Because if you get the chance to fulfil a four-decade-old dream to own a BMW R75/5, you really can’t say no
This is the bike of my teenage dreams and that’s the only excuse I’ve got for acting as impulsively as a 16-year-old. I zip up my jacket and cinch up my open-face helmet while suppressing rising panic. I cannot ignore the facts. One: I have never ridden a BMW R75/5, let alone the one in front of me now. Two: in every objective sense, 1970s motorcycles are crap. Three: this R75/5 is my only means of getting home, which is 400km away.
And four: I already own it. I transferred payment in full after a 15-minute phone call with the seller. It’s way too late to pull out now. At the age of 55, I am committed to hitting the road on a teenage fantasy. It would’ve been cheaper and less risky to settle for a vintage copy of Playboy.
When I was mid-teens, this R75/5 was only a 10-year-old motorcycle and represented everything I thought motorcycling should be in a package I imaged I could afford once I had a job.
For context, look at today’s 10-year-old BMWs. The classifieds list a 17,000km S 1000 R for $12,490; a K 1600 GT, 79,000km, $13,500; R 1200 GS, 80,000km, $12,000; R NineT with only 10,000km, $13,400. That’s some exceptional motorcycling for less than I just paid for a 50-year-old dunger without a fraction of the performance of any of them.
In its day, the R75/5 was all those 2013 BMWs rolled into one. It was BMW’s superbike, almost a match for the fast British and Japanese big-bores.
It was also a consummate grand tourer, covering long distances at speed. R75/5s were conquering the outback’s remoteness long before GSs came along. The R75/5 was a nakedbike before nakedbikes like the R NineT needed a label.
As a dreaming teen, I wanted to go fast, go far, go everywhere. That’s why I wanted an R75/5. Eventually I did do all those things – but not on an R75/5. Now here I am in 2023.
Howard Moffat fires up the BMW. From cold, she sparks instantly and he fine-tunes the choke while she warms up. The aftermarket stainless mufflers emit that classic air-cooled boxer-engine patter and the valves tick in time under the peanut-shaped rocker covers. He gives her a couple of little revs, waits a minute, then eases off the choke and lets her settle into a gentle idle that vibrates soothingly through the whole frame.
Howard knows her like no one else. He has owned her for 49 years – all her life, at least after she’d been born in Berlin, delivered to Australia and sold by a long-defunct Melbourne dealership. She was the second-last R75/5 left when Howard bought her in early ’74. Many other bikes came and went in his life but the BMW stayed with him the whole time.
Howard and his BMW featured in Two Wheels magazine in the 1970s on a ride from Darwin to Quorn and back again, when such rides were epics of endurance and stamina. When he was based in Melbourne, he’d ride it to Sydney for the weekend. They were there when the BMW club of Victoria was formed. They were a familiar combination at the famous Alpine Rally.
Along the way, Howard fitted a Heinrich 31-litre fuel tank and Craven luggage. He replaced the crankcases after a failure. The gearbox was rebuilt. There was more but essentially this R75/5 is original and unmolested.
The changes made are indelible parts of its story, to the point where a restoration to factory spec would be as sinful as turning it into a cafe racer.
Until today it was a one-owner bike that had been well used, well maintained and well loved. I ask Howard if he would miss it.
“Yes,” he says. I don’t ask him why he is selling it. It doesn’t seem polite.
I make him promise to write out some more of its history and send me copies of as many photos as he can. This bike has provenance, a unique history that can and should be documented and passed on if and when I sell it. That was a huge part of her appeal before I bought her. Without history, an old bike is just that, but with its history intact an old bike is a character full of stories. It’s a rare and precious thing.
Still, all that will mean nothing to me if I hate it. In the next 400km I reckon I will find out one way or the other. At this moment I have no idea which way it might go.
I shake Howard’s hand, straddle the bike and ride away… gingerly. It feels taller, rangier and a bit more top-heavy than I expected. The clutch is fair and the throttle heavy-ish but not bad. The drum brakes, well, let’s just say the biggest single advance in the past 50 years is discs and, as of my first stop sign, I’ll never be persuaded otherwise.
In the first 100km/h zone the R75/5 reaches the limit lazily at full throttle. This worries me. The engine blows no smoke, has a certified 145psi compression on both cylinders, runs smoothly and should go faster than this! Eventually I realise it’s not the throttle stop that I’ve found: it’s a notch in the cable system that’s worn itself a familiar resting place after decades of cruising in the engine’s sweet zone at 60-70 miles an hour.
Yes, that’s miles an hour. This BMW pre-dates the 1974 metrication of Australia’s roads.
I pull harder on the throttle and it winds past that time-worn notch and hands me the rest of the R75’s speed and power. There isn’t much there, though: just the balance of a modest but useful 50hp.
Even in 1973 that wasn’t great — not when a Kwaka nine claimed 80 – but it’s what I’m looking for. And I like it.
On the dullness of the Federal Highway, enhanced only by the sight of Lake George being full to the brim, I relax and I grin. A beautifully curved black tank with bare aluminium cover and elegant white pinstripes extends just the right distance in front of me, leading to a headlight nacelle with very neat gauges – speedo above tacho – inset into it, not perched up high. I’ve always liked that style.
I leave the highway at Goulburn, swinging onto the glorious road through Taralga to Oberon. In 1973 this was dirt all the way and just the kind of road an intrepid BMW rider would seek out. It’s better with tar.
The NSW coppers train new revenue raisers at a facility on this road. The Highway Patrolettes are out learning this day and suddenly one is on my tail, pouncing from out of nowhere. He’s learned his lessons well, apparently. I am not speeding but neither am I registered. No plate at all. Howard had to hand it in because his historic vehicle rego was not transferable. I can’t get my own historic rego until I am home in NSW.
I am, however, legit. I have an unregistered vehicle permit and the label is bolted to the back of the bike. The coppers are either too intent on learning to drive or, more likely, they realise what the label is because they leave me alone. I actually feel a bit ripped off!
If I say I let the bike have her head after they turn off into the training centre, I’d be telling the truth but embellishing the reality. We don’t go fast, partly because the bike isn’t and partly because I ain’t. The steering doesn’t feel quite right and the rear shocks are a bit tired. In response, I am not committing to corners. When I go in slow, the bike’s response is to come out slow, as if to punish me.
It is not like riding a modern motorcycle at all.
And that is the crux of it. I realise with relief that this is what I am looking for in pursuing this teen dream. Despite being frustrated that I’m not getting it quite right, I am loving every moment of this ride.
From Oberon we zoom to Bathurst and up the backroads to Hill End and on. I get more comfortable as the miles pass; one day I’ll perfect it, just not today.
I have ridden these roads before on brand-new bikes and in the end it bored me. It was too easy. Too fast. Too simple to cover my mistakes. Too bland.
New bikes don’t demand an in-sync partnership like a 50-year-old BMW does. They don’t have the audible note that an old boxer has. They don’t require the effort. They don’t talk to you like an R75/5 does. They don’t… they just don’t.
They do everything better on a technical and objective level. If you have a penchant for that, I envy you but I don’t share it. I like old shit.
Kicking up dust on the dirt road five miles from home, I feel rising contentment, probably akin to hooking up with your childhood sweetheart after several decades and two marriages. At my age I don’t make many impulsive decisions but I’m glad the teenager trapped in a middle-aged body broke out of its cage for this one.
And my middle-aged body is equally glad to report that an R75/5 really does have the perfect riding position.
Words Mick Matheson + Photography Anne Baker & MM