Posted By Bill Wiegand,
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015
James Vann, of Boxerworks Customs, sits comfortably in an office chair and leans in over a shop lift sourcing from a parts catalog. His worn, blue tee shirt proudly proclaims Boxerworks’ second annual tenth annual rally. Don’t ask. My back is against a KLR 650 awaiting attention from Murray Frizzelle.
In this shop, Vann focuses on only one thing – customs. On an adjacent lift are the beginnings of Boxerworks Creations’ second custom – the Beach Bobber, www.beemerglide.com. The third lift in the work area is dedicated to an Airhead café racer, very near completion. Frames, short blocks, suspension pieces and forks, fenders and tanks complete the room.
“This program will showcase all that Boxerworks has been doing for the last 20 years,” Vann suggests. “In these customs, we are setting a new bar for the build of custom BMWs. No one else is doing what we’re doing with these bikes because of our frame.”
What they’re currently showcasing is the first of their custom line of Beemerglide by Boxerworks motorcycles – The War Glide. With the bike sitting just off to our right, and almost lost in sight against a full shop of motorcycles awaiting work, the War Glide is 99 percent complete and running, needing only minor tweaks to be complete. “Oh god yes we’re proud,” exclaims Vann. “For a first effort, yes, we’re all very proud.
“I would not have started with something so ‘hard-edged’ and Harley influenced,” he continues. “But I am over the moon with the final result!”
Boxerworks, owned by Watkinsville, Ga., resident Nathan Mende, is a 20-year-old BMW repair shop located in northeast Ga., and most accurately reflects a life time devotion by Mende to BMW motorcycles. The shop is first and foremost dedicated to the repair and restoration of Airhead BMWs. During the early years of the business’ history, Mende was a one-man operation, handling all the wrenching, ordering, receiving and cataloging of parts, billing and bill paying, telephone answering and, most importantly – the public relations and marketing of the small business. But with the addition nine years ago of mechanic Dean Graham, the recent addition of Frizzelle, and now Vann, Boxerworks has grown into a full-fledged motorcycle repair shop. I witness a pale blue Vespa brought into the shop. Everything gets attention.
Because Mende is still the one needing to answer the phone – according to Graham every phone conversation starts with “where’s Nathan?” – and he is very much involved with motorcycle repair issues, getting and keeping his attention requires a degree of patience. Really, the patience of an oyster! But it’s this level of involvement in the day-to-day business that has kept Boxerworks at the forefront of BMW motorcycle repair in the Southeast for most of the last two decades. Part of the shop’s reputation has been developed around Mende’s and Graham’s attention to detail in the restoration of vintage BMWs, both mechanical and cosmetically. It was this reputation that initially led Vann to Boxerworks and partnership with the shop. “I was building a café racer for a customer, an R90 that Boxerworks had completed all the mechanicals on. I just came to the source,” suggested Vann. “They were making them fast. I was making them look pretty.”
So, is it a conflict for a business so dedicated to the careful mechanical and cosmetic restoration of original motorcycles to now offer custom bikes with an approach from opposite direction? Vann absolutely thinks not!
Thus far, all these customs are sourced mostly from “rescued bikes,” he suggests. “For the most part, these bikes could have gone the traditional route of being parted out, but we saved them. In doing so, perhaps we’re opening the BMW brand to whole new customer.”
Although Vann was developing a reputation for café racer customs in his Aiken, S.C., shop Speed and Soul, the War Glide is the first joint collaboration between himself and Boxerworks. The bike didn’t start with Mende and Boxerworks, but instead with Todd Rasmussen in Oklahoma City.
In his version of “so what happened was,” Mende explains he and Rasmussen connected at a southeastern rally over 10 years ago when Rasmussen rode by on his version of the Beemerglide, that attracted Mende’s attention – and by his admission put a “s&*t-eating grin on his face. It was not too far removed from the version Boxerworks Creations was introducing, at that time featuring a solo “tractor-style” seat, “fat-bob” tanks with center console-mounted speedometer, pull back bars, heavily skirted front fender, leather saddlebags, and dual fishtail exhaust. “I was immediately interested,” remembers Mende. “I purchased the bike and brought it here to the shop just over seven years ago.” But as Mende explains, shop business took precedence over the development of the Beemerglide, and the bike sat undisturbed for almost six years. During this apparent lull in activity, we were busy working on jigs to ensure each frame was exactly the same as the last, as well as stiffen and improve the chassis.
“One of the primary aspects of these bikes is how custom this frame is,” claims Vann. The Beemerglide started with an R100 series motor built by Graham, and transmission refurbished by Mende. Forty millimeter carbs feed fuel from steel five gallon “fat-bob” style gas tanks, and the gases are routed from the cylinders through a set of wrapped header pipes out through a pair of exhausts. giving the Airhead an exhaust note that, rather than obnoxious, provides a rumble that Vann suggests “completely grabs the attention of anyone around.”
“There’s nothing ‘backyard’ about these builds,” explains Vann. “The bike’s wiring begins with a completely stock /5 wiring harness, and any wiring added remains true to the factory color coding. This bike could be taken to any BMW dealership and worked on following a stock wiring diagram. “Graham has over 40 hours in the wiring of this bike,” claims Vann. “You want to see some real art, pull the tanks and look closely at the electrical work. Although it remains true to factory, it is art none the less!”
“Anyone happy working on their vintage BMW could work on these bikes,” he continues. “The vintage Harley tanks remove with three bolts and you’re right back to basic BMW.”
The flat military green paint, white pinstripes and white star on each tank, without doubt, render the bike a military replica. The blacked-out motor and wheels only add to the purpose-built properties of the custom. “The ‘50s and ‘60s-era Harley Davidsons were huge influences on the beginnings of the Beemerglides, but in this particular build, we looked to the 1963 movie The Great Escape for military inspiration,” claims Vann. In that vein, the bike does not disappoint. It was during WWII the U.S. Army requested Harley build a military-purpose bike based on the features of the R75 BMW the Germans were using: primarily a shaft drive, boxer-motor driven motorcycle. Harley manufactured the XA model military motorcycle, but only produced 1000 before the government canceled the order for that particular vehicle. It would take close inspection that determine this is not the 1001st XA produced!
From the early ‘80s to the late ‘90s, my go-to travel motorcycle was a 1972 FLH shovelhead, the very example of the Harley influence guiding the development of the Beemerglide. Settling into the leather solo saddle, the handlebars sweep wide and back, allowing for a perfectly relaxed, sit-up riding position. But don’t take “settling into” to mean you’re sitting down in the motorcycle. As is very much the fashion with the antique Harleys, you sit “on” the motorcycle. My natural inclination was to place my feet forward on floorboards. It’s here you’re quickly reminded you’re riding a BMW; the design of the engine, with carburetors and cylinders sitting horizontally, puts you in a classic BMW upright riding position. Thumbing the electric start momentarily shakes the cruiser to the right, but built and tuned by Boxerworks, the engine quickly settles into the familiar BMW idle. Clutch pull is typical, meaning it would be easy to ride this bike through many miles of stop and go traffic. Down for first, up for second and beyond and you’re easily on your way. My experience: as I left the shop for the first time on the bike, I was whistling the theme song to the ‘70s hit TV show MASH. I was BJ Honeycutt leaving the unit for the last time!
While I had the bike out for only a short time, and stayed in the country during the ride, both Mende and Vann report their test rides throughout downtown Watkinsville routinely generate stares and questions regarding the vintage of the motorcycle and its military history. “We can’t stop on this bike without someone questioning its age or military use,” claims Mende.
As much as the War Glide speaks to the military history of this country, the Beachbobber custom will speak directly to the California car culture of the ‘60s. Both bikes feature frames built exclusively by Boxerworks. Other than Airhead BMW motors, the similarities end there. Featuring 4.50/18 inch whitewall tires – the biggest whitewall that can be shoed on stock rims – the Beachbobber custom is an aggressive, cut down custom. “We’ve got to modify the swing arm to make the rear tire fit,” explains Vann.
While both bikes can be spec'd with any variation of an Airhead motor, this particular “bobber” will be fitted with a completely rebuilt R100 motor with Mukuni flat side carbs, K&N airsocks and a single side exhaust. Wide, ‘70s-era flat track bars and Progressive suspension will be included in the build. The Beachbobber, as it lives on the shop lift now, is outfitted with drum brakes front and rear, further adding to the vintage appearance of the bike. However, according to Vann, if specified, disc brakes can be optioned.“We’re purposefully doing the opposite with the Beachbobber,” says Vann. “With this bike, I can easily see the owner dropping into the burnout pit at The Ironhorse and shredding the rear tire!” He exaggerates this statement by loosely holding a set of mock handlebars, dumping the clutch and pegging the throttle wide open! “This bike is going to be so hot. Just blow that tire!”
Focusing on the remaining bike in the shop, Vann gestures and suggests the café racer will be the another direction for Boxerworks. “Cafés are comfortable to be around, and I’ve been around them a long time,” he says. “Cafés and scramblers will spread out our line of customs.” With just the tiniest bit of massaging, BMWs make beautiful cafés. In all these builds, it’s easy to see we’re not always about shiny. We’re only about what makes them work. Form is definitely going to follow function.”
As excited as Vann is about the prospect of the custom line and the immediate future for Boxerworks Customs, Mende clearly sees the addition of customs as an extension of what he has strived to create in Boxerworks.
“Mechanical and cosmetic restos are not an end-all goal or focus for the shop,” he suggests. “Restorations are just a facet. Beemerglide will be another direction for us.”
In the years I’ve had the opportunity to know Mende and be around the shop, I’ve witnessed, and participated in, its relocation from his two-car garage, to his farm, to the current location. Each and every move brought with it improvement and expansion in services offered. “Our goal is to become a “one-stop” shop for everything Airhead. I want to simplify the parts purchasing process for these motorcycles; we are already deeply involved in fabricating parts that are unavailable or need improving.”
Moving back into the shop from his office area – which is still very much a part of the shop – Mende suggests what he sees for the shop’s future. “Like everyone else, we like to do different things,” he says. “At the spot we’re at now, I’d like to see Boxerworks build some interesting motorcycles to just show folks what’s possible”
However, Mende expands his vision for the shop by adding, “we would love to build a dozen or so Beemerglide-related bikes a year. From there, we could build the bike you can imagine.” Additionally, Mende and crew suggest the future for Boxerworks will allow them to sell kits based around the Boxerworks frame, letting the customer build as little or as much of the bike as they prefer.
Gesturing toward the War Glide, he concludes, “It would be great to have Boxerworks associated with a certain type of custom. In the Beemerglide, we have that custom.”
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