It was late March and, along with the rest of the country, Dave Lee was eight days into the government’s coronavirus lockdown.
Spring was in the air and the sun was shining, but a non-essential ride on the BMW R50/2 he’s owned since 1975 was off the agenda, let alone an even less essential photoshoot. Both would have to wait, as it turned out until late June.
But we could still chat on the phone, and it was a good time to spend an hour or so reminiscing about life with a bike that still raises a smile after more than 40 years.
Dave was serving as a telegraphist for the RAF in Holland when he bought the BMW for 2,000 Dutch Guilders, equivalent to about £320, to get him the 17km from home to the NATO base at Brunssum.
He had been stationed in Holland since January ’75 and, when his wife Maggie joined him in May, she encouraged him to answer an advert for the BMW in the local military base newspaper.
Desperate for transport
“I did have a car in the pipeline, but it was temporarily unavailable, so I was rather desperate to get my hands on some transport,” says Dave, 72 in July.
“When the advertisement for the BMW came up, I happened to say to my wife ‘they are brilliant bikes, lovely, I wouldn’t mind having one of those’.
“She said ‘go and have a look at it’. It’s the biggest mistake she ever made!”
The 1962 R50/2 – which was already 13 years old – has been with him ever since.
“I’ve never thought about selling it,” he says. “When I ride it I feel at peace, really relaxed and at home on it. It just makes me smile.
“It’s been a bargain”
“I’ve certainly had my money’s worth out of it, even with the cost of later modifications like semi electronic ignition and a conversion to 12 volts. It’s been a bargain.”
Born in Hampshire in 1948, Dave moved with his family to Hull at the age of five, and followed his father and older brother into the RAF on leaving school aged 15 (and a half).
“It wasn’t a family tradition as such, it just seemed a decent choice and it turned out to be,” he says, working in communications covering everything from teleprinters to morse code.
“Sometimes I’d be working at the Ministry of Defence five floors underground the main building, other times it was sat in the back of a Land Rover in the Middle East.”
From Borneo to Holland
His first posting was to Borneo and Singapore, before moving on to the Middle East, just north of Dubai, which “didn’t look anything like it does today”, and then on to three years on Holland.
Along the way, he met Maggie, who was living and working on the base at RAF Northolt.
“We started going out with each other on the night Ted Heath got elected,” he remembers, on June 19, 1970.
At the time, Dave was riding a BSA A10 with a double adult Busmar sidecar, having graduated from his first bike, a 1965 Honda CB160 bought when he was 17.
“I was more off the Honda than on it,” he says. “If I rode around bends in the damp I would end up on my side most times, so I changed it for something more stable.”
The BSA with sidecar, which turned the bike into a four-seater with a pillion, “reduced the chances of me falling off!’
Took a lot of skill
“It looked like it could be good fun, but it took a lot of skill to ride it,” he says, remembering the Saturday morning he picked it up from King’s of Oxford.
“I had to ride it across Oxford on market day, and the guy who sold it to me was really worried about me riding it away.
“He wanted the engineer to take it to the ring road and let me out on the dual carriageway, but I said ‘I’ll be all right…’”
He was all right, just about.
“The ride is completely different from a motorcycle,” he explains. “You can’t just accelerate because the bike will go round the sidecar, and as soon as you shut the throttle off and brake, the sidecar comes around the bike, like a snake going from one side of the road and back again, terrifying car drivers and pedestrians.
“But within a week I could ride it with one hand. As long as you survived that time to get your coordination right, you were fine.
“A pulling machine!”
“It was a pulling machine, that was! I had the sidecar when I met my wife, and she was all right with it. In fact, better than when she’s in a car because I could not hear her!”
The sidecar was dispensed with in 1971, and the A10 was replaced by a VW Beetle early the following year before the couple tied the knot in late 1972.
“I didn’t really like four wheels, even though it was winter – it felt boring,” says Dave. “I liked the Beetle as a car, and I’d have rather have had both but we couldn’t afford it.”
The Beetle didn’t accompany Dave and Maggie to Holland, when one summer’s day around his 27th birthday he made the fateful trip to view the BMW R50/2.
“The son of a German Army Colonel was selling it, as his father was returning to Germany,” he says. “It was love at first sight, with the bike and not the son.
“The young lad told me it had suffered a major engine failure, but the work had been done at the local BMW agent, Notten BMW, right next to the base.
“I checked with the man there and he said there’s nothing wrong with that bike, and there’s still four months’ warranty left on the work.”
Long and happy relationship
Dave parted with his money, and rode the bike home, the start of a long and happy relationship.
BMW’s /2 (“slash-two”) twin-cylinder line, was founded on a design that went back to 1950, which itself was based on pre-war motorcycles.
The 500cc R50/2 was introduced in 1960, alongside its bigger brother, the 600cc R60/2, and became renowned for its reliability, stability and comfort, ideal for long-distance riders.
At its heart was a version of Max Friz’s shaft driven boxer twin, with strengthened crankshafts, camshafts and clutch assemblies, while the revolutionary Earles forks promoted extreme stability and zero drive under braking.
It all added up to an ultra-rugged machine that would go on to carry Dave all over Europe, both in his RAF days and, later, on tours through France with BMW MOA French Connection.
But first, he recalls learning a valuable lesson about the bike from a young woman at Notten BMW.
“Just after I got the bike I thought I’d change the oil, so I went into the BMW agent’s shop, and a young woman was behind the counter,” he says.
“I asked for 5-litres of Castrol GTX. ‘What are you using it for?’ she said. ‘The old R50’, I said.
“I thought she was going to kill me!”
“I thought she was going to kill me! ‘Do not use multigrade oil in that engine,’ she said. ‘All the bikes that have problems are down to the multigrade oil, you’ve got to use E40 mono and nothing else.’ I said ‘I’ll have five litres of that then please’.
“Every time I change oil I always hear her words and I’ve been running on 40W ever since and never had any problems. I’ve never had to strip the engine down.”
While in Holland, Dave used the bike to get to the base at Brunssum, and touring parts of Germany and Belgium.
“I would go around the local countryside in the South Limburg area, and into Germany to fill up with petrol because it was cheaper there” he says. “They still had border guards in those days, and they’d just look at you and wave you through.
“One day I was wandering around the countryside down near Maastricht and ended up in Belgium and I thought ‘shit, I haven’t got my passport or any ID on me’. I gingerly went through the border crossing, and didn’t see anybody. I think they must have been having a coffee break!”
The car the couple had been after finally became available, but beforehand Maggie made a couple of nervy journeys as a pillion on the BMW.
“We nearly ended up in a skip,” laughs Dave. “I was riding on the right coming down the road and saw some lights on a skip. I leaned to the left, she leaned to the right and we went straight on!
“Thankfully, the brakes worked with two of us up and I was eventually able to steer around it. But that put her off.
“When we got the car, she used to drive it and I kept using the bike, even in the winter. It was great.”
Dave and a pregnant Maggie returned to England just before Christmas in 1977, the bike coming with them in the back of a van.
“I had already paid for it, it was mine, and I was either going to sell it for peanuts – nobody was wanting the old bikes – or keep it,” he says.
“If I had sold it I might not have got permission to get another one! Maggie lets one thing slip and I have to take advantage…”
When he bought the BMW, it lost its original Dutch registration number in favour of a NATO number plate and, on entering the UK, it was subject to a further change, as was a one-year-old VW Golf which also accompanied the couple home.
“It was easier than I expected, but unfortunately I ended up with a 1977/78 plate, but that was not a major issue for me,” says Dave.
“I ended up with YFW 646S (Golf) and YFW 647S for the bike, and there was probably more street cred in that than having age-appropriate plates!
“It always confuses people. They come up to me and say ‘this isn’t a ‘77 bike, it’s older than that’. I tell them it’s also left hand drive. They think I’m mad but I point down to the right hand side where the mountings are for a sidecar…”
Dave left the RAF, after 15 years’ service, in 1978, the same year daughter Geraldine was born, and got a job working for Post Office telephones, later British Telecom.
While Maggie had long-since shied away from riding pillion, Geraldine was incredibly keen to get on two wheels.
“I used to go to bike rallies and she must have been about three and a half when she said she really wanted to go with me to this rally,” says Dave.
“I said ‘no, you can’t, I can’t carry you’. She argued so much I went to the police station and asked what’s the gen on having kids on the back of a bike?
“They said they can go on at any age as long as they can reach the pedals and wear a helmet. I thought ‘bloody hell’.”
Dave set about modifying the R50, attaching some adjustable footrests harvested from a Dutch pedal bike that had made the trip with them to their new home in Lincolnshire.
Like father like daughter
“They were just the right length to fit on the bike, so that’s what I used,” he says. “She was a fantastic pillion rider, although she did used to fall asleep sometimes, which was a bit scary, but she never fell off.
“If I was going out for a ride, I had to take her out with me. She now lives in America, and she’s riding motorcycles now over there – a Victory, the same as her husband.”
For many years, Dave would use the BMW for work and attending steam and classic bike rallies, although he says he usually ended up “standing around and talking rather than riding”.
In 1993, he was invited to a “70 Years of BMW Bikes” festival in Normandy, so invested in a tent, sleeping bag etc and set off for France.
“It was a wonderful long weekend, and the bike behaved wonderfully, even when it was fully loaded with camping gear,” he remembers, travelling further afield in subsequent years, wherever the French Connection rally took him.
“It was the sheer pleasure of riding the French roads – the quality of the roads. Going round the Dordogne was out of this world, the scenery. We always found really nice places to go.
“The rally would start a few days before Ascension Thursday, and the locals really appreciated it as we rode through France.
“We’d go past farm houses and through villages, and everybody is standing outside waving us on, waving at us rather than trying to wave us off!
“The Police were out in force, getting their holiday pay, and they’d try to get you with speed traps set up outside small towns and villages.
“But it was great because the bike is whisper quiet. Nearly every time, I would ride past a group of Gendarmes, deep in conversation and not hearing my exhaust note, just in time to get a wave as I passed by. Sometimes, I even got a salute from some of them.
“It used to amaze my MoT guy. He’d ride off down the lane and say ‘it’s so quiet it’s unbelievable’, not like a Norton or a Triumph.”
Every year between 1993 and 2000, the R50/2 would complete its annual, trouble-free run to France, as far south as the Dordogne, as well as various UK-based tours.
But in 1998 Dave bought a 1980 BMW R80/7RS with a one-off paint job, not to replace the R50 but to complement it, and in 2001 it was this bike that took the trip to France.
“I really got the R80 for a rat bike so I could take the pressure off the 500,” he says. “But on the France rallies it was getting embarrassing winning the prize for the oldest bike every year, so in 2001 I took the R80 to just the other side of Lyon.
“Every year I’d have to bring back a trophy. Some of them were quite big, including a full size plate – how the hell do I get that back?!”
He was back on the 1962 bike from 2002 to 2004.
“The old bike was just that more fun, more comfortable and more pleasurable to ride, it also appeared to be more Gendarme friendly,” he says.
Talking of comfort takes Dave back to riding the BSA A10, and painfully long road trips to see Maggie before they were married.
“I could only do about 50 miles at a time,” he says. “First stop would always be at this garage just outside Biggleswade that used to be a roadside cafe. I’d pull into the car park, stand on the bike to get the circulation back to my legs, get my leg over to put it on the stand and walk like an old cowboy and there’d be a sandwich and a coffee waiting for me because I was a regular customer.
“My legs would just go to sleep, it was the saddle I think. Every time I look at one now I can feel numbness starting in my legs!
“But I can sit on the BMW all the way through 150 or 170 miles and I can just put the bike on the stand and walk around without dragging my knuckles on the ground.”
By the time the 2005 rally came around, Dave had added a third BMW to his roster, a 2002 R1150R, which has been his main long-distance workhorse ever since.
But the R50 is still the go-to bike for a leisurely ride around the Lincolnshire countryside, and is the one Dave would hold on to if he could only keep one.
“I like them all but they serve different purposes,” he says. “If I just wanted to go out around the country lanes and smile the old R50 does it because it’s such a cracker.
“A pleasure to ride”
“She is such a pleasure to ride and I use that on my annual British rallies. Last year, I had a really pleasant ride down the full length of the Fosse Way to just outside Yeovilton.
“The motor just burbled along with the bike fully loaded and I had to keep winding it down to keep within the speed limits.
“I have to keep the R50 – it’s the last one I’d sell, apart from anything else I can well and truly reach the floor on it.”
BMW’s motorbikes have never been as overwhelmingly popular as its cars, with some Beemer-driving motorists seemingly unaware they even exist.
Dave has become so used to the “I didn’t realise they made bikes” comments, he sometimes pre-empts them.
“If somebody parks up next to me in a BMW car, I say ‘oh heck, I didn’t realise they made cars too’,” he jokes. “I definitely think you’ve got to be a lover of the marque to appreciate them.”
As for the bike’s ultimate destination, Dave ponders whether Geraldine might one day want to keep hold of it.
“I think she might do for sentimental reasons, because that’s what started her off on her motorcycling career as such,” he says.
For now, Dave is looking forward to covering many more miles, with accompanying smiles, on the bike that means so much.
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