As I swung through an area of particularly nice farm country on my 1982 BMW R100 RS, I found myself sitting by the side of the road, simply soaking in the beauty all around. A massive sea of yellow flowers filled the scene in every direction, in rolling waves.
The hardwoods are almost in full leaf now in the piedmont of North Carolina, and the bright green of spring makes everything look new and fresh again. I managed to click off 75 miles that morning before hitting the first coffee stop on today’s iteration of café racing.
My father, who introduced me to both aviation and motorcycling, was a P-51 crew chief during the Korean War. He was always a fan of the Mustang, but I’ve recently recalled that he also had a special feeling about the P-47 Thunderbolt. A massive plane that always flew in the Mustang’s shadow, the “Jug” nevertheless had the best survival rate for pilots of American fighter planes in WWII. Its monster engine by the end of the conflict also made it the fastest, but the thing that made it so special was its aircooled engine. So strong that a cylinder could be shot away, and the Pratt & Whitney radial would just keep on spinning. No radiators, no glycol, nothing but the flow of air to keep things comfortable in the engine room.
It’s appropriate that my dad also introduced me to airhead BMWs in 1975 when he brought home an R90/6. I was hooked at the first twist of the throttle. Pure magic. I still get the same feeling when I twist the loud grip on my 1982 RS. This particular BMW is one I fell in lust with in 1979 while on an adventure trip from my home in New Jersey to attend a BMW National Club rally in Brainerd, Minnesota. The red smoked look was new to me then, but the price of admission was way beyond anything I could comprehend as a rising college senior. Someday, I committed, I’d find one.
That day arrived in 2012 when I stumbled onto this bike via a chance encounter on eBay. The Beemer was originally purchased in 1982 by a U.S. Army officer stationed in West Germany. It still sports the dealer stickers from a store in Mannheim, and the parking permit from Fort Rucker, Alabama, confirms that this officer was a helicopter pilot.
At some point, with only 6,700 miles on the clock, the bike went into storage in a barn for a long, long nap. It resurfaced when the officer’s family donated it to the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where it was purchased by an aspiring member of the local Volvo club who got it cleaned up and running. I bought her sight unseen, based on a series of pictures and a cold start video.
The preservation, rather than a restoration, started immediately and led to a rebuild of the engine, the transmission, and many other assorted bits. The paint is faded on one side, no doubt due to the sun streaming in at the barn. There are a host of small areas where the finish is imperfect. In other words, lots of patina that creates even more character for a bike now past her 40th birthday.
How exactly did the small dents in the tank get there? How did the little scratches on the lower fairing get created — and who took the time to feather in rather elegant repairs? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but I’ve had the opportunity to write whole new chapters in her logbook in the time since our paths connected in The Old North State. While I’ve only been caretaker for about 25% of her years, I can lay claim to two-thirds of the miles and most of the oil changes.
The RS is now a year into her Wedgetail ignition, and it is just brilliant. Cold bloodedness is a thing of the past, and she pulls strong EVERYWHERE in the rev-range. A bike that was brilliant when it rolled out of Germany four decades ago is better now. Dropping a gear, diving into the twisting ribbons of asphalt, and letting the torque provide for a masterful escape from the apex, provides a never-ending sense of exhilaration. Rinsing and repeating is advised.
Easing back onto a stunning byway, it was satisfying just to cruise along at a modest pace while soaking in all the natural beauty around me, with a symphony of magical sounds from the venerable airhead below. Like a Thunderbolt in terms of reliability, but plenty of Lightning to be had whenever you need it.
While meandering through the countryside, one of the lovely things you experience is having all your senses tested concurrently. Freshly mowed grass as you blitz through areas where farms meet suburbia. Barbecues at the ready, taking care of midday meals. Someone baking pies, sending a sweetness wafting across the roads. Spring flowers offering a completely different aural sense, even as the pollen that plagues the early spring air suddenly abates. Lovely day, indeed.
Eventually, the first part of this day’s adventure ended when I found a mate at a local coffee shop. From there, we headed back out onto the byways east of Research Triangle Park, doing our level best to avoid anything that looks like a highway.
Two lanes are best with a certain wanderlust built into them. The best way to get from Point A to Point B is almost never a straight line, a concept completely in keeping with the character of the old BMW. Later, when parked for a coffee stop, it was great to be able to compare-and-contrast the RS to a K1600B that is exactly 40 years younger.
Sporting a big six-cylinder engine, with the latest in water cooling and electronics, they seem to be opposite ends of a very German spectrum. The owner of the new BMW lamented some difficulty he was having with the on-board navigation system, which I guess can be quite problematic when you are dependent on such things.
All those years ago when riding with my dad, we perfected the art of driving by the sun to get navigational reference points. We also lived by the mantra that part of the joy of riding was to get lost, so you could get found again. That pretty much explained how our routes on my rides are laid out on every given day.
While we were mulling over the two BMWs built half a century apart, a couple rolled up in a VW and wanted to chat about the two bikes. Turns out they have three Beemers in their fold at home. They said they’re ready to stir some oil with us in the future.
The venerable airhead is a joy to ride, and a conversation starter when I park her. The next ride will be bigger, and perhaps better.
Life is, in fact, better with a Beemer.