Today, one of the most iconic classic motorcycles is the BMW /5. You can probably find one within an easy drive of anywhere in the USA. Around 69,000 of them were produced, which is a very healthy number for a premium machine back in the early 1970s. BMW mastered the art of varying displacement and aesthetics, around a single chassis to leverage investments in tooling. A great success story. But it very nearly wasn’t. In fact, it was the result of a key moment when BMW stood on the brink of halting motorcycle production altogether.
It is well known that the Quandt family rescued BMW from being purchased by Mercedes in 1959. The company then introduced the 700, and the Neue Klasse cars which are generally credited with returning the company to health and then market leadership. However, at the same time, motorcycles were not on such secure footing, and there were discussions about ending motorcycle production just as many other brands had done once cheap cars were available. In 1963, Helmut Bonsch convinced management to allow a pilot project to replace the /2. Key to this pilot were 2 former Porsche engineers, Claus von Rucker, and Hans-Gunther von der Marwitz. They replaced the Earles fork with telescoping forks, and developed a cradle loop frame similar in concept to the then already famous Norton Featherbed. Helmut got the green light, and the new machine was designated Type 246.
However, that did not mean instant production. Resources were lean in the motorcycle division, and the /2 was still doing fairly well. An early Type 246 prototype was built as more of an enduro machine with a high pipe. It entered a few competitive off-road events for testing. Many view this as the true birth of the BMW GS machines. Meanwhile, Alex Von Falkenhausen was head of engine development at the time, and they had been working on a new boxer engine with some shared concepts from the automobile division to reduce costs. Plain bearing crankshaft, camshaft below the crankshaft, duplex chain driven camshaft, electric start, etc. Reliability was valued over outright performance. It was fitted to the chassis and tested. In 1967, motorcycle production was jettisoned to Spandau to allow for increased car capacity in Munich. Telescopic forks made their way onto the now aging /2.
The new /5 was finally introduced at Hockenheim in August 1969. Production began a month later with the R60/5, followed by the R75 and the R50. They were very well received. Another ground-breaking change for BMW motorcycles was the introduction of color. Black with white pinstriping was retained as one option, but by the time the /5 era was ended, they could be had in Police White; Avus Black; Rennsport Red; Gendarmerie Blue; Feather White (Creme); Granada; Bright Minz Green; Algerian Blue, Monza Blue; Green Metallic; Polaris; Golf; Riviera; and Nuerburg Green. The /5 put BMW motorcycles on a stable road of progress that extends to today. The engine continued with relatively minor changes through 1996, a truly remarkable time span given what was happening in the motorcycle industry over that time period.