Charles Fleming

Road Test: 2020 BMW R18

BMW Motorrad Introduces R18 Cruiser

BMW’s R18 has arrived with a splash. In mid-September the German company conducted a press rollout of its highly-designed new cruiser with the motorcycle industry’s first elaborate COVID-period ride event – swank hotel headquarters, full staff greeting media, full fleet of bikes, ride leaders and brand photographers and videographers -- unwilling to wait any longer to introduce its dramatic new machine to the waiting world.

The new BMW R18: a design influenced by the best of BMW's heritage, enlarged for the cruiser market, with a very long wheelbase and low saddle height. [Kevin Wing]
Is the world waiting? I’m not sure. I told two friends, both of them BMW owners, that I was off to meet the big black beast. One said, dismissively, “The answer to a question no one asked.” The other said, “The R18? Frankenstein with Botox.”

Long in the planning, the R18 owes its stylistic inspiration to the R5, a street model the company produced from 1936 to 1937. This provided the essentials: The boxer engine, double-loop tubular steel frame, exposed nickel-plated drive shaft, teardrop gas tank, fishtail exhaust pipes and signature black paint with double white pin stripes.

A physical comparison of the elder and its great-grand-progeny. The light and lithe 1935 R5 model was beloved for its lively performance, excellent handling, and worlds-first hydraulic telescopic fork. The R5 had a 500cc pushrod motor giving 24hp and an 87mph top speed (very good for the day), and weighed 363lbs. The R18 has 90hp and weighs twice the R5 at over 700lbs, not that growth is a linear thing. [BMW Motorrad]
Powered by an all-new air- and oil-cooled 1802cc engine, the R18 drew on the R5 and other BMW heritage models for its wire spoked wheels, steel fenders and fork tubes and analog-style speedometer. The result is sleek and shiny, crouched low to the ground, weighing 761 pounds, with a claimed 91 horsepower and 116 pound-feet of torque.

The bike draws its economic inspiration from elsewhere, and is the answer to a question many people have asked – many executives, anyway, if not many consumers. Like many companies, BMW has been wondering why Harley-Davidson dominates the cruiser market with what one BMW executive derided as a second-rate product – and trying to figure out how to take away some H-D market share. (And, of course, as its own fortunes have waned, H-D is trying to figure out how to take away some of BMW’s market share, by introducing its PanAmerica adventure bike into a segment dominated by GMW’s GS line.)

Design heritage: BMW looked into its own past for inspiration on a new model design, riding the 'heritage&denim' wave begun in the 2010s, taking a leaf from Harley-Davidson's playbook. This is something BMW did - sorta - with the rNineT, but is far more explicit with the R18. [BMW Motorrad]
After conducting in-depth market research, largely in the form of motorcycle owner polls and potential buyer queries [and asking people like me directly - "what is the most iconic BMW model that we can build today?" - ed.], BMW brass identified the custom or premium cruiser segment as an opportune target area and a 40-something male, middle-income, and “liberal-minded” enough to select something not built by The Motor Company as its target customer.

“Harley-Davidson runs this segment, but that’s changing,” BMW Motorrad US product manager Vincent Kung said during a live-streamed R18 presentation. “A new generation is coming in, a generation that’s thinking differently. They’re experiencing what I call ‘Harley fatigue.’”

The cruiser market was invented by Harley-Davidson in 1971 with the FX Super Glide, to capitalize on the chopper craze: there had never been production motorcycles with raked-out front forks and a laid-back riding position before. Yamaha followed quickly afterwards, then the deluge. So, it's understandable Harley-Davidson is the first image one has of a cruiser, and whose market share is the target for other manufacturers. [Kevin Wing]
Polling and research indicated that the top sellers in the cruiser market are custom sellers. Further research told company planners that the target was Harley’s Softail Slim. Priced to compete with this bike, the R18’s builders say it is longer, handles better and offers more HP and torque.

They also acknowledge that 75% of the hoped-for buyers will be “conquest” customers – buyers who will need to abandon another brand, many of them forgoing their wish to buy American, as first-time BMW owners.

The first hint of a new model coming: the BMW R5 Hommage custom presented at the Concorso Villa d'Este in 2016, and built by the BMW design team with help from talented outside fabricators. The R5 motor had a modern supercharger attached, and made quite a glorious noise! Our publisher Paul d'Orleans, a judge at the Concorso di Moto at Villa d'Este, was present at the launch and got a moment of saddle time. the stretched-out vintage chassis was a suggestion of things to come. [Susan McLaughlin]
The push into the cruiser segment is new for BMW. But the company has attempted to push into other new territory in recent years, with mixed results. The cruiser-like R1200C, introduced in the late 1990s, died a quiet death. The big-boned K 1600 B bagger, introduced in 2016, did not become a fixture on U.S. roads and has not stolen significant market share from Harley-Davidson. But its retro rNineT – a 2014 effort to combine analog looks and feels with modern tech – has proved popular. Though BMW declines to report unit sales for specific models, executives at the R18 launch said several times it was the global reception of the rNineT that encouraged them forward with the R18.

Edgar Heinrich, the Head of Design for BMW Motorrad, after riding the R5 Hommage onto the gravel terrace during BMW's annual prototype reveal ceremony at Villa d'Este, in 2016.  Much like the later R18, the R5 Hommage had a 'softail' frame that appeared to be a rigid, but a close look reveals a modern shock absorber behind the gearbox. [Paul d'Orleans]
“People said, ‘I don’t want a rolling computer,’” said BMW Motorrad head of design Edgar Heinrich. “With rNineT we found out we can combine a motorcycle which works perfectly that has heart and soul and character.”

So, has it?

The bike is beautifully built – “Berlin made,” advertising material say, and it even says so on the speedometer – and beautiful to look at. The black is rich and deep. The chromed parts – the introductory model, known as the R18 First Edition, is laden with nearly $4,000 in upgraded bits and bobs – gleams. The look and feel of real metal abounds. There are no chromed plastic parts, anywhere on the bike. The fit and finish are BMW standard – superb. The overall look is trim and clean. There are practically no visible wires or cables.

Quality built, heavy, and with such a wide and low stance, an easy one to ground in corners. [Kevin Wing]
The R18 wears its weight low, and comes off the kickstand easily. The 27.2-inch seat height will allow almost any rider to sit comfortably with both feet flat on the ground. The bicycle-style single seat is, at first meeting, as well suited to function as it is pleasing to the eye.

The engine rumbles to life, roughly, with a push of the electric start, and then settles into a gentle purr. A flick of the throttle produces the signature boxer roll. Clutch in, transmission engaged – with a reassuringly industrial “clunk” – and away.

Because it was clear from the start to the designers that their R18 must be powered by the company’s iconic horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder engine, it was also clear that the R18 could not feature the “foot forward” seating position favored by other cruisers. Instead, the R18’s builders placed its footpegs in a position they call “mid-mounted,” almost directly below the seat.

Rider ergonomics are defined by the flat-twin's cylinders and saddle location/height: in this case the footpegs are behind the knees, which test rider Charles Fleming found uncomfortable after an hour. [Kevin Wing]
I was pleased by this. Something about the muscle memory of years of riding and racing dirt bikes, plus the architecture of my spine (damaged by the aforementioned years of dirt) has always made traditional cruisers a little taxing. So, pulling away from the curb on the BMW, I thought: I like this better. It feels like my GS. My feet are just where I like them to be. I was to change my mind about that.

The massive R18 engine’s power is delivered via a six-speed transmission and through three ride modes. BMW, seeking to be clever, has named them Rock, Roll and Rain, with Rock being the most aggressive. Horsepower and torque remain the same with all three. Only the delivery of power is altered.

The prototype R18 at its launch in May 2019 at Villa d'Este: the tank and engine remain the same as the production version, but the prototype has a much lighter look from slimmer components (and no legally required giant airbox and mufflers). [Paul d'Orleans]
Scrolling through the ride modes, on a 75-mile circuit from Los Angeles’ Marina Del Rey to Venice to the Malibu mountains and back, I found the motor tractable and the power easy to manage. Roll-on acceleration felt smooth and steady. Clutch and shift feel were excellent. Braking, via Brembo products – dual disc on the 19” front wheel, single disc on the 16” rear -- was firm. The suspension –telescoping forks fitted with Showa internals up front, a single coil ZF shock behind – took most of the wrinkle out of the road.

But it’s a big bike. Slow-speed maneuvering required some concentration. Stopping at red lights and stop signs became tedious. The mid-central footpegs required my foot to come up, out and back before they hit the ground, as the big boxer cylinders prevented any forward movement.

Parking was less of a challenge, because the R18 is fitted with a rudimentary reverse gear. Put the bike in neutral, pull a switch near the left-side footpeg, and use the starter button to engage an electric motor that rolls the machine backward.

Abhi Eswarappa of Bike-Urious.com giving a spectacular demonstration of the R18's minimal ground clearance. [Nathan May]
Keeping the seat height low keeps the footpeg height low, too. That meant my legs felt cramped after the first hour of riding. It also meant that cornering with any lean angle whatever meant considerable contact and scraping. (My ride mate for the day, Bike-Urious’ Abhi Eswarrapa, took the R18 back out for a night ride and captured some amazing imagery of the resulting spark showers.)

The oil- and air-cooling system limited engine heat. For Southern Californians, anyway, this is an issue. Many of the big twins, from most Harleys to most Indians and beyond, contribute so much ambient heat that riding them on hot days can be a challenge.

The longer I rode the R18 the more impressed I was by its craftsmanship, elegance and curb appeal. (I experienced more spectator attention -- “Cool bike man!” -- than on anything I’d ridden since the last quirky-looking Ural I piloted.) But I was happy to stop riding every time I stopped, and eager to dismount. By the end of the four-hour ride, I was ready to quit, which is exactly the opposite of how I feel at the end of most rides.

From Lake Como to Venice, the intended hunting grounds of the R18. BMW has tried the cruiser market in the past, but the R18 is a far more pleasing design than previous efforts, at least to your editor's eye. [Kevin Wing]
The R18 is priced sensibly at $17,495 for the base model and $19,870 for the First Edition – $21,150 for the model I rode -- going after the midrange Harley-Davidson buyer, not the top. Reverse motor and hill start control are among the many available ups and extras – those two as part of a $1,450 “Premium Package” -- including cruise control, heated grips, windscreen, a “cross country” seat, saddlebags and aftermarket parts from suppliers Roland Sands, Mustang and Vance and Hines. There is also a substantial line of branded apparel.

BMW has high hopes for the R18. The company’s CEO Markus Schramm said BMW Motorrad’s ambition is to “become number one in the premium cruiser segment worldwide.” Schramm said sales are strong, with a backlog of orders globally and the factory working at full speed to fill them.

It will be an interesting experiment. Though BMW posted record sales numbers for the month of June of this year, the six months before that saw a sharp decline, with numbers down from the comparable 2019 period by nearly 18%, according to company reports.

There was probably more reason for optimism, in June, that further prosperity was just around the corner. Now, with the coming of fall, the approaching of winter, the continuing financial uncertainty and the pending end of state and federal support for struggling businesses and unemployed workers, the R18 may have arrived just in time to sneak into 2020 before the year closes.

Charles Fleming on the road to Malibu. With great styling and solid handling, will the R18's better qualities win enough fans to make a sales hit like the rNineT? [Kevin Wing]

 


Bill and Lois' Big Adventure: the Foundation of A.A.

In April 1925 Bill Wilson and his wife Lois left Brooklyn, New York riding a Harley-Davidson on a journey through the Eastern United States. Wilson was an energetic stock speculator who at age 29 was struggling to develop a method of predicting rises in stock values. He believed the secret was better information about the inner workings of publicly-held corporations. He and Lois, then 34, planned to spend as much as a year visiting factories and home offices of companies that looked promising.

The happy couple starting out on an adventure that would take much longer, and be much harder, than either anticipated. [Lois B. Wilson]
It was a bold idea, madcap and risky. They had only recently acquired the motorcycle – for weekend trips to the beach, Bill said later – but it was well-supplied. Bill had strapped his old Army trunk to the back, and filled it and the sidecar with tent, blankets, kapok-filled mattress, camping gear, food and clothing and a gasoline cooking stove, along with four volumes of Moody’s Manual on public utilities, each as large as a full-sized Webster’s dictionary. Lois wrote in her diary that they looked like travelers “bound for the Arctic with presents for all the Eskimos.” They had all they needed to live on -- but only $80 in their wallets. “Our friends thought a lunacy commission should be appointed,” Bill would write later. Lois may have been skeptical about the whole scheme, but she had her own agenda. What she wanted, she said decades afterward, was to help her husband control his excessive drinking. “I wanted to get him away from New York, with bars (saloons they were called then) on many corners, and away from his buddies,” she said. “A year in the open, which we both loved, would give me a chance to straighten him out.”

Lois Wilson on the 'Hobo' Harley-Davidson, which she drove as well: the couple took turns at the handlebars on their two years on the road. [Lois B. Wilson]
Their machine was likely a used 1919 Harley-Davidson Model J with a factory sidecar. Powered by a 61-cubic-inch twin, with a three-speed hand-shift transmission, it was one of the first H-Ds to feature a full electric package, featuring a headlight, taillight and horn. It retailed at $370 and was the most expensive bike in the Harley line. The sidecar cost an additional $110. Bill Jackson of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee said the company records show that 9,941 Model Js were produced in 1919, out of a total of 23,279 total motorcycles produced in Milwaukee that year.

Packing the Harley-Davidson Model J with everything needed for two years on the road certainly taxed the outfit, and many repairs were needed. [Lois B. Wilson]
It was an ideal vehicle for trips to the beach. Modified, it looked like the perfect vehicle for a tour of the Eastern Seaboard. But the travelers made it only to Poughkeepsie the first day, having discovered that riding through upstate New York on a motorcycle in April, in the rain, without a windshield, was a chilly business, even in the “homemade waterproof zippered coveralls” they were wearing, Lois wrote in her diary. They also found their overloaded sidecar was rattling to pieces, and stopped at a blacksmith’s shop so it could be reinforced. The smithy’s repair was the first of dozens. As they toured New England and then headed south, camping each night, cooking and dining out of doors, bathing in lakes and streams and hiding from the rain in a tent that Bill had fitted with an electric light and a radio he could run off the Harley’s battery, the Wilsons suffered one breakdown after another. They threw a chain twice, had innumerable punctures and blow-outs – four in one long unlucky day before they realized the tires were worn through -- replaced broken spokes and were repeatedly forced to adjust the timing and clean the carburetor. For weeks at a t time the machine that Lois called the “pop-cycle,” “the old bus,” “the old boat” and “the fuzz wagon” refused to run right. On one occasion the carburetor fell off entirely. On another, a short circuit in a rainstorm sidelined them for hours.

Packing and unpacking must have been a time-consuming ritual when they moved from place to place. [Lois B. Wilson]
One afternoon, trying to help motorists whose car had broken down, Bill hitched the Harley to the car’s front bumper and towed it into town – burning out the bike’s clutch. Another day, having failed to adequately secure their camping gear, they spent the whole afternoon retracing miles of roadway, collecting the blankets, sheets, towels and pajamas they had strewn over the countryside. On multiple occasions, as the weather warmed, they found themselves stuck in bogs and mudholes, Lois at the helm while Bill tried to pry the rear wheels loose with boards and branches. They seldom encountered other motorcyclists, except for one hapless Indian owner. He had traveled south from New Jersey on a bike also equipped with a side car – serving as the cockpit for his traveling companion, a dog. But his machine was failing him. Lois reported in her diary that he was offering it for sale at $20.

Bill and Lois Wilson with their Harley-Davidson Model J and sidecar.

Forced occasionally by bad weather to pay for food or shelter, despite their best efforts to camp wherever possible and feed themselves by fishing and foraging, the Wilsons were soon out of funds. In July, they found a farmer who was willing to take them on as summer help – Lois cooking and cleaning, Bill repairing farm equipment and doing general labor. Through the fall and winter they were back on the road, fighting the falling temperatures with a newly-acquired windshield for the motorcycle and a mattress and hot water bottle for the sidecar. Bill continued to visit cement factories, electric power plants and other companies – even getting invited to a private display of the new cinema development known as “talking pictures” – while sending reports back to his friends on Wall Street. One was sufficiently impressed to send the Wilsons some much-needed money.

Bill Wilson the clever business analyst in the 1930s. [Lois B. Wilson]
Including time off for visiting with friends and family, Bill and Lois stayed on the road for almost two years, clocking uncounted miles and investigating dozens of companies. They might have ridden longer, too, but for an accident. In Eastern Tennessee, hurrying home to attend a wedding, Lois failed to negotiate a sharp turn while piloting the Harley down a sandy road. The motorcycle went end over end, launching Bill and the contents of the sidecar over Lois’ head. He suffered a broken collarbone, and she badly damaged her knee. For the next week they were under a doctor’s care in a small hotel – there being no hospital in the small town – before returning by train to Brooklyn, and having their Harley shipped back home after them.

Lois’ plan to keep Bill sober was only moderately successful. She managed to keep Bill away from the bottle for weeks at a time. But whenever alcohol was present, and he took a drink, extreme drunkenness followed. One time he stepped away from Lois saying he needed cigarettes, and did not return. Left alone on the street, with no money, in a strange town, Lois waited for hours until, well after dark, she began to search from one barroom to the next. “At last I found him, hardly able to navigate--and the money practically gone!” she wrote. Bill’s plan proved more effective. By the time he’d finished his tour of the east coast, he had convinced backers on Wall Street to invest in his companies and bankroll his own investments. Soon he and Lois were back in New York, living like royalty. “For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way,” Bill said later. “I had arrived.”

Lois B. Wilson in her wedding dress, circa 1921. [Lois B. Wilson]
It didn’t last. Bill’s drinking problem grew with his bank account. By the time of the Wall Street crash of 1929, he was almost a full-time drunk. After the crash, the descent was even steeper. He lost his job, his friends, his home and his health. The Wilsons moved in with Lois’ parents, and Lois took a job working in a department store. Bill was hospitalized multiple times as his family and his doctors tried to interrupt his alcoholism. He knew he had to quit drinking and stay quit, but he couldn’t. Lois was told her husband was at risk of sudden death or permanent insanity. “(Lois) was informed that it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year,” Bill wrote. “She would have to give me over to the undertaker or the asylum.”

Lois and Bill Wilson in later life, after founding Al-Anon (Lois) and Alcoholics Anonymous (Bill). [Lois B. Wilson]
But an old drinking buddy had recently gotten sober. He visited Bill, and told him how that had happened, and encouraged Bill to give it a try. A short time later, Bill took his last drink. He then commenced to help other men get sober, using some techniques passed on to him by his friend and others that he developed on his own. In June of 1935, at the end of a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, he met a disgraced proctologist named Bob Smith, and helped him get sober. The two formed a partnership, and slowly refined Bill’s ideas about sobriety. Those ideas became the basis for the program of recovery that became known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill lived another 35 years, dying in 1971 at the age of 75, after overseeing the growth of AA from two recovering drunks in Akron to several million worldwide. Lois survived him by 17 years, dying in 1988 at age 97, having turned her frustrated inability make her husband stop drinking into the program known as Al-Anon.

Lois Wilson wrote 'Diary of Two Motorcycle Hobos' in 1973, and initially distributed it to A.A. and Al-Anon centers around the world, as with this self-published early copy. Today the book is in print and available. [PBA Auctions]
There is no evidence that either of them ever owned or rode a motorcycle again. It is not known what became of their Harley-Davidson.  Lois did write about their motorcycle adventure in her 1973 book 'Diary of Two Motorcycle Hobos', which was initially self-published and sent personally by her to various A.A. and Al-Anon centers around the world, but has since been continuously in print, and is available here.

 

Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.” Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.


'The Speed Kings'

Book Review by Charles Fleming

 
In his expansive new book 'The Speed Kings', motorcycle historian and Daytona 200 race winner Don Emde has chronicled the meteoric rise and tragic fall of American board track racing, which at its peak in the early 1900s rivaled baseball as America’s number one spectator sport and made its champions into the country’s first national sports heroes. Emde spent four decades collecting images and information on “motordrome” racing, which flourished in the U.S. between roughly 1909 and 1914, ultimately compiling 6,000 pages of data. From this he has created a dense, oversized coffee table book, massive in scope and weight, packed with the ephemera of a bygone era. Included are more than 600 photos.

Daytona winner and motorcycle historian Don Emde's lastest masterpiece, 'The Speed Kings', with a foreward by Kenny Roberts. [Emde]
Emde begins his story in the late 1800s, as America catches the bicycling craze from Europe and Great Britain. On the heels of imports of the penny-farthing, “Ordinary” and “Bone Shaker” machines came competition. With competition came the need for speed. With that need came the discovery of “drafting,” which necessitated someone riding ahead of the cyclist to create a draft and a slipstream. After experimenting with tandem cycles (and even cycles ridden by up to ten riders at a time) a gentleman named Sylvester Roper came to the velodrome with a single-cylinder, steam-powered bicycle that could move fast enough to make way for the fastest cyclist. Gottlieb Daimler, Jules-Albert De Dion, Francis and Freelan Stanley, and, critically, Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Henshaw followed.

Englishman 'Jack' Prince developed the lion's share of board tracks in the USA, sketching out their designs for contractors to build, although he had no engineering experience! [Vintagent Archive]
By 1903, the first motorcycle (or in the parlance of the day, “motocycle”) hill climb competitions were being held, followed shortly by races on the sand at Daytona. By 1908, entrepreneur Jack Prince had seen the spectator value in the sport, and constructed a circular wooden track with banked sides to host a competition. Upstart bike builders Hedstrom and Henshaw hired former cycling champ Jacob DeRosier to ride their new Indian – and board track racing was on. The sport grew quickly and massively. Tracks went up in Los Angeles, Playa Del Rey, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Dallas, Newark, Denver and Brighton Beach, with “speed bugs” traveling great distances to watch weekend meets at the top tracks.

A young Morty Graves with an Indian 'torpedo tank' racer in 1908, one of the first racing motorcycles made (nominally) available to the public for track work. [Steven Wright]
In 1912, Chicago’s Riverview board track was hosting 20,000 spectators per race, more than were attending White Sox or Cubs baseball games. Atop machines made by Indian, Thor, Merkel, Excelsior, N.S.U., Reading-Standard and more, wearing high-button shoes or boots and cloth or leather helmets, but little other safety gear, men tore around the steeply banked “saucer tracks” at speeds that soon approached 90 miles per hour. Colorful characters with colorful names emerged – racers like Walter “Mile-a-Minute” Collins, Paul “Daredevil” Derkum and Glen “Slivers” Boyd, so named because of the amount of wooden track his body absorbed from his many falls.

Jake DeRosier was a French-Canadian racer who found success in England as well as the USA, much of it racing Indians, including at the Isle of Man TT and Brooklands. Read his hair-raising tales of racing on the board tracks here. [Vintagent Archive]
No one was more successful than Jake DeRosier (read more here), though his close rivals Don Johns and Eddie Hasha kept him on his toes. Through the 1910s the combustible DeRosier raced and won, crashed and burned, and recovered and raced again. Injuries were a given, and fatalities were common – usually the result of a blow-out at high speed that sent rider and machine crashing down the banked walls, often into other riders as they fell. (Emde doesn’t go into the science of the falls, but riders estimated the G-force of traveling at high speed on a banked track at many multiples above normal, and the force of being thrown onto the track as barely survivable).

The Newark Evening Star covered Eddie Hasha's accident as big news of the 'Murderdromes'.  The New York Times made it front page news as well - the only time in the 20th Century a motorcycle story was so featured. [Newark Evening Star]
Riders, builders, track owners and spectators accepted danger as part of the racing recipe. But not for long. On September 8, 1912, a day that became known as “Black Sunday,” golden boy Eddie Hasha flew over the high side of the track at Newark New Jersey's Vailsburg board track, killing himself and six spectators – five of them young boys visiting the track on a school trip. Hasha’s friend and rival Johnnie Albright died of his injuries from the crash. The stadium was shuttered, its boards sold for scrap, and newspaper editorials declaimed against the sport.  Racing resumed. But a year later champion DeRosier, who had never quite recovered from a series of 1911 injuries, died of blood poisoning brought on by a botched operation. On the day of DeRosier’s funeral, engineer Oscar Hedstrom resigned from Indian. Track owners rallied, installing “safety railings” designed to prevent motorcycles from leaving the track and crashing into the grandstands. Promotors, losing riders to other sports, formed the American League of Professional Motorcycling Clubs, whose aim was to function like a baseball league, with eight cities hosting ten-man teams of salaried riders who would travel the circuit and put on exhibition races. But top riders balked at the low salaries and limited prize money, and the safety railings themselves proved fatal to the riders, killing several in the first year they were employed.

Legends of speed at the LA Stadium in 1912: Joe Wolters, Jake DeRosier, and Charles Balke. [Emde]
Worse followed. On July 30, 1913, at Lagoon Motordrome in Ludlow, Kentucky – the home stadium for nearby Cincinnati -- racer Odin Johnson blew a tire and lost control of his motorcycle. Rider and machine flew off the banked track, into a crowd of spectators, exploding Johnson’s gas tank along the way. Odin was killed instantly and nine others, including a five-year-old boy, were burned to death in the ensuing conflagration. The newspapers weighed in, assailing the operators of the “Murderdromes.”  With increasingly bad publicity, several manufacturers, including Indian, began to ease away from the sport. Entrepreneurs stopped opening new tracks – in all, by Emde’s count, 28 banked ovals and circles were built – and the fan base diminished. Some racers took up dirt track racing, or switched to automobile racing. Some promoters started building car racing tracks. And when war broke out in Europe in 1914, some of the top stars either enlisted in the U.S. Army or joined Canadian or English forces fighting overseas.

Racer Ray Creviston in 1914 with his Excelsior Super X board track special: with no suspension, no brakes, and a very short wheelbase, these track cycles were extremely light and treacherous to ride on the greasy boards, with rock-hard tires. [Paul Derkum collection]
Emde has done a masterful job of telling the story – four years in the making -- using more than a thousand photographs, newspaper clippings, newspaper and magazine cartoons, personal letters and journals, posters, postcards and advertising materials to illustrate what he calls “the rise and fall of motordrome racing.” It’s a thrilling and heartbreaking story, well told.  It also won the Motor Press Guild Best Book of 2019 award, presented at the Petersen Museum: this is the first time a motorcycle book has won the award! The book is available through the author’s imprint, for $75 plus shipping, at this link: Emde Books.

 

 

Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.”  Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.

Heiwa Motorcycle and Kengo Kimura

By Charles Fleming

 
The rain began to fall just as I stepped into the door of Heiwa Motorcycle, a dimly lit, overstocked, two-story industrial space on a narrow spit of land near the port of Hiroshima. The sky outside had a heavy, ominous look. The oncoming rain was the beginning of a monsoon storm that would eventually force millions of western Japanese residents to evacuate their homes, and cause flooding that would take more than 225 lives. Inside, Heiwa workers were choosing strategic locations for metal pans to catch the water finding its way through the corrugated metal roof, and moving racks of vintage clothes and shelves of collectible Thermos bottles, lunchboxes, plates and cups that Heiwa stocks in its cluttered second-floor second-hand store.

Kengo Kimura of Heiwa Motorcycles of Hiroshima, Japan [Charles Fleming]
Kengo Kimura, though, was calm and cheerful when he arrived. Heiwa’s founder and designer sat comfortably on a ratty sofa, flanked by walls of vintage signs and posters, wearing a black Heiwa T-shirt and green camo pants. Under gentle reggae music, sipping iced coffee and stroking his goatee, the Heiwa founder talked freely about building custom bikes – one of which, “Dirty Pigeon,” is part of the Custom Revolution exhibit underway until March 2019 at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum.

A vintage Triumph sports a period American desert-sled style [Charles Fleming]
Born in Hiroshima, of parents and grandparents also born in the port city, Kimura studied economics at the University of Hiroshima until a part time job at local motorcycle shop A. Beard derailed his academic interests. Kimura had long owned and done custom work on older British bikes, with a strong preference for Triumphs. But his bosses at A. Beard didn’t share his interest in design. Frustrated after nine years of prepping new bikes and repairing old ones, he opened Heiwa. The company name means “peace,” a paean to his city’s post-nuclear cry for world harmony -- the immense green space at ground zero for the American atomic bomb attack in August, 1945 is called Heiwa Park. The boulevard approaching it is Heiwa Boulevard – and the pigeon is its symbol.

Vintage Triumphs have always been Kimura's favorite, but aren't the only bikes he modifies - note the Ural sidecar outfit. [Charles Fleming]
Kimura’s first Heiwa design was a re-imagined Honda FTR, which got a custom tank, seat, fenders and exhaust pipe. A female customer from Kimura’s previous employer bought it for what he recalled was about Y500,000 – or $4,500. “Very cheap!” Kimura laughs. That was the first of more than 100 projects, by Kimura’s reckoning. About half were “light customs” that got only a fender bob or a paint job. (Pin striping and paint duties are handled by Kimura’s partner Lou, the cheerful, elfin woman who helps manage the business and also runs the vintage shop.) The other half got a fuller treatment, each requiring four to six months of design, engineering and build.

A series of Heiwa machines of all varieties on display in their showroom [Charles Fleming]
Kimura and Heiwa enjoyed local acclaim early on. National and international attention followed. Kimura began entering bikes into the annual Moon Eyes Hot Rod custom show in Yokohama, Japan. Bike EXIF noticed, and began tracking the designer’s efforts. In 2016, his “Masterpeace,” built from a 1968 Triumph TR6, was named Best in Show.

A Yamaha single on the workbench, beside a pair of Triumph T20 Triumph Cub motors [Charles Fleming]
The following year Kimura entered his “Dirty Pigeon”, featuring a 1971 TR6 engine slung inside a highly modified frame and adored with custom tank, seat, swingarm and exhaust system. Gleaming chrome accents a deep gray color scheme. Modified Paioli forks support a subtle headlamp bracket and custom triple clamp, a masterwork of creative compression. “Dirty Pigeon” won the top Yokohama honors for 2017, and sealed Kimura’s reputation.

Inside the workshop: it's hard to imagine such immaculate work comes from such a funky warehouse, but Heiwa's bikes win global acclaim [Charles Fleming]
Tucked under a tarp at the rear of Kimua’s dimly-lit shop was the 2018 entry, a derelict BMW R75/6. “It’s top secret,” Kimura said with a twinkle in his eye, then removed the tarp to reveal a highly engineered re-imagining of the 1978 airhead. Kimura’s creations – whether they began life as a Kawasaki W650, Suzuki GZ125, Yamaha SR500 or vintage Triumph, Norton or Matchless – share essential design elements. The tanks are angular tear drops. The exhaust systems are long and lean. The bobbed frames and fenders are reductive and elegantly simple. “When I customize a motorcycle, the most important thing is the line,” Kimura said. “I design the bike so that it does not go down or go up. That is my style.” Now 44, married and the father of three, Kimura splits his time between the Hiroshima garage and his home in Hatzukaichi, near the famed temple city of Miyajima. When he’s not in the shop or tending to his family, the designer sneaks off to race vintage MX at a nearby track. A Honda Elsinore and Maico 250, stored in a corner, still featured flecks of dried mud from their last outing.

A vintage Maico 250 motocrosser sees regular use [Charles Fleming]
The top secret BMW already had a new owner. The Yokohama entry would go on to a Chinese buyer who owns a private BMW museum. Other machines were still available. Leading his visitor through the work bays, past an elderly basset hound hiding from the dripping rain, up to a second-floor showroom, Kimura showed off custom reworkings of 70s Triumphs, 80s Suzukis, 90s Yamahas and even a Harley-Davidson 250 from the Aermacchi era. None bore a price tag, but Kimura said the 250cc customs were going for Y700,000 while the 750cc creations cost upwards of Y1,300,000 – a range of roughly $6,200 to $12,000 – or higher.

Lou (Ryo) is a pinstriper, and minds the vintage store upstairs in the Heiwa shop [Charles Fleming]
Kimura has no trouble sourcing parts locally for the Japanese brands, and can do custom Harleys using nearby suppliers. But vintage brands, especially the British ones, require more effort. He relies on helpers in England and the U.S. – and keeps a container ready in a downtown Los Angeles industrial space – to locate base bikes for those projects. When he begins a design, he said, he does not draw. Indeed, there seemed to be no drafting table or drawing area anywhere in the cozy workspace. “I only imagine,” he said. Often the look begins with the tank. He generally borrows one from a junked Japanese model, even if it’s going to end up atop a vintage European base bike.

The Heiwa team [Charles Fleming]
Kimura, a team player, said repeatedly that his operation would not function without helpers. When it was time to say goodbye, the Heiwa honcho gathered his team outside for a photograph. Mechanics Daisuke Noda and Makoto Konishi, pin striper Lou and trainee Eikan posed in front of the Heiwa headquarters, during a short break in the storm, while Kimura asked a passerby to take the picture. Then the team went back to work and it started raining again.

 

Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.”  Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.