Posted On 07 May 2024
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This entry is part 14 of 29 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#30


The R 7 shows off its clean design. That H-shaped gearchange gate is classic.

A Cyclone board tracker sold recently at the Las Vegas bike auctions for three quarters of a million dollars – US. It failed to make the million, which some people had predicted it would reach, even though it had been owned by Steve McQueen. Usually, previous ownership by McQueen adds at least a quarter to the value.

This bike, on the other hand, has never been owned by anyone other than the firm which built it – but I don’t think it would need any celebrity provenance to make that magic million bucks. There are many reasons, but they are basically simple. The bike is strictly one of a kind, it has serious significance both as a bike and a piece of industrial design, and… it’s beautiful.

The bike has been described as an Art Deco design, and that is probably appropriate. Certainly it was designed and built during the heyday of the Art Deco movement; but just what defined that movement is another matter. For one thing, the name only came into use in the 1960s. For another, very few people can agree on what it describes.

“To this day, opinions are divided between two main camps on the definition…”writes Alastair Duncan of the Art Deco Society of NY, “… whether it was the highly colorful and playful geometric style which ruled the Paris Salons in the immediate post-WWI years… or that of the crisp angular patterns, most with American modernistic impulses, including zig-zag, jazz-age, machine-age, and streamlined aesthetics, to which architects were drawn towards 1930.”

At the time, “Modern man’s imagination”, Duncan continues, “was stirred now by the enormous tensile strength and brilliant sheen of steel, technology’s newest building aid.”

Just as well that technology’s newest building aid wasn’t, say, reinforced concrete… that would have made some rather heavy bikes, not to mention the difficulty of getting a smooth paint job… But seriously, BMW design engineer Alfred Böning got it pretty right with this design. The bike has the traditional pressed-steel frame (which was to be the design’s downfall) and telescopic forks. It’s sometimes claimed that this was a first for motorcycles, but in fact British manufacturer Scott had telescopics back in 1924, when BMW had just started making motorcycles.

And if you mean hydraulic telescopic forks, Nimbus beat BMW into production by a year. The R7 doesn’t need spurious claims to make it special, anyway.

The bike weighs 178kg and has a 790cc engine, a capacity often described as optimal for horizontally opposed boxer twins. It hangs from the pressed steel bridge frame and is matched to a four-speed transmission with a hand gear change. It produced 35 horsepower which gave it a top speed of 145km/h.

The kick starter operates inline, rather than at right angles to the bike.

Wouldn’t you love that pipe for your bike? Not to mention the taillight.

Leonhard Ischinger designed the engine for BMW. It had a forged, one piece crankshaft for extra strength, and the cylinders and cylinder heads were a single component, with hemispherical combustion chambers. This monobloc design eliminated the need for a head gasket, a weakness in engine technology at the time. The camshaft was under the crankshaft, so the cylinders were positioned relatively high which allowed effective valve positioning and even more ground clearance than its siblings. The pair of chrome fishtail exhausts is a work of art in its own right.

The bike has a colour scheme which was later to almost become standard for BMW motorcycles (for a while it was possible to order them in any colour that was being offered on cars).

So it has all black body panels with white pinstriping. The wire wheels are painted black to match the rest of the bike. The smooth lines of the bodywork and mudguards with their pierced valances give the bike an unmistakable appearance. The engine is hidden by sheets of formed metal to both aid its aerodynamics and add to the appearance. Unusually for BMW, the exposed cylinder heads are an aerodynamic dome shape as well.

Let’s not forget present-day Art Deco bikes; Arlen Ness’ Smoothness is one of the best.

The fuel tank is covered by the bodywork and the chromed top cover holds an oil pressure gauge. Electrics are hidden by side covers around the rider’s knees and alloy foot boards support the feet. The headlight cowling holds the speedometer. In a classic piece of industrial design, the lower covers and the smooth rocker covers taper down to the rear axle. The upper “…SOMEONE OPENED THE R7’S DUSTY PACKING CRATE AND REALISED WHAT THE CONTENTS MEANT.” bodywork blends neatly into the rear mudguards.

The R7 was originally intended as a production model, but BMW was changing its emphasis to lighter, sportier models and tube frames suited that style better. With World War II approaching, nobody at the factory really knew what to do with this beautiful but rather pointless prototype.

It ended up in a crate, and was left alone. Well, except for occasionally being stripped for parts. It’s amazing that the crate survived the bombing during the war.

Finally, in June of 2005, someone opened the R7’s dusty packing crate and realised what the contents meant.

Almost a third of the parts were gone and much of the rest was severely damaged by rust. Acid from a ruptured battery had caused corrosion damage; the mudguards were a rusty mess and the frame needed to be rebuilt. But that’s okay; BMW has the resources for this kind of thing at its Classic department.

The Bavarians stripped down the engine and found that some parts were available from other bikes of the time, but many others had to be made from scratch. Luckily, the original design drawings still existed. The gearbox was rebuilt, the electrical system replaced, and the metalwork in the body effectively recreated over some two years. It is now a runner and part of the BMW Group’s historic collection in Germany.

And just in case you’ve got an Art Deco motorcycle of some kind (or any object from the period) lying around in the shed, you might want to consider dragging it out. In 2009, a ‘Dragon’ Art Deco armchair from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent was hammered down for 20 million Euros. Rather makes the ex Steve McQueen Cyclone board tracker which just sold for US$775,000 pale in comparison, doesn’t it? I wonder: would you pay more for something that Yves Saint Laurent or Steve McQueen had sat on?

Hand-built bodywork covers a Henderson 4 in possibly the most beautiful Art Decom bike ever.

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