Rare, factory prepared competition unit, ex-Rody Rodenberg
1939 BMW R51RS
Frame no. 511202
Engine no. 505772
In the era leading up to World War II, Hitler's Nazi party used motorsport as a way to advance their theories of Aryan supremacy. They encouraged German manufacturers financially, both directly and via contracts for other services to participate in International automobile and motorcycle racing. The result was that in the 1930s, Mercedes and Auto Union dominated Grand Prix racing and BMW took the two biggest prizes in motorcycle racing.
Ernst Henne rode various BMWs to break the World Motorcycle Land Speed Record in 1932-34-5-6-7. Henne's '37 record would stand for 14 years. In 1939, Georg Meier and Jock West finished 1-2 in the Isle of Man Senior Tourist Trophy race, the world's most prestigious 2-wheel event. Both Henne's last record and the 1939 TT winner used a traditional BMW opposed twin fitted with dual overhead cams and a supercharger.
Victories like these reverberated worldwide and in the U.S. In 1939, the BMW importer in New York, Emil Recke, wanted a racing BMW. Because of his factory relationship, he was able to secure a factory-modified R51. This was one of 17 that were intended to be loaned to known BMW privateers in Europe, and Recke was lucky to be able to purchase it. Because of American Motorcycle Association Class C rules it was not supercharged and retained the pushrod heads, but the frame, forks and swing arm were derived from the Tourist Trophy bikes. Recke entered rider Joe Tomas at the Daytona 200 in 1940 and 1941. There was also an incident at an AMA 100 mile championship race at Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a one mile circular dirt oval then known as the "Indianapolis of the East". Tomas set what trackside observers felt was the fastest qualifying lap, which would have won him a gold watch, but the officials claimed the timing mechanism had failed and his time was disallowed. Many thought Tomas had been penalized because of prejudice against his German bike during the run up to World War II. After the war began late in 1941, Recke decided to sell the motorcycle. It went to racer Rody Rodenberg who lived in Indianapolis. Rodenberg first titled it in Indiana on May 9, 1942. This was a fitting purchase for Rodenberg, who was a well known Harley hater. During his career he rode BMW, Indian and Triumph, but never one of Milwaukee's finest.
While the complete race record of this incredible BMW is yet to be unearthed, it is known that Rodenberg won a dirt race in Indianapolis. He also competed at the Daytona 200 from 1947 through 1952 and photographs show him on this bike. He retained the motorcycle for over half a century until it was sold on to another Indianapolis resident, Richard Moore in 1993. The vendor acquired the R51 a year later.
The documentation for this unrestored example of a pre-war, factory prepared BMW racer is a treasure trove that any private investigator would be proud of. The keystone is the Certificate of authenticity from BMW Mobile Tradition, the historic arm of the factory that maintains their archives. It shows a date of completion of July 27, 1939 and consignment to the shipper in Hamburg the next day. Among the documentation are three pieces of correspondence between Rodenberg and Recke regarding the purchase of the bike and also a post card concerning the same matter. These are dated August and September of 1942. Rodenberg's AMA competition licenses from 1951-2-3 are also included, as well of a clipping with a picture of his Indianapolis win on the bike. Among the treasures are various pictures of Rodenberg and the R51 at Daytona in period and other miscellaneous documents and photographs including Rodenberg's AMA armband. There are even photographs of Rodenburg with Richard Moore on the day the bike changed hands in 1993. The BMW is also referenced in books like Stephen Wright's American Racer and Don Emde's Daytona 200.
The bike itself is an artifact of another age. It remains unrestored and the number plate appears to be the same as was in the period pictures of Rodenberg at Daytona. Daytona technical inspection clearance ribbons are clipped to the handlebars. The aged finish is the traditional BMW black with white coach lines, accented by black wheel rims. A sinister look is provided by the black pipes and megaphones. The single saddle is augmented by a pillion known as a rennbrotchen, and a tank pad to allow the rider a more prone position on the long run down Florida highway A1A that made up part of the old Daytona road and beach course. The lines are enhanced because the forks used then were sliders rather than the later Earls type. A large wing nut, rather than a wheel, is used to adjust the steering damper. The remnant of a decal from Rodenberg's sponsor's Indian dealership remains on the fender. A tiny 7000 rpm tachometer hides behind the number plate, the front of its body more worn than the back due to sandblasting from the elements at various race courses.
This BMW motorcycle offers an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase a German, pre-war, works-prepared motorcycle in absolutely original condition. Of the original 17 built, only three remain, one of which is in the BMW museum. This is the only one that has not been restored. It is a unique blend of German and American motorcycle racing history, backed by documentation that delineates the chain of ownership without a doubt. This is a no stories collectible that must be one of the most historically significant BMWs ever to reach the auction block.