The BMW R32 was the first motorbike produced by BMW under the BMW name. The company, a manufacturer of aircraft engines during World War I, was forced to diversify after the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the German air force from producing aircraft. In order to survive, the company was forced to divert materials originally intended for aircraft engine production to other uses.
In 1919, BMW designed and manufactured the M2B15 engine for the Nuremberg-based motorbike manufacturer Victoria Werke AG. Although the engine was initially intended as a portable industrial engine, it found its primary use in Victori motorbikes and in the Helios motorbike built by Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, which later merged with BMW AG. This engine already featured its famous boxer layout, so representative of BMW motorbikes.
But why this cylinder arrangement? BMW engineers were of the opinion that the cylinder arrangement provided a good balance and also projected the airflow towards the cylinders to increase cooling efficiency, something that was not always possible with a V-arrangement.
After the company merger, BMW CEO Franz Josef Popp asked Design Director Max Friz to evaluate the Helios motorbike, who, upon completing his review, suggested to Popp that “the best thing to do with the Helios would be to throw it in the nearest lake”... due to what he understood to be a very poor quality design. Popp and Friz then agreed on a short-term solution to redesign the Helios to make it more marketable and a long-term solution for a completely new motorbike design. This new design was designated the BMW R32 and went into production in 1923, becoming the first motorbike to receive the BMW badge.
Already an icon of pre-World War II industrial design, the BMW R32 was featured in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao dedicated to the world of two wheels, “The Art of the Motorcycle”, and fetches very high prices at auction, with one in good condition fetching up to €150,000.