Chasing Perfection: 1937 BMW R5

article image
by Ken Richardson
1937 BMW R5

1937 BMW R5
494cc air-cooled OHV horizontally opposed flat twin, 68mm x 68mm bore and stroke, 6.7:1 compression ratio, 24hp @ 5,500rpm
Top Speed:
84mph (approx.)
4-speed, shaft final drive
Dual downtube steel cradle frame/55in (1,400mm)
Telescopic hydraulic forks front, rigid rear
3.5 x 19in front and rear
Weight (dry):
364lb (165kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
4gal (15ltr)/40-50mpg (est.)
Price then/now:

Pursuing perfection when restoring a motorcycle is a bit like waltzing with a porcupine. It’s a prickly proposition, and if any of the details are incorrect there will be barbs of criticism from the experts. But BMW enthusiast Philip Richter isn’t one to shy away from a dance, and he’s consulted those in the know to bring his 1937 BMW R5 as close to 100 percent perfect as possible.

Case in point: In the photographs accompanying this story, Philip’s R5 looks refined and ready to roll. It is, but the machine had earlier been restored with incorrect fenders. Philip says he recently “paid through the nose” for an exact set of reproduction R5 fenders, hand-formed by a German panel beater. At the time of writing, the R5 was in the workshop with installation of the new fenders progressing apace.

He’s going one step further, ensuring all fasteners, springs and other metal parts are up to spec in terms of finish, whether it’s black oxide, cadmium or chrome plated or natural aluminum. In fact, pre-World War II BMW specialists and enthusiasts including Mike Dunn of Vintage German Motorcycles and collector Brian Schneider have all spent plenty of time helping Philip get things just right.

It’s the people

Philip says it’s this network of dedicated people that makes the vintage motorcycle hobby really hum. “It’s not so much about the motorcycles, but more about the people who know these motorcycles, they’re the ones who have the information and that’s significant,” Philip says. “The real fun of the prewar hobby is meeting really interesting people who share the same rare passion. I’ve met the coolest people through this sport!”

Philip’s R5 is something of a rare machine, as BMW built the model for just two years, 1936 and 1937, and production was limited to approximately 2,652 examples. In The Complete Book of BMW Motorcycles, author Ian Falloon writes, “When the R5 was released at the Berlin Motor Show in February 1936, it heralded a new era of innovation for BMW. The R5 was arguably the most advanced motorcycle available at the time, not only looking much more modern than the R17, but it was significantly lighter and cost only 1,550 marks. Overnight, BMW had made its R17 sporting flagship obsolete.”

Back in the day

Before getting too far ahead, a little more background on BMW motorcycles is in order. Introduced in 1921 and engineered by BMW’s Max Friz, the company’s flat twin engine was first used as a portable industrial powerplant, but soon found its way into motorcycle platforms including those built by Victoria and Helios. When BMW merged in 1922 with BFW — maker of the Helios motorcycle — the company gained a motorcycle production facility. By 1923 Max Friz had taken his 486cc flat twin, purportedly based on the British-built Douglas powerplant, and placed it with a shaft final drive in a tubular steel frame.

Dubbed the R32, the new BMW had its cylinders placed across the frame in the cooling airstream, whereas other manufacturers of flat twins such as Douglas placed the cylinders in a fore and aft arrangement. This layout became a traditional arrangement for BMW.

From that point on, BMW engineered faster and ever more impressive motorcycles, introducing a number of different models in the following years. BMW found that frame tubes could crack when hauling a sidecar and this led to the introduction of a heavier pressed steel-type chassis. Introduced in 1929 on the 745cc sidevalve R11 and overhead valve R16, the pressed steel frame BMWs proved popular with the German military, and army contracts helped carry the company through the early part of the 1930s.

The new R12 and R17 — the machine earlier alluded to by Ian Falloon — debuted in 1935. The R12 again featured sidevalve arrangement, while the R17 instead used overhead valves and was sold as a rather expensive but sporting motorcycle. Both still featured a rigid pressed steel frame and shaft final drive. Importantly, BMW introduced one of the earliest production hydraulically damped front forks on both the R12 and R17.

That brings us up to date in 1936 with the introduction of the technologically advanced R5. Based on the company’s racing successes with supercharged 500cc flat twins the overhead valve R5 became BMW’s hottest sporting motorcycle, with an all-welded tubular steel frame fitted with the latest telescopic fork. The rigid frame was similar to the one used on the groundbreaking BMW supercharged Kompressor, and the R5 became a milestone machine for BMW.


Although still a flat twin, the R5’s 494cc engine was all new. Instead of split crankcases, the R5 had a tunnel-type case where the crankshaft is installed or removed from the front. A timing chain drove twin camshafts, with the cams positioned high up and to each side of the crankshaft. The location of the cams facilitated the use of revised valve gear with shorter tappets and pushrods. The valves themselves were opened by rockers moving on needle roller bearings and closed firmly against their seats with double hairpin springs.

At the very top of the R5’s crankcase was a Bosch generator, also turned by the timing chain. A distributor and coil lived under the front engine cover and provided sparks to ignite the fuel and air mixture introduced into the combustion chambers via twin Amal 22mm carburetors. The first year of the R5 the Amals were equipped with separate air filters, but in 1937 a single filter was fitted atop a new gearbox casting.

“The 4-speed gearbox was foot operated by a linkage on the left, although the right-hand lever was retained primarily as a quicker way to select neutral,” Falloon notes in the same BMW book. “As this positive stop (foot) gearshift design originated with Harold Willis’ 1928 Velocette, it demonstrated BMW’s openness to incorporating new ideas, even foreign.”

In 1938 the R5 was replaced by the R51 — similar engine, gearbox and forks, but with the chassis updated to employ a plunger rear suspension.

A long history

Philip’s 1937 R5 might just be one of the most well documented examples of the model to exist. That’s because he has records that indicate his machine, bearing frame serial number 502616 and engine number 501143, was built on Friday, Dec. 3, 1937, in Munich, Germany — BMW records note this was the eighth to last R5 to leave their works.

This R5, along with as many as five other similar motorcycles, was then delivered to AFN Ltd., Falcon Works, London Road, Isleworth, England, and registered HMK 477. Archie Frazer Nash — hence AFN Ltd. — was constructing Frazer Nash cars, but in 1934 began a sales agreement with BMW to re-badge the 6-cylinder BMW 315 car as the Frazer Nash BMW. If Nash took the cars, he was expected to take the motorcycles, too.

This particular background is courtesy of Robert Freeman, a pre-eminent U.K-based BMW historian and also the person who could be considered the rescuer of HMK 477. Robert has been granted sole access to the AFN archive, a treasure trove of information about early BMW motorcycles imported into England. It’s from the AFN archive that a fairly clear chain of ownership history of HMK 477, including names, addresses and early phone numbers of first owners, has emerged.

Here’s what we know, thanks to a written document produced by Robert. HMK 477 was first sold to Mr. Ronald Carrington of London. According to AFN records, the R5 returned to AFN for service in July 1938 with 7,373 miles on the speedometer. By July 13, 1939, the bike had been sold to D. Chatterton of London. The AFN service entry reads, “Mileage 482, s of new throttle cables. Fit good used saddle top, see R713, and also connecting on SCR, all via JMW.”

Robert deciphers that like this: “Some words I cannot understand, mileage 482, perhaps they missed out the 1000’s or a new speedometer had been fitted (and) ‘s’ I think means set; SCR could be side car, but ‘all via JMW’ is clear.” That’s because JMW are the initials of John Milns West, better known as Jock West, AFN employee, BMW works rider and the racer who was second behind Georg Meier in the 1939 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy races.

By 1951, HMK 477 was in the hands of Errol Bright of St. Albans. He and his wife, Jean, toured all over England aboard the R5, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s Errol would rent the machine to local film studios producing World War II pictures. This use and abuse took its toll on the bike. Errol started a restoration, but gave up on it by 1967. That’s when Robert learned HMK 477 was for sale.

“It was painted a maroon color,” Robert notes. “No part was joined to another, and he had started ‘polishing’ the crankcase. The fenders, control levers, horn, rear light, silencers all missing. The crankshaft had been rebuilt, barrels bored, with Hepolite pistons. It did not take much haggling, we agreed upon the price of £11. The sale took place on Jan. 2, 1968.”

Over a period of 10 or more years, as money allowed, Robert returned the R5 to running condition. Parts were very difficult to obtain, with most of them sourced by word of mouth or a small want ad in the motorcycle press of the day. No fenders were present with the project, so Robert sourced a set from an R25/2.

All finished, Robert rode and enjoyed the R5 for a number of years until it was sold at a Bonhams auction for £1,250 in 1985. The funds were used to help purchase a house, and HMK 477 went to a Henri Martini of Ireland. Henri rode it until 2002, when it was sold to Vintage Imports in Glendola, New Jersey. This is where current owner Philip Richter enters the picture.

“I was just getting into BMWs, and had bought the R60 (see Motorcycle Classics January/February 2016),” Philip says. “I was searching for old BMWs, and saw an internet ad for the R5.”

On a rainy Saturday afternoon Philip went to view the R5 at Vintage Imports, where it was stored in a wooden shed. Dusty and rusty, it had suffered from neglect, yet it was rolled out on half-inflated tires and coaxed to life.

“The noise coming out of the engine was terrible and I quickly made him shut it off,” Philip says. He bought it anyway, for $15,000, which was a non-negotiable price.

Philip had plans to restore HMK 477, but as his career took off he had less time to devote to such a task. The machine went to Philip’s mentor and BMW-whisperer, Phil Cheney.

Unfortunately, Phil didn’t have the time either, so they both decided the best thing to do was to ship HMK 477 to Kevin Brooks at his shop Brooks Motor Works in Seattle, Washington.

In 2010, Philip got his completely restored R5 back from Kevin. He’s ridden it and enjoyed it since, and says he’d trust riding the motorcycle across the country — thanks to Kevin’s care and attention it’s an exceptional runner. Now Philip wants to take the R5 to the next level and will continue to use the BMW while rectifying some details.

“The fenders were incorrect, the tank stripe was a little thinner and a little tighter than original and some of the fasteners and springs were incorrectly plated,” Philip says, adding, “That’s all being fixed right now by Phil (Cheney), and we’re adding period-correct, cloth-covered control cables and the correct fuel lines.” In other words, he’s chasing perfection. MC

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