The 1960 BMW R 27 was a classical single-cylinder motorcycle built for a world where money was tight and two wheels had to suffice over four. The R 27 had all the tools for the job and laid on a comfortable ride, it was equally at home transporting commuters to work and holiday-makers to more relaxing destinations, it drank little fuel and could take plenty of punishment. Companions for life don’t come much more unassuming. The R 27’s compelling skill-set also endeared it to municipal authorities and police forces.
Back in the day, a quarter-litre was the stock engine displacement for the entry-level motorcycle customer – and it certainly did the job. There was nothing lavish about this end of the power scale, but it was quite enough to be getting on with. You could even pack some gear on a 250 cc bike, take a passenger for a spin, scale a mountain pass or pin on a sidecar. A 250 wasn’t one for more extravagant customers looking to steal the show and leave all-comers in their wake. But it would always be easy on the wallet and you wouldn’t ned to peak through your fingers when news of tax and insurance came through. Plus, it was easy to work on and you could do most jobs yourself in the back yard. For all its rational appeal, though, the R 27 also inspired pride; it was, after all, a bona fide BMW – predominantly black, with white lines and decorated with chrome in all the right places. And it was German to its core.
The art of German engineering.
There were cheaper bikes on the market, but none of the same impressive quality. The R 27 was very robust, was not a tiring machine to ride (even over long distances) and offered outstanding ergonomics and comfort on poor roads. The single-cylinder engine’s 18 hp was 3 hp up on what its predecessor, the R 26, could claim and sophisticated rubber mounts dampened out vibrations from the engine and gearbox. Needless to say, there was also a cardan shaft drive, fully enclosed to offer exemplary protection against dirt. The extremely strong frame also allowed the fitment of a sidecar without the need for additional strengthening – an important selling point for expectant fathers, for example.
(Blue) lights, camera, action!
In Jean Luc Godard’s classic black-and-white movie Breathless, a young Jean-Paul Belmondo is on the run from the police in a big old American automobile. Not that the eight-cylinder lump under the bonnet is helping much as the gendarmes reel him in on the BMW motorcycles so beloved of municipal authorities and police forces at the time. These were tricky opponents for bad guys, even those at the wheel of much more powerful machinery. The small R 27 was a popular choice as a training bike, and helped a whole generation of young coppers and soldiers learn their trade. Many stayed faithful to the BMW brand for the rest of their years.
The motorcycle market changed in the 1960s. People looking for reliable everyday transport were now jumping ship to cars en masse. And those who viewed motorcycle-riding as more than just a low-cost way of getting around – e.g. as a leisure pursuit or source of passion – wanted more than a single cylinder at their disposal; output and torque now mattered. These upheavals brought new Japanese models onto the market, their youthful looks and aggressive pricing harnessed to sales-boosting effect. A R 27 cost 2,670 marks when production ceased, so it was never exactly cheap.
In 1966 BMW drew a line in the sand when it came to classical single-cylinder bikes, production reaching 15,364 units when the music stopped. And so a time-honoured engine type that had proved its mettle over several decades and in various models shuffled off into the museum. It’s likely many former single-cylinder riders found their way into BMW’s new 1600-2 car, which heralded the start of another highly successful chapter in the company’s history that same year.
Today, a BMW R 27 – all classic black and classically handsome BMW lines – has long since become a coveted collector’s item, a magnificent thing to take out for a spin. As ever, it is somewhat upstaged by its famous boxer engine, which puts all else in the shade. Take the plunge, though, and you won’t be disappointed. It embodies the spirit of a different era in wondrous fashion. And it has remained every inch the faithful companion, one you can count on whenever your need is great.
There’s no shortage of excellent independent videos on the BMW R 27 doing the rounds. Take the following example: