Spotlight: Henry Balfour and his "Weasel"

r90s smoke.jpg

How did you get started with motorcycles – how/when did you learn to ride, and what was your first bike?: 1970 - BSA C15s

What bikes do you currently own? Are they riders or projects?: BMW R1200GS

What is your most memorable motorcycle trip or adventure?: "For A Few Dollars More....."

 In 1974, when I was riding a BSA 500 single around London, all I could want in a motorcycle was summed by the letters R90s - but the ask was over 2000 pounds, and may as well have been the Crown Jewels to me. The police in England had been issued BMW /6 series bikes, and a friend was working for the concessionaires in West London; he got the use of the press bikes and dealer demo machines, and I hung on his every word. His review of the R90s was somewhat coloured by a weekend in Devon, when he stuffed one through a dry stone wall (and walked away!) but the bike was, and remains, a truly exciting ride. He slid me in the back door and I slid out again with a 75/6 police demonstrator - it took every penny I could borrow.

Plenty of motorheads feel that the big Bee Emms are somehow tame, or even ‘safe’; you know the stereotype - older men and the nerveless city worker. This is rubbish, in fact a dangerous misunderstanding of the range of riders using the Bavarian boxer. In my long-time association with the brand I’ve seen them all, including several high milers owned by the TNT (tats & no teeth) mob. Bee Emms can go hard, if that’s what you want, and they all go for a very long time if you keep them out of the rockery.

The release of the R90s was a marketing bombshell in 1973 - all Bee Emms before then had been black - unless you were a policeman, in which case they were white (symbolic associations?). The factory went well out on a limb with the hand-applied two-tone paint job and pin striping on the S model. In his 1977 book "Bahnstormer", L.J.K.Setright tells it in typically dry fashion.....

" As far as the world at large was concerned, the R90s showed the flag for BMW. Its idiosyncratic appearance confirms this intention: this was the first BMW to enjoy the attention of a stylist, when a new position was created in the motorcycle division for that kind of industrial designer and a newcomer called Hans Muth was brought in from Ford to fill it. His was the little fairing, the luxurious seat, the instrumentation (complete with a fine clock); and his was the very fancy air-brushed paint scheme that made every S a different, hand-finished, unique motorcycle. For Muth it was a tentative start; what was to follow was literally and figuratively of much greater moment."

Indeed. And what he did next was employ wind tunnel resources to produce the world’s first fully faired production tourer – in the R100 – It was a benchmark of practicality for its day. He also foisted the R45 and R65 onto the market, the former to no great fame, but the latter getting hard-won praise from mechanics who worked on them as the sweetest town Bee Emm ever. Unknown to Setright at the time he wrote, was the career move by Muth over to Suzuki, where he produced a triumph of design in the Katana; the best looking Jap bike of that decade and a touchstone for the Nippon big four ever since.

Whatever the rest of the world was thinking in 1974, I was definitely hard for a smoke silver S, and it took until 1991, when I bought the Weasel, to scratch that itch. The bike was hacking around Nice, on the South coast of France, and had been whored-up with an aerosol respray, but there were signs of maintenance under all that urban camouflage, so I laid out the price and rode away.

How can you account for the feel of a 90s? It has, for me, to be in the big bore Dell’Orto carburettors that give heart to the mill; sure there is a hotter cam in there and a compression increase too but nothing puts hair on the arms like an accelerator pump delivering neat petrol into the intake charge. It’s instructive to remember that the Germans could only get the 90s to market in the form desired by grafting on some Italian soul. The cam is lumpy at idle, and the carbs have a large enough bore to make air flow lower than optimum at idle, but it walks off in first or second without a whimper. Plenty of pub mechanics push the line that Dell’Ortos are a hassle to setup...... I use a set of German flow meters got with the 75/6 in London to balance the intakes, and when done right they are hard to break (except that pitiful aluminium capnut under the float bowl). The redline of this engine actually does deliver, unlike its Bing-fed brothers that won’t run any harder when revved out. The engine breathes well once 3500 revs are up, and all of the rest of the range up to 7000 is functional. The chassis is long and the bike is thin by modern standards, with rake and trail giving straight line stability. The European ‘flats’ place my body in near-perfect relationship to the controls and the airstream. I also ride a US spec R100 as a commuter, equipped with those ‘Texas Longhorn’ handlebars demanded by the Yanks - it’s good to see that the US specification R90s bikes were still supplied with those lovely ‘flats’ - anything else was just plain wrong for this machine.

Out of the box, this was a superb high speed sports tourer; the production run totalled 17,455 bikes between 1973 and 1976. Factory records show mine was number 847, leaving Berlin in November 1973, and first rego was at Cannes in February 1974. This early in the production life several points should be noted; the flywheel ‘stretch’ bolts were undersized, and some lucky owners won a 10 pound flywheel frisbee, also the front axle was not rigid enough, with a mean 14mm diameter. The gearbox was the new 5 speed, and its bearing seats were under-webbed, leading to flex and failure. I didn’t look into my clutch and gearbox - at least not until the layshaft popped its bearings going up the Lot river valley in France, denying me 3rd and 5th gear. The Weasel was then christened from the nursery rhyme "...that’s the way the money goes, pop goes the weasel." after the huge amount of damage done to my credit card in a workshop at Perigueux.

That summer in England during 1991 was a blur of hedgerows and villages as I got around the friends and family abandoned in 1977. The Weasel was re-sprayed with Standox paint in smoke silver, a cracked swingarm replaced, heads re-conditioned, a set of drilled discs fitted and a pair of Krauser panniers was (reluctantly) installed to give us some tourability. Evie was my squeeze at the time, and since we were not yet married she was still keen to show loyalty by indulging my whims - in this case a 15,000 Km roll around the European Economic Community. We kicked off in July with a lunatic run from Kent down to St. Tropez in one day, averaging around 90 mph two-up and loaded well beyond the manuals polite suggestion of 398Kg max. Luckily the Bol D’Or 24hour race was on that weekend, and we were invisible among the thousands of equally lunatic French sex-bike riders swarming down the route South for a happy race-and-riot break away from suburbia.

The load was definitely a worry, and while any Bee Emm can be overloaded and then beaten like the family mule, the rider needs to re-calculate some of his usual cornering vectors. At times like this the rubber frame syndrome (often discussed by R series survivors) becomes a problem. As Clint says, " ...a man’s got to know his limitations." I certainly found mine with the Weasel, in fact on one memorable morning in the Italian Alps we did an unrepeatable downhill ‘three point turn’, on a hairpin looking over a thousand foot drop, using the left-hand cylinder head as the third point. Pillions never know how close they sometimes come, do they. The top speed of a 90s is a genuine 128 mph; this is still totally respectable today, and in 1973 was everyone’s boast, but only a few could show it. The Weasel was not only good for it, she ran close to the max for mile after fabulous mile on wide, sunny Autoroute one, frightening the sex-bikes and my girlfriend, but giving me that speed-rush glow. We reached the sea well after dark, and I slept with the grin still on.

The constraints of two-up touring with all the trimmings are second nature to a Bee Emm, even this high stepping sports bike. I pounded the engine without mercy, the roads were often appalling and sometimes high enough to make us light headed from lack of oxygen (Col de la Bonnette, where the bones of the earth show through its skin) but still the boxer sang its whip-song. The tool roll I put together before crossing the Channel got plenty of action. I fiddled with the steering head bearing tension most days (a precise torque setting required but impossible) in a foolish attempt to lose the quiver at some speeds, and I fiddled with the tune on the Dell’Orto’s, more for enjoyment than necessity. Days passed and respect for the Weasel grew, weeks passed and the pleasure of starting the beast up in the morning was always there. Apart from water entry into the float bowls (Ah Ha, no rubber boots on the cable ends!) I never once felt the tug of resistance to my throttle hand, while fuel usage, often better than 50 miles per gallon, was astounding for such hard work.

In Rotterdam, a skull city if ever I saw one, some snapperhead ripped both front indicators clean off their stalks and carried them away to its nest (and this was while parked inside an apartment block!)

When winter came around I crated and shipped the Weasel back with us; I wanted to get the bike sorted out in my own time, and planned a rebuild when I got the opportunity. This came, (as God likes to keep me on my toes) when the R100 took me for a dancing lesson through some gravel on the centreline of the North Ryde Crematorium corner on Delhi Road. One shoulder was dislocated and the other arm broke, but somehow Casualty at RNS hospital managed to diagnose me as only bruised and sent me home with a packet of Panadol Forte. Brooding about this led to the realisation that everything that broke on the R100 during the tango was available for cannibalisation from the Weasel, and would remove non-standard parts from the R90s that were due to be replaced anyway.

Once the Weasel was installed in the sunroom it was stripped and the R100 was rebuilt from the parts. I ordered a massive delivery from Moto-Bins in England (30% under local prices on average, plus they source hard-to-gets from original contractors in Germany, highly recommended.) and put out various sub-contracts around town. Pete Smith at Epicycle balanced and lightened the flywheel, a job I would encourage any /6 or /7 owner to do, and he cleaned up the heads, catching and welding up a hairline crack in the left one. The wheels were re-laced with stainless spokes, and trued to a C-hair (I also found that wheel bearings "replaced" and paid for in England were *not* new; - I hope you die poor and alone Andrew). Wetspray was redone on the fairing and front guard by Alan Keed, a top bloke who understands paint and pin stripes, and chassis parts were powder coated in gloss black. Anodising and plating were done only after I studied original brochures to get the right finishes on all the fiddly bits, and wreckers all over Australia learnt my name as I hunted down cast metal indicator bodies, original Boge shockies (for their aluminium shrouds) and early series levers and switchgear. All in all a most satisfying several months was spent getting it right, blueprinting the chassis and motor and refinishing components rather than buying new. All instruments except the volt meter were serviced and re-calibrated by Dennis Quinlan at KTT, who keeps spares for Moto Meter (and nearly anything else). Incidentally the steering havoc noted in Europe turned out to be a twisted lower fork yoke trying to put the tip of the left stanchion 6mm in front of the right one, and wasn’t helped by the worn steering damper having 10 mm of free un-damped travel.

I wanted what I saw back on the showroom floor in 1974, and to be accurate I have not ‘restored’ the Weasel, I re-manufactured it. The end result was a surprise, even to me. Firing up on the first button then ripping down to the petrol station for a tank of Super wasn’t the best of it; that came on an extended run, when I found all the vices muted or gone and every function, from brake lever to filler cap, crisp and tight.

This sort of pleasure needs to be shared. I had hoped to attend the Queensland release of the R1100 and enter in the Concourse competition; but my first baby daughter, Cashan, was weeks away from delivery and so I stayed home instead. It would have won its class, so I didn’t need to go anyway eh? The relationship at home seems to be comfortable; the R100 is the wife, and I love her for the duty she does without complaint - but the 90s is my girlfriend, for fun at odd times when I can get away and just looking at her makes me grin.

Every time the leg goes over it’s all fresh and new. That’s got to be worth a few dollars more.

 

P.S.

Since one of you purists would spot the following, I’ll save you the phone call. Tinted screen perspex from France, braided steel brake lines, and stainless spokes are all non-standard. The fuel taps are wrong for the year, too. (Missed that one, didn’t ya.)