Over a hundred years ago, when genius engine designer Max Friz put pen to paper, he would not only revolutionise the world of motorcycles but create a driveline layout that is still in use and beloved to this day. We sure do feature a lot of BMW R series bikes around here, the absolute current darling of the custom bike scene, and they all derive their existence from the work of Herr Friz. As Design Director at BMW, he not only oversaw everything to do with the building of the company’s first motorcycle, the R32, he catapulted the industry into a sublime new era. And thanks to our friends at Motorworld by V. Sheyanov, we can take a deep dive into this stunning 1926 example that’s been restored to perfection for their Motos of War collection.

Born in the early 1880s, Friz was a talented designer from a very early age, having been involved in bringing success to the Mercedes Formula 1 team. But it was in the aircraft industry that he really made his name, developing engines that were simply superior to anything else in the world, overcoming issues of altitude, and seeing his creations break many a world record. But with the end of WW1 and with the signing of The Treaty of Versailles, BMW where he now worked could no longer build engines for aircraft and he and the company shifted gears to two-wheels.

At first, BMW produced engines for other companies to use in their own motorcycle designs, and the most famous of these engines was the M2B15, built from 1920 through to the introduction of the R32 in 1923. Friz had an ‘interesting’ way of coming up with this design, he took company foreman Martin Stolle’s 1914 Douglas motorcycle and reverse-engineered the engine. Known as the Bayern Motor, it was used by manufacturers like Victoria and SMW and was considered very reliable. It was then offered in the Helios motorcycle, produced by Bayerische Flugzeugwerke.

When that company merged with BMW, General Director Franz Josef Popp asked Friz to assess the Helios Motorcycle and put it through its paces. To say Friz was unimpressed would be an understatement, he thought it best dumped in the nearest lake. But such was his commitment to perfection that it drove him to solve all the problems he had discovered in the Helios. What Friz hated most about the Helios was the mounting of one cylinder behind another in the frame.

This resulted in terrible cooling of the rear cylinder with almost no airflow reaching its cylinder head, and the decision was made to mount his boxer across the frame. Many believe the R32 was the first motorcycle to use such a layout when introduced in 1923, but Britain’s ABC Motorcycles had been doing it since 1918. But the real genius of Friz was not just the use of the design, the improved cooling, and superior alloy heads; it was the entire driveline layout. All of which were shown off in the Bauhaus style of the time, with form and function for all to see.

It also must be remembered that up until then, motorcycle engines used a total-loss oiling system whereupon once the lubricant entered the engine, it either burned up or leaked all over the rider’s leg. The BMW recirculated its oil in the engine, with a wet-sump, that drip fed the roller bearings. It was also the era of the pre-unit, separate engines and gearboxes linked by a drive chain. The Friz design incorporated both into one attractive package, and then went one step further, doing away with dirty chains and breakable belts, and utilising a shaft drive.

It is this single unit boxer construction, with a shaft drive rear that features across just about every BMW we still feature here to this day and remains in use on a number of the company’s motorcycles more than 100 years later. The specs on the 1923-26 engine seem very tame by today’s standard, with the 494cc machine producing just 8.5bhp. But with its three-speed transmission, rev friendly square bore, and quality Bosch ignition, it could hit 95km/h. That was plenty fast on a bike that only had a rear brake, thankfully by the time this example hit the road, BMW had fitted a front drum.

The rest of the bike was as equally beautiful as what moved it, the exacting lines of the frame, the triangular fuel tank, and the sheer precision of every part. And despite that solid boxer engine peeking out each side, the weight of the finished bike was just 122kg. In a time when motorcycles were often unreliable, rarely attractive, and almost always a filthy thing to ride, ending a journey requiring a fresh pair of pants sans-oil stains; Friz had met every problem with an exacting solution. It is little wonder then, that a hundred years later, the R series bikes used by today’s customisers rarely require a full mechanical overhaul and allow the creative mind to simply run free; function by Friz, form from your imagination.

[ Motos of War ]