudes horizontally from the bike “opposing” its twin, with their contained cylinders punching outward, perpendicular to the bike, kinda like this.
The engine was designed this way so that its cylinder heads—like the rider’s—would have unobstructed views to the oncoming rush of air, which efficiently cools the valves and cylinders, while it simultaneously slow-roasts the rider’s legs and feet.
But shin-warmth aside, the airhead “boxer” engine has proven to be an incredibly durable piece of industrial design. And it bears more than a passing resemblance to another favorite piece of industrial design which also stirs the soul, but in different ways.
BMW produced motorcycles with airhead engines for more than seven decades, from 1923 to 1995. Although (as far as I can tell) the term “airhead” itself seems to be reserved mostly for bikes made from 1969 to 1995, with the legendary 247 motor.
So how did this gearhead come by one?
Well, on an aimless Saturday morning a few months back, I just so happened to check Fairfield County’s Craigslist to see what kind of two-wheeled metal was for sale. I, like many other machine-crazy web-lurkers/searchers/fantacists, have done this at least a thousand times before, partaking in a sort of one-man motorbike variant of fantasy football:
How about a…(insert vintage Japanese enduro single here)
But ya know, I’ve always kinda wanted a…(insert obscure Italian sportbike here)
Hey lookeethat! What’s about a…(insert oddball sidecar hack here)
During this itninerant fantasizing, I’ve seen maybe one or two bikes of lukewarm interest. But nothing has ever been so tempting that I’ve actually clicked the “email seller” link.
This time was different.
After searching under “vintage BMW motorcycle, the first thing that popped up was an ad posted that very morning. It was for a listing just a few miles south of me. The bike—a 1974 BMW R75/6, 39,000 original miles, second owner—belonged to a guy in Darien, CT who had possessed it for a quarter of a century, and who only rolled it out of his heated, spotless garage for typically-hard Darien duty. You know, stuff like morning runs to Dunkin Donuts for coffee, or trips down to his boat. (This pattern of abuse was later confirmed when the owner opened the side bags, which were crammed with telltale cardboard coffee trays and brown Dunkins napkins.)
So after some hasty (and probably over-enthusiastic) emailing, I offered to drive down to meet Don, the owner, and check out the bike.
When I pulled in, Don was kneeling on the freshly-hosed tarmac of his immaculate driveway, a tube of Flitz in one hand, the other polishing the bike’s tailpipe. He was flanked by a shiny Jeep Wrangler and a trailered, well-kept Boston Whaler. As we bullshitted about bikes, I learned that Don owned multiple Beemers (including several airheads), and was in the process of “toy-shedding”—a close cousin of down-sizing, which often accompanies empty-nesterdom, and the move south to warmer climes. (Don was moving to Florida where his wife, boat, and other bikes were waiting for him.)
Anyway, Don fired her up on the first try, I fetched my helmet from the car, and went airheading for my first time. Within 11 seconds, it was game over. Hook, line and sinker love.
I toodled out onto Mansfield Avenue in Darien, and spooled her up. The bike churned smoothly, pulled strongly, and rode shockingly well for a 41 year old machine. It was almost comically low to the ground compared to my Super Ténéré, with an equally low center of gravity, giving it the comfort and easy rideability of (dare I say?) a scooter. But with way more mechanical presence and heft.
The whole boxer experience was also fresh and unique. At idle, like at a stop sign, the bike jiggled noticeably side-to-side, shifting its weight and following the momentum of its horizontally-opposed “boxing” cylinders. But roll on the gas, and that sideways mechanical motion was transferred through gearbox and driveshaft to produce hummingly perfect, almost gyroscope-powered forward motion. Riding the airhead was super mechanically involving, from shifting to throttle to brakes, which required considerable effort, but adequately hauled the bike down from speed.
The only noticeable quirk (forewarned by Don) was a touchy, clunky shift into second; but simply preloading the shifter with pressure from your toe made it thunk in smoothly.
So back in Don’s driveway, and after a little gentlemanly bargaining, she was mine. I consider it one of the great deals of my lifetime, as the delight-to-money ration was and is totally off the charts.
Here’s Don, a gentleman, indeed, dropping the bike off at my house the following weekend. How’s that for service?
It took a few weekends to noodle and get aquainted with her, and to decide where she needed some improvements. Here she is on her inaugural third-owner photo shoot:
At Don’s recommendation, I bought a tube of Flitz, and flitzed the shit out of her. On chrome, paint, or bare metal, that stuff worked its magic.
There are one or two minor cosmetic imperfections, which I may (or may not) address over time. First, there’s a noticeable crack in the front fender.
And second, there are a few rusty spots around the battery box.
In both of these instances, and in a very liberating (but uncharacteristic) way for me, I’ve decided to do nothing, and simply not give a shit.
Don delivered the bike with a Clymer’s manual and a milk crate brimming with miscellanea and spare parts, including the original manual and toolkit.
I decided that such a sweet vintage machine deserved an equally sweet tool roll (the original was vinyl and kinda threadbare), so for $35 I commissioned a guy named Randy (via Etsy) to make a replacement. He crushed it, in duck canvas and leather:
(Notice anything else new? Hint: tool tray gasket). The bike also came with its original handpump…
And various bibs and bobs, including extra spark plugs, fuses, bulbs, hoses, fork oil, engine oil, filters…
Oh, and the original Krauser bags, emptied of their coffee detritus.
The one area of obvious, immediate need was tires. They were largely unworn, but pretty dry and crackly.
And while Don had clearly taken care of the bike (he changed all fluids annually and had installed a modern, sealed battery), I still wanted to get a professional “once over” before starting to ride her in earnest.
So I sent her off to Max BMW in Brookfield, CT, where she was admitted into the care of Phil Cheney, one of their resident airhead master mechanics. Ironically, Phil had worked on the bike about 25 years earlier (and had remembered it) when he was a mechanic at Lindner’s Cycle Shop in New Canaan, CT.
Here’s the key chain that came with the bike. How’s that for kismet?
Phil oversaw a minor tip-to-tail overhaul, from new tires (Michelin Pilot Sport Activs) to new stainless steel brake lines to re-routing the clutch cabling, cleaning and adjusting the Bing carbs, replacing the gas lines, adding a few new seals, new plugs, replacing all fluids, and road testing her.
Phil’s post-overhaul recommendation? “Ride the wheels off it.”
Here’s my little black kitten, purring…
Since then, the only thing she’s missing is a marriage license in the form of plates and registration. It turns out that in the great State of Connecticut, any vehicle 20 years old or older is required to be towed or trailered in for inspection at a sole location in the state: Wethersfield, CT. So until this spring (or unless I rent a U-Haul and take a midweek, midwinter run up I-91), she’s relegated to garage queen, with only occasional autumn leg-stretching around the block.
But man, isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she won-der-ful?