DESERT STORM TROOPERS: The Secret History of BMW’s Boxer Motorcycle

A german soldier tends to his BMW motorcycle during WWII
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All brands have certain challenges to overcome, especially the historical ones. Be it a poor marketing decision, failed product launches, or embarrassing social media boo-boos, it’s almost expected that at some point all brands will make a misstep. Think Ford’s Edsel, ‘New’ Coke from the 80s, or even U2 and Apple downloading music onto people’s iPhones without permission.

But I bet I can top all those. Hell, the one I’ll share with you now makes all those look about as bad as using the wrong spoon for soup at a formal dinner. See, in the 1930s in Germany, a whole bunch of big companies got into bed with none other than Adolf Hitler himself. How’s that for giving your brand a bad name?

Along with Hugo Boss, Siemens, Kodak, Fanta, and Beyer, BMW signed on the dotted line and quite literally hitched their wagons to the Nazi gravy train.

A BMW R32 motorcycle from 1932 sitting on snowA very original-looking BMW R32 from 1923. Image via Bike-urious.

A Young Boxer: The BMW R32

But the story really starts a full decade earlier when BMW launched their first bike, also known as the R32. Released in 1923, it’s engineering accomplishments were more than a little ahead of their time.

They opted for a boxer-engined design to ensure cooling was adequately managed in all conditions, and a solid drive shaft as a more reliable method of getting the power to the rear wheel than a chain or a belt. How much of this design was informed by motorcycle lessons learned during WWI we may never know—but so far, so good.

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and with the moto technology of the time being so fresh, there were no real right or wrong answers to the transport challenges at hand. It’s also interesting to note that Zündapp, BMW’s main moto rival inside Germany, went with a single upright cylinder and a belt drive for their first motorcycle at around the same time.

A Zündapp motorcycle from the 1920sZündapp was BMW’s main competitor. They would soon adopt their boxer engine and driveshaft designs thanks to the Wehrmacht’s fondness for it. Image via Classic Motorcycle.

So back we go to the 1930s, and with the storm clouds of war once again gathering over Europe, military spending—especially that of Germany’s newly elected Nazi Party after 1933—saw companies compete for one of the few remaining reliable sources of sales.

I won’t go into the morals of accepting money from such a despicable source in this story, but the history books are clear here. Despite some very obvious warning signs, Germany’s dire economic situation and sheer will to survive saw many of their best and brightest companies work hand in hand with the pure evil that was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

An exploded view of the BMW R71 engineThe BMW R71 powerplant in an exploded view. The Russians liked it so much, they stole it. Image via Manx Norton.

Next Steps: BMW In the 1930s

So you’re a Nazi general getting busy by planning to take over Europe. Yes, you’ll need an armada of vehicles to achieve your aims. Some big and some small. And one of the smallest would have to be das motorrad.

Light, cheap to make and able to go over, around and through obstacles that cars and trucks couldn’t, it was clearly an important tool in the Deutsche Wehrmacht’s arsenal. But the key for any successful motorcycle was one of reliability.

If the things overheated while the Afrikakorps rampaged across the North African desert or froze during cold Russian winters, then they would be useless. Similarly, if the conditions mean the bikes were becoming kaput thanks to busted chains or belts, then they’d also be no good.

A BMW R12 from the 1930sA 1930s BMW R12. That knee pad on the tank was a design feature that lasted until the 1970s. Image via Core77.

So looking at the motorcycle designs available to them, what do you think the Nazi engineers found?

“What about this here BMW motorcycle? Why, look! It has a boxer engine design that will stay cool in the desert and won’t freeze over like those new-fangled water-cooled bikes.

Also, it has a shaft drive. Sure, it may weigh a bit more than a chain set-up, but it’ll handle the sand, snow, mud and branches much better than those delicate chains or belts.

What’s that? Telescopic forks! And just to really gild the lily, it’s design means that pistons and valves are much more accessible by army engineers in the heat of battle. Sold!”

BMW R75 sidecar motorcycle from WWIIThe 1938 R75—a design that would allow BMW to sell bikes to this very day. Image via Yesterday’s NL.

How the BMW Became the Nazi Superbike

The end result? The BMW R75. Designed in 1938, the bike not only took all the continent-conquering traits of the original BMW design, but went one step further to add a sidecar.

This enabled the three-wheeled design to use that extra wheel for power, making the final design a kind of two-wheel drive vehicle including the ability to lock the differential and switch between on-road and off-road gear ratios. Oh, and did I mention the reverse gear?

BMW R75 sidecar motorcycle from WWIINote that both rear wheels are driven. Image via Prewarcar.

BMW’s Lasting Legacy

The results not only speak for themselves in the fact that BMW still use the foundations of their WWII designs to this day, but also by the words spoken and the actions taken by their enemies on the battlefield.

It’s a well-known fact that Russia’s IMZ-Ural is a straight copy of the R71. Even more compelling was the result of the American army’s analysis on captured BMW bikes during the war.

US Army news clipping from WWII with soldiers studying captured BMW motorcyclesWorld-class, said the Americans. Image via Ultimate Motorcycling.

Frustrated by the metric bolts, yet stunned by just how more advanced these bikes were when compared side-by-side to their relatively primitive Harley WLAs, the soldiers tasked with studying and deconstructing the bikes didn’t mince their words. ‘This is as good as any motorcycle in the world,” they concluded.

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  1. While you’re straining so hard to associate various firms with awful behavior, don’t forget to mention Boeing, which provided the aircraft which delivered the bombs, in the only uses of nuclear weapons against human beings.

    And then you can add the British firms which were associated with the fire-bombing of Dresden, which would have been prosecuted as the war crime it was if the Allies had lost the war.

    You see, no country is truly innocent, unless you’re a naive fool.

    1. The Nazis committed genocide against the Jews. This was more than a war crime, and to imply that what countries did while defending themselves from assault was equivalent is… well, kind of pathetic, really.

      Your comment is a ridiculous whataboutism, which aside from being intellectually dishonest, also completely ignores the severity of what took place.

    2. I agree with Realist, no country is truly innocent.

      I also agree with Stuart, leave your political opinions out of it.

      I ask the author, Andrew Jones, to clarify his piece.

      You used the term “Desert Storm Troopers” in your title, was it your intent to imply “Desert Schutzstaffel”?

      Why did you associate BMW with the term “Nazi Superbike”?

      Did you consciously intend to associate BMW with genocidal murder?

      Do you have the same opinion of other products like VW, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Braun, and Bayer? And if not, why not?

      I am asking the editors of Web Bike World, why did you allow such an inflammatory piece to be published? Was it necessary to characterize BMW motorcycles as “Nazi Superbike”?

      It would seem a clarification or retraction would be in order.

  2. very interesting for sure + they still eclipse the harlys although they finally improved many of their shortcomings! the newer urals are better than ever BUT BMW could surely build a better one although its market is small + its price would be BIG. if not for a big price tag a factory BMW rig just might be a seller + i would prolly buy one!!

  3. The BMW history part was good and informative,
    but the sermonizing re the Nazis is boring politically correct drivel. Stick to writing about motorbikes, you’re good at it, leave the rest to people that actually understand history. BTW the holocaust was so successful because IBM sold punch card machines to the Nazis.

    1. The holocaust was successful because it was a state-sponsored policy with significant resources applied to it by the Nazi government, not because IBM sold punch cards to overseas clients.

  4. I have owned 3 BMW’s, my current is a 2019 R 1250 GS, this machine clearly is the result of BMW’s rich heritage and sophisticated engineering over the years. Harley Davidson realized this in 1942 when they reproduced the BMW R71 in the form of the Harley Davidson XA, a boxer motor with a drive shaft. I’m surprised Mr. Jones did not mention this. It’s true BMW supplied the Wermacht, but the USA leveraged “Nazi” technology by cutting a deal with Werner Van Braun, a ranking SS officer, who designed the rockets that took the US to the moon. Is it possible technology is morally neutral, but rather it is the use of such technology which is subject to ethical judgment? The US flag on the moon demonstrates this point, the free world was stronger as a result. No one connected the dots between the V2 and Saturn 5.

  5. The BMW opposed twin was in production long before WWII. The Nazis were a big buyer, but it was already an established design and also had numerous prewar racing successes.
    The first BMW powered bikes were even earlier, the Victoria company mounted some BMW opposed twin engines intended to power water pumps with the crankshaft going across the frame in a motorcycle! Those engines had the cylinder fins arranged sideways instead of around the cylinders. One might wonder if Victoria had not built those bikes if BMW would have ever thought to put their engines into motorcycles, it was a time they built engines, not vehicles.

  6. i dont see anything that makes them any better than any other motorcycle… i see an awful lot more wartime wla,s,
    wlc,s than bmw,s.. .also harley 45,s can pretty built out of repro parts…try that with a 42 bmw. when i se a chiang jian, ural or even an original wartime bmw i see an overweight bit of farm equipment tractor? with a 20 hp engine a hd 45 looks a lot more of a typical motorcycle

    motorcycles were at the end of the line for military stuff at that time…once jeeps were on their way

  7. I really cant believe what I’ve just read
    the world is full of manufacturers of many things
    whether or not they there produce is used for good or evil is not there responsibility . Most manufacturers are tied to contractual agreements and have little say how there product is used.
    Because we are on the “winning” side are you suggesting we only purchase products from these victorious countries. Many of these have also committed atrocities toward others though out the world.
    Please be objective and criticise on relevant issues not discrimination