1939 BMW "Kompressor" Tourist Trophy 1-2 Victory
Photos and text courtesy BMW Motorrad.
Seventy Years Ago:
The "Kompressor" BMW Scores a 1-2 Victory in the Tourist
“Asking me about the most impressive experience in my
racing career, you will make my mind wander back to the
year 1939 on that classic island in the Irish Sea, where
the world-famous Tourist Trophy has been held for almost
a century against the toughest competition you can
imagine in international motorsport.”
These were the words in 1948 of Georg “Schorsch”
Meier in thinking back of his “most wonderful victory”,
which now lies 70 years in the past and has long become
a legend – for Georg Meier was the first non-English
rider to win the Senior Tourist Trophy on his BMW
This outstanding victory marked the climax of a long
development. BMW had started to test compressor
technology in motorcycle racing back in the late ’20s
and Ernst Henne’s world records in 1929 had clearly
proven that BMW’s supercharged engines were able to
offer the very best in power and performance.
Even though this new technology was not yet
absolutely reliable at the time, with BMW deciding to
still use naturally aspirated engines in some races, the
Company’s compressor engines already scored their first
success on the road back in 1929: Hans Soenius in the
500-cc and Josef Stelzer in the 750-cc class brought
home the first championships with supercharged engines
in that year.
The second generation of BMW’s supercharged works
motorcycles then made its appearance in 1935, now
featuring a modern, welded tubular frame destined to
enter series production just a year later in the BMW R 5
and R 6.
Now equipped with two overhead camshafts driven in
each case by a side shaft, the engine was a brand-new
development, just like the foot-shift four-speed
Jock West at the Tourist Trophy, 1939
1937/1938: Success on the Race Track
With Karl Gall and Ludwig “Wiggerl” Kraus standing
out as the most successful riders in the early years,
Otto Ley joined the BMW works team in the following
It was also in the 1937 season that BMW’s machines
were upgraded by fitting the rear wheel suspension
already tested and proven in six-day races, thus setting
off the last disadvantages versus the international
As a result, Gall and Ley soon became the most
successful riders in the 500-cc class, and Jock West
became the first English rider on the BMW Works Team,
surprising everybody through his outstanding win in the
Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland.
And had Karl Gall not been forced to retire while
leading the European Grand Prix in Berne, Switzerland,
BMW would also have won the European Championship
decided for the last time this year in a single race.
BMW’s compressor machines scored their greatest
success on the track in 1938, when off-road rider Georg
Meier entered his first season on the tarmac, winning
the German, Belgian and Italian Grand Prix as well as
the Dutch Tourist Trophy and bringing home victory in
Hockenheim, Nuremberg and in the Eilenriede Race.
This, clearly, meant both the European and the German
But there were also bad days in 1938 – for example on
the Isle of Man. BMW had sent three motorcycles to
the Senior TT on the Isle of Man, with Georg Meier,
English rider Jock West and Austrian Karl Gall on the
Gall suffered a severe accident in practice and Georg
Meier was forced to retire on the very first lap due to
a defective spark plug. The only good news was
Jock West bringing home fifth place for BMW, improving
his position over the previous year by one place in the
final list of results.
Schorsch Meier at the 1939 Tourist Trophy on the BMW
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Going For It: Careful Preparation for Racing in
To quote Georg Meier, “this did not discourage us in any
way in our plans to enter this challenging race with the
same works team also in the years to come. So
together with BMW’s small Racing Department we arrived
in Douglas in good time, since the official practice
sessions started fourteen days before the race."
"Early in the morning, at the break of dawn, we were
already out there on the roughly 60-kilometre-long
island track where people claimed that 'only an English
rider was able to win the race'."
"And believe me, the circuit with all its substantial
challenges really demanded the utmost of the rider.
The big advantage was that early in the morning the
roads were absolutely empty, apart from the riders
themselves, a few officials and the mechanics working
untiringly on their jobs – the big crowd and all the
spectators were not there yet.”
Still, BMW’s compressor machines from Germany were
the subject of close scrutiny and observation – which is
no surprise, considering that the Type 255 BMW RS 500
was not be underestimated: Displacing 492 cc, these
outstanding machines developed 60 horsepower at 7,000
rpm thanks to their mechanical supercharger.
To keep the rider in control, properly handling all
this power at such high speeds, the engines featured
side shafts leading into the two cylinder heads where
two overhead camshafts in each cylinder head controlled
the gas cycle.
Benefiting from low weight of just 138 kg or 304 lb,
the compressor BMW had a top speed of more than 220 km/h
or 136 mph, provided the rider was consistently
crouching down over the machine.
So within just a few hours after practice, the TT
Magazine presented exact studies of the three riders and
the speed recorded in each case.
Terrible News: Karl Gall's Accident.
The 1939 TT was a tragic event for Karl Gall, before the
race had even started:
On 2 June 1939 Gall once again suffered a severe fall in
practice on the jump over Ballaugh Bridge.
And this time he was so badly injured that he died
eleven days later. Once again, therefore, the
Tourist Trophy had proven its reputation of being the
toughest road race in the world.
Despite this tragedy, BMW decided to remain in the
race. “But I was really under great mental stress
at the start, with each rider setting out in
thirty-second intervals,” states Georg Meier in
retrospect, looking back at 16 June 1939.
Meier nevertheless rode a fantastic race, setting up
a new lap record in the very first lap and leading the
race ahead of his 42 competitors right from the start.
In lap two he improved his own record once again,
becoming faster and faster as the race continued:
“I was able to complete the seven laps without any
significant incidents and I received good news from the
pits every time, so that I knew exactly what was going
on. Filling up the tank twice in about 17 seconds,
which allowed me to change my glasses and have a
refreshing drink, went very well. And then, after
2 hours and 57 minutes, I at last saw the man with the
black-and-white chequered flag waving me in as the
"What I really wanted to do most at that point was
literally kiss and hug my wonderful machine with its
white-and-blue colors on the tank which, apart from all
those flies on the wind deflector, still looked brand
new, without the slightest trace of oil or any signs of
the incredible race we had just been through.”
Meier’s average speed was exactly 143.723 km/h or
89.108 mph, again a sensation.
As the next rider to cross the finish line, Jock West
came in two minutes later on his compressor BMW, giving
the Company a perfect one-two victory, especially as he
was more than half a minute ahead of rider number three
F.L. Frith on a Norton.
Zoomified image of the BMW Kompressor engine.
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Beaten Only By the Rules
Now, at the very latest, the BMW compressor machine was
regarded as unbeatable.
So when after World War II German riders were
initially banned from international racing, they simply
continued racing their compressor motorcycles in
national events. And in most cases BMW finished
right at the top, with Georg Meier on his compressor
machine (which he had hidden in a barn during the War)
bringing home all German championships from 1948–1950.
During these four years the works racing machines saw
a number of modifications before the last national race
with compressor motorcycles took place on the
Grenzlandring Circuit in September 1950.
From now on German manufacturers and riders were once
again able to enter international sports events, but
here supercharged engines had been banned since 1945.
So in response BMW converted some of the compressor
machines to natural aspiration technology.
As a result of this ongoing development and
modifications in the post-war years, hardly any of the
works racing machines still in existence today are now
in their pre-war condition.
Even the works machine on display in the BMW Museum
features the modifications made for the last few races.
And while BMW knew the
whereabouts of a racing machine in pre-war trim, the
famous owner of this motorcycle enjoyed the machine
himself regularly at racing events and for years would
not even consider selling it: John Surtees, the only
racing driver to win both the Formula 1 and the
Motorcycle World Championship.
He had bought the BMW in disassembled form in the
early ’80s, restoring this unique machine in a
painstaking process and with a clear focus on the
original. But in the meantime this unique machine
has returned to its first “home” and is regularly
entered in historical events.
Source: BMW press release. Date: June