BMW AIRHEADS: R60/6, R80, R65
Air-cooled engines have powered motorcycles since they first rolled on the planet, and plenty of them are still being made.
It makes sense: since the bike is moving, why not let the passing air dissipate the heat generated by the combustion process?
Cars, where the engine is shrouded in bodywork, quickly went to liquid cooling but some made air-cooling work. Prince among them was Volkswagen with its air-cooled Beetle, one of the best-selling cars of all time. The Beetle engine cheats a little by having a metal casing around the parts of the engine that get really hot and using a fan to force air over the cylinders when the vehicle is stationary.
In theory, you can leave a Beetle idling for hours and it won’t overheat. If you try that with, say, a Honda CB900, it will eventually overheat and stop.
“Yes, but if you want real power from a car engine, it has to have liquid cooling,” you say. Tell that to the Porsche 917 Type 10 – a 5.0-litre flat 12, twin-turbo air-cooled engine that produced a lazy 1100hp in 1970.
The limitations of air-cooling became apparent in motorcycles during the great horsepower race of the late 1970s and early ’80s. Because air-cooled engines change their operating temperatures regularly, substantial tolerances have to be built into the design to allow for metal components expanding and contracting. It meant an engine’s power output could vary depending on the operating conditions and oil use started to appear as a marketing problem.
During the mid-’80s, Kawasaki dealers wouldn’t blink when customers told them of oil use in relatively new bikes of up just to 1.5 litres per 1000km.
Other forces were also at work attacking the air-cooled concept. Fluctuations in operating temperatures made it difficult to control exhaust emissions and engine noise without the muffling effect of liquid-cooling was starting to make it difficult for manufacturers to comply with international design rules.
THE BMW STORY
BMW’s first horizontally opposed twin, the R32, was produced in 1923. The engine was derived from the British Douglas flat-twin from around 1914 but the BMW had a shaft drive.
With various wars interrupting proceedings, the history of BMW was a thrill-a-minute ride close to the edge of the cliff and it’s a miracle it survived.
The ‘stroke 5’ (/5) series bikes from in 1969 probably saved the motorcycle division and the proceeding Hans Muth-inspired /6 series introduced five-speed gearboxes, disc brakes and the iconic R90S.
Because the cylinders hang out in the air, BMW didn’t have the nightmare of trying to keep the middle two cylinders of an air-cooled inline four operating at the same temperature as the outer cylinders and tuning was a lot easier, allowing the BMW design to survive until around 1997. The introduction of the R1100 GS in 1993, which had an oil-cooled engine, was the beginning of the end for the traditional BMW motorcycle engine.
BMW ‘AIRHEAD’ OWNERS
There’s an international club for BMW ‘Airhead’ owners and its charter gives you some idea of the concept’s appeal.
• Airheads believe that the simplest engineering solutions are best
• Airheads appreciate function over form, fact over fiction, and friendship over friction
• Airheads regard money as a tool, not a status symbol
• Airheads are earthy people who like to camp
• Airheads maintain their own motorcycles
• Airheads don’t take themselves, religion, or life too seriously
Do Motorcycle Trader’s airhead owners fit the template? You be the judge.
GRANT ROFF, 1976 R60/6
It must have happened gradually but one day I realised I had a shed-full of German bikes (along with a VW Kombi and an old Mercedes-Benz as a family car).
The BMW R60/6 pictured here was the poverty-pack, entry-level model.
It was the last BMW with a front drum brake and its $2500 new price made it popular with police forces and the military.
It’s been in the family for around 15 years now and may be the most reliable bike I own.
BMW says in the owner’s manual that it will do 165km/h and I’ve toured on it comfortably at 140km/h. It’s pretty much standard although I put the slightly longer rear shocks from an R100 on the back which has the effect of sharpening up the steering a little.
The detail on the bike is lovely. The pin-striping on the tank and guards has been done by hand and there’s plenty of evidence of great care in how the bike was put together.
At the time (1976), individual technicians were responsible for each bike – one mechanic assembled my bike, not a production line. It was then checked by other technicians and signs of this are still visible paint spots dabbed on various nuts and bolts to indicate the torque settings are right.
There are other visible charms. There’s a tyre pump attached to the seat frame which was part of the most comprehensive tool kit ever supplied with a production motorcycle. It has tyre levers and a puncture repair kit with the obvious expectation that the rider could perform this task on the side of the road if necessary. I’ve done it and it all works.
The fork gaiters and rubber knee pads on the tank have classic appeal but, overall, designer Hans Muth made sure the basic good looks would endure.
If you’re after a sweet, reliable classic, look no further.
CHRIS HARRIS, 1986 R80
I’ve owned or been the custodian for a bunch of inline fours and the odd V-twin but I’ve always yearned for something against the grain.
Then I stumbled across an airhead in the wild. I was 21 and on a long European holiday with the boys. She was almost 50 years old, honest and magnificent, with Earles forks and a Denfeld solo seat. Its owner excused himself past my ogling, kicked her over, lit a durrie, gave a departing nod and headed off into the night along the cobbled roads of Rhodos. I was hooked. One day I’ll be that guy on an R60/2.
More recently, a mate showed me an immaculately restored 1986 R80 he found on the internet. He wasn’t interested in buying it so we talked about stripping it down as a cafe racer. It was no R60, but I was all in and miraculously won the auction for $4149. When it finally graced my driveway it was true to its photos, with original panniers, Eagle fairing and a topbox full of receipts totalling almost $7500.
We eventually turned it into what you see here, stripping some 60-odd kilograms, and I’ve since kitted it out with Wilbers suspension and a 1000cc big-bore kit. It’s fun and deceptively fast – a 13.28-second quarter-mile pass for a 30-year-old bike ain’t too shabby. What is shabby by modern standards is braking performance, and that’s despite twin Brembo calipers, big discs and fresh pads. Even BMW mechanics assure me they’re as good as it gets. It just demands you be on top of your game when you’re having a crack. It might look uncomfortable – and is in this company – but my caffeinated airhead just makes me smile like an idiot.
You’re reminded by the engine’s unconventional layout as you chase the bike’s shadow with a low sun on your back. That, and the rocker cover scrapes from a track day. Sparkplug changes are done within moments and there’s plenty room for big mitts when attending to the carbs.
There is one other caveat: they’re cold-blooded creatures and take a while to warm up and are quick to cool down. That’s great in warmer months but, for the rest of the year, it means you’ve got to repeat the warm-up process for the journey home. The upshot is you develop patience and mechanical sympathy.
I won’t confess to being an airhead tragic but my affection for old boxers won’t stop with one. There’s plenty of room in the new man cave for that R60/2 and I’ll one day get that black and yellow R100GS ‘Bumblebee’ I recently came close to buying to “invest in our happiness” before our home renovation costs went through the roof. I reckon the R100GS and Paris Dakar models (with the round, not square, headlight) are set to soar in value now that you can’t buy a clean R80GS for less than $10,000.
I seem to be collecting airhead-themed T-shirts in the meantime and bought one for Groff. How could I go past one which says ‘Lord of the Bings’? My favourite tee has a cutaway of an old boxer engine and in the obligatory gothic font reads Kühle köpfe leben länger, or ‘Cool heads live longer’. Long live the airhead!
GUY ALLEN, 1979 R65
How this bike slithered into the family garage has more to do with sentiment than passion. In fact, for decades pretty much any 1970s BMW airhead would have been high on my list of bikes not to buy.
The dynamics are typically clumsy and, in the case of the R65, didn’t really get up to scratch until the release of the Mono around 1986. Plus, they didn’t have the style of the lovely machines of the 1950s and ’60s.
Then I heard good friend Janette was selling her 1979 example (the first iteration of the R65), a machine which had been given to her by another old friend, Mole. The idea of the bike with those sentimental attachments being bought by someone out of ‘the family’ was too much to bear, so I made Ms J an offer she couldn’t understand and we’ve ended up co-owning it.
There’s no doubt a big additional motivation was the unique ‘Ecco’ branding on the machine. Ecco Engineering made its reputation in 1970s when proprietor Graeme ‘Gyro’ Carless was making lightweight motorcycle wheels and developing a reputation for building some very fast race bikes. Two prominent examples were a BMW Unlimited class racer ridden by the late, great Ken Blake, and the Syndicate Kawasaki Superbike piloted by the legendary Andrew Johnson.
This much more humble bit of gear is said to have been Gyro’s daily transport at some stage. Other than the flash paintjob on the wheels, and the aftermarket two-into-one pipe, I suspect it’s close to stock.
The 65s are shorter, narrower, lighter, more rev-happy and much more nimble than their R100 siblings, but not as comfortable as a distance mount. With just 45 horses standard for a 210-kilogram package, their progress is lively (top speed is listed at 177km/h) rather than arm-wrenching. Add a questionable set of brakes (the term ‘wooden’ springs to mind) along with the usual torque reactions from the transverse cylinder and shaft-drive layout and you have something that requires a bit of patience to get comfortable with.
How you feel about this bike depends a lot on your riding history. If you’ve been fed a steady diet of relatively current machinery, it will feel very ordinary. (Frankly, a Japanese bike from the early ’80s will run rings around it when it comes to ease of use.) I can think of three experienced riders I’ve put on this machine who have walked away and never looked back. And that includes Harris.
However anyone with some decent exposure to older classic machinery will think it’s wonderful. It handles better than my 1971 Honda CB750 Four, stops better than my 1975 Triumph T160 and has proved to be remarkably fuss-free and reliable.
Invest a little time and mechanical sympathy and you’re rewarded with two things: surprisingly good point-to-point performance; plus, a real sense of achievement in riding the bike well.
The Janettemobile (as it’s called) is living proof of how these bikes can get under your skin. Originally bought for nothing more than sentimental reasons, it’s actually weaselled its way into my life to the point where I now genuinely look forward to riding it.