Backmarker: The Ghost in the Machine

MotorcycleUSA Staff | January 21, 2016

The Ghost in the Machine

Brock Downey, who lives in my old hometown of Calgary (Alberta), came by his love of BMW motorcycles honestly. His father was in the Canadian Armed Forces, and the family was stationed in Germany from 1965–69. Brock was there from the ages of nine to 12, hence he was exposed to plenty of German motorcycles in his formative years.

Brock, now 58, has been the past-President of the Rocky Mountain branch of the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Club, and for a while had a sideline doing insurance appraisals for people insuring vintage bikes. He spent almost 20 years teaching rider safety for the Canada Safety Council (the Canuck equivalent of the MSF). You get the picture; a pretty dyed-in-the-wool motorcycle guy.

Calgarian Brock Downey sitting on a 1953 R51/3 BMW that he bought out near Vancouver in 2003.

“I did a count a while back,” he told me. “I thought I had about 22 BMWs, but I realized I had 33.”

Two of those BMWs were acquired in 2003, when Brock visited a friend near Vancouver. As usual on any road trip, he was on the lookout for interesting bikes. His pal took him out to a local farm, where a widow needed to sell a few machines that had belonged to her deceased husband.

They found two BMW R51/3 boxers; a complete and correct 1953 bike in street trim and a ’54 – minus the heads – in race trim. The widow showed them photos of the race bike, and Brock immediately spotted what looked like Rennsport cylinder heads in the old picture.

[Author’s note: In case you ever find yourself wondering what it’s like to get old, I’ll tell you. As Brock described the Rennsport cylinder heads, I found myself thinking; a.) It will be embarrassing to interrupt him to ask for clarification about how the Rennsport heads differed from stock heads; and b.) I must have some book on the shelf here that I can use to refresh my memory. Then I went to my library and found a history of BMW racing motorcycles that I wrote. That’s what it’s like to get old. – MG]

The heads were a big deal. In 1953, BMW unveiled the RS54 production-racer model dubbed the Rennsport. It ditched the normal pushrod valve arrangement for bevel drive and overhead cams. The motor could spin to 8000 rpm. BMW made only about 24 Rennsports in solo trim, and few more for sidecar use; they lost money on every one.

Real Rennsport heads are pure unobtanium, but sometime back in the ‘90s, some obsessed Canadian machinist made a few replicas. That guy (sorry, I don’t know who it was) retrofitted a bevel drive using one of the original pushrod tubes, and carved new heads from billet. Brock had read a story in the Vintage BMW Bulletin about him.

“He worked from drawings. Not measured drawings,” Brock was careful to point out as he told me the story, “but actual drawings, as in ‘work of art’.”

I’m guessing his reference drawings were the beautiful line drawings that used to appear in the German magazine Motorrad. They were stunning and precise, but they were a far cry from blueprints. As the story goes, the machinist made one of the gears dozens of times before getting it just right.

That old story in the Vintage BMW Bulletin was written by marque guru Roland Slabon. It detailed a trial-and-error procedure so involved that, by the end, the machinist was sick of it all. He insisted that Slabon misspell his name so no one would call asking him to make another set!

Anyway, before Brock got to the widow’s farm, the heads had been sold separately, to an American on the East Coast. Even without them, Brock definitely wanted both bikes. They agreed on a price.

Then Brock was told: “Of course, if you’re going to buy that one (the ’53) you have to take Ed with you.”

“I looked around thinking, you know she lived on an acreage. I thought maybe Ed is a dog, or a horse that she has to get rid of,” he laughed. “But then I realized, no, Ed is in the bike.”

When it was new, the R51 had a tool kit, accessible in a compartment on the top of the fuel tank. The widow instructed Brock to open that compartment. He found a cloth drawstring bag. He opened the bag and found a plastic Tylenol (paracetamol) bottle. Someone had scrawled ‘Ed’ across the label with a black Sharpie.

Brock holding Ed, or at least part of him…

“I shook it,” Brock recalled, “and sure enough, it was his ashes. Or at least, some of them. I have no idea where the rest of him is.”

When I asked Brock how he felt about it, he was sort of non-committal. “I didn’t get all weird,” he said, “or have to do any cleansing voodoo shit.”

He did stick to his word, and left Ed in place.

‘Ed’ was Ed Moelker, a Dutch mechanic who immigrated to Canada and got a job working for Trev Deeley, who was the Canadian distributor for Harley-Davidson. (Deeley, who died in 2002, ran the distributorship out of Vancouver for ages – which is strange considering the big Canadian markets are back east. H-D used to ship bikes thousands of miles west from Milwaukee to Vancouver, then Deeley turned right around and shipped them back to central Canada. Eventually Deeley moved the main warehouse to Ontario, but he maintained a big Vancouver dealership and the company has a great museum out there.)

Anyway, Ed worked for Deeley, and lived in a rented house on the farm, which was only about 20 miles from a beautiful little race track called Westwood. He raced there; both solos and sidecars. He died at 60, of cancer.

I guess that Ed probably wanted his ashes to be stored in a street bike because he hoped to go out for an occasional ride. He might be disappointed in the purchaser; Brock has only ridden it a couple of times. The bike spends almost all of its time in Brock’s living room, in Calgary. I suppose it’s no worse than sitting in an urn on the mantle.

That protruberance on the gas tank, between the filler cap and the seat, is the lid of small tool compartment. The machine was remarkably complete and period correct, but it did not contain the original tools.

I have to say that the story has given me some ideas about where my ashes could be stored. Problem number one, for me, will be dying while in possession of any motorcycle nice enough to warrant the interest of a legitimate collector who’d take reasonable care of my remains.

Brock’s next big project is going to be restoring a 1936 R5; one of the first BMWs ever made with a tube frame, and a telescopic fork. There are only about 30 known to exist, and matching-number bikes, like his, are even rarer. I’m guessing that such a restoration might be costly.

I wondered whether, to fund the R5 restoration, he’d sell Ed’s bike. “Oh, [anything in my collection is] for sale,” he told me. “If I find something else I want more, I’ll kick something loose.”

So I asked him, “If you sell Ed’s bike, will you insist that the new owner leave his remains in place?”

“Oh sure,” he replied. “After all, that was a condition of sale. But, of course, I have no way of enforcing it. The next owner may just decide to dust the highway with him.”

That would be one last ride, anyway.