Smooth Operator: BMW R75/5
We take a look at a well-loved airhead, now owned by reader Dane Berens.
I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
‘Cross the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel, I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere
I’ve Been Everywhere by Geoff Mack
Remember this song? If you have indeed been everywhere, someone has been there before you on an Airhead.
Air-cooled BMW (“Airhead”) flat twins from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties have been through Panama’s Darien Gap, explored the Arctic Circle, braved Himalayan passes, survived Middle Eastern deserts, left tracks through African jungles and gone anywhere else you can possibly go on a road going motorcycle. These simple, rugged, comfortable machines have enabled adventurers for years.
The story of this particular Airhead, a 750cc 1972 machine, starts in 1976, when Jan Johnson bought it second hand in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she was working at the time. She was in her late twenties and gravitating towards motorcycles. “My father was a race car driver, Bob Johnson. He teamed up with another racer, also Bob Johnson, to drive the ‘Johnson and Johnson Band-Aid’ Doug Bergen Corvette. I grew up with the adventure gene. I had chopped mini bikes as a child.”
On two wheels and four
Jan often rode to work, at a time when a woman who rode was a novelty. At one point, she had a two-tone BMW sports car. “They were a matched pair.” She moved around a lot, and when she moved, the bike came along in the truck moving her furniture.
In between moves, Jan and her BMW went on adventures. They traveled to Sturgis together, back when camping was still allowed in the city park. “It was the Wild West. There was motorcycle racing all night, but even though I was a single woman there by myself, I never felt threatened.” They went to Yosemite. “I took a long holiday with camping gear and stayed at Camp 4. I cruised through the park. It was one of my most memorable holidays.” She always had a shop do the maintenance on her bike, but had a knack for finding great repair shops.
Eventually Jan got married to a man that didn’t ride. They spent their weekends and holidays doing things they enjoyed doing together and the BMW sat in the garage. She began to think that it should go to someone who would ride it. Jan eventually sold the Airhead to Dane Berens. She is glad that it has a good home … but … “I miss my BMW on spring days and on fall days. I miss going deep into the mountains.”
Image Nick Cedar
Dane is a longtime rider who is passionate about classic Japanese motorcycles. He has more than a few, some running, some in progress. A while back, Dane went on a group ride to Death Valley. “I was following this guy on an old BMW for a lot of the ride. I was impressed. I ended up eating lunch with the BMW rider. I decided I wanted a /5. They have a big following, but a normal person like myself isn’t priced out of the market. I really liked the old Airhead style and started looking for one.”
Dane saw the ad Jan placed for her bike. “I was looking all over for the right bike and I liked that the bike had been maintained and that it was white. I love white motorcycles. A BMW looks beautiful in white. It’s classy and you can see the pinstriping, the lines.” This /5 is the only bike in Dane’s garage that was not made in Japan.
The R75/5 was a new departure for BMW. The company had made its reputation by building well engineered twin-cylinder flat twins that were the standard for motorcycle touring enthusiasts in the Fifties and Sixties. Like other established motorcycle companies, BMW wanted to catch the wave of motorcycle enthusiasm that lifted many manufacturers in the 1960s. They did it by upgrading to a sport touring design, with updated styling, telescopic forks instead of the previous Earles forks, brighter lights, butterfly valve constant velocity Bing carburetors and electric starting. The opposed twin cylinders, oil tight cases, driveshaft, quiet running, and the comfortable ride that had sold long distance riders on BMWs for years stayed.
The /5 machines showed up in 1969 in capacities of 500, 600 and 750cc. American magazines of the period largely ignored the smaller capacity twins in favor of the 750, which was generally tested by a writer who disappeared into the wild blue yonder, eventually reappearing with a smile, a bug-splattered bike and a report. Cycle magazine’s reporter did a three week road test around the Bavarian Alps on one of the earliest 750s, and had a wonderful time.
The enthusiasm of the magazines was not matched by BMW riders of the time, most of whom really liked their Earles fork tourers, and weren’t so sure about the new machines. As Road Rider magazine said, “The machine is just not photogenic.” With a little time, even most of the hardened “it’s not broke so don’t fix it” riders learned to appreciate the /5’s brighter lights, extra power and electric start.
On the road
The Road Rider crew did a 4,000 mile Rode Report in 1970 and reported that the 750, “at road speeds was as quick and far quieter with less vibration than anything I have come across.” Their BMW went to Pikes Peak and handled mountain roads and gravel with aplomb. The Rode Report also mentioned that early models had a high speed wobble, which by 1970 had been corrected at the factory, that some electrical connections and tubing can rub (and gave an easy fix) and explained what to do if the carburetors leaked or stuck, which apparently was a common occurrence. Road Rider waxed enthusiastic over the great gas mileage, the excellent brakes and the electric start.
Image Nick Cedar
Other magazines were not quite as happy with the R75/5. Cycle Guide ended up with a test bike with sticking carburetors. The magazine revisited the /5 in July 1972, with a test bike that made up for the previous disappointment. “All of those irritating and bothersome problem areas are no longer present.” Aside from complaints about the clunky transmission, the report praised the ultra-smooth ride, the quiet exhaust, lack of mechanical noise, straight tracking, smooth carburetion with no flat spots, and excellent suspension. “The price is not cheap, but neither is the quality.”
BMW kept developing its twin, mostly concentrating on engineering rather than styling. The R90S appeared in 1974, with Dell’Orto carburetors, 9.5:1 compression and 125mph on tap, plus twin disc front brakes and a 5-speed gearbox. In 1976, the /7 series was introduced, with further improvements. BMW made Airheads until 1994, when the company came out with oil-cooled twins.
Thousands of Airheads (and the older Earles fork twins) are still on the road, taking their owners on adventures of one kind or another. The Airhead Club has a full calendar of coast-to-coast events, from “barley therapy” to tech sessions. Most parts are easily available. While old BMWs are not quite as reliable as they were when they were new, they are trouble-free when compared to other bikes of the same vintage. Many connoisseurs of exotic machinery have an Airhead in the garage for days when they just want to go for a ride.
Dane’s new Airhead
Dane and Jan struck a deal, and Dane and his brother picked up the bike on Memorial Day 2017. “I took it for a test ride. The speedometer was grindy and bumpy. I had earlier researched about how much it would cost to fix it and Jan took it off the sales price, which was good of her, as the price was already pretty reasonable.” After spending the night at his brother’s house, several hours away, Dane trucked a few hours more to visit some friends who wanted to go for an early morning ride. “It was quite a maiden voyage. Having never ridden a BMW, nor knowledge of its performance capabilities, I didn’t realize that one carburetor jet was plugged, and the bike would barely go up a grade. Then a while later the speedometer self destructed. After canyon carving and navigating interstates without getting flattened at a top-speed of about 55mph, I got safely back to my friend’s shop, packed up and drove home.”
Image Nick Cedar
Once home, Dane started working on the bike. Dane is experienced with Japanese motorcycle restoration, and has developed a list of helpful resources. “I sent the speedo to Joe’s Speedometer, (818) 468-4414, email@example.com, who is good with BMW speedometers and charges reasonable prices. Joe called me about my speedometer. He said that the BMW speedometer is actually designed to work in cars, and installing it in a bike, even as smooth a bike as a BMW, puts more stress on the internals. Speedometers can slowly self destruct. Joe rebuilt my unit and did a good job.”
Dane also knows that it is important to get hooked into resources for a particular make of vintage bike and soon learned to navigate the Old Beemer universe. “Wunderlich has a lot of parts, and so does Capital Cycle. The bike came with a Windjammer fairing and hard bags. I wanted to slim it down, and didn’t plan to do much touring on it, so I took off the fairing and bags, but then needed a new headlight. Wunderlich also had replacements for clips and fasteners.”
Image Nick Cedar
As much as he likes his new Airhead, Dane is very aware that it is a vintage bike. “The transmission is clunky and antiquated by design. I know that the 5-speed transmission in the /6 is much improved and a popular upgrade, but wanted to retain the bike’s value and originality. With my /5 once again being ridden regularly after being dormant for a decade, it began popping out of second gear. I had the transmission rebuilt by Black Kat Motorwerks and it’s 110% better. The owner, Matt, replaced the under-spec clutch disc, and pressure plate. He also installed a transmission bearing kit, shafts, 1st and 2nd gear balance assemblies, and shimmed it to spec. It still shifts rough unless I time the shifts just right, but I don’t mind.” The BMW broke down on Dane just once: “It died at a stoplight. I pushed it safely off the road, yanked out the (very complete original) toolkit and pulled the front cover off. The rotor fell off in my hand. The Nylock fastener wouldn’t hold the right way out, so I turned it over and put the nut on the shaft with the Nylock on the inside. It held. As a matter of fact, it’s still holding.”
Despite the tractor-like transmission, “It’s a lovely road bike. It purrs instead of roars. It’s quiet and smooth. I have a couple big Japanese roadsters, and they don’t compare. Even the BMW’s fifty year old Koni shocks are smooth and comfortable. It feels solid when I ride it.”
Image Nick Cedar
Dane notes that the rider footpegs are bolted into lugs that are welded to different locations on the frame in order to cope with the offset cylinder placement. “Your feet are staggered on the pegs. I found it was causing my lower back to cramp, so now I put my boots on the passenger pegs on long rides. I compensate, and it’s fine.” Maintenance mostly means changing the oil. Dane changes the engine and gearbox oil every 2,000-3,000 miles. “That’s more often than the manual says, but I think that frequent oil changes help engine life.”
“Staying stock — to me that is where the value is. I want to maintain originality. I think of myself as a caretaker, and want to stay as close as people can come to retaining the way the bike came from the factory while staying safe. I do feel it is important to have modern tires. I am also thinking about replacing the points with an electronic ignition.
“It is a beautiful machine that was ridden, maintained, and stored caringly by Jan, its prior long-term owner,” says Dane. “This BMW was a great find. It’s one of the few motorcycles I own that my wife likes — and that’s saying something!
“What I love about being the present custodian of this classic and sultry 1972 Feder Weiss (Feather White) BMW R75/5 is how it purrs like a kitten while motoring in 4th gear down the open road. The low center of gravity makes it handle so very well in the twisties. Its road manners at highway speed are better than any Japanese motorcycle I own — large street or dual-sport. The look it exudes is 100% vintage with its toaster tank, speedometer in the headlight nacelle, retro-worthy pinstriping and chrome grab rail with white seat beading. The fuel mileage is good and the engine is dead-reliable. It is a solid feeling bike that makes me smile every time I kick it up and ride.” MC
The Gold Portfolio of BMW Motorcycles, 1971-1976, Includes Road, Comparison, and Long Distance Tests
This fascinating volume contains 48 articles on BMW touring, R50/5, R60/5, R60/6, R75/6, R90/6 and R90S models. Including road test reports from such popular magazines as Cycle World, Motorcycle, and Motorcycle Mechanics. Articles on new model reports, performance data, history, service notes, engine analysis, specs and tuning are featured. This title is available at the Motorcycle Classics store or by calling 800-880-7567. Item #10930.
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