Thousands of race fans from all over the world make the annual pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to experience the unique atmosphere of the Isle of Man TT, which will take place from 25 May to 7 June. This year, a good selection of riders will be taking on the famous Mountain Course on a selection of BMW S 1000 RR and HP4 machines in search of a place in the history books. Turn the clock back nearly three quarters of a century and although the bikes were rather different, the racing was just as competitive…
In June 1939 as war clouds were gathering over Europe, BMW rider Georg ‘Schorsch’ Meier stood atop of the pinnacle of world motorcycle sport. He had become the first foreigner riding a non-British motorcycle to win the Isle of Man Senior TT, the world’s most important race. Meier and Scottish rider Jock West finished in first and second places in the Senior TT, riding the most advanced racing motorcycle built to that date – the stunning Type 255 RS 500cc Compressor.
BMW had been at the centre of German motorcycle racing from the beginning. The quest for the Isle of Man TT victory and European championships had developed in the mid 1930s and by 1938 the racing Compressor had been developed to a stage where it was theoretically possible to win the coveted prize. However, it was not to be as Karl Gall crashed out and Meier withdrew very early with mechanical problems. This meant that 1939 would be an ‘all or nothing’ year, as war seemed inevitable.
The BMW 255 Supercharged Boxer was the world’s most advanced and lightest racing motorcycle at the time. It was built only for the track and everything was produced specifically to make it more competitive. The bike weighed only 138 kg – some 15 kg lighter than the opposition – and with 60 hp on hand it produced massive drive out of the corners and was quicker on the straights than the best British or Italian machines.
The M225/1motor was a remarkable piece of engineering with the valves operated by twin overhead cams driven by spur-gear, a short bevel drive system. The Supercharger mounted on the front of the motor was driven directly by the crankshaft. The cylinders were manufactured from aluminium and the engine block from magnesium, as was the supercharger casing and even the mudguard. The handlebars were made of aluminium, as were the wheel rims, and even the spoke nipples (which were normally brass or steel) were aluminium to save weight. Nothing was left to chance – this was pre-war BMW engineering at its very best.
These technical advances set the Compressor apart from other racing bikes of the era. The bike was light and powerful and reached amazing speeds for the time (more than 220 km/h or 136 mph with the rider crouching behind the screen). It had suspension that was primitive by today’s standards but was then at the forefront of development. Braking was matched to the potential of the motorcycle and was fitted with an early version of linked brakes with the rear linked via cable to the front drum.
For the 1939 TT BMW had a three-man team consisting of Meier, Austrian Karl Gall and Jock West from the UK. The riders arrived at the Isle of Man a couple of weeks prior to the commencement of racing. They rode R 66 production models around the circuit, learning all they could about the challenging track. Legend has it Meier even removed a small piece of rock with a hammer, as it interrupted his line of sight.
As it turned out, the quest for victory was almost called off after Gall suffered a severe fall in practice on the jump over Ballaugh Bridge. And this time he was so badly injured that he died 11 days later. BMW considered withdrawing but the team eventually decided that they would race, as this is what Gall would have wanted.
BMW was not given much of a chance by experienced track watchers, even with Meier having the fastest practice time. Perhaps the thought of a foreigner on a foreign bike was just too much to take in? Meier nevertheless rode a fantastic race, setting a new lap record in the very first lap and leading the race ahead of the 42 other competitors right from the start. In the end, after nearly three hours of racing, ‘Schorsch’ won the TT by an amazing two minutes and 20 seconds ahead of team-mate Jock West, giving BMW a perfect one-two victory.
Following this success, Meier rode the Compressor in the Dutch TT and then in Belgium, and as war loomed, he took his bike and hid it in a barn to keep it safe. Meier himself was in the army but was unfit for active service due to racing injury, so worked as a motorcycle instructor and also as the personal driver for Wilhelm Canaris, head of German Military Intelligence.
At the end of the war the bike had survived and when in 1947 Meier took it to the Solitude track, over 200,000 spectators were on hand. The bike had a mixed history but was always treasured and was often seen at special events, including a lap of honour with Meier at the Isle of Man in 1989. Racing legend John Surtees became the eventual owner and he restored and rode the bike in many historical events.
In 2003 he handed the bike over to BMW Mobile Tradition (now BMW Classic). The Compressor was back home and after a complete restoration it continues to be taken out on the track for demonstration runs and has pride of place in the BMW Museum.