Tuesday, January 29, 2013

90 Years of BMW Motorrad – Max Friz

The aircraft engine manufacturer BMW unveiled its first motorcycle in late 1923, and it was a passionate aircraft engine designer – Max Friz – who was behind its creation. Forever credited as the father of the first BMW bike – the R 32 – Friz’s story leading up to this groundbreaking motorcycle is as interesting as it is varied.

Born nearly 130 years ago on 1 October 1883 in Urach, Max Friz started his apprenticeship with the Kuhn steam engine company in Cannstatt at the age of 15 – an incredibly exciting time to be involved with engineering development of any kind. From 1902 to 1904 he attended the Royal Building Trade School in Stuttgart-Esslingen before moving in 1906 to work in the design office of the Daimler company.

There, he started to make a name for himself in motorsport, where he made a major contribution to the design of the racing engine for the 1914 Mercedes Grand Prix car that won the French Grand Prix of the same year. However, it is in aviation where Friz’ passion truly could be found. After all, he would have been an impressionable 20-year-old when the first powered flight by the Wright brothers made headlines around the world in 1903 – and no doubt inspired countless young men to become engineers.

Although the aviation industry had by many scarcely been considered worthy of attention in its infancy, the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything and offered great opportunities for companies such as Rapp Motorenwerke – a predecessor of BMW.

At the end of 1916, having become frustrated with his suggestions for engine development being ignored by the chief engineer at the Daimler engine company, Friz applied for a position with Rapp.

At this time, war was being waged in the air for the first time, and the aerial battles demanded continuous improvements in aircraft and aero engines. A significant challenge for the engineers was the constantly increasing average altitude at which the fighting was taking place. Basically, the higher you were able to fly, the better the strategic advantage, as long as your engine didn’t lose too much power, or worse, stall in the decreased atmospheric pressure.

At Daimler, Friz had tried in vain to develop an oversized high compression engine that would not lose as much power at altitude as other engines, but it wasn’t until he moved to Rapp Motorenwerke in Munich in 1917 that he was able to put his own idea for a high altitude engine into practice.

In spring 1917, a commission from the Reichswehr were inspecting the Rapp engine plant to decide which engines – Daimler or Benz – would be produced under licence at the Rapp engine plant. General Manager Franz Josef Popp seized the opportunity to present Friz new concept to the commission of experts – even though it only existed in his design drawings, with no prototype to show.

However, the commission were suitably impressed with the potential of this high altitude aero engine with its innovative carburettor and many other technical details. The Reichswehr placed an order for 600 units – even before a single working prototype had been produced – turning Rapp Motorenwerke into an essential contributor to the war effort virtually overnight. Orders flowed in from the military and by the end of the war, more than 3,100 IIIa aero engines had been commissioned – and Rapp had become BMW.

Friz’ BMW IIIa aero engine was in fact far superior to any other German aero engine of that period and no doubt saved the Rapp company of the time, which would almost certainly have disappeared without the effort and talent of this excellent designer.

But after the conflict ended in November 1918, the impact on the entire German aircraft industry was huge – especially for BMW, which had been building nothing else but Friz’s IIIa engine in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles then forbade BMW to build aero engines at all, but before the ban came into effect, Friz had already designed the successor to the IIIa – known simply as the BMW IV.

This Treaty would in fact ban the production of aircraft in Germany for many years, but just before the ban came into effect, a test pilot, Franz Zeno Diemer, took off in a DFW 37/III from Oberwiesenfeld airfield next to the BMW plant. His plane was powered by BMW IV six-cylinder engines and reaches the previously unattained altitude of 9,760 metres during an 87-minute flight. This world record is to be the first of many for BMW, although post-WWI Germany is not allowed to join the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, so the record is not officially recognised.

Not only had the Allies banned Germany from building aircraft and aero engines, they had in addition demanded that all aviation assets manufactured up to that point be handed over or destroyed. As a consequence, BMW Managing Director Franz-Josef Popp began looking for alternatives to keep the employees working, so tasked Friz and his design department with making new products to sell to the peacetime market.

Engines were designed for boats, cars, trucks and motorcycles. One of these engines was the M2B15 ‘boxer’ that was developed by Martin Stolle and supplied to quite a number of other motorcycle manufacturers to power their machines. However, the management felt that BMW could do better than just supplying the engines and should build its own complete motorcycle.

Friz was asked to come up with a suitable package. The result was the R 32 of 1923 (see separate story) and the rest, as they say, is history.


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