Years produced: 1967-1969
Total production: 1,000 (approx.)
Claimed power: 42hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 103mph
Engine type: 594cc overhead valve, air-cooled opposed twin
Weight: 205kg (452lb) (w/half-full tank)Price then: $1,712 (1968)
Price now: $6,000-$12,000
MPG: 50 (est.)
Desirable and rare, the BMW R69US was built to be ridden. John Landstrom's Granada Red 1969 proves the point.
“I got this bike about 20 years ago,” explains Landstrom, owner of Blue Moon Cycle in Norcross, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. “I restored it shortly after I got it, then I sold it to a friend in Germany. I bought it back from him, and then sold it to a friend in Georgia. Then I bought it back from him. At this point, I’ve bought the bike three times.” Needless to say, John is a fan of the BMW R69US. “The steadfast reliability of a 1960s vintage BMW motorcycle allows me to go touring with the same confidence I would have touring on a modern motorcycle,” he says.
Where it all began
Bayerische Motoren-Werke was founded in 1916 as an aircraft engine factory. With the end of World War I came a ban on German aircraft, so BMW looked for other arenas for its output. The company started building motorcycle engines in 1920 or 1921 and complete bikes in 1923. War came again in 1939, and once again BMW found itself on the losing side. After a brief period where the BMW factory, then located in Munich, Germany, was relegated to the manufacture of cooking pots, its first postwar bike, a single, appeared at the 1948 Geneva show. The first postwar flat twin, the R51/2, was initially built for the French police, and wasn’t available to civilians until 1950.
The R51/2 was a 494cc overhead valve design, with split valve covers, plunger rear suspension and new, inclined Bing carburetors. BMW was one of the first to use telescopic forks (starting with the R12 in 1935), and the R51/2 featured new two-way damped telescopics. However, the R51/2 was basically a prewar design, and the engine was replaced in 1951 with the R51/3.
The R51/3 continued the R51/2’s 68mm x 68mm bore and stroke, but a single camshaft driven by helical-cut gears replaced the previous wear-prone timing chain. The front cover housed an auto advance unit and the generator. The plunger frame was basically the same as the previous years’, but the brakes were beefed up and the gas tank now held 4.5gal. A 594cc model, the R67, was also produced, intended mainly as a sidecar hauler.
In the years following World War II the market for motorcycles — or any other cheap transportation — was excellent, and the BMW factory hummed. Importantly, American servicemen were introduced to BMWs — considerably more technologically advanced and reliable than the home product, and quiet to boot — while overseas. BMWs had been available on special order from Germany before the war (there was no regular importer), but following the war there was enough interest to support a U.S. distributor. By 1948, BMW’s 247cc R24 single was being imported into the U.S., and over the next few years, the U.S. became an increasingly important market.
Although BMW’s presence in the U.S. market was on the upswing, competition with fast British motorcycles for the mighty American dollar led BMW to cater to the sport rider. A series of roadburners began appearing in showrooms, starting with the R68, first available in 1952. Although the R68 had larger valves, improved lower-end bearings, a new camshaft and larger Bing carburetors, it was still limited by the old plunger frame.
The swingarm cometh
The first BMWs with rear swingarms appeared at the January 1955 Brussels show. The new 494cc R50 and the 594cc R69 not only sported new frames, but also Earles fork front ends. The hydraulically damped, leading-link Earles forks were adapted to all BMWs, and became the trademark of the BMW factory. Simple to set up for either solo or sidecar use, Earles forks have inherent lateral rigidity and won’t dive under heavy braking. Although heavier, they were an improvement in many ways over contemporary telescopic forks.
The R69 was intended to be a gentleman’s cruiser, with a top speed of 102mph and the ability to run all day at 90mph on the Autobahn without breaking down. Bore and stroke were 72mm x 73mm, for a displacement of 594cc. Ignition was through a Noris magneto, and lubrication was wet sump. And while many 1950s motorcycle manufacturers’ brakes seemed ornamental in practice, BMW’s twin-leading-shoe front brakes actually worked.
BMW’s outlay for engineering improvements had been justified by the strong demand for bikes in the early Fifties, but this was not to last. In 1954, BMW built almost 30,000 motorcycles. In the next three years, increasing prosperity and the availability of small, cheap cars cut deeply into the European motorcycle market. Europeans traditionally purchased motorcycles as inexpensive transportation: They got Father to work during the week and, with a sidecar bolted on, became family transport on weekends and holidays. By the late Fifties, however, most people who had bought motorcycles as an economy measure were trading up for a new car.
The good ‘ole U.S. of A.
The only bright spot for BMW was export sales, especially in the U.S. The diminishing European motorcycle market of the late Fifties killed German marques that had not established a strong export presence, such as Adler and Horex. Thanks to the broad expanses of the U.S., American long-distance riders and sidecar enthusiasts were increasingly turning to BMWs. Butler & Smith, located in New York City, was the BMW importer for the East Coast, and Flanders took care of the Western market.
BMW was able to survive, but funds were not available for further, major engineering advances. But while the bikes changed little during this time, BMW’s reputation remained solid thanks to attention to detail and the reliability of its product. In 1959, John Penton rode coast-to-coast in just over 52 hours on an R69, showcasing the bike’s ability to run for hours without trouble.
In 1960 the company introduced two new models, a somewhat overstressed 494cc model, the R50S, and the more reliable 594cc R69 S, with 42hp, a compression ratio of 9.5:1, 26mm Bing carburetors and better mufflers and air filter. A solo seat was available as an option, although most bikes in the U.S. were sold with a solidly padded bench seat.
In the next few years, the R50S was dropped, and the R69 S gained beefed-up cylinders and a crankshaft vibration dampener. It was a natural road bike. A 1966 Cycle World road test of the R69 S, titled “Born to Wander,” said the bike “just begins to get broken-in when many of its like-size brethren start to fold up.”
Cycle World praised the bike’s stability under heavy braking, the driveshaft, the adjustable rear dampers and the smoothness of the engine, but was unhappy with the noticeable torque reaction felt when the throttle was twisted hard and with the clunky gearbox. The magazine concluded, “Combine the small features with the ride and the machine’s ability to run all day at any speed demanded of it, and one has a near perfect choice in a machine for serious traveling.”
By this time, another motorcycle boom was on, with new motorcycles from Japan and powerful, stylish bikes from England competing for customers. By contrast, BMW motorcycles looked very much as they did before World War II: Classic looks and reliability were not selling points for the up-and-coming baby boomers.
BMW, under pressure from its U.S. importers, tried to cope. Long-travel telescopic forks, developed for the BMW factory International Six Days Trial team, became available in 1968 in special models for the U.S. market. These telescopic fork twins were denominated R50US (494cc), R60US (low-compression 594cc), and R69US (high-compression 594cc).
Cycle magazine tested a telescopic fork BMW R69US in 1968, and immediately noticed the alloy rims, the larger 4.0in x 18in rear tire (versus the R69S’ 3.5 x 18in) and the slightly lower gearing, giving better acceleration through the gears. Although at low speed the new forks showed a tendency to oversteer (due to extra rake and trail), the sensation of heaviness went away at speeds over 40mph. The R69 US was rock steady at high speed, and felt quicker than the Earles-fork model. And the telescopic fork model also did a better job of canyon carving. Cycle was impressed with the fact that the R69US did not exhibit any mechanical faults whatsoever during 1,200 miles of hard riding.
Toward the end of the test report, Cycle mentioned that BMW had just completed a new motorcycle-only production facility near Berlin. BMW’s car division was beginning to squeeze the bikes out from the old Munich plant, and the bikes needed their own space.
The engineers attached to the new plant immediately started to work on a replacement for the tried and true, although a little tired, black and white road burners. The first /5 BMWs, made in 498cc, 599cc and 745cc models, turned up in late 1969.
The BMW R69 S today
Despite the improvements of the newer models, people kept riding their R69 S motorcycles. About 11,000 were built over the model run, including both the R69S and R69US models, and many are still on the road 40-plus years later, a tribute to BMW’s quality engineering and manufacturing. In fact, a lot of traditionalists hated the updated looks of the new bikes. There are several national organizations of people who like to ride older BMWs, including the Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners Inc., for traditional enthusiasts, and the Airheads, for more Bohemian, less-traditional enthusiasts.
John Landstrom spent a pleasant vacation touring Vermont last summer on his R69US. “I set this R69US up with all the traditional accessories: Denfield-style leather bags, Hella bar-end turn signals and a leather tank cover with a green felt underside. This was an accessory offered by Butler & Smith, the U.S. importers, and it works very well with a tank bag.”
Other accessories include the Bumm headlight-mounted mirrors, the chrome headlight guard, the Denfield folding passenger pegs and the Denfield solo seat and pillion pad. John says the solo seat is extremely comfortable (it has rubber springs), and the way to go if you intend to ride your old pavement-pounder from Seattle to Savannah.
Keeping the flame alive
Thanks to his involvement with the brand, Landstrom has good tips on maintenance. “If you want to ride your pre-1970 BMW any distance, there are two things you have to look after. First, old BMWs don’t have oil filters. They have slinger rings inside the engine, which act as centrifugal oil filters — until they get clogged with dirt. They have to be cleaned every 40,000 miles, which means a complete disassembly of the engine. If you are not sure when this was last done, get it done. The other problem is that after 40 years, the magneto coil gets tired. You can get an upgrade. Other maintenance is pretty basic. Change the engine oil as often as possible. Check the valve clearances and the vibration damper rubber (a $5 item) at 5,000 miles and the points at 10,000 miles. Change the rear drive, transmission and fork oil at 10,000 mile intervals. Also, Bing carbs can drip slightly. It’s normal,” Landstrom says.
“It’s a nice motorcycle for 50-60mph country roads. Short bursts to 100mph are no problem. It’s got that great, large, double-leading-shoe front brake — better than early disc brakes. It’s very smooth with very little vibration. You get used to the clunky gearbox. It’s a BMW characteristic. The fork travel is pronounced, and the size of the saddlebags is a limiting factor — they must not have carried more than a change of clothes and a toothbrush in those days,” Landstrom says. “There’s little engine noise and no chain noise. You mainly hear wind noise, the wind going past as you ride.” Sounds like fun to us.