Go on, stare. Take it all in. Yes, it looks as svelte and graceful as a 100-stone lady doing a ballet routine. In black leotards. But there’s something about those lines that you can’t just get enough of. What stands before you, dear reader, is the BMW R50, which rolled off the Munich production line in 1955. And the colour you see on the motorcycle is ‘Avus black’ – the very same coat of paint that was applied on the bike before it left the plant. We have featured some very fine classic bikes in the past, but an oldie with its original 54-year old paint still intact? Er, I don’t think so.
In those days, you could order your Beemer in any colour that was currently being used on the Bavarian manufacturer’s cars. Interestingly, the Dover White shade was an exception to this. Apparently, an American importer of the German motorcycles took such a strong liking to the off-white colour of his 1942 Packard, that he sent BMW a can containing paint of the same shade. BMW duplicated it and sent back 50 motorcycles to him in that very same colour. This is how BMWs got around to being sold in that particular off-white shade. Now that we have scratched the surface, let’s get to the motorcycle, shall we?
BMW built its first boxer engine back in 1920 and ever since then, the format has been as synonymous with the manufacturer as V-twins are to Harley Davidson. The 500cc R50 was introduced in 1955, along with the more powerful R69 that displaced 100cc more. The production run of the R50 lasted for merely five years and in 1960, it was replaced by the R50/2. End of a legend, then? Hardly! Picture two large pistons crashing alternatively into the same axis as your crotch. Turn-on? Hell yeah! The half-litre ‘boxer’ engine actually causes the bike to rock slightly from side to side at idle, while the horizontally opposed reciprocating pistons convert the force exerted by the burning gases into pure mechanical torque. Wring the throttle with your right hand and the pair of Bing carburettors begin to dump their volatile contents into the cylinders with increased urgency. As the revs build up, the little twitches disappear and the engine note turns from a gallop to a muted roar. With a whole 26 horses waiting to break loose, the boxer-twin is pretty free revving and mechanical clatter is almost non-existent. The R50 likes to make its presence heard, but isn’t the sort to beat on a tin drum to get your attention.
Pop in the clutch, engage the first cog in the constant mesh five-speed gearbox and you’re ready to roll. The bike jerks forward, and then catches its breath, accelerating in a relatively linear manner. The surge isn’t anything like being shot out of a cannon. It’s more like a squirt out of a water pistol, with a deep boom rather than a fizzle as the accompanying soundtrack. But the R50 just keeps going, the needle on the speedo rising steadily till I’m wondering whether those drum brakes will keep me from ploughing through some unfortunate soul’s boot, or worse. I definitely am not the gambling type and let off the throttle in good measure. I did get on the brakes hard once, though. Some slug in a rickshaw, draped in a shirt that would make even Dennis Rodman run for cover, thought he’d catch a better glimpse of the Beemer if he manoeuvred his three-wheeler onto the bike. I panic braked but the R50 was composed and slowed down without much protest – those huge drums do work pretty darn well. Do you ride a rickshaw or do you drive a rickshaw? From the looks of it, ‘you survive a rickshaw’ is most apt.