Easy Being Green: 1968 BMW R69US

For motorcyclists who really want to put some miles on a classic, 1960s and 1970s BMWs are hard to beat, including this 1968 BMW R69US.

article image
by Nick Cedar

1968 BMW R69US

Engine: 594cc air-cooled opposed twin, 72mm x 73mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 42hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 103mph (period report)
Carburetion: Twin 26mm Bings
Transmission: 4-speed, right foot shift, shaft final drive
Electrics: 6v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Double loop cradle frame/56.18in (1,427mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front w/hydraulic damping, dual shocks rear
Brakes: 7.8in TLS drum front, 7.8in drum rear
Tires: 3.5 x 18in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (curb): 439lb (199.5kg)
Seat height: 29.1in (740mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 6.5gal/40-45mpg (est.)

Most people who own vintage bikes put, at most, a couple hundred miles on them a year. George Canavan has put over 6,000 miles on this 1968 R69US, and he continues to ride it on a regular basis. “The ride is rewarding — it’s very, very smooth, and reasonably quiet.”

Before BMW started building sport bikes in the late 1970s, most North Americans who bought the German-built twins did so because they wanted to go from Seattle to Pensacola on two wheels, with maybe a little side trip to the Yucatan. In an era when motorcycles were expected to make noise, break down and leak oil, BMWs had a reputation for comfort, reliability and clean operation.

Few BMWs were imported to America before the late 1940s. Interest was sparked by American GIs, who were impressed by the sophisticated motorcycles of the German armies of World War II. Some bikes were liberated by the Allies and made it over to this side of the Atlantic. After the war, the Munich-based company did not have permission to manufacture motorcycles until 1947, and when motorcycle production did get the green light, it took some time to get up to speed, since all the blueprints were in East Germany. Finally, production restarted in 1948 with a reverse-engineered single. Manufacture of BMW’s signature flat twins resumed in 1950.

Inspired by the tales of returning GIs and the postwar motorcycle boom, some enterprising enthusiasts looked into importing BMWs. The first factory-authorized U.S. importer was Victor Harasty. He was bought out by Butler & Smith in 1953, who was the U.S. importer for many years until the import function was taken over by BMW Motorrad USA.

The American Market

BMWs were very different from their American and British competitors. They were expensive, but built to exacting standards, relatively quiet and, for the time, very reliable. Many people found a BMW to be just the thing for long-distance touring. The word spread among the very small group of American motorcycle touring enthusiasts out on the improved roads of the 1950s and early 1960s. BMW, used to making less powerful machines for the German get-to-work market, soon learned that if they wanted to sell bikes in America like the British were then doing, they had to produce bikes that Americans wanted. Americans wanted more horsepower, economy be damned.

In October 1951, BMW unveiled the R68, a 594cc sporting twin with a narrow front fender, bigger overhead valves, a higher compression ratio, a hotter cam and bigger Bing carburetors. In 1955, the R69 was introduced with a new chassis. A swingarm rear end replaced the previous plungers, the famous Earles forks debuted and a new frame was introduced. A new 4-speed gearbox featuring an improved input shaft shock absorber was matched to a new dry clutch with a diaphragm center spring. Like previous BMWs, the new R69 came in any color you wanted, as long as it was black with white pinstriping.

The R69 was comfortable at a sustained 90mph on the Autobahn — or the better American roads. A 1956 report from the English journal Motor Cycling was enthusiastic: “Seldom has the tester straddled a machine which made high-speed cruising so ridiculously easy! At 85 to 90mph, with the suspension smoothing out the bumps, the engine vibrationless, and the exhaust note a steady drone, nothing but the whistling of the wind and the needle of the speedometer indicated one’s speed. It was just like riding a big, comfortable car.”

In 1959, John Penton rode a R69 from New York to Los Angeles in a bit over 52 hours. In a Cycle interview shortly after his record-breaking ride, Penton stated that he had no mechanical trouble at all, despite 200 miles of hard rain through Oklahoma, and averaged 40-45mpg. Floyd Clymer, then Cycle’s publisher, was impressed by the fact that the BMW showed no signs of leaking oil.

The BMW factory went through some hard times in the late 1950s, but by 1960, things had improved, and the R69 was replaced by the R69S. The compression ratio was upped to 9.5:1, which raised output to about 42 horsepower at 7,000rpm. Early “S” models had some reliability issues, often due to being repeatedly ridden at racing speed on the Autobahn. In 1962 the bottom flanges of the cylinder barrels were beefed up and in late 1963, a vibration damper was added to the crankshaft, which cured the problems.

In an effort to do more to cater to the export markets which were buying a large percentage of BMW’s production, the company started experimenting with special order colors. Dover White and Granada Red were the more common choices, but a buyer could actually order any color available for contemporary BMW cars. Concerned that the Earles forks looked antiquated, a new telescopic fork became available via special order in 1967. BMW had entered several factory-prepped bikes with the telescopics and a special frame in the International Six Days Trial in 1963 and 1964 and although the bikes were too heavy to keep up with the competition, none of the BMWs broke down. The Six Days Trial proved the telescopic forks designed for the event, and these were used for the road bikes. Telescopic front end bikes had “US” after the model number. According to BMW expert Jeff Dean, BMW built 83 1967 R69US bikes, 443 1968 R69US bikes and 430 1969 R69US bikes. George Canavan’s green machine is one of the 1968 models.

Period Reviews

Cycle magazine did a road test of the 1968 telescopic fork R69US in June 1968. Testers commented that at low speeds the telescopics felt heavy and tended to oversteer, but over 40mph they worked well and over 65mph they were superb, especially on winding, rough surfaced roads. The 8.4 inches of fork travel was unusual for the time, with progressive damping and springing. The Cycle test riders praised the reliability of the machine: “Not one single mechanical complaint during 1,200 miles of hard testing!” and the smoothness of the engine: “smoothest running motorcycle engine we have tested.” The downside was the lack of low end torque. Quarter-mile times were important to most riders at the time, but the BMW wouldn’t “get off the line.” Potential BMW owners didn’t care.

In 1969, BMW moved its motorcycle factory from Munich to Spandau, near Berlin. At the same time, the motorcycles it produced were completely revamped. The new /5 machines featured the ISDT frame and telescopic forks, a completely new engine, and new Bing carburetors. “Comparing the /2 [the BMW model family of which the R69US was a member] to the later /5 is informative,” says George Canavan, who owns both. “The /5 retained the kickstarter, the drum brakes and 4-speed transmission, but there are significant differences. With a new frame and short wheelbase, handling is light and athletic, almost like a 400-500 2-stroke road bike. Brakes are improved and progressive, transmission shifts are smoother but not quite as nice as later 5-speed boxes. For the /5, electric start, oil filtration, better carbs on the larger displacement and the inclusion of a 750 in the lineup are just icing on the proverbial cake.”

Road Rider magazine published a survey of BMW riders in 1971, including photos of some of them. A middle class and mainstream appearing group, they appeared older than the average motorcycle rider of the time. Very few women rode in the 1960s and early 1970s, but several of the BMW owners interviewed were women who had their own bikes. Most of the interviewees had hung on to their older machines. The surveys that came in from owners of newer bikes “revealed two significant facts. First, the acceleration and top speed are appreciably higher than for previous models and are comparable with the competition’s Superbikes. Second, availability of parts is terrible.”

George’s R69US

Although not many BMW twins were built in the 1960s, a very high percentage have survived, and since most of these are being ridden and are not on static display, parts availability has actually improved since 1971. George Canavan says that although BMW owners have a reputation for maintaining their rides, often older BMWs that come on the market are the victims of neglect; age or declining interest having led the owners to stop changing the oil. “A rebuild is expensive, but you can get all the parts.” In most cases, the bike is fixable, and once fixed, will stay that way. “If you follow what is in the book, the bike will run forever.”

George has been riding since he was very young. “I had three uncles that were motor cops. I fell in love with shiny chrome and the great noise.” During much of the time he rode modern bikes, earning several Iron Butt mileage certificates, but after a while, he started to feel vaguely discontented. “I went through a series of bikes that were nothing more than appliances. Then I bought an R60 BMW (the lower compression 600cc twin) and rode it for a while with no issues. That led me to consider other vintage bikes.”

He bought this bike from Kevin Brooks at Brooks Motor Works in Olympia, Washington, a specialist in old BMWs. The bike was originally Avus Black with white pin stripes — the stock color of all BMWs at the time. It was all there, but worn and “cosmetically challenged.” George decided to take the bodywork down to bare metal and bring it back to 100% appearance. “As it was coming apart, the discussions were about color. Did the world need another black BMW or should we go for something different? That was not the hard part! Just what color should we shoot for?” George wanted something period-correct, but different, and chose the bright green used by the German police departments of the time. Kevin Brooks matched the paint to the color of a patrol bike in the BMW Museum.

As the restoration went along, George decided on some other changes from the way the bike had originally looked. All of these variations are items that are currently accepted in the BMW vintage community. U.S. market handlebars and mirrors were changed to the Euro bars and mirrors. The Hella bar-end blinkers were available in Europe at the time, but not in the U.S. market. The dual saddle gave way for a sprung Pagusa “tractor seat” and pillion cushion. Alloy rims usually came stock with most R69US machines. Brooks located Borrani alloy rims and laced them with stainless spokes. He also found the larger, 24 liter (about 6.3 gallons) BMW Sport fuel tank with the tool box on top. An alloy oil pan was added to deal with the high temperatures where George lives. The U.S. market reflectors were removed to complete the restoration process.

The bike was delivered to George with the engine cleaned up a bit, but still pretty much in the shape it was in when the bike was found. George rode it around for a while, then decided it was time to work on the engine. Scottie Sharpe of Scottie’s Workshop in San Jose, California, went through the engine from the cases out to restore the 42 horsepower it had when it was new.

George likes riding his bike, not just in appreciation of its history, but because it is simply fun to ride. “Handling is stable and the ride is smooth with the sprung saddle. Braking is reliable but limited as compared to sport bikes with triple discs. The front brake is twin-leading-shoe, and it can be set up to work well.”

“The transmission can be a bit alarming as the shifts are ‘positive’ to be kind. Think ‘KLUNK!’ If you are accustomed to it, you don’t give it a second thought. There is plenty of power available to ride all day with your friends on their Chiefs, Knuckleheads, Shovels and Scouts. You might be whiffing some blue smoke when in a pack of Bonnevilles, Commandos or Firebirds though. They perform like they are about 100 pounds lighter with the same horsepower.”

Living with an R69US

“Maintenance is somewhat rewarding,” George continues. He has a background in aviation and an appreciation for high grade steel and precision machining. “These are not high-strung peaky bikes, they are robust. Adjustments don’t drift, carbs stay in sync, cleanup is easy with shaft drive, oil seams stay clean and tight. The best part is that the materials are a high grade and the engineering is near aviation standards. I don’t recall ever shearing a bolt or rounding a bolt head or cross threading a screw. For the amateur wrench, that is an accomplishment!”

“I am attracted to the aesthetic of the bike. I like the approach to engineering BMW had at the time. It is rewarding to ride and returns many smiles per mile. Fit and finish are head and shoulders above contemporaries. The design was continually improved right up to the /5 introduction. Each subsequent iteration delivered more performance and greater utility. As a 1960s publication noted when I was in high school, the R series BMW was meant for the ‘ride a Rolex to lunch bunch.’ I had to look all that up but concluded that they were impressed with build quality, reliability and performance. I think they got it right.” MC

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine Featuring the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!