My pride and joy: 1956 BMW R 26
I had been an avid reader of “Das Motorrad” magazine. Obviously, I made their opinions my own and came to the conclusion that I needed a BMW motor cycle because they all have a drive shaft. That enclosed drive shaft instead of an unprotected chain that came with almost everything else was key for low maintenance and reliability.
The money I saved up from summer jobs was not enough to buy a BMW boxer twin, but a 250 cc single was in reach. At Goofy’s shed I met Sepp who owned a 1956 BMW R 26. Sepp had just recently upgraded to a 350 cc Yamaha YR1 with a 2- cycle twin and was ready to sell the R 26 to me. That was in the winter of ’74. We made the deal on a weekend and I promised to pay him the following week after I could go to the bank.
I rode the R 26 to the local bank. It was wet and nasty cold. I bundled up in several layers: long johns, long sleeve T-shirt, shirt, sweater, jeans jacket, scarf, NATO olive military surplus coat, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, black boots, gloves inside of lobster claw mitts, red full face helmet. I entered the bank’s lobby and walked to a table. The layout of the lobby was such that my back was towards the row of tellers. Imagine you are the teller and all you see is this guy’s back: I pulled the mitts, gloves and helmet off and put them on the table. I opened my coat and pulled my savings book out of the chest pocket. Now I turned around. When I walked to the counter Herr Huber had folds of worry and beads of sweat on his forehead. In slow motion his face transitioned to the friendliest expression ever as he recognized me. He said: “ Am I glad it’s you! I thought this was going to be a robbery. I had my finger on the button!” I hope this man wore Pampers.
In cold weather I had some real difficulty kicking the R 26 to life. Luckily we lived at the top of a hill and I could let it roll down, put it in 2nd and let the clutch go. Even then I sometimes couldn’t get it to run by the time I reached the bottom. This bike was much heavier than myself and I had to push it back up the hill. Sepp was nice enough to show me the whole procedure: open the petcock, dip the float until the fuel spills out of the carburetor, push down the ignition key on the headlamp, put your left hand on the right end of the handlebar and open the throttle about ¼ turn. Put your right foot on the kick starter and push it down with all your might. With only about 150 lbs of weight it took me a while to get the hang of it.
In proper riding gear and in the glow of the setting sun.
The BMW was a lot faster than the Hercules mokick I was used to. At first I was closing up way to much to the vehicles in front of me. I was tailgating at speed. A few close calls taught me to keep my distance and watch for lurking dangers. Nonetheless I laid it down once. I was going from Kappelrodeck towards Sandweier on L 87A (I encourage you to look it up on google map). I overcooked it going into the first right corner outside of town. There was a bump in the road and the bike’s stand dug into the tarmac. I high-sided and landed in the ditch on the other side of the road. The bike was upside down but still idling and in gear. The engine stopped after a minute or so. My right leg was trapped under the edge of the license plate that dug into my calf. I pulled off my gloves and waved them every time I heard a car coming by. Soon somebody stopped and helped me out of this situation. I didn’t break any bones but hurt for a few days pretty good. The bike needed the steering stops welded back on.
Once I visited my cousin Gerhard who owned a BMW R 51/3. We were riding from Baden-Baden to Forbach. It is a wiggly line on the map. After the ride he told me he never rode this cautiously. I myself did not feel safe taking these hairpins any faster because the bike had a serious shimmy. It turned out the tapered roller bearings in the swing of the Earles fork were loose and needed replacement. I found another non-running R 26 and used its bearings and many other parts to keep mine running.
The bike was not nearly as reliable as I was expecting, drive shaft and all. The electric parts were failing regularly because of the intense vibration from the 250 cc single. I was in Kappelrodeck when the ground cable of the battery came off and stranded me on the side of the road 5 km from home and in the night. While I was figuring out what the problem was a guy on a Kleinkraftrad (KKR) stopped. We talked a bit and I asked him if he would be willing to give me a ride home to get some tools and a cable so I can fix my machine. Sure he did. I promised to visit him and treat him to a ride on the R 26.
I followed up one November night. He lived about 17 km away up in the Black Forest. His name is Willy and we are friends since this visit. He showed me his vacuum tube radios including the one he tweaked to illegally receive the police’s frequency. But I came to fulfill my promise. He climbed on the back and we went down to Ottenhöfen, then left to Unterwasser. The road past Unterwasser is another wiggly line on the map and served as a temporary hill climb race track. It started snowing but Willy didn’t care. He thoroughly enjoyed the ride through the switchbacks. Willy caught the motorcycle bug that night.
Soon he was 18 years of age himself and got his class III and I driver’s license for cars and motorcycles. We kept talking about bikes and I knew of a DKW 250 in the basement of a family in my town. We were able to talk them into selling it to him for DM 50 and that is how Willy’s motorcycle collection got started. He got it running but the frame was distorted from the use of a sidecar so it pulled hard to the right. Next one was a BMW 24/3 followed by a 1951 or so Triumph 250 BDG that he restored. With this one we teamed up for many weekend rides. One of them I should relate.
It was spring, probably 1977. I came home for the weekend from Heidelberg and we were itching to get on the bikes for the first longer ride in the Black Forest. We took the same road of that fateful first ride and continued to Bad Peterstal and from there we did the hill climb to Kniebis. At Kniebis the state road connects to the the federal road B 500 known as Schwarzwald Hochstrasse. I pulled into the parking lot to wait for Willy. After a minute a bike came in from the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse. He too pulled into the parking lot right next to me. I didn’t know the guy. He had a 350cc MV Agusta. Interesting, I thought. More bikes came. Honda CB 250, CB 750, Yamaha RD 250, BMW 75/5, throw in a Kawasaki for good measure. Eight guys in all and a few girlfriends too. Then Willy rumbled in on his woefully under-powered Triumph. Now there were 10 bikes.
After a bit of small talk we decided to ride together to Bad Peterstal, the same road down that Willy and I came up. You need to know that Bad Peterstal and many other small towns are designated as Kurstadt (Spa) because of the clean healthy Black Forest air. They like it nice and quiet there. We happily weaved through the switchbacks. The BMW 75/5 was leading, and Willy and I were somewhere in the middle of the pack. The road makes a left hand sweeper downhill into the town of Bad Peterstal. At the apex was standing an old man, probably a spa visitor, with his cane. He intended to to cross the road and one bike after the other came rumbling around just when he was raising his foot to step on the pavement. He got angry and swung that cane at the helmet of the guy in front of me, myself, and I suppose everyone else following me. He actually hit two of us.
We found a cafe in Oppenau that was open even though it was the Easter weekend. We piled in and had the place to ourselves. Of course we discussed the bikes, the ride, and the old guy with the cane. The coffee and cake were great and the tables were decorated with colorful hard boiled Easter eggs. We were a boisterous group. People helped themselves to the eggs and threw them across the tables. Most of them were caught and the ones that didn’t did not cause major messes.
The guy with the big Honda was quite impressed with Willy’s Triumph and my BMW R 26. “I don’t know why we spent thousands of Deutsch Marks for our bikes when your old machines go so well!” he exclaimed. Keep in mind, we were going downhill and our narrow bikes could lean in the hairpins much deeper than the boxer and the inline fours. Going uphill Willy and I saw nothing but tail lights. Anyway, our party had to end, we paid our bills. I don’t think any eggs were itemized. When we filed out of the place the proprietor himself held the door wide open and with a bow thanked each and everyone of us – for not destroying his place, I suppose.
Willy’s Triumph 250 BDG was a riot to ride. It had a 2 cycle twingle engine with cast iron cylinder making all of 10.5 horse power. It had a super low center of gravity and you could throw it into corners like nothing else. My BMW R 26 made 15 horse power and had a very high center of gravity. On gravel it was like dancing on eggs. It felt best on paved secondary roads and was very comfortable with it’s softly sprung long travel suspension. Watch this video for a ride impression on both smooth and rough roads. If you have a sub woofer you can even feel the vibration emanating from the engine:
Willy and I undertook another late spring ride, probably the following year. We went to the Grand Ballon in the French Vosges. It was a beautiful day and we did not expect any weather related issues. But in the upper elevations, in shaded areas, there was still packed snow and ice on the road. We came around a bend and were totally taken by surprise. We hit the first patch with 40+ km/h on the speedometer. We wobbled and teetered for 50m. Yet we made it without laying down the bikes. Of course later that day I would have electrical troubles (again).
The troublesome voltage regulator sits at 10 O’clock.
My electromagnetic voltage regulators kept burning out one after the other. I think they got shaken to death by vibration. Because of my burn rate (I doubt I was alone though) it was getting harder and harder to find these regulators. One way out was to install the regulator of a VW that had a 6V system. That’s what I did. Of course I had no idea about its calibration and found out the hard way. I went to Heidelberg on the autobahn and near Rastatt the generator burnt out. Damn! I found and replaced the generator a few weeks later and the next time I took it on the A3 it burnt out at the very same place. Double damn!! The VW regulator was tuned for higher output. Therefore it did not limit the output early enough and my generators fried. Oh that acrid smell of burnt electrical equipment! All these repairs made me so well versed in fixing the electrical system I completely re-wired my brother’s barn find BMW R 24/3 in a little more than 2 hours.
A Kodak Instamatic shot: Willy’s Triumph 250BDG , myself and the BMW R 26 with camping gear. The Grand Ballon is looming in the background.
The vibrations also caused a tear in the tank. I had it welded and painted green by a neighbor who ran a collision shop. The vibrations even fatigued the down tubes near the engine mounts. They cracked and needed welding as well.
Another issue was the copper gasket for the header. It always leaked. New ones were a waste of money. It was OK with the throttle open but when coasting with the throttle closed air was pulled into the exhaust and that lead to a detonation in the muffler. I think it was louder than a shot with a muzzle loader. Once it happened when Sepp was following me closely on his Yamaha YR1: “Pow!” In the rear view mirror I saw him looking down for his engine on the left side, then on the right side.
One year my then-girlfriend and I rode to the Cote d’Azur. On the way back home we went through a small town. When I saw a middle aged woman leisurely crossing the road I closed the throttle to slow down a bit to give her the right of way. I was right behind her back when the fumes detonated like a gun shot. I was surprised myself a bit. In the rear view mirror I saw her taking one giant leap to the sidewalk. I still laugh about the sight. I don’t think it contributed to the advancement of the Franco-German Friendship.
You deserve one high quality picture of a BMW R 26. Note the brownish streak on the gearbox below the carburetor. It is the result of the cold start procedure.
About 100 km later the engine died. My bad! I was used to a 2-cycle engine and had not yet learned to check the oil regularly on long trips. I killed the engine because of oil starvation. Good thing my girlfriend knew French a bit better than myself. A man stopped and he agreed to help us. We shoved the bike into the back of his Renault R 4. Part of the bike hung out the back and the hatch did not close all the way. He took us to the next train station without incident. The S.N.C.F. (French National Rail Company) required the tank to be empty so I transferred the fuel to the R4, paid him some money and we went home by train. I pulled the engine and had it rebuilt professionally. Good thing I still had my Hercules MK IV.
In Heidelberg I parked the bike on the sidewalk and locked the steering. But somebody was trying to steal the bike. They already broke the lock and pushed the bike 2 blocks away when a friend of my older brother saw them. He yelled at them and they ran. From then on I chained the bike to a wrought iron fence not too far away.
The Odenwald near Heidelberg offers great motorcycling roads and I enjoyed them a lot. But almost every time I went for a ride, be it here or in the Black Forest, I had a close call that left my nerves in tatters. -As an aside: the University of Heidelberg ran a research program where they collected the helmets of injured and killed motorcyclists in order to develop better protective gear. The Odenwald produced a steady supply of helmets.- These close calls made me realize that I needed the protection of a car. Also my frequent trips (doctor visits, unfortunately) called for a weather proof vehicle. My motorcycling years were soon coming to an end. I sold my BMW R 26 to a friend of my brother’s who was equally convinced as I once was that the driveshaft just about guarantees a trouble free ownership.
BMW tank badges and the VIN tag of the spare bike still hang in the garage today.
P.S.: In 2014 I visited the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. There was a white BMW R 26 on display. It beckoned for me to open the petcock, dip the float until the fuel spills out of the carburetor, push down the ignition key on the headlamp, put my left hand on the right end of the handlebar and open the throttle about ¼ turn. Put my right foot on the kick starter and push it down with all my might.