Motorcycle Classics

Flight of the Bumblebee: 1961 DKW Hummel 115

1961 DKW Hummel 115
Engine: 48cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 40mm x 39mm bore and stroke, 2hp @ 4,950rpm
Top speed: 25mph
Carburetion: Single Bing
Transmission: 3-speed, enclosed chain final drive
Electrics: 6v generator, magneto ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Pressed steel frame/49in (1,245mm)
Suspension: Leading-link with dual shocks front, swingarm with dual shocks rear
Brakes: 3.9in (100mm) drum brake front and rear
Tires: 2.75 x 20in front and rear
Weight: 163lb (74kg)
Seat height: 32in (814mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 1.6gal (6.2ltr)/87-98mpg
Price then/now: $395 (est.)/$5,000-$12,000

The 1960s were an era of emerging youth fashion and style. Actor Sean Connery (aka James Bond) was teaching the boys how to drink martinis while designer Mary Quant was teaching the girls how to wear miniskirts and hot pants. Conventional design was being challenged everywhere, and an unlikely German moped, the Hummel, joined the Swinging Sixties party.

It might have been part motorcycle and part moped, but its designers wanted it to be neither. Originally a utilitarian commuter that had been around since 1956, for 1961 the Hummel — German for bumblebee — was reinvented with futuristic body panels and a large cowling over the engine. They were hoping it would reinvent the styling of personal transport for an emerging youth market. In reality, it looked as fantastic as something out of the sci-fi television cartoon The Jetsons.

The new Hummel 115 was launched with a classy advertising push that resembled the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign. The company’s sales brochure read: “Connoisseurs ride DKWs.” Sadly, the European motorcycle press wasn’t impressed and cruelly described it as “the tin banana.” The Hummel faded from the market.

Art Deco on an acid trip

Collector Stewart Ingram is undeterred by period comments about his Hummel. He can see the humor of it all and describes his 1961 DKW Model 115 Hummel as “Art Deco on an acid trip.” The Hummel is part of Stewart’s eclectic 16-bike collection that includes a 1969 50cc Itom Astor Super Sport and a 1956 Maserati, which is a replica of a 125 GTS the factory prepared for the 1957 Giro d’Italia. The San Francisco-based real estate agent is proud of his Hummel and has even shown it at the famous Quail Motorcycle Gathering near Monterey, California.

While the Hummel may have been unloved when it first debuted, today the bike has a new status in the world of motorcycle collecting. Good examples are hard to find and can change hands for upwards of $10,000.

The story of the Hummel mirrors the history of a couple of famous companies. The 48cc, 2-stroke moped with a 3-speed gearbox and conventional styling was first produced in 1956 by DKW, which had been the planet’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer before World War II.

In 1958, Daimler-Benz took control of Auto Union, which was the umbrella organization for Germany’s motor industry. The motorcycle manufacturers were sold off because the power brokers didn’t see a future in two-wheel production. This led to Victoria, Express-Werke AG and DKW, some of the world’s oldest motorcycle manufacturers, becoming the Zweirad Union. This conglomerate shared production resources to increase efficiency.

These were not exactly the glory days for the German motorcycle industry. Even NSU, a land-speed record holder in the mid-1950s and a fierce competitor on the track, ceased motorcycle production, and eventually DKW formed part of Audi.

Space age scooter

The radically revised Hummel was launched in 1961 and ran until 1965. It was an obvious attempt to blur the lines between cars and motorcycles. Even the engine was hidden by a car-like grille.

Remember, this was the grand era of car design, which seemed to be influenced by what was going on in the space race. In the late 1950s, tailfins and swooping bodywork with pillarless doors and starburst logos were the bread and butter of the typical automotive design engineer. Look no further than the split rear window of the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette to see how this spaceship design ethic had become seriously mainstream.

The Hummel took full advantage of this new age of design. Its headlight formed the end of an all-encompassing body that contained the gas tank, seat unit and taillight. Underneath was a stamped steel frame. The rear chain was fully enclosed.

There were two models; the 115, which produced 2 horsepower at 4,950rpm, and the 155 model, which pushed out up to 4.2 horsepower at 6,500rpm. This was good enough to propel the little bike to 45mph, but it was never an open-road machine. Aimed at the youth market, its engine size was just under the limit for first-time riders.

An indication of the sharing of resources among the Zweirad Union is the badging on the Hummel. It has the nameplate of Victoria (a motorcycle company established in 1901) on one side of the engine with a Zweirad Union badge on the other. The Nuremberg coat of arms takes pride of place on the headlight nacelle. It doesn’t take huge powers of deduction to conclude that the Hummel was produced at the old Victoria factory in Nuremberg by the Zweirad Union for DKW. It’s a bit like a Honda having Suzuki and Yamaha badging.

Unrestored time capsule

Stewart’s Hummel is the more humble- performing 115. Remarkably, he bought it in the original, unrestored condition it is in now, so it can claim to be a true time capsule of another age of brave industrial design. However, to experience this era of the early 1960s in the modern age is slightly daunting.

Stewart describes riding his pride and joy as a “strange experience,” as the leading-link front suspension and huge front fender give a vagueness to the steering. DKW knew a thing or two about 2-stroke engines and Stewart says the engine, cooled by a large fan, is “remarkably quiet.” He’s proud of the Hummel, which is a rare piece of motorcycle history.

While he also has an interest in cars, Stewart prefers motorcycles. “Collector bikes are more down-to-earth and hands-on,” he says. “You get grease under the fingernails. You can get consumed by it.” MC

  • Published on Jun 18, 2018
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