A 1954 R68
The Rarest Postwar BMW
by Jeff Dean

Last updated

My 1954 R68, immaculately restored by Tim Stafford, took second place at Pebble Beach in August 2012.


Above: Photos of Tim Stafford with the R68 at Pebble Beach. He was the best dressed rider there!

The R68 shown above was the prototype R68 developed in 1951 by BMW and used for illustrative purposes — as in this 1953 brochure illustration — prior to actual production. There are minor differences from the production motorcycles.

The 1954 R68, below, was built on July 21, 1954, and was the sport version of the pre-1955 BMW motorcycles. It came with 35 horsepower and more modern looking front fender. Only 1,453 R68s were manufactured, making it the rarest post-war BMW motorcycle. That, and its sporting power, make it the most desirable postwar BMW motorcycle.

Mick Walker wrote in his 1998 book, “BMW Twins,” the following:

The three motorcycles were displayed at the first post-war German International Motorcycle Show which opened in Frankfurt on Sunday 28 October [1951]. Although there were over 300 stands, the sensation of the exhibition was another BMW — the new R68. This was the first genuine 100 mph (160 kph) production roadster from the German factory. Capable of 105 mph (168 kph), it was the flagship model that all enthusiasts of the marque had been waiting for. It was powered by a tuned version of the ohv 594cc twin, with a specification that included a high-level exhaust system (siamesed into a single silencer on the offside), special cams, timing gears and cylinder heads, a compression ration of 8:1, racing-type magneto, bigger-bore carbs (up from 22 to 26 mm) and a twin leading shoe front brake. The power output had been increased to 35 bhp at 7,000 rpm. In a three-year production span a total of 1,452 (sic) R68s were built, ensuring the model's exclusivity.

In the world of BMW motorcycle enthusiasts, there are just a handful of models that live at the pinnacle of desirability. Of course, the original BMW motorcycle, the 1923-1926 R32 is alone at the top. In the next rank are especially coveted postwar models like the R68, followed by the 1951-1956 R67-R67/3 (5,405 built), the 1955-1960 R69 (2,956 built), the 1974-1976 R90S (17,465 built), and the 1977 R100RS (33,648 built).

In his 1982 book, “BMW Twins & Singles,” Roy Bacon wrote:

The R68 used much from the existing twins but its compression ratio was up and the power output became 35 bhp at 7000 rpm. Externally the engine unit looked nearly the same with only a change to the air filter housing and cleaner rocker covers with simpler lines giving an indication. The chassis was that of the R67 but with a twin leading shoe front brake actuated in the simplest manner with the cable outer pushing one cam lever and the inner pulling the other. The mudguards were more sporting than usual on a BMW and the machine was fitted with the linked saddle and pillion seat that was a partial step to the dual seat. The model was BMW's first 100 mph road bike.

The R68 was restored in the photos above was restored by Tim Stafford, of San Diego, California. It was built on July 21, 1954.

Below, Tim with the R68 on display at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in California on May 14, 2011. It took the second place award — it should have taken first.

Most vintage BMW motorcycle enthusiasts would love to own just one R68. At least one R68 admirer has captured no less than four very beautiful examples!

Below left: the drive shaft on an R68 is exposed, and in front of it is an auxilliary hand shift. Note the plunger rear suspension and vintage tire pump. Below right: the R68 came with telescopic front forks, as did all BMW motorcycles from 1950 to 1955.

Below left: The first R68's had metal fork sliders, while later ones had rubber gaiters. Below center: the first R68s came with half-width brakes. Below right: the 1954 R68 came with full-width brakes.

Perhaps the most exhaustive discussion of the R68 is found in Bruce Preston's 1996 book, “BMW Motorcycles: the Complete Story,” which I have quoted below from a chapter entitled, “The 100 mph Motorcycle:”

A year after the new 500 and 600cc machines appeared on the market, BMW announced the arrival of an immediate teaser: the R68. Introduced by the company as "The 100 mph motorcycle," it delighted BMW fans the world over. It came in two guises, one for road and one for cross-country use, with the track version sporting an upswept siamesed exhaust system, wider handlebars, a separate pillion pad and a raised rear number-plate. Conventional exhaust pipes were used on the road version but the pipe was slightly larger than that on the touring machines, as many an owner found to his cost when trying to fit R67 silencers onto an R68.

The cross-country machines used a single-fin type silencer, with the twin pipes crossing over the top of the engine and exiting on the right. It made a lovely, flat, muted sound. The new torpedo silencers were used on the R68 but had a slightly greater diameter to fit the larger exhaust pipe. Those silencers were to characterise the remainder of the production run until 1969. A finned ring retained the exhaust to the head — a system that is used right to the present day — which is no easier to undo without a special spanner now than it was then. Dimensions of the new R68 were identical to those of its softer stablemate, the R67, with the same bore and stroke and electrics. Where it differed was in the engine internals. The compression ratio was raised to 7.7:1 and larger 26mm Bing carburetors were fitted. Internally the most interesting change was to the rear main bearing which was now fully floating, an arrangement which allowed for a little crankshaft flexibility. A reinforced crankshaft housing was also used.

The power output received a considerable boost from the more efficient engine, and 35 HP was claimed at 7,000 rpm. It was the greatest power and highest revs yet seen on a road-going BMW and gave the bike a top speed of 100 mph (160 kph). By the standards of the day there were machines around, notably the Vincent and the more sporting British twins, that could do better than this, but it was the way that the R68 achieved it which made it such a pleasing bike to ride.

As an aid to engine flexibility, an additional ignition control fitted on the handlebars gave the rider the option of retarding the ignition for cold starting (the R68 had three degrees more advance with the advance and retard bob-weights at rest than the touring machines). It also proved useful for coping with some of the inferior fuels around, again by retarding the ignition a little.

Deeply valanced mudguards had become a feature of the touring machines but on the sports model less ample ones were considered appropriate. A chrome-plated grab rail was an interesting addition to the specification, doubtless proving useful when hauling the off-road version out of deep mud. Narrower sports handlebars were fitted to the machine and adjustable pillion rests were extolled as a virtue. The lugs for those rests were a part of the touring models - not surprisingly, as it used the same frame - but the rider would have had to pay extra if he wanted the footrests as well! The recently introduced twin leading shoe front-brake was a standard fitting.

One easy way to identify BMW sports models after the introduction of the R68 was by [its two] rocker covers, which had just two fins [each]. They somehow came to represent the essence of the sporting BMW and the design survived right up to the introduction of the [slash-7] series in 1976.

Small numbers of the R68 in ISDT trim, which was how the bike with the upswept pipes was defined, were used in these gruelling trials events by amateur owners. For a machine that was really all wrong for the type of going encountered it did well. One British owner, Geoff Arkle, took his over-the-counter R68, which weighed in at 425 pounds (193 kg), through the 1954 ISDT in Wales and finished the course. It was quite an achievement for a rider with no works support.

When the R68 was replaced by the new generation R69 in 1955, just 1,452 (sic) examples had been made. The price was rather more than that of the touring models and not many were brought into Great Britain. As is so often the case, very few are seen around nowadays but there is no shortage of prospective customers should one come on the market.

On a personal level, the BMW R60/2 was my favorite motorcycle in my first years of motorcycling (1968 photo on my first bike above, right), so it is the model for which I have the most affection. Yet the Earles front fork and the elaborate rear swing arm arrangement complicate its appearance. On the level of pure esthetics, I believe the R68 (photo above, left) was the handsomest BMW ever made. Its spare simplicity of line and beautiful gas tank (photo below) set it apart, and the sporting front fender is more appealing to me than the rather billowing fender of the R67 and R51/3 models.

The top view of the R68 shows the opposed cylinders, the left one mounted forward of the right, and European handlebars. The lid on top of the fuel tank houses a tool compartment.

Here I am, below, with my beautiful BMW 1954 R68 at home in Arizona. (Photo by Tim Stafford.)

John Harper, of Anniston, Alabama, and co-founder with me of the Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners, sent me this photo, below, of a restored R68 at the Barber Museum near Birmingham. It is very hard to get the white pinstriping exactly right. This pinstriping is too pointed at the rear and not gently rounded enough in front, and the wide stripe is too wide. Also, the front brake levers should be black, as they are on the R68 at the bottom of the page, and the tire pump belongs on a slash-2, not on a plunger BMW. The valve cover appears to be polished, unlike the correct valve cover on the R68 at the bottom.

Below: This photo shows Steve Ascherl's beautiful 1954 R68 at the BMW MOA international rally in West Bend, Wisconsin, at which it won the best plunger bike award. Here the pinstriping on the gas tank is correct.

The largely restored 1952 R68 in the left photo below was for sale on ebay in the spring of 2010. The bulbous 24-liter gasoline tank may have been an option in the latter 1950s — I am not certain of its appropriateness but I have seen it on other R68s, as the right photo below. However, I do not think it looks “right” on a pre-1955 BMW motorcycle. The 17-liter tank, as seen in all the photos above, looks much more appropriate to me.

In 2011 an R68 was listed on ebay and sold for $67,000.

What about maintenance-free 6-volt batteries for the R51/3, R67/3, or R68? Bench Mark Works now has the solution. Its part number is 61 21 8 042 025S — for the Noris AGM original style hard case battery with square lid. Dimensions are 6 716 x 358 x 3316 inches, or 92x82x166 millimeters.


The new 500-page slash-3 restoration and service manual, above right, by Christopher and Barbara Betjemann of Barrington Motor Works, is the finest and most complete book ever published on servicing and restoring these motorcycles.

You can order it here — Barrington Motor Works Manual Order Page

It may be an expensive book, but do not touch your slash-3 unless you have it by your side!

BMW R68 Specifications

Internal designation268 / 1
Typefour-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled boxer
Bore/stroke72 x 73 mm (2.83 X 2.87 inches)
Cubic capacity 594 cm3 (34 inches3)
Maximum power35 HP at 7000 RPMs
Compression ratio8.0 : 1
Valves per cylinderohv
Carburation system2 Bing 1/26/9 - 1/26/10
Engine lubricationforced-feed lubrication
Oil pumpgear pump
Power Transmission
Clutchsingle disc saucer spring, dry
Number of gears4
Shifting foot shifting (auxiliary manual lever on gear block)
Speedometer ratios1.52 for MPH — 0.95 for Km/h
Gear ratios4.00 / 2.28 / 1.7 / 1.3 (with sidecar: 5.33 / 3.02 / 2.04 / 1.54)
Rear wheel ratio1 : 3.89 (with sidecar 1 : 4.57)
Bevel/crown wheel9 / 35 teeth solo (7 / 32 teeth with sidecar)
Electrical System
GeneratorNoris 6V 45/60 L
Ignitionmagneto ignition
Spark plugsBosch W 240 T 1 or Beru 240 / 14
Type of frameDouble-loop steel tubular frame
Front suspensionTelescopic fork
Rear suspensionTelescopic (plunger) suspension
Wheel rims3.50 x 19
Tires front3.50 x 19
Tires rear3.50 x 18 ( at sidecarbetrieb hinten 4 x 18)
Brakes frontDrum brake Ø 200mm / 7.87 inches diameter duplex; for 1954: full hub
Brakes rearDrum brake, Ø 200 mm / 7.87 in diameter simplex; from 1954 full hub
Dimensions and Weights
Length x width x height 83.85 x 28.5 x 38.77 inches (2130 x 725 x 985 mm)
Wheel base 55.1 inches (1400 mm)
Tank capacity 4.49 gallons (17 liters)
Unladen weight, full tank422 pounds (190 kilograms; with orig. BMW sidecar 320 kilograms)
Load rating781 pounds (355 kilograms) solo
Idle/riding noise85/96 DIN-phon (from 7/7/1953: 80 / 87 dB (A))
Fuel consumption 51.0 MPG (ca. 4.6 liters / 100 km)
Oil consumptionca. 0.7 liters / 1000 km
Top speed 105 MPH (168 km/h)

Click here to read a 2008 Classic Bikes article on a 1952 R68.

Click here to see technical data from the 1952 BMW R68 supplement to the owner's manual.

Click here to see the technical pages from from the February 1952 English-language owner's manual for the R51/3 and R67/2.

Click here to read the German Wikipedia's R68 article computer-translated into English.

Hier klicken um diesen Webseite Computer zu lesen, der in Deutschen ubersetzt wird.

Hier klicken, um den R68 Wikipedia Artikel auf Deutsch zu lesen.

Click here to read English R68 specifications from BMW A.G., Munich, Germany.

Click here to see James Young's beautifully restored 1954 R68.

Click here for a speedometer ratio test form