Posted By Bill Wiegand,
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015
There are always several reasons why we do the things we do: why #1 - for those of us who are not professional motorcycle mechanics or professional restoration specialists, we learn a mechanical/restoration technique unique to a particular model, and then, likely, never get to use that skill again. A serial restoration project affords the opportunity to immediately employ that newly-acquired skill again and again, while the information is fresh in the porous regions of the brain; why #2 – along the way, we acquired four R27s, and it was time to clean out the basement.
The whole adventure requires a little more back-story. Back in 1991, my partner, Janet, announced to me that she wanted to get off the back of our 1959 R69 and start riding solo. Janet, not a teenager at the time, thought that if she didn’t start riding before she turned 50 she probably wouldn’t make the leap to solo riding. We all need benchmarks to establish goals…I guess.
Janet fixated on an R27 as her first ride. Of course, a light-weight, dependable, Japanese bike with an electric starter might have been a more prudent choice, but Janet will not own any vehicle that does not win her heart by its visual appeal (a love-at-first-sight-from-across-the-room kind of thing). An un-restored 1961 R27 it was.
It was not a smooth courtship, but Janet was committed (to the relationship). After completing the Pennsylvania Motorcycle Safety Course, a year of riding exercises for Janet, and bike tuning trial-and-error for me, we tore down the R27 in the off-season, and started our first soup-to-nuts restoration. Once the R27 restoration was complete, we tore down my R69 for the same show-quality treatment. These two bikes seen together on the street always drew a crowd.
We had quite a few R27 mechanical catastrophes over the first two years. During that time I would put out feelers for on hand backup parts anticipating the next mechanical emergency. As most vintage bike owners are aware many times it’s less expensive to buy the whole bike rather than just the engine or transmission (alone). So co-incidental to my search for spare parts, we ended up with three parts bikes – consisting of one complete bike and two basket cases - all of which had matching frames and engines.
The (Serial) Restoration Begins
In 1996, I decided to make something of the parts bikes we had accumulated and started the three-bike serial restoration project by consigning the three engines and transmissions over to Lou Stellar, of Bucks County, PA, to be rebuilt. Lou does excellent work and had managed to bring around Janet’s R27 to be a dependable good running bike. However, all the other restoration tasks were mine to execute. It was then that several things happened that put the entire project on hold. In July of 1996, while traveling on I-95, Janet had an accident causing her R27 to temporarily join the ranks of the other three project bikes.
Now there were four project bikes staring at me each time I went down to the basement. When Janet recovered from her accident and wanted to get back in the saddle, we agreed that she consider a more contemporary bike (ultimately, a Honda Shadow), and I shifted over to a K75, an equally contemporary ride.
Fast Forward – The Serial Restarted
(Editor’s note: As things would have it the next few years found Joe and Janet working together on another business project and the four bikes remained untouched. With that project now ended successfully it was time to renew their quest to rebuild the four 1960’s classics.)
In early 2013, Bill Becker, a retired architect/engineer neighbor who had seriously taken up the hobby of building café racers (see the cover of Café Racer – Oct/Nov 2012), approached me and offered to partner (work two full days a week until completion) with me on my R27 project. Bill’s stated objective was “the demystification of BMWs”, and please note: Bill really enjoys building bikes. I thought this would be a great impetus to re-start the project. Our “shop” would be a 600 sq.ft. vacant commercial space on the ground floor of a four-story 1860s building that Janet and I call home. We started in earnest in mid-March.
My strengths lie in the area of surface finishes of all sorts, and I am comfortable dismantling and reassembling immediately intelligible components, but Bill is fearless in the tearing down and re-assembling of anything. When we were all younger, most of us could dismantle the family toaster or lawnmower, but Bill is the kid who could put it back together and get it to work again.
The Serial Process At Work
Initially, and without a set of BMW shop tools on hand, it would take us hours to figure out a process like extracting a bearing race from the bottom of the final drive assembly The second assembly would yield faster, and the third would slip out like we knew what we were doing. Drive shaft assemblies, front and rear swing arms, wheel bearings, steering head bearings, shocks, etc., all provided tech clinic opportunities that informed the following procedures among the group of four R27s. The serial restoration concept was paying off.
As all components were stripped of seals, bearings, shafts and gears, each was cleaned, prepped and grouped with all the salvageable sheet metal parts to be delivered to the abrasive blaster (Plastic Media Blasting, Furlong, PA) to be taken down to bare metal. The idea of blasting with plastic media, to reduce the risk of abrasive contamination in critical mechanisms, was very appealing and it worked like a top. The smaller parts were kept in house for me to clean and blast using a friend’s shop just a block from my home.
Experience is the best teacher
If I had it to do again I would follow Bill’s preferred method of first pre-building the entire bike from unfinished, raw components, carefully adjusting and modifying each part to assure that all the mechanisms are functioning in harmony and all clearances are adequately close. Then, and only then, was it time to send the parts out to the painter and chrome plater, followed by pushing all parts, large and small, toward a finished state awaiting the final re-assembly.
However, since all the bikes had been dismantled prior to 1996, we had long lost the opportunity to check out the fit of parts as they came off the bikes. Consequently, we had to backtrack a bit and test the condition and fit of four center stands, swing arms, steering heads, etc. to ensure that those parts were true and could still work in the frames. Of course there were some surprises: all of the center stands needed adjustment; one fork center stem was compromised beyond salvage and needed to be replaced; sheet metal parts were fitted into fork and frame and adjusted; tanks had to be pushed back into form; headlight buckets needed to be pressed back into shape; frames needed welded-on-post-production ‘modifications’ removed; and after everything seemed to have an acceptable fit, we spent weeks fussing over the surfaces of each part in preparation for final finishes.
Mark Cavanaugh of CR Cars in Philadelphia, would be doing the paintwork, but we were responsible for all repairs and prep work.
The Weinmann alloy rims were a unique project unto themselves. We knew that we wanted to lace the wheels in house. The spokes and nipples would be new, but the condition of the rims would determine the quality of the final outcome. We had six out-of-round, dented, gouged, and badly pitted alloy rims, all challenging us to walk away and buy new replacements. (Janet’s two wheels had been restored previously, and survived the accident.) Since this was a “restoration project”, not a new bike build, our decision was to salvage the rims.
We made hardwood molds of the inner and outer rim forms and began clamping, squeezing, pressing, and pounding (there was a lot of pounding). Once all the rims were within spec, a glass bead blasting gave us a fresh surface to work with, and exposed all the areas that needed TIG infill to repair the dings and gouges. All welded repairs were milled, filed, and sanded until each disappeared into the original surface contours of the rim. Then each rim was carefully wet sanded – 320, 400, 600, & 1000 grit – using WD-40 as a lubricant, followed by many hours of polishing with consecutive abrasive grits. Then, as we did with all the other polished aluminum parts of the four R27s, the rims were turned over to Janet for detailing and final buffing. It’s amazing how a beautifully lustrous surface can emerge from such a grimy polishing process.
Bill is proficient in wheel rebuilding and made a clinic of the process for my edification. Again, the serial nature of the project provided an unusual forum, and I had six wheels on which to practice. If there is a down-side to the serial process, it’s that as you finish the last part in the series, your newly acquired skills tell you that you probably could have done the first, or second, in the series better; so you go back and re-do the first and second pancakes.
While waiting for parts to trickle back to us from the painter and chrome plater, we started to rebuild the non-painted sub-assemblies: carburetor rebuilds, re-shoeing brakes, laceing wheels, rebuilding final drives, attaching dogs and grip assemblies to handlebars, wiring switch assemblies, etc. We also bagged and labeled stainless steel hardware kits for each section of each bike. Any fastener that was not originally chromed, and could not or should not be stainless, we plated in house with a zinc/tin alloy to mimic the appearance of the original, BMW hardware finish.
Once the painted frame and swing arm parts were returned, we started replacing every bearing and seal on all mating frame parts. When all the painted sheet metal parts were back in house, we arranged to have the tank and fenders pin-striped on site by DeWayne Connot of DOA Flatliners. In vintage BMW restoration projects, pin-striping day is special: it marks an over-the-hump point in the process, and we really enjoyed watching DeWayne display his craft. Also, seeing the finish-painted and freshly pin striped parts – 4 tanks, 4 front fenders, 3 two-section rear fenders - lined up like soldiers on our work table - looked for a moment like a vintage photo from the Munich factory circa 1960.
Finally, we could now begin the full re-assembly process and build rolling frames, installing engines and transmissions, routing and connecting wire harnesses and cables, mounting fenders, tanks and seats, keeping each bike on the lift until it was complete. After all those months of pushing parts through the various steps of the process, this was the fun part: the build.
Janet had been keeping a tally of the parts and various service costs since we started in March of 2013. In late November I asked her for the current total and was informed that we were pushing up against $27,000.00 (so far). This startling subtotal did not include the original purchase price of the bikes, or Lou Stellar’s engine and transmission work back in 1996. It also didn’t include the investment we had made in the many parts that had accumulated over the years anticipating the start of this four-bike project. It’s difficult to get back what you put into any motorcycle restoration; but that’s a given.
This was basically a protracted basement clean-out project, with a bonus: we had a good time learning a lot while applying our collective skill sets, and brought three classic BMW R27s back into service for their future owners to ride, show, and enjoy. The fourth bike? Janet isn’t quite ready to let her beloved, and now fully re-restored, R27 go. That bike will be retired to the third floor of our home to be seen and appreciated every day.
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