Dr. Frazier’s BMW R69S Adventure

April 14, 2011
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Forest roads did not bounce anything off  just luggage loose and a camera out of an open jacket pocket.
Forest roads did not bounce anything off, just luggage loose and a camera out of an open jacket pocket.

BMW R69S, their 1960 adventure model?” asked the Honda XR650L rider. “I didn’t know they made adventure models until the R80 G/S.”

“I didn’t either. Until I looked back on what I had been doing before some advertizing agency defined it for me, adventure riding,” I replied.

The Honda pilot and I were chatting on the side of a gravel forest road in Colorado. He had stopped to see if I was OK, having noticed my unloaded luggage spread around me on the ground while I was folding a new tube into the rear tire. The scene looked a bit more serious than it was with the rear wheel off and my bags and tools spread out, but I was easily managing the rather simple roadside fix.

Hoping for some sun in my darkened day, I asked if he had seen a camera lying in the road on his way up the mountain. My day had been sun-filled fun until the point when I stopped to take a photograph of several mountain goats.
While I frantically hunted through the numerous pockets of my jacket looking for the missing camera, the dark cloud named Lost On The Mountain turned nearly black as I heard hissing from the rear of the motorcycle. Not only had I lost the camera while bouncing over rocks and through dips, but I had also lost nearly all of the air in the rear tire from a rusty nail hole.

He said he had not seen the camera or any broken bits of plastic. We agreed that even if it was found, the Chinese-made picture capturer probably would not have survived a severe impact, likely costing more to repair than replace. The scan disc was the biggest loss, two days of adventure pursuits over some tough mountains. He laughed when I opined that both might have become goat food or marmot toys at our altitude and given the time between our traveling over the same forest road.

The XR owner appeared to be a well-seasoned adventure rider. His red motorcycle was tightly packed with camping gear and the brown, dusty body armor and mud-covered, out-of-state license plate implied he had traveled for a few days. The dual-purpose tires instead of knobbies suggested he moved over some pavement besides the gravel we were on that afternoon.

While he watched me work, sometimes handing me tools, we traded opinions about modern motorcycle adventure models, accessories and then some tales of where we had been, places we were going and destinations we wished to see some day.

Lowering the tire pressure to 15-20 lbs. meant better traction on loose gravel.
Lowering the tire pressure to 15-20 lbs. meant better traction on loose gravel.

The Honda rider had been tagging parts of the Colorado Trail, those that were open to motorized vehicles. I had been crisscrossing the Continental Divide from north to south. Neither of us had firm plans other than to explore, camp and travel from home base and back within an allotted time frame.

He was knowledgeable of the various adventure motorcycle models on the market as well as many of the aftermarket accessories for dual sport riding. While his Honda was an older one, he defended it with valid arguments relating to its being paid for, how well he knew its weaknesses and listed the numerous upgrades and modifications he had made over time to make it worthy enough for his degree of adventure travel.

As I slowly hand-pumped air into the new tube of the rear tire I offered some of the reasons I was where I was on what I was driving, a 50 year-old BMW. The R69S did nearly everything I wanted to do over my planned route, like meet or exceeded all speed limits, carried the gear I wanted to pack, easily started, ran on gas readily available, would do OK off pavement or over some ugly rocks, and protected me from rain, snow and wind. Like his motorcycle, mine was also paid for and modified to my affordable tastes and abilities.

I acknowledged that I only used the BMW R69S for an adventure or road trip once or twice a year, usually opting for one of my newer adventure motorcycles like a Kawasaki KLR 650 or a BMW GS. When he asked how the R69S compared to the others, I said it was like comparing apples to oranges, different but similar in that they were all fruit.

The 594cc R69S had a claimed 42 bhp, close to that of the Kawasaki 650, and both could exceed the maximum posted speed limits anywhere in the USA. First gear on the R69S was lower than that of the BMW GS, making it better for slowly picking through rocks or dabbing when going through streams or mud wallows. Of the three, the R69S had the lowest seat height, 28.5 inches, which made dabbing a foot or paddling easier than from atop the taller KLR 650 at 35.0 inches, or my modified R100 GS with a lowered seat at 34.5 inches.

When I pointed out some of the other plusses of the BMW R69S, like the same tire size on the front and the back (3.50 x 18), which meant tires could be swapped if one became too worn, and the need to carry only one size spare inner tube, I saw my observer’s eyebrow rise when he nodded in agreement.

Chrome plating instead of paint on some exposed parts withstood 50 years as did the hand painted pin stripes on the gas tank.
Chrome plating instead of paint on some exposed parts withstood 50 years as did the hand painted pin stripes on the gas tank.

As I tightened the rear axle nut and locking bolts I pointed out that the center stand was a stock item on the BMW and showed him how balanced the motorcycle was when on it, allowing for removal of either front or rear wheel without additional lifting. I told him that if it was my R100GS or the stock KLR650 and I was alone and had a rear flat, I would usually flop the motorcycle on its side. He seemed impressed as I folded the rear section of the back fender down and tightened the two side securing bolts.

On the downside I admitted the lighting of the R69S was not good, being powered by a 6-Volt system. My listener said, “Kind of a weak battery. How does that affect the starting?”

I laughed and said, “It’s a one kicker, watch.”

With some trepidation I went to the left side of the motorcycle, slowly depressed the kick starter twice with the clutch out while in Neutral, pushed the key down to the “On” position, twisted the throttle a crack and said a small Bavarian prayer. I then stepped down on the kick starter with my right leg. Spark, air and gas were timed and mixed properly, my Bavarian invocation was answered and the engine started smoothly.

The trepidation had been for two reasons. First, the BMW had been sitting for nearly an hour while I changed the rear inner tube and my Honda-riding watcher and I chatted, allowing the engine to cool. Secondly, we were at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level and the motorcycle had last been tuned at the 5000 foot level. When the engine was at my 5000 foot high studio I could easily start it cold, with one kick, after priming the carburetors until gas slightly ran out the primer holes, but at 5000 feet higher there was less oxygen in the air/gas mix.

My watcher was impressed at how easily the BMW started, saying “Not bad. Even with the button, my XR won’t start that easy.”

Time to adjust the carburetors was at 10 000 feet above sea level  a ten minute pit-stop.
Climbing Pikes Peak meant lower gear and less air. Time to adjust the carburetors was at 10,000 feet above sea level, a ten minute pit-stop. Climbing Pikes Peak meant lower gear and less air.

And then I made my Dr. Gregory W. Frazier BMW R69S-ego mistake by saying, “That’s nothing. I can do the same with one hand.”

While it was true, and I had done it often, starting the BMW by pushing the kick starter down once with my right hand was most often after the engine was warm at far lower elevations.

I ran the engine up to higher revolutions, pulled the key upwards to the “Off” position, and slowly twisted the throttle shut as the engine slowed to a stop. Pushing the key back down to the “On” position, again cracking the throttle slightly, I repeated my wish for a blessing and then pushed the kick starter down sharply with my right hand and arm.

The pistons went back and forth, the spark lightly jumped, but the heavy flywheel slowed to a stop.

Mr. Honda XR, showing that he was a gentleman, said, “Give it another go.”

Without looking or praying upward, I pushed down again, this time being rewarded by fire and timed compression.
I ran the engine for a minute to clear it out, heat it up a bit, and then turned it off. I still felt a bit chagrined about my missing on the first hand-start attempt, but felt better when the Honda owner said, “Pretty cool.”

While I cleaned and stored the tools, re-attached my luggage and started to suit-up, Mr. Honda XR and I talked about some of the other positive aspects of the BMW R69S as an adventure motorcycle. Included were items like not needing a working battery (or any battery) because the BMW sparked from a magneto; a compression ratio of 9.5:1 versus the KLR at 9.8:1; chrome instead of paint on certain exposed metal parts; ease of access for valve and carburetor adjustment; inexpensive and easily accessed and adjustable ignition points instead of a pricy black box for spark and timing; and simple oil requirements and changes.

When he asked where I had been over the previous days, I told him to the top of Pikes Peak, then over several lower Rocky Mountain passes like Webster Pass and Mosquito Pass between there and Vail. He had ridden over some of the same ground and asked how I had managed with the R69S.

At first I wanted to macho-up, tell a tall tale about how easily the 50 year-old BMW had bounced over all. But the ego-munching, one-handed-starting-failure minutes earlier had humbled my adventure-tall-tale-telling and I coughed up the truths before trying to re-tell the bovine excreta and tripping in it during some future questioning.

Trying to reach the top of Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet above sea level was accomplished by removing the top of each Bing carburetor and lowering the running needle one click, reducing the amount of gas mixed with the lessening oxygen as I drove higher. Prior to that there was considerable piston rattle and loss of power, both of which could be made to go away by driving in a lower gear but at significantly higher rpms. I had opted to save the engine and changed the mixture as I drove higher.

At the top of Pikes Peak the driver was breathing harder than the 50 year-old BMW.
At the top of Pikes Peak the driver was breathing harder than the 50 year-old BMW.

The low engine clearance of the BMW R69S, six-to-seven inches, was no conqueror of the 12 inch-high steps on Mosquito Pass or some of the taller rocks of Webster Pass. Several times I had to stop driving the BMW and start walking it over tougher sections, afraid of holing the oil pan or seriously dinging the exhaust header pipes. Twice I waited for other drivers to assist in lifting the 445-pound (claimed stock weight, dry) BMW over some of the higher rock steps.

While driving down Pikes Peak was simplified by using lower gears and having to follow slow moving cars, the same could not be said about coming down Webster or Mosquito Passes. The poor front brake, coupled with nearly the same stopping power on the rear, meant that in first gear I was moving faster that I wanted to as I approached several of the nearly 180-degree rocky curves, resulting in slow speed get-offs. The only serious damage was a few scratches to the plastic saddlebags and a cracked lower piece on the Avon fairing.

As my new adventure seeking acquaintance and I were about to go in opposite directions, him traveling south and me going backwards with hope of finding the missing camera, he asked, “How much did that BMW cost?”

I answered, “New, less than $1,000. Toss in the accessories, maybe $1,500.”

“That’s not bad for an adventure motorcycle. Of course that was back when $1,500 was some real money.”

I nodded my head, smiled and said, “Yeah, and back then any motorcycle was an adventure model.”

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