Iron Curtain Artistry: 1954 JAWA 250 Perak

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1954 JAWA 250 Perak
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Even the carburetor was shrouded in a flowing finned aluminum housing.
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1954 JAWA 250 Perak
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1954 JAWA 250 Perak
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1954 JAWA 250 Perak
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The comfortable seat is sprung using a cantilevered system that pulls a heavy spring, combined with friction dampers.

1954 JAWA 250 Perak
249cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 65mm x 75mm bore and stroke, 6.25:1 compression ratio, 9hp @ 4,250rpm (claimed)
Top speed:
62mph (100kph) (claimed)
Single 24mm Jikov
4-speed, chain final drive
12v Powerdynamo (6v stock)
Single-downtube square-section steel cradle/51.2in (1,297mm)
Telescopic forks front, dual plunger shocks rear
5.9in (150mm) SLS drum front and rear
3 x 19in front and rear
Weight (dry):
253lb (115kg)
Seat height:
27.6in (702mm)
Fuel capacity:
3.4 gal (13ltr)
Price then/now:
$509/$5,000-$8,000 (est.)

By the early 1900s, Czechoslovakia’s reputation for excellent engineering was already well established, even though the country’s motorcycles were not well known beyond its borders.

That’s a shame, because by the 1920s and 1930s more than 60 Czech manufacturers, including CZ, ESO and Böhmerland, were building interesting machines. JAWA, probably the most familiar of the Czech marques, built the stylish 250cc Perak featured here.

From bombs to bikes

For better or worse, a lot of people have made a lot of money building and selling weapons. Between wars, when business is slow, arms manufacturers have traditionally looked for ways to keep the lights on. JAWA motorcycles, like those from BSA, Royal Enfield, Husqvarna and others, were produced in factories that originally built armaments.

Frantisek Janecek was born in 1878 in Bohemia, part of what was then Czechoslovakia. After studying mechanics in Prague and Berlin, he opened his own workshop and factory and patented a number of inventions, including an improved hand grenade (nicknamed “The Janecek”) that became standard issue for the Czechoslovakian army.

In 1929, Janecek decided to supplement his arms business by becoming a motorcycle manufacturer. Rather than start from scratch, he purchased the existing motorcycle business (including design drawings and tooling) from Winklhofer & Jaenicke, a German company that had been making cars and motorcycles under the “Wanderer” name. Production was moved to Prague and the new motorcycle company was given the name “JAWA” — the first two letters of Janacek and Wanderer. The Wanderer-based JAWA was a 500cc single-cylinder overhead valve machine with unit construction — the engine and transmission sharing a common case. The bike had a pressed-steel frame, saddle-type gas tank and shaft drive. It was fairly advanced for the time, but also relatively expensive — in fact, too expensive for most Czechs.

Janecek needed a new line of lightweight and more affordable bikes. To lead this initiative, he recruited G.W. Patchett, an engineer from England with prior experience as a motorcycle racer, having ridden for Brough Superior and the Belgian firm FN. Between 1930 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Patchett served as the Chief Designer for JAWA.

When Patchett came to Prague, he brought a 175cc Villiers 2-stroke engine. The new lightweight JAWA was designed around this British engine, which made about 6 horsepower at 3,750rpm. By 1933 the new model was a sales success — it was the most popular motorcycle in Czechoslovakia — and JAWA dropped production of the big 500cc singles.

During the 1930s, the factory began designing its own engines and additional models were introduced, mostly based on 250cc and 350cc 2-stroke engines. The factory also made sophisticated 4-stroke racing machines with overhead cams during this period in very limited numbers. These machines helped establish JAWA’s reputation for sound engineering and good-handling bikes. The company even entered factory race teams at the Isle of Man TT races in 1932, 1933 and 1935.

Born in the shadows

In 1938, just before World War II broke out, Czechoslovakia came under German control and the JAWA factory was refocused on production of warplane engine parts and stationary engines for generators: Working on civilian projects was strictly verboten.

Nevertheless, in 1940 JAWA engineers began working in secret, designing and building a new model that could be launched once hostilities ceased. Development work on this new model took place alongside repair work being done at the factory on Wehrmacht motorcycles. The new JAWA was painted army green to avoid German suspicion and carried fake “SS” registration plates. When test riders were pulled over by army patrols, they explained that the machine was an exclusive new prototype for the SS.

Fortunately, no one discovered the ruse and by 1944 20 of the new JAWAs, all carrying German markings, had been made and tested, some up to 60,000 miles. Pre-war, JAWA was not competitive outside of Czechoslovakia. The company hoped the new model would be of sufficient quality to enable them to expand sales worldwide. When the war ended, JAWA got a jump on the rest of Europe by being first to launch an entirely new motorcycle design. Sadly, Janecek died in 1941, and didn’t see his new model’s premier at the 1946 Paris motorcycle show, where it was awarded a Gold Medal.

The new model was named the “Perak” — Czech for “spring” — a reference to the sprung rear suspension. The machine, designed by J. Josif and J. Krivka, was intended to be stylish, sturdy and comfortable. It was built around a new 249cc 2-stroke single with unit engine/gearbox construction. It had plunger suspension in the rear, telescopic forks up front and a square-section steel tube frame. A novel feature was a multidisc wet clutch integrated into the gearbox, allowing the rider to shift gears using only the foot pedal once the bike was moving. Streamlining was a predominant design feature with the headlight contained in a curvaceous nacelle and the entire engine/gearbox looking very aerodynamic. Even the carburetor was shrouded in a flowing, finned aluminum housing. Most of the wiring was hidden within the frame tubes, enhancing the clean lines of the bike.

The 250 Perak could reach 65mph and had excellent fuel economy (95 miles per gallon). It was affordable, comfortable and très moderne! Promotional literature in the U.S. referred to the model as “The Streamlined Powerhouse” and claimed the bike “was designed for comfortable, sensible transportation with all the z-z-zip of a rocket.” Other small bikes at the time were pre-war designs with rigid rear suspension. Overall, the new model was met with rave reviews by moto-journalists of the day, and while the 250 Perak was produced only from 1946 to 1954, the basic engine design was so sound it formed the basis of various JAWA models for nearly five decades after its introduction.

The Iron Curtain falls

When Czechoslovakia came under communist control in 1948, its industries were nationalized and exports of Czech motorcycles to the U.S. through the Iron Curtain dwindled — even though exports to third-world countries were booming. In those days, JAWAs were being imported into the U.S. by the International Motorcycle Company, founded in 1949 in New York by Ernie Wise, his son, Larry, and their cousins, Joe and Mike Berliner.

In 1957 the Wises parted ways with the Berliners and launched Cosmopolitan Motors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they continued to import JAWAs and other European, mostly Italian, motorcycles. Larry Wise recalls that when the supply of JAWA 250s dried up they shifted to a 2-stroke model from West Germany, the 250 Zundapp “Super Saber.” Compared to the Perak, the Zundapp was heavy, clumsy and uncomfortable. According to Larry, fewer than 1,000 JAWA 250s were imported directly to the U.S.

The resurrection of “Ann”

The machine featured here is believed to have come to the U.S. by way of Indonesia, eventually finding its way to Texas. In August 2013, Vincenzo Murphy first heard about a neglected JAWA looking for a new home. He was familiar with the marque as he already owned a 1970 JAWA 350 Californian with a JAWA Velorex sidecar. Vincenzo recalls: “I assumed it was going to be another 350 Californian since that’s what came to the U.S. in the greatest numbers, and I figured I could use it as a parts bike. As the back-and-forth conversation developed, I realized that it was actually a 250 Perak — one of the prettiest post-war JAWAs ever made, with much of its Art Deco styling cues coming from the pre-war era. This made me want it even more.”

Four months passed before Vincenzo finally went to see the bike in December 2013. The Perak was sitting in the back of an old school bus parked on a piece of property in the Texas Hill Country. Vincenzo liked what he saw: “All the sheet metal and major components, while in need of restoration, were there. The deal was done and we loaded her up and brought her home.” The bike was green when found, but Vincenzo had a vision: “The original color of the bike, a deep maroon, reminded me of the fiery red hair of Ann Margret, so I named the bike ‘Ann.’

“I began to go over everything to assess what needed to be done. I was happy to discover a nearly perfect gas tank — this was important because it would need to be re-chromed. Amazingly, I got the bike running again with little difficulty. The gears shifted, but the shift shaft was stripped and the clutch slipped. The electrical system needed total replacement from the points to the charging system to the harness. All the other bits were in an overall state of long-term general wear.”

The 10-month restoration was comprehensive. New wheel parts included rims (with Buchanan spokes), brake arms, brake shoes, wheel bearings and Heidenau tires. Attention to the front end included new fork bushings, steering damper and friction discs, new handlebars, grips, cables and high/low horn switch. The clutch and brake levers, headlamp glass and trim ring, fork boots, fork boot clamps and speedometer (with new rubber gasket) were all renewed. The headers, collars and mufflers were also replaced. The fuel tank got a new gas cap and petcock, the ammeter is new and the rear shock covers were replaced.

The kickstart lever, shift and kick rubbers, clutch plates, primary drive chain, counter-shaft sprocket, shift shaft and rear drive chain are all new, yet the cylinder was only honed and the existing piston reused as it was still good. Vincenzo replaced the footpeg rubbers, wiring harness, tire pump, seat, seat friction dampers and seat spring, the horn, the center stand and the cable guide/shield located on front down tube. Electrics were upgraded from a 6-volt system with a generator to a German Powerdynamo 12-volt system. Electronic ignition was installed and the bike got a brake light.

The bike also got a new shift shaft to replace the stripped one. “A neat aspect of the engine design is that the cases do not have to be split to replace the shaft,” Vincenzo says, adding, “the machine is easy to work on. The clutch assembly was completely worn out, but luckily a new clutch basket came along with new plates and springs and now it’s good as new.”

The rate-limiting steps in the rebuild were the paint work and the tank re-chrome. “The re-chroming was done by Browns plating (now closed) and the quality is top shelf, as is the paint work by Jon of Jacks Paint Place,” says Vincenzo, adding, “Much of the tinware was beat up, badly rusted and pitted, making the finished product even more remarkable.”

Surprisingly, for a relatively uncommon machine, replacement parts are available and reasonably priced. Two very comprehensive sites based in the Czech Republic, and, offered most everything needed for the rebuild, significantly reducing the time needed to complete the job. Another excellent resource is the North American JAWA/CZ Register, which publishes a monthly newsletter and hosts a website, and a good person to know is JAWA specialist Pavel Karasek in Jupiter, Florida.

All aboard

What are Vincenzo’s impressions of the JAWA? “The bike’s not fast, but it’s fun to ride,” he says. “The suspension is primitive and one would think the ride could be harsh, but surprisingly, it isn’t, due in part to the comfortable seat that has a cantilevered system that pulls a heavy spring combined with friction dampers when you encounter rough roads.

“The bike sounds very primitive, almost like a hit-and-miss engine. I think this might be due to its twin-port dual exhaust setup and lack of expansion chambers. The bike doesn’t build power like a conventional 2-stroke — it relies on flywheel momentum to build its power. I don’t believe this bike was ever intended to be a hot performer — more of a very dependable, easy-to-maintain daily workhorse that is really beautiful to look at.”

In October 2015, Vincenzo’s JAWA 250 Perak was featured on promotional materials for the annual Harvest Classic European and Vintage Motorcycle Rally in Luckenbach, Texas, a fundraiser for the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation. The selection of the JAWA was a well-deserved recognition of the excellent restoration job done by Vincenzo and a lovely way to raise awareness for a worthy cause.

The motorsickle outlasts the hammer and sickle

When introduced to the world in Paris in 1946, the 250 Perak got rave reviews and gave every indication of being the bike that would open the world markets to JAWA — there was nothing else like it. Unfortunately, two short years later, the new communist regime threw a wet blanket on the Czech motorcycle industry. Former rivals JAWA and CZ were consolidated, squelching competition, and access to the U.S. and other key Western markets was restricted.

Politics hurt JAWA’s aspirations for international market share. Innovative design and engineering excellence are hallmarks of this classic JAWA and, with luck, the beautifully restored machine showcased here will be appreciated for years to come. Though the 250 Perak never realized its potential to be a world-beating sales leader, this pivotal model stands as a testament to the company’s ingenuity, skill and courageous perseverance under adverse circumstances.

Fortunately, the story of JAWA didn’t end with the Perak. Through world wars, totalitarian regimes and competition from other manufacturers, JAWA has persevered into the 21st century, launching new models and firmly establishing its legacy on pavement and dirt. And when it comes to legacies, motorcycles are always preferable to hand grenades. MC

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