Friday, January 18, 2013

90 Years of BMW Motorrad – where it all started


With more than 106,000 motorcycles and maxi-scooters sold to customers worldwide in 2012, BMW Motorrad celebrated yet another all-time sales high, making it the perfect way to start its 90th anniversary celebrations. This sales record was set in difficult economic conditions too, but the company has had more than its fair share of challenges to overcome ever since its origins more than nine decades ago. A look back through history reveals a story of restriction, adaption, intense competition and constant innovation – all of which have helped shape the brand we know and admire today…

Chapter one: the years leading up to the first BMW motorcycle – the R 32
BMW is set up in Munich during World War One as the successor to Rapp Motoren-Werke, an aircraft engine plant founded in 1913. Its first product is the IIIa aircraft engine, containing legendary engine designer Max Friz's altitude carburettor, which, in comparison to rival products, greatly decreases loss of performance at high altitude.

On 21st July 1917, Rapp-Motorenwerke is renamed Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH. The ongoing war means that the small company grows quickly. With expansion in mind, the firm builds a spacious plant right next to the Oberwiesenfeld airfield in Munich and continues to build engines for army planes until 1918.

The war ends in 1918 and the production of aircraft engines is banned in Germany under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This Treaty would in fact ban the production of aircraft in Germany for many years, but just before the ban comes into effect, a test pilot, Franz Zeno Diemer, takes off in a DFW 37/III from Oberwiesenfeld airfield next to the BMW plant. His plane is 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.

With a need to survive and diversify, large six-cylinder aero engines displacing 19 litres and developing a maximum output of 226 bhp are replaced in 1920 by 500cc power units developing just 6.5 bhp (BMW had also built four-cylinder series engines for lorries and boats, but with limited success). The outlook for the fledgling company brightens up with the development of the two-cylinder M 2 B 15 engine – which is also supplied to several motorcycle manufacturers. In consideration of the two cylinders arranged opposite to one another, as well as the pistons operating in the opposite direction, these power units are referred to as ‘Boxers’.
This engine found its main use in Nuremberg-based Victoria motorcycles, helping them to outstanding success in 1921. The neighbouring aircraft manufacturer, Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke, also fitted the BMW engine into their Helios model, together with a transmission likewise supplied by BMW.
In 1922 it sells its engine production and the name BMW to Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works) and moves into their factory. The aircraft-maker's founding date, 7 March 1916, thus becomes the new founding date of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG.

With Victoria now developing their own models and with the Helios motorcycle suffering from technical problems, BMW’s General Manager Franz-Josef Popp and his engineering colleagues decide to make a big move, realising that the best way to support BMW’s good reputation as an engine manufacturer is for the company to build its own modern motorcycle, rather than being a sub-contractor.

The engineer given the task of building BMW’s first motorcycle is none other than Max Friz, who had made a great name for himself as an outstanding engineer even before World War I. After working on a sensational Grand Prix winner in 1914 (the four-valve ohc Mercedes) Max Friz had joined BMW in 1917 and designed the Type IIIa aircraft engine, the most progressive power unit of its day.

And while the aforementioned small M 2 B 15 motorcycle engine developed by his colleague Martin Stolle is no particular challenge to Friz, the job of building an entirely new motorcycle around the Boxer configuration certainly aroused the ambition of this successful engineer.
Developed on the drawing board in 1922, the first BMW motorcycle – known as the R 32 – would cause a sensation when it was unveiled at the Berlin Exhibition in 1923…


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