Of all the 1950 s motorcycles on this website, the BMW R69 is the one most readily identifiable today. The Bavarian company has been inextricably associated with horizontally-opposed, shaft-drive twins since Max Friz originally designed the engine in the 1920’s. They have equally been associated with high prices and top-quality engineering.
In the late fifties, this was almost to prove BMW’s downfall. With motorcycle sales plummeting at home, and burdened with the cost of development of a range of small cars, BMW was practically bankrupt. Fortunately the banks bailed them out long enough for the four-wheelers to begin to make their mark – and marks – and the future began to look rosier.
The R69 produced throughout this difficult period was a descendant of the 1951 R67, the company’s first 600cc overhead valve twin. Producing 26bhp, the R67 boasted telescopic forks (which, with the 750cc R12 of 1935, BMW had been the first major manufacturer to fit) but rather dated plunger rear suspension.
Years in Production
air-cooled 1212cc OHV V-twin
tubular steel cradle, single front downtube
drum / drum
1958 – 1964
With the arrival of the R69 in 1955, the telescopic front forks gave way to pivoted ‘Earles-type’ front suspension which was then becoming fashionable. At the rear, a new swing-arm set-up was adopted, although at first glance the frame looked like the old plunger trellis. The rebuildable shock absorbers mounted on horns rising up from the main frame rails, which itself swept down close to the rear spindle as before. A rubber sprung sadd le mounted airily behind the classic black tank, adding to the dated appearance. A sports version, the R69S, was added in 1960.
Compared to the R67, the 69 had a hotter cam, higher compression pistons, larger carbs and valves, a sports gearbox and nine more horsepower, but was still essentially the same design. Although extremely well-built, with a sturdy pressed-up crank with roller-bearing big-end and main bearings, lubrication is crude an d frequent oil-changes were essential. The main bearings, which tolerated some whip in the crankshaft , were of a type later to appear as ‘Superblend’ bearings on later 750cc Norton Commandos. When carefully looked after, the R69 could, like most of its successors, offer prodigious trouble-free mileages.
Some idea of the painstaking production process is hinted by the availability of cam drive gears in a wide range of sizes to ensure perfect meshing. Not surprisingly, later BMW’s adopted chain driven camshafts.
Mechanically, with its heavy cast iron cylinders and needle-roller rockers, the R69 is commendably smooth and quiet. Power, even in ‘sport’ guise was modest, making the BMW a far more pedestrian machine than contemporary British hot twins. Earles-type forks, too, were more suited to sidecar in 1967, than solo use, where they give a vagueness that good telescopic forks avoided.
It was, however, a comfortable machine ideally suited to long-distance work on its native autobahns. Despite its weight (4451b ready to roll), it was low and manageable. Above all, it was civilised and, in that uniquely BMW manner, at the same time conservative and defiantly odd. And its price tag was definitely in the superbike league.
As the sixties began, the R69 gave way to the /2 twins, which featured detail revisions but were still very much in the same fifties mould. Major changes had to wait until 1969 and the R60/5. This, along with its 5-series siblings the 500cc 50/5 and 750cc R75/5, was an altogether more modern looking machine , with more power, electric start and styling which would last into the eighties. For 1974 the /5 gave way to the five-speed 6 series, now in 600, 750 and 900cc, the latter the ‘ultimate’ R90S. The last of BMW’s 600s was the R60/7 of 1978.