Second R27 on a trip in June of 2004, five years and 6,000 miles after restoration

Slideshow of this R27 in 2012, thirteen years and 9,000 miles after restoration:

2012 video of another R27 being ridden in Germany:

1966 BMW R27
Ser. No.  386 436

"From a basket case to a beauty"

Would you like to find a basket case for almost nothing and turn it into a bike that is better than new? With time, energy, money, and a gifted BMW restoration expert handy, it can be done.

 1 - FIRST R27




R27 in Carcasonne, France, June 1966



My first BMW R27 motorcycle was delivered "ex-factory" on a drizzly day in May of 1966. I got out of a taxi and walked across a gravel lot to a low brick building with an overhead door. Inside, my bike was sitting in a row of other US-spec bikes waiting for their owners to ride them away. A manager in a smock gave me some instructions and a free tank of gas from the pump in the lot, and I rode out onto the slick cobblestones and trolley tracks of Munich on my first motorcycle. The bike went 4,000 miles all over Europe on back roads until I shipped it to New York.

R27 in Louisville, August 1966

 Then it went to Maine, home to Louisville for the rest of the summer and then back to Philadelphia where I was in graduate school, accumulating 8,000 miles by Fall. The next year it had reached 18,000 miles when it was mothballed while I went to sea in the Navy. By this time, BMW had discontinued the R27 250cc singles. In the Spring of my second year of service, I came home on leave and traded it to the BMW dealer on Crittenden Drive in Louisville, KY for a new /5 twin. The trade-in allowance was exactly what I had paid for it, $600. Over the next 30 years I watched the R27 become scarcer and costlier, and I wanted to find my old bike or another one like it.

 2 - SECOND R27  


Second R27 as found at the beach in 1985

Second R27 arriving home in 1998

    In 1985, Tom Sutherland of the Lexington, KY Bluegrass Beemers was touring the Outer Banks coast of North Carolina on his BMW, stopped for lunch, and heard a local man say there was an old BMW under a nearby house. Tom made a deal for the bike and later trailered it to Lexington where he disassembled it. Over the next ten years he collected a few parts for it, and in 1996 he sold the basket case to a friend, Brent Rowell of Lexington. Brent's hobby was restoring old lamps and small machines, and he wanted to try a motorcycle. By 1998 Brent evidently realized the job was more difficult and expensive than he had thought, and was about to sell the basket case in the Vintage News when I learned of it. It takes a leap of faith to buy a basket case in boxes in a dark basement - faith in the seller that it was all there, and faith that I could complete the restoration. The price was right and I didn't want to search any more, so we loaded everything into my truck and I took it home to Louisville.


R27 stacked in the basement
 A useful tool in the restoration was an Excel spreadsheet to list all the parts needed, their part numbers, and their costs. The spreadsheet was used to build a list of the parts that would be needed, their sources and prices, and what more parts were needed. Over the months the spreadsheet grew from a rough one-page projection to eleven pages of detail. Another useful item was the website catalog of Mark Huggett GmbH in Switzerland. Huggett is licensed by BMW to sell, have made, or make themselves all the parts for the older bikes, and their website allows searching and shopping in a huge database of parts for BMWs from the 1950's to the 1970's. Taking stock of the bike indicated that parts and manuals actually retailed for the full price of the bike, making the bike itself free. But the spreadsheet projection also indicated that the cost of a complete restoration would be more than twice what an unrestored R27 in good condition would cost. This was because inspection in good light revealed that the salty beach air had so badly corroded every part of the bike, that if a part was not big enough to restore, the part had to be replaced. The final cost was within $500 of that initial projection.


Old rusty wheel rims could not be restored
 The salty air had fed voraciously. When the rubber knee pads were removed from the tank, large holes appeared where moisture had been trapped against the metal. The axles were deeply bitten, except where they were protected inside the wheels. The muffler had rusted open and was discarded before I bought the bike. The chrome on the wheels had completely peeled off. The bench seat was rotted and disintegrating. The motor and transmission castings were oxidized almost black. The fenders did not look bad, but what looked like minor rust turned into lacy holes when bead blasted. Bad as it looked, I figured it was still better to start a restoration with a worthless pile of junk, than to pay a couple of thousand for a ratty bike and have to disassemble it before beginning the same restoration and reuse some less than perfect parts.


 The Earles fork had been separated from the frame but not disassembled. I found out why when I tried to remove the pivot shaft, which is similar to an axle and joins the fork to the leading link that holds the wheel. The pivot would back out of its threaded end, but would then become stuck in the leading link and no amount of torque and pounding would budge it. I left the whole fork at St. Matthews Imports for a couple of days and they were able to remove the pivot with more brute force. The bearings had rusted and jammed together, and the forcible removal of the pivot shaft caused the remains of the bearings to gouge deep grooves in the shaft. This didn't matter because I intended to order a new stainless steel Earles pivot. I took the freed-up leading link home to remove the bearings from each end, and found they were welded with age into the metal of the leading link. After much careful pounding and prying with what rods and special tools I had, I got one seal out but could not budge the bearings, so I gave up and returned to St. Matthews Imports for assistance. With all their tools and force, they were able to remove the other bearing seal, but not the bearing races. In desperation, I took the leading link to Guenther Wuest, a BMW restorer in Fredericksburg IN. Guenther studied the situation for a moment, and then proceeded to lead me to understand the solution that he foresaw. He explained that the races were made of a harder steel than the metal of the leading link that held them. He asked why the races were harder, and I finally guessed: more carbon in them. He then asked what we should do about the carbon to get the races out, and I said it would be nice to remove the carbon. Yes, he said, if carbon could be removed, the races should lose some mass, become smaller, and be removable. How, then, would I remove the carbon? Mentally exhausted by this cross-examination of my poor scientific knowledge, I finally said something about needing lots of heat: melt them down in the blast furnace that made them. Guenther then wheeled out an arc welding machine, touched the arc for a moment four times around the bearing race, and pointed everything toward the floor. The immovable race fell out and tinkled on the concrete. It took another few seconds to do the other race.

 6 - FRAME
 I asked a dealer in St Louis who does restorations whether the frame should be painted or powder coated. Powder coating is done by applying plastic dust to the electrically charged metal frame, then fusing the plastic at 400 degrees into a hard coating. The dealer said they preferred painting because it could be touched up and repainted, while powder coating could not. Guenther favored powder coating because it was so hard a hammer would not chip it, and also maybe because he knew a powder coater with a big bead blaster. I chose powder coating because the other frames in Guenther's shop looked so good, and it was a lot cheaper and more convenient to powder coat than to find a painter who would blast and paint the frame. I took the frame to Guenther, but he quickly noted that the frame had a little upward bend in one of the lower tubes. Guenther put the frame on its centerstand, and only one side of the frame rested on the stand, indicating it really was bent. We wondered if it was normal or damage, but could not imagine how the frame could get bent under the motor. I looked at another person's R27 frame, and it did have a little bend. I emailed Mark Huggett in Switzerland, he measured a few of his new R27 frames, and said a little bend could be normal because the frames were hand made, but the only way to tell if the frame was true was to put it in a jig. My frame had so much of a bend that Guenther decided to jig it. We took the frame to BMW of Louisville and made a contribution to use their jig, which is a huge yoke that pins to the steering head and reaches down to the rear swingarm pivots on each side. Those three fixed points determine the trueness of the frame, and my frame measured true. The bend was therefore cosmetic and fixing it was optional, but Guenther said he could fix it and I said OK. He borrowed a welding torch and a jack, softened the bend in the tube and forced it a quarter inch downward. Later, after the frame was powder coated and the footpegs were installed, Guenther noted that the footpeg where the bend had been was itself bent up. The previous owner had hit a curb with the footpeg, bending both the footpeg and the frame.

 7 - MOTOR
 Everyone agreed that after sitting for decades in old oil and condensation, the bearings would be pitted and the seals hardened. The crankshaft needed to be removed anyway, to clean out the oil slinger mounted on it. The slinger is shaped like a frisbee with a deep curled edge, and functions as a centrifugal filter. The edge holds oil which is slung out of a hole onto the connecting rod bearings, while the sediment in the oil is pressed into the outer edge, After a while, the edge is filled up with goop and allows uncentrifuged dirty oil onto the connecting rod bearings, eventually destroying them. Routine maintenance on the pre-1970 motors included removing the crank every 25,000 miles to clean the slingers and preserve the connecting rod bearings. I took the motor to Guenther to ask about taking it apart. Guenther began removing the crankshaft by using pullers to get the old bearings out, began examining them, and asked me if I wanted him to continue. The job looked half done already, so I decided to have Guenther do everything. He then surprised me by lighting his gas grille, laying my block in it, closing the lid and proceeding to do something else. After 15 nervous minutes, he asked me if I thought the motor was done and I assured him it probably was. Using towels, he placed the motor on the bench, reached inside and withdrew the crank which the hot expanded block had released. Later, he ordered the bearings and I ordered the seals.

 The piston was reported to have possibly been seized in 1975, probably the original reason why the bike was abandoned. Tom Sutherland said it was rusted solid in the cylinder by the time he disassembled it in 1986. Guenther ran a hone with some WD-40 up and down the rusty cylinder for a few minutes and it became shiny and clean. He measured the bore, and it had no wear, supporting the 3,000 miles on the speedometer. But there was a rust pit, wide enough to trap a fingernail and 1/2 inch long, running around the cylinder wall about half way down. Guenther said this pit had to be removed to ensure low oil consumption, and it would take a 2.0 mm over-bore to do it. The US suppliers had first, second and third oversize pistons, but +2.0 mm was fourth oversize. Only Mark Huggett in Switzerland had pistons this large, so it was added to the Huggett area of the parts spreadsheet. In its future life, the bike would never be able to be bored again; on the other hand, its displacement would now increase from 250cc to 275cc.

 9 - HEAD
 The salt air had gotten inside the cylinder head and pitted the aluminum hemisphere of the combustion chamber. This showed after bead blasting, but this would have no effect on the operation. Guenther measured the valves for wear, and slid them up and down the valves guides for feel. There was almost no wear on the valve stems, agreeing with the 3,000 miles, but the tulip of the exhaust valve was a little burned so he recommended replacement of that valve. He recommended the seats be reground with a special multi-angle seat cutter he had. I was hesitant about this regular valve job. I did not want to worry about no-lead gas, valve recession, frequent valve adjustments up under the gas tank, and another valve job within my lifetime. But I said OK, and added a single exhaust valve to the Huggett GmbH order. There were two kinds of valve stems to chose from - old style and new style, so we figured old style was right. When the new valve came, it did not match the other valve; evidently old style meant older than what was in my bike. Rather than send a valve back to Switzerland for its cost in postage, I did what I wanted to do all along - ordered a complete lead free valve kit from Bob's BMW. The new seats, valves and guides were all aftermarket parts made in California of the latest hi-tech metals, treated and hardened by esoteric processes. Guenther said that they might be no better than real BMW parts, but seemed satisfied when I obtained and emailed him the metallic properties.

 The transmission is like a little cast aluminum wastebasket lying on its side, with a cover over the open end which faces to the rear. The front and rear of the transmission case hold the bearings which hold the gear shafts. The transmission is very hard to take apart, requiring force applied by pullers and wrenches, then heat to make the castings expand and release the bearings. Guenther noted that someone had already been into the transmission and had damaged the output shaft using the wrong tools. He had the right tools, removed the bolts holding the rear cover on, and then put the whole transmission in the gas grille while he turned to other tasks. When the smell of hot hypoid oil filled the air, he removed the transmission from the grille and pointed the back cover toward the floor. The cover and everything in the transmission just fell out, many shafts with many gears on each, bearings, shifter forks, and more. What a nightmare - dozens of intricate parts that I could never reassemble myself. Guenther knew each part intimately, reassembled certain shafts to test the shifting, and found a shifter fork was damaged from abuse so it would not throw one gear into place solidly. Shifter forks are almost irreplaceable, but Guenther said on the later /5 models, for a few years only, BMW used a now rare eccentric bolt that could adjust for a bent fork, and he just happened to have one he would part with.

 The basket case came with two Bing carbs, one original and one from a flea market. I combined the best body and parts from both into one passable carb, and sent it to the Bing Agency for a complete cleaning and rebuild. It came back looking like a new carb. The VDO speedometer had an odometer and was calibrated in MPH, with shift points for the R27's gearing. Since salty air had taken all the chrome off the inside the of headlight reflector, I imagined the speedometer innards were rusted solid. I sent it to Palo Alto Speedometer for an assessment, and they said they happened to have the exact gears needed, and that their stock was the last in the world and VDO was not making the parts any more. Their cost of repair was a little more than a new VDO speedo from Huggett GmbH, but the Huggett speedo was in KPH with no odometer and would not be authentic for this bike. I told Palo Alto to proceed. A few weeks later, Palo Alto called to say they did not have a proper face that combined the odometer and the shift point markings, and would have to silk-screen a new face. This was prohibitive, but they agreed that I should not bear the whole cost of a silk-screen they could reuse, so we made a deal. When the speedo finally came it was like new, with a fresh face.

The orginal tank was completely eaten through by rust along the top edge of the right side metal kneepad holder. Guenther said that kits were available in Germany for replacing the sides of R27 gas tanks, but fortunately, a spare gas tank came with the basket case. It had been repainted a metallic blue and been dented, but appeared rust free.

Restored tank and original tank
 Blasting the rust on the rear fender resulted in many perforations, leaving some areas looking like a lace doily. Guenther said he could repaint tanks and fenders but preferred not to, since he was not a body shop or equipped with a real spray booth. I took the parts to Bob Taylor's House of Color, who had done BMW striping ten years ago on my R69S fairing and tank. Bob said they could pull the dent out of the tank without burying the emblem holes in putty, and could repair the fenders by brazing on new metal. To help get the tank striping just right, I left Bob the original tank as a guide. The price he quoted was half what a dealer in another city had quoted for restoring these parts. Two months later, Bob's called to say the job was done. The tank was better than new, with the latest catalyzed urethane paint and more perfect hand striping. The fenders were also like new, except for their undersides where Bob warned that rust could still start. The fenders had rolled edges and many little plates spot welded for reinforcing; rust had formed in these areas and Bob said it would return unless they were treated. So I used toothpicks to run beads of epoxy into and around all these edges, sealing and smoothing them, before spraying the undersides with more black paint.

 14 - WHEELS






 Tim Bond of Wire Wheels

at the trueing stand
 The original wheels had lost most of their chrome, and had deep rust pits. I ordered new German rims from Huggett GmbH, new nipples and R27 spokes from Bobs BMW, and took everything to Tim Bond at Wire Wheels in Versailles. Tim said the nipples should be larger to spread the force better on the rim holes, which meant larger spokes, all of which he had. When I got the wheels back, several problems were apparent that illustrate the difficulties of a restoration. I noticed that the spokes touched and bent each other where they crossed, and the chrome on the rims was flaking off around the nipple holes. The chrome flakes covered the workbench like Christmas tinsel. Tim suggested having the old rims rechromed, saying they would be truer than the repro rims I was using, but KY Plating said the pits could not be completely ground out and hidden. I looked for more new steel R27 rims and could find none in the US. I looked for new R27 alloy rims and could find none in the US or Europe, since all had been made by Akront in Spain who were now out of business. I learned from Huggett that my German rims were actually made in Italy and sold to a German supplier Heumann whose name was stamped inside the rims, and that higher quality rims would cost so much that people would not buy them. I did not want to use the flaking rims, so I removed the spokes and took them to KY Plating to remove and replate the chrome. Tim Bond took back his spokes and nipples, and ordered special spokes that had the correct bigger nipples for the rim, but were swaged (thinned down) to the same gauge as stock R27 spokes so they would not bend each other where they crossed. The rechroming and relacing of the wheels doubled their cost.

 14 - SHOCKS


Shock in compressor
 The R27 has four shocks that are removable and rebuildable. Compressing the shock allows its cover to be removed, the spring to be removed, and then the insert to be unscrewed and replaced. Although easy in principle, all of this is very difficult to actually do. Compressing takes a special tool - on my R69S I made one using wood blocks and a JC Whitney car shock compresser, while for the R27 I bought an all-metal tool from Ed Korn of Cycle Works. Unscrewing the insert takes so much force that it can be deformed, as happened on my R69S. Since I wanted to save and re-use the 3,000 mile inserts on the R27, I ordered another special clamping tool from Cycle Works. A final difficulty is removing and replacing the metal and rubber "silent block" bushings in the mounting eyes. These are pressed out and in with tons of force, using proper sized wrench sockets and a vise. I removed the silent blocks by carefully hacksawing a slot in their steel shell to free them up. I installed the new blocks with sockets and a vise, but using a breaker bar on my bench vise bent the handle, and the big screw on the vise shed some metal flakes. Guenther bead blasted and painted the upper and lower castings, a brass polisher made the pitted aluminum covers shine again, and the shocks came out looking new.

 The point came where all the pieces of the puzzle were done and ready for assembly. Guenther had the drive train and frame, and I had the wheels, sheet metal and all the new parts. I had to decide whether I or Guenther would put it all together. On one hand, I had taken my R100/7 apart for restoration and put it back together 10 years ago, and the R27 was simpler. But on the other hand, I was now living in a townhouse with a remote garage which had no room, I had not taken the R27 apart to know how it all went together, and I suspected I did not have all the special fasteners that would be required. I decided being able to say the bike was "Built by Guenther Wuest" would add to my confidence in the restoration and add to the value of the bike, so I took all my parts to Guenther. Guenther was a perfectionist in the final assembly and I could find nothing that I did not like about it. Every bolt, nut and washer was the right part from his extensive stock, marked with a little red dot to indicate it had been properly torqued.

Frame and drive train awaiting wheels and sheet metal

 After a couple of weeks Guenther called up with a good news/bad news routine. The good news was that the bike ran well. Bad news was that the transmission was "overshifting". He invited me to see what I thought of the transmission. That first ride was the low point of the restoration, as the transmission felt like a bucket of bolts. Something was terribly wrong, with every shift ending up in a neutral and much clashing to get back into a gear, and I remembered no such difficulty with my first R27 or any of my /2s. I said we had to fix it even if it meant finding another transmission. Guenther resigned himself to removing the transmission and taking it apart again. A few days later Guenther called to say he had discovered the cause of the shifting problem. He had assumed that certain things in the transmission had been undisturbed, but now found it had been entered in an unsuccessful attempt to repair the bent shifter fork, and someone had shortened a bolt that governed where the shifts stopped. Without knowing what to look for, the alteration was not apparent. Guenther fixed the bolt, replaced the transmission, and the bike shifted properly. I put the bike holder in the truck and went to take delivery. The transmission felt OK on the second test ride, allowing for its tightness and my unfamiliarity, so we loaded the bike into the truck and I took it home.

Guenther loading the R27

 The Owners Manual said the maximum speed in gears for the first 600 miles was 12-24-36-48, and for the second 600 miles those speeds increased to 15-30-45-60. Guenther said to break it in with short bursts of speed, much variation of throttle, and much shifting, and that it would take 2000 miles to completely break it in. The country roads around my home are well suited to this recipe, and the bike soon had 1200 miles in 6 weeks. During that time the motor could be felt loosening up and growing stronger. At first it strained to reach 45, but at 1200 miles it wanted to cruise at 60 and crouching over the gas tank allowed it to exceed 70. At 300 miles I changed the oil from 30W to 20W50 and adjusted valves and timing. The exhaust valve was tight, and the timing was retarded. Although the spark plug was the correct tan color, I replaced the 115 main jet with a 120 jet for richer, cooler running. At 2000 miles, the seals and gaskets are still dry, the motor is performing perfectly and burning no oil, and the transmission has loosened up and shifts smoothly. There is satisfaction in having rescued this fine motorcyle from the junkpile and giving it another life which will surely be kinder to it than its last.

Completed R27 with basic solo seat in June 1999

Allan S. Atherton
Louisville, KY
Wire Wheels M/C Svc
Versailles, KY 
Guenther Wuest
Fredricksburg, IN
 Sheet Metal Repair and Painting:
Taylor's House of Color
Louisville, KY

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