BMW Legends - Helmut Dhne

BMW legends - Helmut Dhne

By finishing in the top five against the might of the Japanese manufacturer-backed world championship endurance regulars at last weekend's Oschersleben 24 Hours race, BMW Motorrad Motorsport proved just how serious its sporting ambitions are.

Taking an interest in proceedings was legendary ex-BMW racer Helmut Dhne, who has of course ridden the latest R 1200 S, but is better known for his exploits on the R 90 S - one of the all-time classic BMWs. He was one of the most popular heroes to race in the Isle of Man Production TT in the Seventies and his name is synonymous with BMW motorsport. The lanky German rider won his army of fans because he was a true enthusiast who prepared his own bike, rode it all the way from Munich to the Island, raced it over the Mountain, and then rode it home again.

"That journey took me two days," he said. "I had to follow a car and a trailer, which had my Formula 750cc bike and my 350cc production bike inside."

The R 90 S had first come to peoples' attention in 1973 with its smoked-edge paint finish, bar-mounted cockpit fairing and twin front disc brakes. With 67 hp and a top speed of over 120 mph, the production model was the sportiest BMW yet with great handling characteristics, light weight and balance.

Dhne, who had spent more than 15 years working for BMW in motorcycle development, knew a thing or two about building a race machine. At first glance, his Isle of Man bike looked like an ordinary R 90 S, but the chassis was basically a stock short wheelbase R 75/5 with the same forks and rear shock absorbers as the road bikes.

But the engine was a very special R 90 S, fitted with high compression pistons, race cams and bigger valves, titanium con rods, close ratio gears, a deeper sump to carry more oil, big bore carbs and a race exhaust system. However, this was no factory special - Dhne built his bike himself.

In 1974 he finished third in the 1000cc Production TT behind fellow German Hans-Otto Butenuth on another BMW, with British rider Mick Grant on the `Slippery Sam' Triumph Trident taking the victory. A year later Dhne was back and leading the 362-km six-lap race when a stone punched a hole through the right-side rocker box cover and he lost so much oil that the engine seized. It was the only time he failed to finish a TT race. The rocker box had been worn thin by Dhne's enthusiastic cornering, and in later years he raced with a spare strapped to the frame under the seat.

He finally won a TT in 1976 when Butenuth partnered him in the 10-lap 1000cc Production race. Close to the end of his final practice session, a loose valve seat caused the exhaust valve to break, badly damaging the cylinder head. And he had no spares. Any other rider would have retired, but Dhne asked a BMW rider who was watching the racing if he could borrow his cylinder head - and the rest is history. It was an amazing result for a part-time racer on a bike that everyone thought would be no match for the Laverda triples and Ducati V-twins.

Dhne's TT winning bike is now in BMW's museum in Munich as part of the Mobile Tradition collection of historic vehicles, and has been restored to its former glory. Fortunately, it is not destined just for a life on display and still comes out for special occasions. In fact, Dhne was recently seen in his trademark red and white leathers powering it up the famous hill at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed, where the racing community gathers each year to treat the `petrol heads' to a display of four and two-wheeled exotica.

With the R 90 S, Dhne proved that even if a bike lacked the outright power of some of its competitors, fine handling characteristics and the right tires could make it just as quick around the racetrack. He should know of course, as he is the motorcycle lap record holder at the infamous Nurburgring circuit. And although he is retired now from his job with Metzeler tyres, he still finds time to take people to the `Ring for some expert tuition.

"The modern sports boxers are great bikes," says Dahne. "I've ridden the R 1200 S and BMW is definitely going down the right road in terms of its sporting program - they should get many new customers with their sportier bikes. BMW Motorrad's participation in this year's endurance program is great news too. I grew up with BMW and we went into endurance racing in 1973 at the Bol d'or on a 900cc bike with a white fairing. It didn't look pretty but we finished third!"

In fact, Dhne has been a loyal servant of BMW Motorrad for several decades. Riding a variety of BMWs - including R 69s, R50s, R75s, R 90s and R 100s - he has competed and tasted success in many national and international events such as the Le Mans 24 Hour, Imola 200 and Hockenheim 1000 Kilometers races. And while his racing days are well behind him, the 62-year-old still finds time to organize the Dolomiten Rallye in Tuscany, where riders on twin- and single-cylinder enduro bikes have their riding skills and navigational ability thoroughly tested. The majority of the competitors in this event ride BMW's GS range of machines, and last year's winner was BMW Motorrad Chassis Engineer Robert Wagner, who took the victory on his HP2 Enduro.

Dhne himself rides a GS these days, although a twinkle comes to his eye when his R 90 S race bike is mentioned, and you have to wonder how he would have performed as a modern-day racer on the latest modified R 1200 S sports boxer. One thing is for sure; he's stamped his mark in the BMW history books and is part of a racing tradition that stretches back more than 80 years to the early Isle of Man TT success of Georg Meier in 1939. And just like the rest of us, Helmut Dhne is looking forward to mid-September, when the BMW Motorrad Motorsport team contests the Bol d'or at the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours in France. Unlike us however, he knows what it feels like to stand on the podium.