A Very Special 1958 BMW R50

Dad's BMW receives a very special restoration
By Greg Williams
May/June 2011
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Bill Costello's 1958 BMW R50, fully restored in memory of its previous owner, Bill's father, Richard.
Photo by Markus Hartel
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1958 BMW R50
Claimed power:
26hp @ 5,800rpm
Top speed: 87mph
Engine type: 494cc OHV horizontally-opposed twin
Weight (dry): 429lb (195kg)
Price then/now: $730 (est.)/$4,000-$7,500

Leaning against a wall in a crowded five car garage, surrounded by tools and tool chests, lawn mowers and bits of scrap wood, sat the prized possession of the late Richard Costello, a 1958 BMW R50. A pair of black rubber truck mud flaps placed under the crankcase revealed a dribble of fluid — likely oil slowly weeping past a shrunken seal.

The headlight-mounted odometer showed 60,561 miles, the numbers barely visible through the dusty, grimy glass. It had been 40 years since the old Beemer had been on the road, and more than 35 years since it had last run. Attached to the handlebar of the tired looking R50 was a note, jotted in pencil on a yellowed piece of paper torn from a coil-bound notebook.

“Note: Spare parts are tucked away inside Headlamp, tail lamp. Extra tools are in tool kit. I want the bike fixed as well as I know you can do it. R. Costello.”

To anyone else, the message would likely have been lost. But Richard’s son, Bill Costello, knew exactly what it meant. “I think he had me in mind when he wrote that,” Bill says.

In 1961, Richard Costello was a 23-year-old engineering student attending college in Madison, Wisc. He enjoyed the sport of riding, and had owned a couple of used motorcycles, including a little Harley-Davidson 165 Hummer. He was ready to move up, and after pondering his options decided the best machine he could buy for his money was a BMW. Richard purchased a 3-year-old 1958 BMW R50, joining the ranks of the then small but growing fraternity of American motorcyclists dedicated to the European brand. BMWs didn’t leak oil or vibrate incessantly like their British counterparts, and they weren’t heavy, lumbering machines like the ones produced in the U.S. They were unique, solid and well engineered. Perfect for a man like Richard.

Watch Bill Costello's video tribute to his father and the 1958 BMW R50 

“If you rode a BMW [back then], you likely wore a suit and tie,” Bill says. “For my dad, the BMW was daily transportation as he rode with his books to college — or he’d wear a tuxedo and go to a formal ball.”

Not long after he bought the R50, Richard began modifying his BMW with the addition of a Heinrich fairing, a wire utility basket, indicator lights and a pair of 6-volt air horns. Weather protection, rather than a wind-cheating aerodynamic profile, was what the Heinrich fairing offered Richard as he rode to school or two-up with his wife, Trini, as they discovered America. They toured extensively aboard the 500cc BMW, gradually adding many of those 60,000 miles to the odometer.

Life changes
The Costellos finally settled in Queens, N.Y., and Richard commuted daily to Manhattan to teach at Cooper Union engineering school, where he was a professor. He wouldn’t take a car to the city, and when not riding the subway, the BMW was his transportation — and his passion. But in 1969 that changed. He was exiting the Grand Central Parkway on his BMW when for unknown reasons the bike slid out from under him. Likely, he would have been fine, but some part of the R50, perhaps a footpeg, got caught on a roadway expansion joint.

“As the machine stopped short, he flew through the Heinrich fairing, and in addition to the road rash he broke nine bones, including some ribs and his collarbone,” Bill says. “My mom was eight or nine months pregnant with me — ready to give birth, really. And she basically said ‘That’s it.’ She forbade him to ride again. He stuck to that promise for the rest of his life.”

But Richard didn’t sell the BMW. Instead, he stored it away, and as Bill grew up he was always aware of the BMW, first tucked in the back of the garage in Queens, then in a barn on his grandfather’s property, and finally in its spot in the garage at his parent’s last house on Long Island. Richard would tell his son stories about how the BMW was, in its day, the best motorcycle available, and how smooth and wonderful it was to ride. Occasionally, Bill and his friends would egg Richard on and ask him when he was going to fix up his old BMW motorcycle. “Year after year, I’d ask him. Now, I have this feeling he was just leaving it as a project for me,” Bill says.

Richard, a consummate tool collector and lover of all things mechanical, died from a stroke in 2009 at the age of 71. He and Trini had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. After Richard died, Trini wanted to sell everything, including the shop full of machine and woodworking tools — and the BMW.

“I didn’t want my mom to sell the motorcycle, and I was trying to convince her not to,” Bill recalls. “That’s when my wife and I were looking at the BMW, and my wife said ‘What’s that on the handlebar?’ It was the note from dad.”

Reborn
After showing the note to his mom, she responded by saying, “I guess we’re not selling the motorcycle.” Even though the note on the handlebar was obviously written years before Richard died, Bill thinks the gift of the BMW might have been his dad’s way of helping him through the grieving process. “It was an amazing thing for my dad to do, as I started working on it not long after he died and it really helped me get through the most traumatic time of my life so far.”

Determined to get the BMW running again, Bill started some research and turned to the Internet. On one of his first forays he discovered noted BMW collector and restorer Peter Nettesheim, who, luckily, lived close by. In an e-mail, Bill explained to Peter what he had, and asked if Peter might be able to help him in any way with the R50. Peter agreed to take a look at the BMW and offer Bill some advice on what direction to take — whether a restoration or a sympathetic wipe with an oily rag.

“Peter spent a few minutes looking over the bike, and then said, ‘You know, I can get this started in about 20 minutes’ — I couldn’t believe it,” Bill says. Peter left, and returned with some new fuel line to replace the rotting original and a pair of floats to swap for the split units in the dual Bing carburetors. He cleaned the spark plugs with a wire wheel, and poured a bit of gasoline from a container of gas meant for the lawn mower into the tank. Kicking the BMW over didn’t produce any results, so Peter rolled the R50 to the top of the Costello’s driveway and asked Bill for a push. A moment later, rolling down the drive, he popped the clutch with the BMW in gear and the flat twin engine came to life.

Now came the deliberation. Bill really liked the patina the BMW had earned over the years, and Peter advised that the R50 was a very solid platform and with little work could be a rider. But the seat was torn from the crash and the chrome was rusty. Plus, Bill, a relative newbie to the world of motorcycles, decided if he was going to ride the R50 he wanted to change the high bars to a low, European-spec flat bar, remove the non-standard signal lights and fill the literally dozen or more holes left by the multitude of accessories his engineer father had added over the years.

With his mind made up, in the fall of 2009 Bill decided to perform a cosmetic restoration, while also paying attention to some of the bike’s important mechanical items. He purchased and consulted various books, including the exhaustively researched BMW /2 Restoration and Service Manualwritten by Christopher and Barbara Rowe Betjemann of Barrington Motor Works. Bill calls their book the “bible” on restoring a BMW.

Working in his dad’s garage under narrow fluorescent strip lights, Bill used tools that belonged either to his grandfather or his dad and took the BMW apart. With “only” 60,000 miles on the engine, BMW specialist Peter felt the bottom end was in fine condition. Bill took the engine to Peter’s shop, and together they pulled the heads and cylinders. The pistons were original and in the original bore, and surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly for a BMW), they showed little to no wear.

They installed new rings on the pistons, and sent the heads to Cycle Works, a well-known BMW parts and service shop in Kansas, where attention was paid to the springs, valves and seats. The cylinders were powder coated semi-gloss black, and the engine block was carefully sealed up and soda blasted, as was the gearbox.

Still at Peter’s shop, where Peter has many of the specialty BMW tools at his disposal, the pair replaced all the seals as they reassembled the engine. Before bolting up the gearbox, they installed a new clutch, and soon had the engine and transmission ready to marry back up with the chassis.

Turning their attention to the various cycle parts, everything that was black, including the frame, swingarm, Earles fork and other assorted brackets, was sent out for powder coating. The fenders and gas tank were professionally painted black and then striped with the classic BMW white lines. Bill has taken auto body courses and was prepared to paint the BMW himself, but felt constrained by time; he wanted the R50 back on the road in 2010.

The wheels were in rough shape, as the alloy rims were dented and scuffed. Bill cut away the spokes, cleaned the hubs and replaced the bearings, and then sent them both to Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim in California for lacing into a set of new rims.

As the R50 came back together on a makeshift bike bench, many components were replaced with stainless steel items. New parts included front and rear axles, handlebar risers, the steering damper knob, brake linkage, a multitude of bolts and the entire exhaust system. Bill switched out the stock dual saddle for a classic Denfeld solo seat and added Hella bar end indicator lights and headlight-mounted mirrors.

Up to this point, Bill had never ridden anything larger than a Honda scooter, so during the BMW’s restoration he enrolled in a motorcycle safety course and earned his motorcycle license. The first time he rode legally on the road was the day the BMW rolled down off the bench. According to Bill, the R50 fired right up, and has been running flawlessly ever since, with some 1,000 miles added to the clock.

The roads surrounding Bill’s Port Washington, N.Y., home are hilly and twisty. One of Bill’s favorite things to do is roll the R50 out of his garage, pull on his jacket, helmet and gloves, prod the BMW to life, and go for a night ride. With the finely sorted R50 humming below him, Bill enjoys flowing up and down the swells in the asphalt, sweeping from one bend to the next. If ever there was a time to feel a connection it is at the precise moment when, out on one of these evening rides, Bill thinks back some 50 years to when his father was a young man aboard this very motorcycle.

Like father, like son. Both men obviously took, and indeed, continue to take, great pleasure in riding such a finely engineered BMW. MC 

Read more about the BMW R50: 
Bill Costello's Video Tribute to His Father and 1958 BMW R50 
BMW /2 Restoration Guide from Barrington Motor Works 
The BMW /2 Series: Bavaria's Best? 


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