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Owning Vintage BMWs

by Jeff Dean 

When you own a few vintage BMW motorcycles, as I do, their care and upkeep can become personal matters. Iron Horse Motorcycles, as fine a dealer as it is, does not work on pre-1970 BMW motorcycles. Numerous other BMW dealers across the nation take the same position. Working on these old bikes just is not profitable, and new technicians are not trained to do so.

There are two specialists in the Phoenix, Dave Alquist and Omar Sayied, who do work on these bikes, but some tasks can be undertaken by owners with the time and courage — or insanity — to try. Changing oils, setting valves, and torquing heads are simple enough to do, but I have found myself recently stumbling deeper into my old bikes to keep them on the road, and — trust me — I am no mechanical whiz.

R60US transmission: The first time I bit the bullet was last winter when I found that the transmission on my Dover white 1968 R60US did not like to stay in first gear going up a very steep hill near our house. What to do? There was no way I could open a tranny and work on it. I called Craig “Vech” Vechorik in Mississippi, a very well known vintage BMW parts supplier and wrench, and asked him what to do.

“Send me the transmission,” said he. Yeah right. “I’ll tell you what to do!” And he did, over the course of several phone calls. I placed the bike on my Harbor Freight motorcycle lift and applied his instructions. I amazed myself by actually removing the transmission from the bike. I sent it to Vech and a couple of weeks later it came back. More phone calls and the transmission got back in place. Incredibly, it actually worked!

Earlier this fall I purchased a copy of Chris Betjemann’s excellent new 500-page book, “BMW /2 Restoration and Service Manual.” None too soon, as it turned out.

R60/2 exhaust valve: November 21st I was riding my black1967 R60/2 on the Pinal Parkway to attend the vintage bike show at Victory BMW in Chandler. Jim Strang was accompanying me, riding my red 1969 R60/2. I was riding at 60 MPH about half way between Oracle Junction and Florence when the engine on my bike started making metallic clattering noises and the engine stopped. Damn. It had 290 miles on a top end job. It would not start. Perhaps I was pushing it too hard.

Jim and I pondered what to do next and parked the disabled BMW off the roadway. After a while I tried to start it again. It started! We then turned around and headed back toward Tucson, going no faster than 45 MPH. Amazingly, the old Beemer did not miss a beat and we got home without incident, except, perhaps, for a few frustrated drivers who felt we were going too slowly.

O.k., I could not ride the bike further without fixing whatever was wrong. I checked the compression and found it read only 70 on the right side. It should read 100-110 on an R60/2. Something was definitely wrong on the right.

I removed the valve cover, something I had done often in the past. Then I removed the rocker arms and push rods and pulled the head. Peering into the cylinder and examining the valves I could see nothing wrong. Then I, gasp, removed the cylinder and piston — totally new tasks to me — and headed to Iron Horse, to show everything to Matthew Noli. I knew that Iron Horse would not work on the bike, but I also knew that Matthew was very knowledgeable about /2s.

Matthew gave me his assessment. He noticed a nick on the top of the piston that was caused by the exhaust valve.

“Bent exhaust valve,” opined Matthew.

Apparently, for some reason the valve did not retreat fast enough into the head and the piston had pushed it up. I was not over-revving the engine, so something else must have caused that.

Crap, thought I. Now what? Well, at least I had gotten the piston, cylinder, and head off. Matthew recommended I take the head to Machine Works, on Elm Street, which I promptly did.

At Machine Works I made the acquaintance of John O’Hara, “The best head man in Tucson,” apparently. He removed the exhaust valve and put it into what looked like half of a lathe. He spun it around.

“Yup”, said John. “See that? The valve is bent.”

I didn’t have a spare exhaust valve in my pocket, and you cannot get a /2 exhaust valve at Sears, so I had Tim Stafford in San Diego send me a new one.

The valve arrived, Big John, the head man, who is a very nice guy, did his magic on the valve seat and guide and installed the new valve.

All that was fine, but then I had to install the piston, cylinder, and head, torque the head bolts, set the valves, and put the valve cover back on. In short, I managed to do that following Betjemann’s book. I then ran the engine, let it cool over night and reset the head bolts and valves in the morning.

I am now carefully riding the bike, known as “Iowa” because that is where I bought it in 1986, until I get at least 300 miles minimum on the new exhaust valve. So far so good.

R60US front forks: My next project involved the white R60US again — the transmission bike.

The US models have telescopic forks instead of the more common Earles forks. I have to ride about ¼ mile from my house on a dirt road until I get to pavement. The R60US forks made banging noises every time I did that, and I wanted that to be fixed.

I emailed Vech and told him the symptoms.

“Hell, I know what that is already,” he wrote back. Where upon he listed for me all the parts I would need to fix the forks.

Of course, that meant I or someone would have to disassemble the forks to install all the new parts Vech was sending me. Who else was going to do it?

I love what Betjemann says about working on US forks. A direct quote from page 95:

“Servicing these forks is relatively easy …”

When I see the word “easy” associated with any task it is a major warning. I saw that in October when I decided to replace the faucet on our kitchen sink. In those instructions, the word “easy” appeared twice in the first sentence — an even more ominous warking! Well, I will not print here the words I wound up using.

The front forks came completely apart. The parts arrived from Vech. I read and re-read the part of Betjemann’s book on the “easy” repair of the forks. I prayed for more photographs, but none appeared.

It took me two days to get the forks back together with the new parts. Two days!

Near the end of the first day I was so exhausted my addled brain ceased functioning and I stopped work in order to save the motorcycle and myself from potential injury.

I finally finished the repairs to the best of my ability. On the third day I lowered the lift and then road the bike up and down my dirt road. It was better, but not as quiet as the forks on my R75/5. I guess I have more to learn about perfecting US forks.

No doubt something else will crop up and I will face again the challenge to keep another old BMW running.

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