South American survivor
1937 Zundapp KKS500
Claimed power: 24hp @ 5,200rpm
Top speed: 87mph
Engine: 498cc OHV, air-cooled horizontally-opposed twin
Weight: 386lb (175kg)
Fuel capacity: 3.3gal
From road racer to plodding sidecar hack, this 1937 Zundapp KKS500 has led quite a life.
Found languishing in the South American country of Uruguay, hooked to a Steib sidecar with a pillion saddle and rack over the rear fender, the Zundapp had at one time traveled the area’s dusty hills under the control of a Mormon pastor.
Enter Florida resident Marco Palmer, the current custodian of the KKS. Born in the United States, Marco was raised in Argentina and Uruguay. Educated by Brits and Scots, he speaks English with a Dutch accent! Regardless, he’s a really decent chap with a penchant for air-cooled, flat-twin motorcycles (namely BMWs) that can be traced back to when he was just 11 years old and saw a local newspaper ad for a 1943 BMW R75. “It was $80, and I had the money, but my parents wouldn’t let me buy it,” Marco says wistfully. “I had a fancy for old motorcycles with sidecars, and that’s when my passion really started.”
While he didn’t get the vintage BMW, he did get a French Velo Solex moped, black with red tartan saddlebags. He rode it everywhere, and then graduated to a 1973 Honda CB360. After that, school and then work saw Marco moving back and forth between the U.S. and South America, and he was 25 when he bought his first BMW, in Argentina, an ex-police model R50. He restored that bike, and from that point on, vintage BMWs and Steib sidecars just rolled in the door. He had the R50, then bought two R60s and an R67 — all pre-War BMWs.
South American connection
How could there be such a concentration of old machines in Argentina and Uruguay? From the mid-1930s through to the mid-1940s, South America had a very strong economy. The U.S. was in a depression, and Argentina was the breadbasket of the world for grain and beef production. “You could find incredible cars and motorcycles in South America,” Marco says, adding, “In the past 30 years, though, things have changed. They’re not as easy to find as they once were.”
In 2000, Marco was looking for a sidecar for one of his BMWs. Through a friend in Uruguay, he heard about a group of vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, and he met up with them and started talking about old bikes. Marco mentioned he was looking for a sidecar when somebody said they knew of a BMW that was for sale. He wasn’t interested in another motorcycle, but he called the owner anyway.
“He said he wasn’t selling the BMW, but he did say he had a sidecar hooked up to a Zundapp,” Marco recalls. “I said I’d just bought a motorcycle, and wasn’t interested in another. He persuaded me to come see it, though.” As if Marco really needed to have his arm-twisted.
Marco turned up on the seller’s doorstep, and the next thing he knew he was looking at an outfit he’d seen 10 years earlier. “I had been drooling over it in 1990, when it was for sale for $15,000,” Marco says. There sat a 1937 Zundapp KKS500 hooked to a 1951 Steib S350 sidecar. There was a layer of dust an eighth of an inch thick over the outfit. A drab sky-blue, hand-brushed paint job covered both sidecar and motorcycle. Marco says he opened the gas tank, and the fuel was putrid.
That didn’t stop the motivated seller. He proceeded to wire up the bike’s 6-volt system to his 12-volt car battery, and kicked it over. Nothing. A second kick and it started, and Marco was enveloped in thick white smoke. “It popped 10 times, and that was it,” Marco says. “I asked how much did he want for it?” The answer was $5,000. He quickly parted with his cash.
Marco still wasn’t thinking about keeping the Zundapp, though. He figured the Steib was worth $2,000, and he could get $3,000 for the Zundapp at a later date. He brought the machine home and proceeded to research the Zundapp. That’s when he hit a wall — hard. “There was nothing about this bike in books or on the Internet,” Marco says.
Rare and unknown
Armed with the serial number, Marco wrote to a couple of Zundapp authorities, one in England and the other in Germany. Their first response was disbelief, but after Marco insisted he had indeed purchased a Zundapp with that particular serial number they informed him he was the owner of a rather unique racing motorcycle, one of only 170 made (see sidebar below).
Not surprisingly, Marco lost interest in selling the Zundapp, and wanted instead to learn more about his KKS500 and its life in Uruguay. To the best of his knowledge, Marco says the KKS500 came to Uruguay in 1937 where it was raced on local tracks. After a useful race life, the machine became a pace bike for bicycle racers on a velodrome track. Then, in 1950, it fell into the hands of a Mormon pastor who lived up in the hills of Uruguay. He installed a rear rack with a pillion saddle and hitched a Steib S350 sidecar to the retired race machine. He used the outfit for some 20 years, traveling the dusty roads visiting members of his congregation.
In 1970 the motorcycle was purchased by a friend of Marco’s family, and stored away until 1990. “That’s when I saw it the first time, when it was for sale at a vintage car and motorcycle show, but I couldn’t afford the $15,000 asking price,” says Marco. Nobody else could, either, but at the end of the show when the Zundapp was being loaded up to go back home, somebody offered $10,000. It went to the owner before Marco, who kept it without doing anything with it until Marco bought it for $5,000 in 2000.
The restoration begins
Sympathetic to the Zundapp’s racing history Marco separated the motorcycle from the sidecar. The KKS500’s pressed steel frame was never meant to sustain the forces of pulling a chair, but remarkably, there were no problems with the frame.
Fairly complete and original as purchased, Marco has attempted to restore the Zundapp as close as possible to its factory finish. The paint was matched to the oxblood color found under the Zundapp logos, and the only thing Marco had to fabricate was the rear upper fender support.
The Zundapp is now with Marco at his Miami residence, and he fires it up and takes it for an occasional spin. He admits the Florida roads are not the best place to ride the bike, but the historic Zundapp KKS500 does log some 500 miles every year.
The KKS500 was the first Zundapp to incorporate a foot shifter, but the hand shifter was retained in the form of a short, stubby shaft with a black knob at the top. Both the foot gear change (tip of the foot) and rear brake pedal (heel of the foot) are on the right hand side of the machine, making for an interesting ride.
“Having driven this bike, and having driven it fast, I can say that the KKS500 is better designed for speeding than for stopping,” Marco says. “But these old bikes have to be used, and they have to be seen on the road to be appreciated.”
Zundapp KKS500 origins
German motorcycle maker Zundapp produced approximately 170 KKS500 motorcycles between 1936 and 1938. The KKS500 shared its 498cc air-cooled, horizontally opposed engine with its heavier sibling, the KS500. The difference between the two bikes is the KKS500 borrowed its frame from the much smaller Zundapp DK200 — a bike powered by a 198cc single-cylinder engine.
Shoehorning the 498cc powerplant into the shorter and lighter frame resulted in the very fast and very responsive KKS500, and the motorcycle was used to defend the Rehnn Sport racing title against the up and coming BMW R5s of the period.
All this was taking place during the re-arming of the German Wehrmacht, when winning a motorcycle race could also win manufacturer contracts to build military machines, a fact not lost on Zundapp, which ultimately supplied thousands of machines to the German military.
Racing KKS500s were maintained by special mechanics, who “signed” their work on the motorcycle by putting a special seal on any part they repaired. According to owner Marco Palmer there are now copies of those seals circulating, and cloned KKS500s are cropping up. He figures there are only eight remaining, true KKS500s in the world. MC