An Old BMW “Airhead” Comes to Life

Nothing recently has caused my heart to soar like the sound of a BMW motorcycle roaring to life after ten years of sitting in the garage. It’s a 1977 R100RS. To my mind a classic. I commuted into New York City from New Jersey on it for ten years. I rode it with my son behind me as we traveled the northeast on camping trips. The old bike holds a special piece of my heart. I couldn’t part with it. It sat unused for this past decade, deteriorating. My guilt was heavy with the neglect of an old friend.

We maneuvered through congested traffic on route 4, crossed the George Washington Bridge, traversed the West Side Highway and Riverside Drive. We went down a couple of times. Once under the West Side Highway on a diesel slickened intersection and once when kids playing at an open hydrant managed to direct a water stream into the fairing and carried us unwillingly and uncontrollably down Riverside Drive into oncoming traffic. Once I hunkered down low on the gas tank when, unable to stop, I rode into a shootout on Riverside Drive. Men holding guns on one side of the street hid behind a car pointing guns at men on the other side crouching behind their vehicle. Fortunately, no shots were fired as we drove through their line of sight.

Once, a stupid, dangerous character dropped a baseball bat from the pedestrian walkway of the GWB onto us. The bat, surprisingly, passed through an impossibly narrow space between my leg and the fairing and fell to the pavement doing no harm. When I got to the end of the bridge I saw officers taking reports from a line of drivers. Cars and trucks had also been hit with all manner of rocks and bricks and some had broken windshields.

There were also good rides. I reveled at the sight of sunset on route 4 as we headed west in wintertime and felt the cool air rising from the Hudson River as we passed on the bridge high above.

The bike is geared for the German Autobahn and it was constrained by the slow, lumbering speeds of U.S. highways but when it gets close to its top speed, the fairing actually creates an envelope of protection and the bike settles down noticeably, gripping the surface and providing a remarkable sense of stability. It was the first bike with a full fairing tested in a wind tunnel and it caused traditional BMW riders to question where the company was headed.

The bike will talk to you, if you listen. It’s among the last of the horizontally opposed air-cooled engines that made BMW motorcycles distinctive for several decades. When the tappets click and the dual exhausts hum, you know it’s in good health. When those familiar noises and quirks change, however, it’s time to look into them. And I mean literally look into the bike’s innards.

Nearly everything on these old “airheads,” as they are called, can be repaired or replaced. Hardly a single part is beyond diagnosis, disassembly and repair. I’ve fixed the brakes, replaced the points, plugs, and exhaust pipes, re-set the timing and valve clearances, re-built the carbs, cleaned every electrical contact, taken apart and repaired at least three switches, one relay and the dashboard clock. No LEDs or circuit boards. (Well, it has one but it’s hardly a major feature.)

I’ve not taken the engine, transmission or drive shaft apart. In the past I have done this. But it takes time and a few gear pullers, and I’ve decided that if it’s necessary, I’ll leave this to the real mechanics. Maybe in the winter downtime.

In the meantime, I could be satisfied just starting it up and listening to it purr. Sometimes it’s not just about the ride, it’s also about the memories and something intangible like the freedom to dream of what’s over the horizon, and let yourself go there, perhaps on two wheels.

2 Responses to “An Old BMW “Airhead” Comes to Life”

  1. Dave December 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

    Very nice write up. Your right nothing like an airhead. they are more like a tractor than todays bikes. I aquired my father in-laws 2 airheads about two years ago after his passing. like yours they sat for at least 10 years, due to his health issues. I have a 86 R65 and a 91 R100. It took me about 10k miles to understand that the noises it make are normal. They were both a snap to get running again. I also like you will never sell these bikes. I will ride them as much as I can, many riders dont understand them, they are noisey and slow but when it is running in a sweet spot there is nothng that can compare not to mention the handling with its low center of gravity and ease of repair. Anyway ride safe and long,, Dave

  2. Larry December 26, 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Thanks for the comments! I have had the carbs re-built on the older bike and re-worked the starter solenoid and it’s just about ready to roll.

    I have to replace the float valve and floats on the R100RS because the valve has hardened and isn’t sealing well. It’s impossible to sync the carbs without this valve working correctly. The floats are are pretty old and look like they’ve seen better days.

    Glad to get your comments. Be safe.

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