published at 13.08.2012, 09:44

Cannonball challenge on a 1928 BMW R 52

In September, BMW enthusiast Darryl Richman will be putting his 1928 R 52 to the ultimate test by competing in the Cannonball Rally – a unique competition open to motorcycles manufactured up to 1929 that sees riders and their vintage machines take on the North American continent on a coast-to-coast run against the clock.

Starting on 7 September, Darryl will begin a 17-day journey across the United States on his 84-year-old BMW bike, riding all the way from New York to San Francisco. His route will take in some of the best scenery and landmarks the USA has to offer, including national parks and forests, the great lakes, the Mississippi river, the plains, the Black Hills, Rushmore, Devils Tower, Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, the Avenue of the Giants, Pacific Coast Highway, the Golden Gate Bridge and much more.

This ambitious ride will see Richman average around 300 miles (500 km) per day on his R 52, making it a true endurance run for the long time sport and touring rider, who has been restoring and riding BMW bikes for more than three decades now, and has experienced more than half a million miles (800,000 km) from the saddle of various BMW boxer twins.

Darryl bought his 1928 BMW R 52 in Germany in 2004 and had the motor and magneto overhauled before bringing it to the USA in 2006. Having participated in a number of vintage events in Germany and in the US, Darryl has put around 2,000 ‘modern’ miles on the bike so far without any major problems, although this latest challenge will test it to the absolute limits.

“I’ve got one of the smallest bikes being entered, as almost half the bikes are big 1200cc Harley-Davidsons and big Henderson Fours,” said Richman, who is the Vice President and Webmaster for the Vintage BMW Motorcycle Owners club. “It’s going to be a tough rally for these old bikes, especially the sections across the Appalachian Mountains and though Wyoming where they will struggle with the high-altitude. I’ve ridden slide-carb bikes over some of the passes in the Sierra Nevada before, including my R 90 S, where I wasn’t able to use fifth gear at all, struggled in fourth gear and actually had to opt for third gear most of the time. With the R 52 though, I only have three gears, so that’s ok!”

Richman has been in Europe earlier this summer sourcing extra parts for the R 52, which will need careful treatment to ensure it gets from the east to west coast of America safely. Up until last October, the furthest he had ridden it in one day was around 100 miles (160 km) but since then he has successfully completed a 220-mile return trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco from his home in Santa Cruz, with no mishaps, low oil usage and good fuel consumption.

“This was important for me, as the organisers of the rally told us that we needed to be able to do at least 100 miles without having to stop for gas,” he said. “My R 52 only has a 12-litre fuel tank, so it was reassuring to discover that it is remarkably fuel efficient. The riding experience is very different from a modern motorcycle though; there is no twist grip throttle, the transmission is very simple and of the three gears I have, only the first and third gears are constant mesh – you have to get the wheel speed and engine speed really close before you try to shift gear!”

In the inaugural 2010 Motorcycle Cannonball, 45 riders started in North Carolina and 37 of them finished in Santa Monica, California, after riding 3,294 miles on machines built before 1916. For 2012, the route will be longer and more difficult, with motorcycles built up to 1930 allowed to join in the fun. This year’s event has attracted enthusiasts and collectors from Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, France, the UK and Italy, as well as the USA. Although most of the machines competing are American Harley-Davidsons, there are plenty of other brands represented including three BMWs (a 1928 R 62 and a 1929 R 11 as well as Darryl’s 1928 R 52), Indian, Henderson, Triumph, Rudge, Excelsior, BSA, Sunbeam and JAP.

Keeping an antique motorcycle running for the duration of this rally will require mechanical skills and resourcefulness of the highest calibre, which is why Darryl is taking a team of his friends along for assistance and support, and also to film and photograph the ride.

“It’s not as if I can get the parts that I may need while on the road,” says Darryl. “They don’t exist in motorcycle dealers, so we have to be smart in the way we will try to keep the bike running. We’ll change the oil every night – not because the R 52 needs it but because if there is anything not quite right, then maybe we would see it in the oil and can then make plans about how to repair a problem before it actually occurs.”

As such, his Chief Mechanic Paul Glaves will be driving a van complete with workbenches, power and tools, while other team members will be riding their own bikes. With just weeks to go now before the start of the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, Darryl is hoping that his love affair with old BMWs will still be intact if he makes it all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and returns across the Golden Gate Bridge to a heroes’ welcome into San Francisco.

“The most important thing for me is to complete the ride,” he says. You get a point for every mile and then lose points for various penalties. However, I’m not concerned about winning – I just want to ride every mile. I’ve got eight BMW bikes now, one from every decade apart from the 1930s and the current one. I’d be happy if I could find an R 66 from the 1930s, but I’m not sure which bike I’d like from 2010 onwards. Surprisingly, I haven’t got a GS in my collection, so maybe that’s the next BMW for me!”

To follow Darryl Richman’s blog about the forthcoming Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run, visit