David Percival’s BMW Museum

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Knowing that I ride a BMW, a colleague said to me last year, “I should put you in touch with a friend of mine. He knows someone who has a collection of BMW bikes.” My colleague is from Maine, where David Percival lives and stores his collection. David discovered BMW bikes while serving in the US Army and stationed in Germany in the late 1950’s. Prior to that time, he had thought motorcycles were dirty, always dripping oil. Then he saw a BMW and his mind changed. Here was a bike that not only didn’t drip oil but also was beautifully designed and engineered. He was taken.

He began riding BMWs with German riders and even started racing as the “monkey” (i.e. passenger) in a sidecar outfit. He started collecting BMW motorcycles in the 1970s. The result to date is a collection of over 100 bikes, the second largest private collection in the world. He has every model from the first BMW motorcycle, the R-32, built in 1923, to the R-90S, built in 1976. He is only missing two bikes, the R-37 and R-16. But let’s not focus on the negative. It’s an impressive collection, and last Saturday I led a small group of riders from my club down to meet David, look at his bikes, and hear their stories.

David lives in Andover, Maine, a few hours south of Sherbrooke. It’s a four-hour ride from Montreal so we left early and took the freeway down into the Eastern Townships. Once we crossed the border, we found ourselves on Highway 26, a twisting road that snakes through northern Maine. A deer crossed in front of me to remind me to take it easy and keep a close eye out at the sides of the road. We arrived in Andover at 1:00, starving, and decided to eat lunch before visiting David. But he found us first. He’d seen (or heard) us pass by his place and found us at the local park, eating the sandwiches we’d prepared to save time.

The first thing David showed us was his workshop. I was drooling. Since I don’t have a wide-angle lens on my phone, it takes three photos to capture the entire workshop. Here’s one, alongside a photo of my workshop, for comparative purposes.

Guess which one is David’s?

I won’t try to provide an exposé here of David’s collection. For that, see this issue of BMW Magazine and this article and photos by bfbrawn. I’ll just show you a few of my highlights, hopefully to whet your interest in visiting David. He loves to tell the stories of these bikes and is very generous with his time!

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One of the highlights of the collection, the R-32, the first BMW motorcycle (1923). 

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David with one of his prized bikes. 

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Wikipedia says the first GS, which refers to either Gelände/Straße (German: off-road/road) or Gelände Sport, is the R-80, first built in 1980. But here is a GS built in 1974! Obviously it was an experimental model. It’s 1000cc and has 109 HP. You can see the characteristic GS look from its inception: tank shape, telescopic forks with gaiters, wide saddle. Note the handle on the left for putting the bike on its centre-stand.

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Sidecar

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When Germany was split after WWII, the BMW factories in East Germany still made BMW bikes. A copyright lawsuit put an end to that, so they were rebranded under Eisenacher Motorenwerk. Here is a rare bike from that company behind the iron curtain. As you can see, the logo has a striking similarity to the original BMW logo. The company, however, could not keep up and continued to use pre-war technology in their bikes.

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This is a very small sample of David’s bikes. I didn’t take a lot of photos because I was too busy admiring them and listening to David. But it’s a very impressive collection, all lovingly restored. If you are interested in organizing a visit with your club or organization, shoot me a line and I’ll send you David’s email address. He books up early for the summer, so you are probably looking at next season for a visit. I feel privileged to have seen these rare machines and to have relived, through David’s stories, a part of motorsport history.

 

The BMW f650GS. It’s not just a starter bike.

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I’ve been reluctant to do a bike review of Bigby. For one, I still consider myself a novice. In fact, aside from a few bikes at my training school, Bigby is the only bike I’ve ever ridden, so I don’t have much to compare it to. Doing a review, I thought, would inevitably lead to the faulty comparison, a logical fallacy I warn my students to avoid. (i.e. “Gets your clothes cleaner!” Ugh, cleaner than what?) Second, I’m still learning about the bike. Although I’ve owned it for almost three years, I’m still finding my way around the engine and mechanics and still discovering its potential. Passing judgment now would be like bailing out of a relationship after the second date. It would be, in the literal sense of the word, prejudice.

So why have I decided to do it? Well, after watching a lot of reviews online, I’ve come to realize that most are not very good, so the bar is set pretty low. They are usually more product descriptions than reviews, and Ryan at Fort Nine has blown the whistle on the nepotism of corporate reviews, how they are always positive because the big bike companies offer a lot of treats to the reviewers, like paid vacations in exotic locations. And those reviewers ride the bike for, what, a day, a couple of days, max, so at least I can say that after three years with Bigby, I know more about this bike than they ever will. So with my concerns made explicit, let’s jump in.

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The three things I like the most about the f650GS are three things I noticed within the first five minutes of riding it: ergonomics, suspension, and balance. Okay maybe you don’t need to have ridden a bike for long before you discover its essence. Let’s look at each in turn and then move on to other stuff.

Ergonomics: At the school, we’d learnt on cruisers—Suzuki Boulevards and Honda Shadows. The ergonomics of the GS are very different. Being a dual-sport bike, it’s capable of going off road, and you need the pegs beneath you in order to stand. This placement also results in your weight being distributed evenly between the seat and pegs, with knees bent at roughly 90 degrees. It’s the ideal sitting position and how every office chair should be set up, thus making the GS also a very capable touring bike. The dual-sport, according to its name, involves compromise, but there’s no compromise when it comes to ergonomics: the GS provides the perfect sitting position, and the capability to stand when you leave the asphalt.

The other thing I like about the ergonomics is that you can flat foot this bike. The standard seat height is 30.9 inches, so super low. This is confidence inspiring once you take it off road; I know I can easily dab a foot if needed. In fact, since I am rather long-legged, the seat was a bit too low; my knees were bent more than 90 degrees and I felt a bit cramped after several hours in the saddle. So when I upgraded my seat (more on this later), I went for the high version to allow a bit more room, and that has made all the difference. If you are long-limbed, you might want to look at the Dakar version, which has a 34.3 inch seat height, or swap the saddle for a taller one. Despite these issues in my lower half, I haven’t had to add bar risers, and when I stand, the grips fall perfectly to where I need them, maintaining my standing posture.

Suspension: As I rode off on my first ride, the second thing I noticed was the suspension. This bike is smoooth, at least compared to those cruisers. And what better place to test a bike’s suspension than Montreal roads! Of course it makes sense that a dual-sport bike would have very capable suspension; it’s designed to be able to handle some pretty bumpy terrain. But just before I went for my riding test, I hired a private instructor for a class. He rode behind me and commented on things he saw. Now here is someone who has a lot of experience with bikes and has seen a wide variety from behind. Ironically, the first thing he remarked when we first stopped had nothing to do with my riding but how impressed he was with the rear suspension of my bike. “I wish you could see what I see from behind,” he said. “It’s amazing!”

In fact, I’ve wondered if the suspension is a little mushy. I’ve only bottomed out a few times while off-roading, and the front end dives a bit under hard braking. I’ve considered upgrading the suspension, but frankly, at only 140 lbs, I’m actually underweight for this bike. Front suspension travel is 170 mm and rear is 165 mm.  Since ideal SAG is roughly 30% of total travel, SAG for the 650GS is 49.5 mm.. Even with the pre-load completely backed off, all of my 140 lbs is putting a little more than 45 mm on the suspension. Which brings me to another plus of this bike: the pre-load adjuster. Okay, it’s not electronically controlled like the new Beemer’s, but the ability to adjust with the turn of a knob when you are two-up or have gear on the back is a nice feature.

Balance: The thing I like most about the 650GS is its balance. This is accomplished mainly due to the gas tank being under the seat instead of high on the bike where it normally is. Where this is most noticeable is in how the bike corners. At the school, we were taught to countersteer to initiate a turn and to accelerate at the end to straighten up, and this was necessary with those cruisers. But I quickly discovered that on the GS you can manage an entire sweeping curve simply by leaning in and out. It’s hard to describe, but the bike feels like it straightens up itself with the subtlest weight shift.

The balance also shows when riding at slow speed, like in parking lots or technical sections off road. I’ll challenge anyone to a slow race any day! The bike is easy to move around by hand and to turn in tight spaces. With a little practice, I was riding figure-eights full lock. You can add all the accessories you like to a bike, but getting the balance right is something that happens at the design stage. BMW got it right on this one, which is why I was surprised to hear that they’ve moved the tank to the traditional location in the hump on the 2018 750s and 850s.

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The engine is a Rotax, 652 cc single-cylinder, water-cooled, DOHC with twin spark plugs and four valves. It provides 50 HP @ 6,500 rpm and 44 lb/ft torque @ 5000 rpm. What these numbers mean is that it’s not the gutsiest engine. I’m up for a slow race but I won’t be challenging anyone to a drag soon. When I did my research, I kept hearing how this bike is a good beginner bike. There’s not a lot of power to manage, and you don’t have to worry about losing the back end by getting on the throttle too hard. On the other hand, it’s got lots of torque down low in the first two gears for hill climbs off road, and still some roll on in 5th gear at 120 km/hr. I’ve never maxed it out, but I’ve had it up to 140 km/hr and that’s fast enough for my purposes. And since we’re talking about gearing, 3rd and 4th are wide enough to enable me to navigate a twisty piece of road pretty much in one gear, depending on the type of road: roll off going into a corner, roll on coming out.

Single-cylinder engines have their advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is this wide gearing. My dad often talks about how he loved this aspect of his 350 Matchless. In heavy traffic, you can stay in 2nd and just ease the clutch back out when traffic picks up again. He once road his brother’s parallel twin and said it was horrible in stop-and-go traffic; you had to work twice as hard to prevent the engine from bogging. I suspect it’s this same quality that allows you to maintain your gear through a twisty section of road with slight variations in speed.

Another advantage of singles, I’ve recently discovered in this article in Cycle World, is that they offer a kind of traction control. As Kevin Cameron argues, “no other design produces such forgiving power delivery under conditions of compromised traction without elaborate software.” This is due to the millisecond duration of the exhaust stroke with big-bore engines, when there is relatively little power delivered to the tire, allowing it to regain traction if it begins to break loose. It’s like anti-lock brakes, the theory goes, but in reverse. Compare that to the constant power delivery of multi-cylinder engines, which makes managing power and traction more challenging.

A disadvantage of single-cylinders is the vibration. The Rotax engine is about a smooth as a single comes, I’ve heard, but it can still make your throttle hand go numb, especially if it’s cold, so you might want to invest in a throttle assist or throttle lock. I have the Kaoko and it works great. Unfortunately, the Rox Anti-Vibration Risers don’t fit my particular bike due to the configuration of the triple-clamp, but then I’ve heard those can make the steering mushy, which can be unnerving when riding off road. And it might be my imagination, but it seems that there are less vibrations when using the BMW oil. It certainly seems that the engine runs quieter and smoother, perhaps not surprising given that BMW design and test the oil specifically for their engines. Speaking of oil, the Rotax engines do not burn oil. Ever. Don’t believe me, go ask the inmates at The Chain Gang, a user forum devoted to the BMW 650s.

On the other hand, it’s a major pain in the ass to do an oil change on this bike. Because the engine uses a dry sump system, there’s an oil tank on the left side of the hump where a gas tank normally would be (an airbox is on the right side), so draining the oil involves removing the left body panel and draining that holding tank, plus draining the pan by removing the sump plug at the very bottom of the engine. If you have a bash plate, as I do, you have to remove that too, which, if it’s attached to the crash cage . . . and so on, until you’ve stripped the bike halfway down. Or you can drill a hole in your bash plate as I did, which makes that job a lot easier. You’re still going to get some oil on the plate, and you’re going to get some on the engine when you remove the oil filter due to its recessed placement, so just have plenty of shop towels on hand.

My 2006 650GS does not have rider modes and sophisticated electronics. It doesn’t even have anti-lock brakes. At first I was concerned about this and it was almost a deal-breaker for this newbie. But I spoke to a few experienced riders and they all agreed: better to learn how to control traction and perform emergency braking using proper technique than rely on electronics. Since I’m rather a purist in most things, I understand that. If you learn to emergency brake by grabbing a handful of brake lever and letting ABS do its thing, you aren’t going to develop the feel needed to control sliding in off-road situations. And not having all that sophisticated electronics makes the bike easier to maintain.

The 650GS is fuel-injected so there is an ECU. A 911 diagnostic code reader is available to help you troubleshoot the electronics, but it’s expensive. One advantage of fuel injected bikes is that there is no choke to deal with, and the ECU adjusts the fuel-air mixture according to altitude, meaning you can literally scale any mountain without having to change the jets of a carburetor or risk running your engine hot. The downside is that the throttle can be a little choppy so easy on the roll-off.

Two areas where the 650GS is lacking are the saddle and the windscreen. The saddle is hard and slopes downward, so you always feel like the boys are jammed up against the airbox. If you plan on using your GS for long day trips, you’ll want to upgrade the saddle. There are many aftermarket models available, including BMW’s own Comfort Seat, but I decided to go with Seat Concepts which, for about $250 CAF, they will send you the foam and cover and you reupholster it yourself using your original seat pan. I’ve done a blog on this job so won’t repeat myself here.

One issue with this era GS is the windscreen. The OEM screen is so small it barely covers the instrument dash. There are many aftermarket screens available, but finding the right one is a difficult matter of trial and error. The windscreen issues on this bike are well documented, and if you have sadistic leanings, just search at f650.com for aftermarket windscreens, sit back, and enjoy. The reading is almost as entertaining as a good oil thread. In my own experience, the bike came with a 19″ National Cycle touring windscreen, which was a bit high for off roading and was directing loud air buffeting directly onto my helmet. I swapped it for a 15″ but that too was loud, so I added a wind deflector and that solved the buffeting but I thought ruined the bike’s aesthetic, so I ultimately landed on a 12″ sport screen by National Cycle that protects my torso but keeps my helmet in clean air. The problem is the shape of the front cowling that the screen screws into. It angles the screen too much directly toward the rider’s helmet, instead of the recent bikes that have the screen more upright. The quietest screen on the aftermarket is the Madstad screen. It has an adjustable bracket that attaches to the cowling, allowing you to adjust the angle of the screen. It also has that crucial gap at the bottom of the screen, preventing a low pressure area that causes the buffeting developing behind the screen. Unfortunately, it’s a little pricey, but the real deal-breaker for me is that Madstad use acrylic, and acrylic screens don’t stand up to the abuse of off-road riding. National Cycle screens are polycarbonate.

Aesthetics: I love the aesthetics of this bike! Even ugly babies are adored by their parents, but sometimes I’ll look at a more modern luxury touring bike with the engine completely covered in plastic and I’m glad my bike has its guts hanging out like a proper bike. And I like that it has spoked wheels, which are stronger for off roading and have a more traditional look. Someone once said to me, “I love your old-fashioned bike.” Hmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it as old-fashioned but didn’t mind the comment. There definitely is a raw, real motorcycle quality to the bike, yet has refinements like heated grips and the quality control and reliability you’d expect from BMW. It is the ultimate hybrid dual-sport: part dirt bike, part luxury tourer.

In conclusion: The f650GS is a confidence-inspiring little bike that is perfect for not only beginners but also anyone who prefers a smaller, lighter bike. There’s a movement these days toward smaller bikes, with many people looking at the big adventure bikes with derision for their impracticality off road. I say it really depends on the type of riding you want to do and where you plan to take the bike. Due to its size and weight, the 650GS can go some places that the larger bikes can’t, but the cost is in vibration and rpms at speed on a highway. If you’ve got large areas to traverse but want the capacity to go on dirt roads when needed, then yeah, go for the big 1200GS that is so popular. But if you’ve got time and want to explore deeper into those remote areas, then the 650GS is an excellent choice. I plan on keeping mine as long as possible.

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Pros:

Ergonomics for dirt and touring; smooth suspension; very well balanced; reliable Rotax engine; sufficient hp and torque for light off-roading; fuel injected intake has automatic temperature and altitude adjustment; classic aesthetics

Cons:

Cost (upfront and maintenance; even parts are expensive for DIYs); saddle is hard and uncomfortable; windscreen is useless, hard to find a good aftermarket replacement; engine can be vibey; only 5 gears

 

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The Mother of Invention

Last fall while practising some off road skills, I broke my radiator. I was working on power slides using two cones and riding hard in a figure eight. In a power slide, you brake slide into the corner, then at the apex crack the throttle, break the rear end loose, and slide the back end around as you accelerate out of the corner. In one attempt, I must have angled the bike too much or not cracked the throttle enough (you’re aiming for the right combination of both) because the bike just plopped down on its side. It was already at a steep angle and didn’t fall far, and onto sand, no less, so I didn’t think much of it. But a few minutes later the temperature light came on and the bike overheated. At over $600 for a new radiator and no used ones available on eBay, I decided to put the bike into storage early and deal with it in the spring.

This gave me a whole winter to think about what happened. Was it just bad luck? I decided to buy some upper crash bars to protect the faring and radiator in the future. I have lower crash bars and even some makeshift ones that I’ve had welded onto those, extending out past the pegs and which I thought would be wide enough to protect the upper part of the bike in a fall. But this happened on sand, not asphalt, so they simply sunk into the sand and didn’t stop the impact on the radiator. Ironically, if the bike had fallen on asphalt, I’d be $600 richer. So yeah, bad luck. But I also got to thinking about the Dakar riders and how they dump their bikes all the time on sand and don’t end up with busted radiators. What saves their rads on impact and not mine?

Two winters ago, I was considering a trip to Blanc Sablan, QC, which would have required riding the Trans-Labrador Highway. It’s 1,500 kilometres of gravel road, and without cell service (only satellite phones placed periodically along the highway) and logging trucks barreling past you, it’s imprudent to be without a radiator guard. One errant stone thrown or kicked up into the fragile fins of the rad and you are stranded in the middle of . . . not nowhere, but Labrador, and that’s not good. So I  installed a radiator guard.

From the beginning, I wasn’t entirely happy with it. For one, it required removal of the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) shrouds to install. One look at the shrouds and you can see they’re designed to funnel air into the radiator as well as offer some protection from flying stones. In addition to concerns about adequate cooling, the guards (there are two, one for each side) are also a little flimsy. They are thin aluminum, designed to be light, but because the body panels snap into grommets on the guards (or, originally, the shrouds), they serve another important purpose in supporting the structural integrity of the bike.

Looking at the guard that came off my bike, I could see that it had buckled upon impact.

And this is after some initial straightening. My guess is that the body panel bent the guard and the weight of the bike torqued the radiator. (The leak is in a bottom corner.) It might even be that the guard was shoved into the radiator upon impact because some of the fins are damaged. The OEM shrouds, although plastic, are stronger and might have prevented the damage. Ironically, it’s quite possible that my radiator guard led to my radiator breaking! The lesson here is beware of altering OEM parts on your bike. Sometimes those German engineers know what they are doing. And these bikes, all bikes today, are thoroughly tested before going on the market. Swap out OEM parts for aftermarket ones with prudence!

So I decided to go back to using the OEM shrouds. I wasn’t completely happy because my new radiator would still be vulnerable. The only other major manufacturer of guards for my bike also requires that you remove the shrouds. I therefore had no choice but to try making my own, some that would fit inside the openings of the shrouds.

When I was a kid and was working on my bicycle (or some other project) and needed something very specific, I’d just walk around in my parents’ basement until I found it. I’d have a vague idea in mind of what I needed, and since my parents’ basement was filled with stuff of all kinds, it was just a matter of time before something that would do just the trick presented itself. Walking through a home renovation warehouse is a similar experience. You don’t know exactly where to find what you envisage or even what section it might be in, but keep walking. In my case, I found my new radiator guards in the eavestroughing section.

I started with some aluminium grill that goes in your gutters to keep leaves out. It was cheap and perfect width and even pre-painted black. Most importantly, the openings were the right size—not so big as to let small stones through but big enough to allow sufficient airflow. It was also strong enough to withstand the shake, rattle, and (unfortunately) roll of off-roading. stretched aluminum

Then I carefully measured the openings of the shrouds. MeasuringI used some cardboard and created templates that I could fit into the openings. They were basically squares but with the edges folded about 1/4″. I would use those edges to fix the grill to the shroud, but more on that later. I had to cut the corners so when folded they became like a box (or half a box). One opening on each side was a little tricky because one side of the square is not straight but has a jog. Carefully measuring and fiddling is necessary, but better to do this with cardboard before cutting into your grill.templates

When I had the four templates, I held each up to the grill and cut using tin-snips. CuttingThis is a little messy and you have to vacuum carefully afterwards to collect all the sharp bits of discarded metal. I then held the template against the cut metal and used my Workmate, my vice, and some blunt-nosed pliers to fold and shape the guards.Folding I offered each into its opening and tweaked. FittingThis requires patience, but if you follow your templates as a guide, which you know fit well, you’ll eventually get there. Use the tin-snips or pointed-nose pliers to trim off or bend in sharp edges that can scrape the plastic as you fit them. If you do scratch the plastic a bit, use some Back to Black or Armour All to lessen the visibility of the scratch.

Finally, I wrapped each edge with electrical tape to give it a finished look and prevent the sharp edges from scratching with vibration. TapingFortunately, those clever German engineers had the foresight to drill two holes in the opposite side from the mounting points, probably with something like this in mind. When the guards are done, you can fix them into the shrouds using the mounting screws on the inside and either zip ties or 1/2″ 10-24 machine screws and washers on the outside. I decided to go with the screws just to be sure everything stays put.

Here’s the finished product. I’m happy that I’ll get the cooling effect of the OEM shrouds plus protection for my new (expensive!) rad.Finished covers

These guards are particular to my bike and unless you have a 650GS you’re going to be facing a different situation. Maybe there is a good guard or any other add-on for your bike on the market. But if there isn’t, or if you’re not entirely happy with the product or the price, don’t overlook the option of making it yourself. With a little ingenuity, time, and patience, you can sometimes do better and save yourself some money in the process.