Airheads Unite: The Airheads Beemer Club’s Death Valley Rendezvous

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An Airhead Beemer descends on Death Valley.
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It’s no wonder they call it Death Valley; there’s almost nothing living in it. Well, nothing besides a crazed crowd of vintage airhead BMW fans celebrating their favorite bikes.
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John Covington and his 1941 BMW R12.
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Rick Huemmerich and his 1959 BMW R50.
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Vintage airhead BMW fans celebrating their favorite bikes in Death Valley.
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Lunch stop at The Ranch House restaurant in Olancha, California.
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Fellow airheads came to the rescue when Mac Kirkpatrick’s GS suddenly died.
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Robb McElroy has ridden his 1993 R100GS across 14 countries and more than 135,000 miles.
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Bill Stermer and his 1976 BMW R75/6 at Death Valley.

Vintage motorcycle clubs abound, but the one I have belonged to for more than 20 years is the Airheads Beemer Club. Founded in 1991 for owners and riders of air-cooled BMW motorcycles, it follows a simple slogan, “Simple by Choice.”

One of the attractions of older Beemers is that they are indeed simple machines; generally reliable, easy to work on and you can still get parts for them. BMW’s Mobile Tradition Parts Catalogue claims it’s possible to get “everything you need to restore a BMW motorcycle manufactured between 1948 and 1969.” For 1970 and later models, a Beemer dealer usually has or can get most parts, and as most Airhead club members tend to work on their own bikes, if any problems arise, be assured that a group of Airheads will descend upon the bike to offer help.

The club holds several events every year, including the annual Death Valley Rendezvous. I’ve attend this event many times, and this past February I loaded up and pointed my 1976 BMW R75/6 north toward Death Valley, heading from my home in Southern California for the 23rd Annual Death Valley Rendezvous, held over the Presidents Day weekend.

Heading out

For the ride, I hooked up with Airhead riders Mike (R100RS) and Bernie (R60 with an R100 engine), along with Bernie’s cousin, Scott, riding his R1100S oilhead. For us, all good rides begin and end on SR 33, the twisty route north out of Ojai, California, so we headed up and over the 5,000-foot Pine Mountain Summit pass before working our way to Death Valley.

I was anticipating meeting BMW fan Mac Kirkpatrick in Death Valley, a fellow Airhead who had contributed photos for my book BMW R100RS. Mac lives in eastern Pennsylvania and we had never met, but he and his friend Rich Nagy were trailering their Airhead GSs to Phoenix, Arizona. From there, they were going to ride to Death Valley. A short distance out of Phoenix, however, Mac’s bike began to experience trouble and he emailed me, asking if I could recommend an Airhead-friendly shop near Phoenix. I didn’t know of any shops in that area, but after posting Mac’s request on the Internet we were soon pointed to Dave Alquist at Quality Cycle Service in Mesa, Arizona. The bike was soon fixed and back on the road.

That Friday, my group of four rode more than 300 miles, riding through Arvin, California, before heading up the Bodfish-Caliente Road to Ridgecrest and Trona. When we finally arrived at the rally site in Death Valley, we were pleased to find about 60 bikes already in the parking lot, ringed by tents. We checked in at the registration table under the trees, having already paid our $45 fee for three nights of camping, beverages, firewood and snacks. And what was that over in the shade? Why, there were some round, metallic containers holding certain adult beverages popularly known as “micro brews.” With the help of some of this elixir we set up our tents within view — but not within snoring distance — of the other Airheads.

Setting up

At the rally, I ran into B. Jan Hofman, who along with Al Watson co-founded the Airheads Beemer Club in 1991. Al lived in San Diego’s north county, and was tired of riding into town for breakfast meetings — only to ride back up into the north county again for the San Diego BMW club’s group ride. Jan suggested forming a north county BMW club, and as most of the north county members rode air-cooled Boxers, Al suggested the name Airheads Beemer Club. At the time, the national BMW organizations focused their attention almost entirely on the newer water-cooled models.

In the fall of 1991, Jan wrote a letter to the editor of the BMWMOA (BMW Motorcycle Owners of America), asking if there was room within the existing organization for an airhead contingent. That letter drew 54 positive responses, and the Airheads Beemer Club, which today boasts more than 3,000 members and a chapter in every state, was formed. Jan edits the slick monthly club newsletter, Airmail, which features upcoming events, travel stories, ads and an excellent technical column.

As I returned to the registration area, I noted a vaguely familiar man walking along, announcing in a loud voice to no one in particular, “Would Bill Stermer please pick up the white courtesy telephone?” and realized I was about to meet Mac Kirkpatrick. We shook hands, pounded backs and immediately retired to the shady spot with the micro brews, where he introduced me to his buddy Rich Nagy. My three friends came by, we watched the sun go low, the light soften, and ate dinner. We hung around talking, and finally shuffled off to our tents, noting the immensity of the desert sky and the clarity of the stars.

Helping hands

In the morning, several of us ambled over to the Furnace Creek Ranch for breakfast then went off on rides. Some headed for Ubehebe Crater, others to the ghost town of Rhyolite. Some went to Beatty, Nevada, and still others took in Scotty’s Castle, the mansion built by a reclusive character known as “Death Valley Scotty.” Mike and I rode toward Dante’s View for the premier view of Death Valley, but on the way came across Mac and Rich pulled off the road with Mac’s bike apart. He said the engine had suddenly quit, and Airhead restorer Greg Hutchinson was elbow deep in the mechanicals.

Eventually, someone fetched a trailer and hauled Mac’s GS back to the campground, where, as Mac tells it, “Folks came out of the woodwork to offer help, advice and moral support. I could not get near my bike, there were so many guys working on it and offering advice.” The problem turned out to be a broken solder joint in the kill switch, so the guys in the group fastened two wires together to bypass it.

By the last day of the rally, attendance had blossomed to more than a hundred and all manner of air-cooled BMWs graced the parking lot. Riders were strolling around deep in conversation about camping gear, maintenance, accessories and high-output alternators. The kegs were nearly drained, and many new friends had been made. It had been another great Death Valley Rendezvous, and a stirring ride home was still ahead of us. MC

John Covington’s 1941 BMW R12

Although this 1941 BMW R12 isn’t painted in traditional military colors, owner John Covington, Fullerton, California, assures it is indeed a military model, pointing to a Wehrmacht logo, a stylized war bird gripping a swastika, adorning the bike. The R12 has a stamped-steel frame, single carburetor and is also the first production motorcycle with a hydraulically damped fork.

After 10 years of searching, Covington found the bike on eBay in late 2001 for $5,000; it was largely stock except for its reproduction fenders. He’s had the crank rechromed and the cylinders Nikasil plated, installed new pistons, replaced the connecting rods and rebuilt the transmission, hubs and final drive. He also replaced the seals and relined the brakes. “Most BMWs of this era have bullet holes,” Covington tells me, as any Allied troops who came across them wanted to disable them so they could not be utilized against them. He then points to a bullet hole in the transmission, which has been plugged with epoxy.

Rick Huemmerich’s 1959 BMW R50

In 1970, Ulrich “Rick” Huemmerich came to the U.S. from Germany on a six-month assignment to install machinery in a Detroit factory. Forty-some years later, he’s still here.

Rick was an engineer with Cadillac for 35 years, and now lives in Las Vegas. He’s had this 1959 Earles fork BMW R50 for years, but got it running only recently. The engine runs valves from an R69S (which had to be shortened) and an aluminum flywheel, and Rick modified the transmission to eliminate the common BMW “clunk” during shifting. The seat and exhaust system are aftermarket, and it has a front fender from an early Honda Gold Wing while the tank is from a BMW /6, which required cutting and welding in a deeper tunnel to fit.

He made the small bags himself. He added wooden slats to the original Denfeld rack, and installed later-model taillight and turn signals. The red paint job was done, believe it or not, with spray cans!

Bill Stermer’s 1976 R75/6

I bought this bike in 1985 from Reg Pridmore’s RPM BMW shop in Ventura, California, completely stock and with about 47,000 miles on it. Its unique fairing came from Reg’s counterman, Jeff. It had been crashed and considerably scratched up, so I took it to a fiberglass expert for repair. I sent the broken bubble-style windscreen to plastic windscreen expert Leif Gustafsson, who fabricated a new one. I later learned the fairing is a rare DBV from the Netherlands.

I got the 8-gallon Heinrich gas tank through a classified ad, and had it and the fairing painted to match the bike. A friend of mine nicknamed the fairing “The Flying Tit.” RaceTech in Corona, California, rebuilt the forks and I also installed a set of their G3-S IFP Custom Dual Shocks. An oil problem caused the engine to seize in 2014, so I had the guys at RPM Cycles, the successors to Pridmore’s shop, install a used R80 engine. The bike now has over 113,000 miles on it.

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