In the late 1940s and early ’50s, BMW motorcycles were still struggling to re-establish their pre-war reputation for performance. At best, these quality machines were considered refined, gentleman’s motorcycles. At worst, they were conservative bikes well-suited for sidecar use.
The question for BMW was how to upgrade that image. The answer? Sell performance.
That decision led to a line of sporting motorcycles, including this machine: the R69.
It started with the 1951 R68, the company’s first step away from conservative design. Sporting a higher-compression (7.5:1), 594cc horizontally opposed boxer motor with free-flowing carbs, the R68 added some life to the lineup as the company’s first 100-mph street motorcycle.
But at the upper limits of performance, the impressive motor surpassed the ability of the chassis, so engineers went back to the drawing board for the 1956 R69. The solution was to add a leading-link Earles fork. Borrowing cues from company race designs, the production fork was heavy, but was built to resist diving under braking.
In back, the swingarm was redesigned to house the shaft drive inside an oil-filled passage. The rear suspension featured a preload adjustment knob that made it one of the first adjustable rear suspensions available.
And as it turned out, the well-sorted R69 came along at just the right time. With sales flagging in Europe, BMW was looking to U.S. exports to take up the slack.
Importer Butler & Smith pushed the company’s racing success in ads, and BMW made trips to the Bonneville Salt Flats to set land-speed records. John Penton even used an R69 to set a New York-to-Los Angeles record of 77 hours and 53 minutes.
The result? Americans warmed quickly to the performance-minded R69. A full 85 percent of BMW’s twins were exported to America in ’58-’59. The R69 sold well, but it also proved to U.S. riders that BMW could mean performance.
This R69 originally appeared in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio, in 1998.
Engine Horizontally opposed air-cooled boxer twin
Power Output 35 HP at 6,800 RPM
Brakes Drum front and rear
Suspension Leading-link Earles fork; dual rear shocks with adjustable preload