A car owner's opinion of the R.51 B.M.W. motor-cycle

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[We do not believe in running down products of an enemy unnecessarily, and so many car owners are taking to two wheels that this report on the R.51 solo B.M.W., by R.G.V. Venables, is of topical interest. But if Germany’s cross-country attack units rely on B.M.W.s our Home Guard will doubtless show them something when it comes to trials going. – Ed.]

Life is full of surprises, and not one of the least of these was occasioned by reading in the March issue of Motor Sport that I was now the possessor of a solo B.M.W. motor-cycle. Alas, Dame Rumour, as always, had again proved herself a fickle wench, and this false report of my latest acquisition was nothing more than the outcome of a chance remark passed to the Editor whilst spectating at a trial on Pirbright Heath several weeks before. In point of fact, I had told him of my intention to “try a B.M.W.” – by which I merely implied one short ride, not with any aspirations to subsequent purchase.

Well, that ride has now come and gone, and not since being conveyed through inky darkness at rather in excess of 90 m.p.h. in a blown and much shortened Trials V8 have I had such a hectic and altogether enjoyable experience.

The “trial flip” was made the excuse for an afternoon’s excursion through superb country, and the event was blessed with weather to match. A meeting had been arranged in Cowdray Park (between Midhurst and Petworth), and at about 2 p.m. I set off in the Aston-Martin from my home near Farnham. The Aston-Martin is nine years old this summer – being the very first of the long-chassis “Le Mans” models to be built – and it runs as sweetly to-day as when collected from the Feltham works in 1934. They had used this particular model for their demonstration car for 12 months before it came into my hands, and for this reason it boasts several useful little extras. For all its sluggish acceleration and tail-heavy cornering, “AME 18” is a real joy to handle and has proved far and away the most reliable car of my experience, never once having let me down in those eight years of hard driving (which, I might add, has included some pretty keen tours through the rougher regions of Scotland and Wales, not to mention clocking 81.9 m.p.h. on the Weybridge concrete).

True, the dry-sump lubrication has not proved to be everything that it is claimed and two re-bores in 60,000 miles is a poorish record, but the compensating aspects of the Aston-Martin are innumerable. The frame, braced with six cross members, the front axle with its up-swept O-section ends merging neatly into the I-section centre, the outstanding ability to hold the road, the positive steering and highly effective springing, the pump-cum-thermo-syphon cooling, the extreme comfort of the driving position, the unbroken record of “first touch” starting throughout the 8,000 days in which the car has been in my service and, above all, the rare feeling that the car as a whole is fully alive and enjoying life every bit as much as the driver – these are attributes of “AME 18,” and they are all that I ask of motoring. Now, unfortunately, I am compelled to lay up “Old Faithful” in compulsory favour of a three-wheeler, but she’ll be ready and waiting when the world finally shakes itself out of this bad dream, so for the moment let us get back to that sunny afternoon and the drive down to Midhurst.

The B.M.W. was being brought up from Worthing by its new and rightly proud owner, and we arrived simultaneously at the appointed meeting place. A herd of deer looked on with interest as we injected a shot of straight benzole into the 3-gallon tank, our noses sniffing appreciatively at the almost forgotten aroma. Then came a few instructions upon the gentle art of cog-swopping, and away we went – the uneasy owner being left behind with no more than his ears as a guide to my progress.

The mere fact of being astride a motorcycle again was, in itself, quite something, but when the vehicle in question happened to be a 500-c.c. transverse-twin B.M.W. in 100 per cent. condition, well, then that really was something!

Up through the four gears we went, a slight pause being necessary between third and fourth gear. Acceleration made it advisable to hold on pretty firmly, otherwise you stood more than a sporting chance of seeing the machine continue its rocket-like progress without you.

Came the first corner, and the peculiar effect of the torque at once made itself felt, upsetting my plans considerably. In an uncanny way the B.M.W. resisted my attempts to bank it over, the road proved inadequate for my needs and the sight of grass beneath the wheels brought home the realisation that the problem called for instant solution. The obvious course of action was to shut the throttle, but my instructions had been “open out round the bends,” so open out I did – finally regaining the tarmac a wiser man than I had left it.

The engine note was inspiring, though drowned for the most part by the roar of wind, and I was reminded vividly of several hectic weeks spent on the International Six Days’ Motor-cycle Trial – when the German Army teams screamed their nefarious way around Wales, losing their tempers and their awards in quick succession. A few experiments on the intermediate gears disclosed that the most impressive performance was found at the upper end of the scale in third gear (6.6 to 1). The spring frame was nothing short of perfection, the shaft drive was all that is claimed for this type of transmission on two-wheelers and the brakes were a sheer joy to use. Everything, in short, was “just right” – which is something one cannot truthfully say about many machines, whether two, three or four-wheelers – and it comes as no surprise to recall that in the immediate pre-war period the B.M.W. reigned virtually supreme in motor-cycle racing.

The “official” description of the power unit might not come amiss. It makes interesting reading: “R.51 – 500-c.c. Sports Model. Horizontally opposed twin-cylinder four-stroke engine developing 24 b.h.p. Clean one-piece crankcase. Dynamo enclosed, yet accessible. Aluminium cylinder-heads with good cooling properties. Completely enclosed o.h.v. with hairpin springs. Steel con.-rods with roller-bearing big-ends. Ball-bearing crankshaft. Chain-driven cams, direct from crankshaft. Twin Amal carburetters with common air-filter built in with the gearbox housing. Dry one-plate clutch. Four-speed sliding-dog gearbox built in a unit with engine.” To car-minded folk the above specification may sound fairly normal, but, believe me, it represents a very considerable advance on the vast majority of two-wheelers.

Almost before it seemed possible, and long before it was desirable, I found myself at the end of Cowdray Park, and resisting a strong temptation to extend the run I managed a somewhat clumsy turn in the narrow road (400 lb. is something of a handful to balance at walking pace) and commenced the return journey, already feeling entirely at home on the machine and wishing fervently that it were mine.

At about half distance I dropped down into second gear, turned off the road and proceeded to put the B.M.W. through its paces as a trials model. In this sphere, let me concede, it failed entirely to cover itself with glory, the telescopic-fluid-cum-spring forks crashing at every bump. Admittedly I found no difficulty in ascending a 1 in 3 grass hillside, but carving my way back to the road through a long mud patch proved a highly disagreeable experience, and I was forced to the obvious conclusion that the B.M.W. was never designed for rough stuff. Any criticism on that score, therefore, is surely unjust, and suffice it to say that I handed it back to its relieved owner with the very greatest reluctance and climbed into the Aston-Martin with somewhat mixed feelings. After a “pre-war” tea in Midhurst and a pleasant walk around Cowdray ruins I bade farewell to my friend, listened with appreciative ears to his departure and turned the Aston-Martin once more for home. By way of variation I took the back road through Easebourne and up over Bexleyhill Common in order that I might tackle Abster’s and Hatch Farm with the unfair advantage of a long and as yet unbroken drought. Both these sections of Inter-‘Varsity fame, however, proved to be anything but dry, and it was only by applying B.M.W. technique to the outraged Aston-Martin that I ever coaxed the protesting vehicle through at all. On the upper reaches of Hatch I noticed recent wheel marks, their general character suggesting that no novice had been responsible. Such things are rare indeed nowadays, and I examined the marks with no small interest. Could it be Hutch? I made enquiries and elicited the information that the tell-tale tracks were the handiwork of Eric Whishaw – one-time successful participant in Australian road races. I gathered that his recent slime-storming had been accomplished in a very elderly Jowett….

The evening was well advanced by the time the Aston-Martin finally emerged triumphant from the yellow clay of Hatch Farm, and setting a course for home I paused but once more – to have a chat with a friend who had just acquired one of the old T.T. Talbots. His enthusiasm for this was considerable, but I must confess that my thoughts were still centred around the B.M.W.