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1937 BMW R5: Still a Thing of Beauty

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Henri Martini on Dollymount Strand in Ireland 1989. Photo by Tom Lawlor, copyright The Irish Times newspaper.

Back in 2002 I was browsing internet classifieds and came across an antique motorcycle dealer called Vintage Imports. The owner’s name was Matt and he claimed to have several “pre-war” BMW’s for sale. One rainy weekend I decided to visit his shop in Glendola, New Jersey. It was there that I first “met” HMK 477, a 1937 BMW R5 with British registration.

My mind is full of hazy vignettes from my first visit to Vintage Imports. The house had not seen paint in over twenty years. There was a big mean dog confined inside a makeshift fence. There were wind chimes and tattered flags hanging from the eves of the roof. An old sagging Winnebago camper was on the rear lawn. A wooded area behind the house was full of unrecognizable junk. Out back, Matt had built a flimsy wood framed structure. Several tarpaulins were draped over the top and down the sides of the feeble structure.

Inside were several old motorcycles in various states of decay. He also had dozens of huge plastic buckets of full of rusty German motorcycle parts. Out of the corner of my eye I caught something remarkable. Sprouting out of one pile I saw what appeared to be the unmistakable small round cylinder head and narrow crankcase of a BMW R32 (the very first BMW motorcycle model from circa 1923). In retrospect, I should have bought the decaying remains of that R32 motor! Today that lonely and damaged cylinder head would be priceless to the right person.

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This cylinder head is identical to the part I saw sitting in one of Matt’s junk buckets back in 2002.

We went around to the back of the house where there was a dilapidated pre-fab wood shed. He opened the rusty padlock and HMK 477 was sandwiched between a Zundapp and another old bike that I could not recognize. Matt rolled the dusty R5 out. The tires were only half inflated. The paint was pitted. The pipes were rusted. But overall the bike appeared largely original and complete. It had a rusty patina. Matt tried to start the bike and it reluctantly turned over. The grinding sound of metal on metal was terrifying. I rode the R5 up and down the dirt lane and then promptly shut down the motor so as not to cause more damage. The price was non-negotiable at $15,000 and I bought it on the spot.

This transaction occurred in the early days of my pre-war BMW motorcycle collecting habit. In retrospect, I was pretty unaware of what I was buying. I had a vague idea that the R5 was a special and rare machine. But I had no idea that HMK 477 had correct matching frame and engine numbers. Over the last decade I’ve painstakingly researched the history and provenance of HMK 477. I have unearthed dozens of secrets and stories. Today HMK 477 has a thoroughly documented history that goes all the way back to 1937. The following record of HMK 477 was produced by its former owner Robert Freeman.

Still a Thing of Beauty

1937 BMW R5 HMK 477
Serial Number 502616/501143
By Robert Freeman©

The BMW Motor Cycle, Model R5, English Registration HMK 477, serial number 502616/501143 was built in Munchen ( Munich ) Friday 3rd December 1937, and along with perhaps 5 other similar machines delivered the next day to AFN Ltd, Falcon Works, London Road, Isleworth, England. Another of this batch was registered FJO 265, and that was purchased new, by my Father, Cyril Freeman from the Dealers, Leyton’s of Oxford.

AFN Ltd was founded by Archie Frazer Nash, hence the name, who were building Frazer Nash sports cars. In 1934 they set up a deal with BMW, to import a BMW 6 cylinder sports car, which was re badged, Frazer Nash BMW. It proved very successful, so ‘Archie’ became importers for BMW, or sole concessionaires, but it seems part of the deal was, if he wanted the cars, he had to handle motorcycles as well. This information comes from the book by Denis Jenkinson, “From Chain Drive to Turbocharger: The A.F.N. Story “. He was a very well respected motoring journalist

BMW used a similar frame for the R5 and R6, with perhaps minor adjustment if intended for side-car work. The frames for the 1937 range featured extra gusset plates around the headstock. The difference in each model was the engine and gearbox and rear bevel drive. The R5 being overhead valve and the R6 a side valve engine. The BMW motorcycles, up until quite recently, always featured shaft drive to the rear wheel. Shaft is still used, though certain models have chain drive, and other toothed belt.

The R5 was a sensation at the time, with its clean, almost artistic design and lines. Only some 2652 were built in the years 1936 – 37, as in 1938, the R51 followed on, similar engine unit, but the fame featured rear suspension, what was called a ‘plunger’ frame. This was adopted universally, in various guises until the early 1950’s.

HMK was sold, via Station Garage, Hastings Road, Ealing W13. London, to a Mr Ronald Carrington, 35 Colebrooke Rd, West Ealing, W13. 24/01/1938. The proprietor was a R.D. Pritchard. M.I.M.T. He advertised 50 Cars for hire, Bought and sold etc. The distance from Colebrooke Avenue to Hastings Road is ¾ mile.

All this information comes from the AFN Archive. 4th July 1938 the machine went to AFN, Isleworth for what looks like a minor adjustment and service. Mileage was 7373, so Mr Carrington was averaging a 1000 miles a month. Record reads, “Cure clutch drag, fit suitable KLG s/plugs, adjust carbs”.

Next entry is 13/07/39.

First tnotification of new owner. D. Chatterton. 79 Manguess Rd, Canonbury, N1. This is situated near St Pauls Cathedral, London. “Mileage 482, s of new throttle cables, Fit good used saddle top, see R713, and also connecting on SCR, all via JMK”.

Some words I cannot understand, mileage 428, perhaps they missed out the 1000’s or a new speedometer had been fitted. “s” I think means set, SCR could be side car, but ‘all via JMW” is clear. R713. refers to the actual service record, and R???, is referred to throughout the Archive. These do not exist now.

J.M.W. the initials of John Milns West, 1909 – 2004. Jock West, who the sales man for AFN and works rider for BMW. He was second in the 1939 Isle of Man T.T Races behind Georg Meir, at an average of 88.92 mph on the supercharge 500 ccs BMW.

The story now goes cold till November 1951. What happened with HMK in the intervening years we can only speculate, but, you may recall, in the opening paragraph, I said that my Father also owned an R5, (FJO 265) 4 engine numbers away HMK.

BMW R5 1938 Mrs Freeman

BMW R5 FJO 465 with Robert Freeman’s mother in 1939.

With knowledge gained from my Parents, I feel somewhat qualified to give an informed ‘speculation’ on a likely scenario. Spare parts must have been difficult in the period 1939 – 1950. My Father had been involved in a serious motorcycle accident early in 1939, and so, was unfit for active service in the Military, but he ‘did his bit’, by working daily in The Co-operative Grocery Store in Heddington, Oxford, but evenings and weekends, as a firewatcher, ( for fallen bombs) and dispatch rider, on the BMW. My Mother would regale us with stories of their exploits, she riding pillion, with a gallon of petrol strapped on her back, around the south of England.

Roads were patrolled by The Home Guard, ‘Dad’s Army’ as it was nicknamed. Civilians by day, soldiers by night. Often commanded by a former officer who last saw service in the Great War. Check points were common and a couple turning up, riding a German Motorcycle, smacked of third columnists. It would seem that AFN had a cache of spares laid in, as my Father rode his bike all through the War. There are over 50 units of the R5 listed as sold in the AFN Archive. The R6, only four units, one with a sidecar fitted.

What was special about 1951? Well I was 9 years old; my Father took me to see the Festival of Britain at the South Bank in London. My Mother, Brother and I went to visit her Aunt who now lived in Glasgow, which was still suffering badly from the effects of the war. But, the significant meaning to us is that in September that year was formed “The BMW Society of Great Britain.Non-Political.” Now the BMW Owners Club, with over 4500 members. Motorcycles only.

News letters were published monthly, and the November issue, No. 3 is a page headed, “More B.M. Enthusiast for you to contact “31 names and addresses. The third reads, E.E. Bright. 32 Sandridge Road. St Albans. R5.

Mrs Jean Bright, Errol’s widow, has been able to supply copies of 3 holiday snaps as they were called, taken during touring holidays. I am not sure if it was all in the same per period, as the locations are widely separated. At a cross roads in Cornwall, the signpost point to Mousehole, a popular tourist attraction, even then, another on the isle of Anglesey Wales, outside a building displaying the name “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”. The longest name in Britain, it means, “St Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave”. A third photo is at the top of the Horseshoe Pass, a mountain pass in Denbighshire, North East Wales. These are the actual photographs of HMK 477 during a touring holiday that Jean Bright provided:

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We now jump forward to late 1967. I had joined the St Albans & District Motorcycle Club, which was basically a ‘Sporting Club’ in 1964. It ran mostly Grass Track Racing, using J.A.P. 350 & 500 ccs engines running on methanol, with a few members who did Scrambles, several Sprint, or as you may call them, Drag Racers, couple of Road Racers, as well as just guys who rode to work, & for pleasure.

I usually acted as Paddock Marshal at the clubs Grass Track meetings The chap who was our starter, Dennis Osman, worked for The Post Office, (The Telephone Company), in those days, and knowing I had a BMW, (1962 R50S), told me that a friend, also in the Telephone Co, had an old BMW for sale. This man was Errol Bright, who lived at 42 Arthur Road, St Albans. Went round to see him, and it was the R5. HMK 477. The registration letters, MK indicate it was first registered in Middlesex, N.E. London. He had owned it for quite a few years, and in the mid / late ‘50’s and early 1960’s had ‘hired’ the bike out to film studios at Elstree & Borehamwood. Then one of the great British Film Studios areas. The bike had been used in countless 2nd World War films, of which there were a good many made then, and that was what wrecked it. Errol then decided to rebuild, but fortunately for me, got ‘fed up’.

It was painted a maroon colour. No part was joined to another, and he had started ‘polishing’ the crankcase. The mudguards, control levers, horn, rear light, silencers all missing. The crankshaft had been rebuilt, barrels bored, with Hepolite Pistons. It did not take much haggling, we agreed upon the price of £11.00. The sale was 2 Jan 1968. Nobody wanted old bikes then, they were dirt cheap. When I think on what we had, and wrecked, enough to make you cry, a mid ‘30’s 500 V Twin BSA. Model J 12, in running order. A ‘38 Triumph Speed Twin. That I rode , it was my first real bike. cost £8.00 in 1960. Vincent twins were £80.00. On getting the tea chest of parts home, I did think to take a couple of photos. Black and white, quality poor. By the time the bike was sold, 1985, we had moved onto colour film.

Over the next 10 or more years I restored the bike to running order, as my pocket allowed, it was after all a pocket money exercise, as and when a few pounds became available. Having paid what I did, it did not seem at the time, worthwhile spending a lot. It was an ‘old bike’, of which there were 1000’s. But nothing to indicate it was ‘rare’. Parts were almost like “hen’s teeth”, not the position today where parts are available new, at a price.

BMW had nothing, so it was down to a couple of dealers who catered for the pre 1955 bikes. Notably, Frank Cox who ran Markhouse Motorcycles, in Markhouse Road, Walthamstow. East London. . He died circa 2000. Bob Porecha 303 Sydenham Road London SE26 5EW. John Lawes, BEMW. Derby. Both still trading.

Frank raced an R69 & R50S in events such as the Thruxton 500 mile race, didn’t win, always finished. His other ‘hobby’ was support for what was then called ‘The National Front’ a very far right wing party. Now known as the BNP. When taken into his confidence, one would be invited to the back of the shop for a cup of tea, and slice of cake. The walls were adorned with a 3 D photo Adolph Hitler, and another time he showed me a post card with 3 girls sitting on a motorcycle. One, he said, was Eva Braun. Upstairs was a ‘museum’ of his ‘Regalia’.

He often rode an R75 with sidecar, in full Wehrmacht Uniform. Having said that, he was always polite to me, (perhaps because I had lived and worked in Germany for a year & spoke the language)

Frank helped find parts for the R5, as I recall; the rear light and number plate. Steering lock, pick up for the coil ignition on the end of the camshaft, inverted levers, which I am sure were repro, and so on. It took years, one asked for a part, ‘Yes, I have one out the back, I am busy now, call again, but phone first’. So in a month I would phone, ‘Yes, is just here’. Travel the 30 miles to the shop, to be told, ‘It must have been moved, call again’. And so it went on. When the bike was running, I rode over to him, he said the engine was noisy, piston slap, blamed the Hepolite pistons. He arranged for all the cycle parts, and tank to enamelled, he said it was difficult to find a company that did it to BMW standard. There were no mudguards with the bike, so I used items from an R25/2 , /3 machines. That was all that was available.

Engine, gear box, etc. The engine crankcases has ‘suffered’ from an attempt to polish, so I took all the parts to a place at Berkhampstead, Herts, & had them bead blasted back to the original. That was just coming in then. A lot of my friends worked in the Aircraft Industry, AVRO at Radlett on Vulcan & Victor H. Bombers, & DeHaviland at Hatfield. Comet, and later Trident Airliners. One guy was able to turn out the rear main bearing housing, to take a modern neoprene seal, with a sleeve on the clutch flywheel to fit, also similar to the felt oil seal on the camshaft behind the ignition rotor.

New bushes were fitted for the camshafts at a place in St Albans, other bearings as required, gear box seemed OK, but I feel sure the bush on the gear change lever was replaced.

Chrome, all parts went to a plating company at Amersham, Bucks, run by a Church of England Vicar. On collecting the parts, I discovered to my horror, that the alloy bell cover on the cardon shaft, that threads onto the rear drive unit, had been ‘eaten away’ by the acid bath. The company made, at their expense, the multi piece fitting it now has, they also vowed never again to accept motorcycle parts. That how the R5 came by the part it has!

Dynamo; Bosch had a Service Dept. at Denham, Bucks, on the site of the old Film Studios, Korda made films there; this is circa late ‘60s. I wrote to them about the dynamo unit, and they said they would look, but it might be some time. In due course, it was ready, and when I collected it, there was No Charge! I was told it was the first example they had seen,, and used the unit as an instruction / test piece for the Apprentices. Rebuilt as new.

Nut & Bolts, these were Cadmium Plated at DeHavilands, by a friend. Anything could be done there, by a friend of a friend, for a ‘drink’. There were extensive plating shops, Urban Myths rumoured of chrome plated wheel barrows, and even a chrome plated car, done panel by panel!

Electric’s. Frank Cox came up with a Hella glass and bulbs, I think I made up a wiring loom, same with control cable, you could buy outer and inner Bowden Cable, and make up your own. The Fuse Unit and charge lamp / neutral light came from a Russian Ural Dealer, they were true copies of the pre-war BMW units. The Saddle, this was part R25/2 & the rest made up to fit and hold the actual seat. No parts were available then. I even went to look at an R5 owned by a Club Member who lived near Cheltenham. Take photos, black and white, and drawings. Of course, it was two weeks to get the photos developed; only to find out most were useless. No flash, so all very dark.

Wheels, I spray painted and lined. They were laced by a wheel builder in Watford, known as ‘Punchy Saunders’! He had a workshop at the end of his garden, and started work early evening, till early morning. ‘Punchy’ came from the fact he consumed large quantities of beer while working. He said he did his best work when he had ‘had a few’. All the sporting riders took their wheels to him, I never heard of one failing.

Eventually all was done, and it was a great joy when I first ran the motor. No problems, and after the Govt. Inspection Test, (MOT) I rode the bike for several years. It was quite nippy, one time at a Road Safety Function; I put up fastest time of the day, in and out of the cones, beating all the BSA / Triumphs / Hondas etc.

Silencers, John Lawes, who I still trade with, (BEMW Derby) had a batch of ‘replica’ 38’ silencers. I bought 6, about a £2.00 each then. My brother welded brackets, and that was what was fitted.

Now we come to late 1985, and at last we were in a position to buy our own home, every one we viewed was more expensive than the last, but we finally settled upon a 3 bed 1930’s home, at our financial limit. By then I had my 1962 R50S, 1937 R5, 1951 R25, and 1953 R25/2. These all went, save the R50S. The R25 to a local dealer, In 2008, I bought it back, the 25/3 to local guy in Wheathampstead, who wanted a project, and the R5 to Auction at Bonhams in London. They estimated £1250.00.

It sold for £1250.00 less the commissions etc. We got a little over £1000.00, but that was enough to secure our home. The handbook went with the bike and all the paperwork, but I still have the bill of sale in 1966. Never found out who bought it, or was asked any questions by the new owner. However, after a request in the BMW Club magazine, out of the blue I received a call from one who turned out to be, Henri Martini, in Ireland. Told me he bought the R5 and ran it for years, no problems, fuel and oil only. Then he sold it to the USA, for I think he said $7000, or it might have been £’s. That was circa 2002. He did send me a very nice ‘action’ picture, which looks as if it is taken on a beach. What happened in Ireland, I have no idea?

In 2002, Philip Richter purchased HMK 477 from Vintage Imports, an American antique motorcycle importer that purchased the bike from Henri Martini. The price paid was $15,000 U.S. dollars. The bike was stored by Philip for a few years and then sent to Brooks Motor Works in Seattle Washington for a full restoration. Over a five year period, HMK 477 was meticulously restored under the careful eye of Kevin Brooks.

I do feel that I ‘saved’ HMK 477, and did the best I could ‘at that time’. No internet to pick brains, find parts, or information. Only by advertising in motorcycle press, or reading could an elusive part perhaps be found. If one remembers, as I have said, that perhaps only 50 – 60 models of the R5 came to England, how many are going to yield spare parts over 30 years later, if at all. There was no way to access the potential spare parts cache that might exist in Europe.

It has now emerged that a ‘restoration’ may have taken place while in the ownership of Henri Martini in Ireland, in which case the forgoing paragraph, may not have been, ‘all my own work’.

Within the last 5 years, I have gained access to the AFN Archive, from which I have traced the early history on HMK, as I have done on many other machines for BMW Owners. Even BMW in Munchen did not know its content. The internet has permitted me to search the early BMW Club Newsletters and find Errol’s entry in November 1951.

Looking back over the years of my ownership, on reflection, it was the little snippets of information, casually passed on at the time, and then of no real significance, that have only now joined together to give a broad overall in depth window and insight into ‘just another old bike’.

Putting aside the social political nature of Germany in that period, the R5 was then, and still is, “A Joy Forever.”

My thanks to:
Ian Clarke. For guidance and proof reading.
James Trigwell, The Frazer Nash Car Club. Who arranged for, and gave me exclusive access to view and index the AFN Archive for BMW Motorcycles.

Robert Freeman, April 2014©

R5 as found

HMK 477 in pieces circa 1960’s

AFN Archive

Original AFN Falcon Works dealer documentation and service records singed by legendary BMW racer and mechanic Jock West. This document shows original frame and stem number as well as original owners name and address.

Jock West

Jock West on a BMW R5 SS Super Charged

Sale Receipt Jan 1968

Original bill of sale for HMK 477 singed by HMK 477 second owner Errol Bright.

HMK 477 circa 1970's

HMK 477 circa 1970’s

PER on R5 2002

Philip Richter on the R5 2004

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Phil Cheney with the R5 in 2004

MER R5

My father Max on HMK 477 in 2004

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HMK 477 pre-restoration in USA

R5

HMK 477 pre-restoration in USA

PER with R5 Motor 2006 Seattle

HMK 477 engine restoration 2006, Seattle Washington USA

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HMK 477 undergoing restoration in Seattle Washington at Brooks Motor Works 2008

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In late 2015, I was able to procure high quality correct front and rear fenders reproductions for the R5. We are currently fitting the new fenders and will have them changed this winter. This is a complex process as we have to fit them properly prior to painting and also be sure that all fender stays and wiring guides are correct. We have entered the R5 at Pebble Beach for BMW’s 100th anniversary. We are doing everything possible to have every single detail be 100% factory accurate. We are tapping the resources of several pre-war BMW aficionados, factory archives, books, and photographs to be sure every detail is right. By April the R5 will be 100 points.

Photo by Robert Fuller

Photo: James Robert Fuller for the Wall Street Journal

R5’s handlebars

The R5’s handlebars. This speedometer was rebuilt by a California company specializing in vintage speedometers. Photo: James Robert Fuller for the Wall Street Journal

‘Unlike BMWs from earlier, this one was fast and powerful, but also comfortable to handle,’ says Mr. Richter of his R5. ‘I could get it on it now and ride across country, at today’s speeds.’ Photo: James Robert Fuller for the Wall Street Journal

 

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  1. The Power of Provenance | Turtle Garage - January 1, 2018

    […] Robert has been the subject of several posts within this blog and he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in to attend the 2017 Turtle Invitational. Over the last decade, Robert and I have carefully reconstructed the history of HMK 477 from new—we were able to trace its ownership chain from the beginning and get both BMW (manufacturer) and AFN (dealer) certification. We even have service records dating back to 1938. The entire history of this rare machine can be read here. […]

  2. The Legendary Jock West | Turtle Garage - November 4, 2017

    […] history of my 1937 BMW R5 has already been chronicled on the pages of Turtle Garage and can be read here. My R5 was registered as HMK 477 and was sold new on January 24th, 1938 from Station Garage in […]

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    […] At my request he wrote a multi-page history of the R5 for my archives which I recently posted here on the Turtle Garage blog. Besides owning several BMW’s and having deep knowledge of the British BMW Owners Club, he has […]

  4. Barn Find Jackpot: 1938 BMW R51 British Registration HPD 329 - Turtle Garage - April 10, 2016

    […] At my request he wrote a multi-page history of the R5 for my archives which I recently posted here on the Turtle Garage blog. Besides owning several BMW’s and having deep knowledge of the British BMW Owners Club, he has […]