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(by Ian Falloon, Mar 2022)




Boxer legend

For the aficionado of BMW motorcycles, only a few have come to exemplify the finest attributes of the marque. And one model that provides everything for the serious connoisseur is the R68, the holy grail of post-war production BMW motorcycles. Not only was the R68 the finest sporting BMW since the R66 of 1938, it began a tradition of dual-purpose machines that continues today with the R1250GS.


Towards the end of World War 2, BMW’s Munich factory was virtually destroyed by Allied bombing and it took several years to resurrect the company. The R32 motorcycle saved BMW after World War 1, and the R24 singles and R51/2 twins emulated this in the late 1940s. Even if they were virtually the same as their 1939 counterparts, demand was strong and by 1951, BMW needed a sporting flagship to compete with the new Triumph and BSA twins. Their response was the superb R68, based on the pedestrian R67 and providing a claimed top speed of one hundred miles per hour (161 kph).


In 1951, the FIM also lifted the ban on German manufacturers competing in international competition, and BMW entered the International Six Day Trial for off-road motorcycles. During the 1930s BMW had considerable success in this field of competition, and it had a huge following in Europe.


Three factory R51/3 racers were prepared for veteran George “Schorsch” Meier, Walter Zeller, and Felix Kraus. So began a period of regular factory involvement in the ISDT, through until the early 1970s. Even with shaft drive, the boxer twin proved surprisingly adaptable to off-road use, culminating in the Paris Dakar rally victories in the early 1980s and leading to the highly successful GS-series.


The 1951 ISDT bikes featured a special high-rise two-into-one exhaust system, and this was included on the first R68 displayed at the end of 1951. This exhaust system didn’t make it to the 1952 production R68 that wore standard fishtail exhausts, but the 2-1 remained an optional accessory.


Setting the 594cc 72 x 73 mm R68 engine apart from the touring R67 were higher compression 8:1 pistons, 38 and 34mm valves, a fiercer camshaft, rockers pivoting on needle rollers under the new twin-rib valve covers, and a barrel-shaped roller bearing for the rear of the crankshaft. The twin rib rocker covers lasted through until the R90S of 1976, then made a surprise return in the 1990s on the retro R100R and Mystic. With Bing 26mm carburettors, the power was of the R68 up to 35bhp at 7000 rpm. This may not sound too much today, but it provided the R68 with class-leading performance in 1952, even if the engine needed to be revved hard to get the best out of it. There was only a four-speed gearbox.


The R68 chassis was essentially identical to the touring R67/2, with damped telescopic forks and a plunger rear end. There were a few extra features to justify the high price, including a sporting front mudguard, and an optional sprung pillion pad, primarily to allow the rider to adopt a more prone riding position. The 19-inch wheels and 200 mm duplex brakes were the same as the 1952 R51/3, and the R68 weighed in at a reasonable 190kg.


There were few changes for 1953. By late 1952 rubber gaiters appeared on the front forks, and the mufflers were now non-finned. After July 1953 a sidecar mount was provided on the frame, and for 1954, there were light alloy wheel rims, a full width front brake and a larger headlamp.


Priced exorbitantly, the R68 continued a BMW tradition that made it available only to a fortunate few, but a few (around eight) did come to Australia. Only 1452 R68s were produced over its three-year production period, and it remains one of the rarest post-war BMW motorcycles. Because of its superior performance, it is also now one of the most desirable.




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