Thursday, April 22, 2010

Das Kleine Wunder - the story of a remarkable engine

In 1906 a Danish engineer, J. S Rassmussen, founded a manufacturing company in the German city of Zchopau. The company initially built machinery for the textile industry, but in 1919 produced a small two stroke motor that could be fitted onto a bicycle. These tiny engines were remarkably efficient and could push a bicycle along at 40 kilometres per hour. The engines sold extremely well in post-WW1 Germany, leading Rassmussen to begin building his own bicycles.

An DKW bicycle fitted with a DKW detachable engine.

The success of the bicycle engine led DKW to experiment with new designs. In 1921 DKW released the scooter-like Golem, powered by DKWs 140cc stationary engine mounted between the riders feet. It wasn't exactly a successful design but led in its turn to the improved Lomos in 1922, which featured larger wheels and the engine mounted under the riders seat. The Lomos sold an credible 2,500 units and turned DKWs attention towards building real motorcycles.

The Lomos was a great improvement over the Golem, not just in name. Large wheels added to stability. The placement of the engine under the seat was also a vast improvement. Although very old fashioned, many Lomos' continued to be ridden well into the 1930s.

DKW's first real motorcycle was only a small step up from the motorised bicycles the company had been manufacturing to date. The stationary engine that had powered the Lomos was now mounted to the front frame of the bicycle with belt drive to the rear wheel. It wasn't a very efficient machine but it pointed the way to the future. Year on year the design was improved and sales steadily rose.

DKWs bicycle origins are clearly apparent in this 1922 machine. The 140cc engine was a real workhorse for DKW. It was originally designed and sold in large numbers as a stationary engine, it also went into the Golem and the Lomos and the first generation of DKW motorcycles, while both the Framo and Phanomen transporter companies independently installed the engine in their three wheeler delivery vehicles.

In 1927, DKW's engine design took a leap forward when chief engineer, Dr Ing Schnuerle, developed the inverted scavenging loop system that is still the basis of all modern two strokes. One key to the DKW engine's success was its impressive power to size ratio - able to generate up to 15hp and reach a top speed of 120kph for its diminutive 125cc displacement. In England and the US, motorcycle manufacturers were building heavy, multi-cylinder four strokes to get the same performance. The engine was also absolutely simple; there were only four moving parts and with only basic maintenance it could run forever. DKW's engine was so successful that by 1928 the company had become the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing 65% of all motorcycles in built in Germany as well as supplying engines for many other German marques.

Nothing demonstrates the simplicity of DKW's two stroke engines more that their own 1939 DKW-Front brochure. The diagram on the left shows the Schnuerle process. On the right are comparisons of the moving parts inside the DKW engine and a standard four stroke.

DKW soon expanded its range to include a range of singles (from 100cc through to 1000cc), a split single that was used in racing engines, a series of twins and triples for use in cars. Nowadays, two stroke powered cars are looked at as an odd dead-end development, but that's just an accident of history. In the 1920s and 30s DKW built a wide range of quality cars powered by their little two strokes engines that were the equal of any of their competitors in styling and quality, but were cheaper, lighter and more economical. They also experimented with synthetic body panels. DKW soon became one of the biggest car manufacturers in Germany.

The DKW range of two stroke cars in the 1930s.

The tiny size of the DKW twine is clearly evident under the hood.

In 1931 DKW released the RT 125cc motorcycle. It was a lightweight, fast and stylish machine. DKW's advanced, production line construction techniques meant that DKW were able to pump out a record 60,000 units in 1932, the pinnacle year of their production. It was such a robust and reliable design that versions of this motorcycle would continue to run off production lines around the world for 30 years.

The RT 125 - DKW's "little wonder" would become one of the most influential motorcycles in history.

A 1927 film by DKW shows workers riding to work on their DKW motorcycles at the Zschopau.
Despite being the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, the Great Depression took its toll, leading DKW to join with three other Saxon auto manufacturers, Horch, Wanderer and Audi to form Auto Union,the union symbolised by the four interlocking rings that we recognise today as the Audi logo. To avoid competition, each company was given a particular market segment to focus on. Horch retained the top end of the car market, building expensive luxury cars. Audi was virtually retired as a brand, building only a small volume of large saloon cars, and Wandereri built mid range cars. DKW however took the lions share of the 1930s market - low cost cars and motorcycles.

As with all other serious motorcycle companies, DKW took to motor-racing to demonstrate the power of its engines. In 1937 and 1938 bikes won the European championships, and in 1938 a 250cc racer achieved a world record speed of 183kph.

The 1939 DKW US 250 split-twin supercharged racer.

For more information on DKW's racing history:

Despite DKW's commercial success, the German army never showed any real interest in their motorcycle products, instead preferring the heavier 750cc BMW R21. Once the war started however, they adopted the NZ 350 as a dispatch rider's bike. The bike saw service in all theatres.

An Afrika Korps NZ350-1 at the Audi Museum. Between 1939 and 1943 DKW simply produced its civilian NZ350 for the army without making any changes to design or build, but in 1943 lack of aluminum led them to produce the NZ350-1 with cast iron pistons.

Post-war dismemberment...

Surprisingly, DKW's Zschopau factory wasn't damaged during the war but it by fate it was in the Soviet occupation zone. Some of the captured Auto-Union management  were executed by the Soviets for their use of slave and forced labour during the war, then the factories were stripped of everything of value and shipped it back to the Soviet Union. Surviving engineers and executives fled to the west, taking whatever intellectual property they possessed with them.

All the Allies were keen to get their hands on DKW's designs. The British and Americas claimed them as war reparations, but the Soviets were less concerned with legalities and simply dismantled the Zschopau plant and shipped it to Izkevsk in Russia and between 1946 and 1951 the Russians built 127,000 NZ350's under the IZH trademark.

The Minsk Moskva - the start of a long and venerable line of Soviet 125ccs.

The IZH 350 wasn't the only DKW knock-off the Soviets produced. They also began manufacturing a version of the RT 125 as the M-1A Moskva in a factory outside Moscow. In 1951 the plant was relocated to Minsk in Belarus. From then on Minsk specialised in 125cc motorcycles, exporting hundreds of thousands all across the socialist world. The collapse of communism and direct competition with cheap Japanese exports placed the company under extreme financial pressure however, and in 2005 the Belorussian government intervened to prevent the company going into receivership. Although its survival remains tenuous, Minsk continues to produce 125cc motorcycles today.
Richard Hammond rode one during the Top Gear Vietnam special.

And meanwhile in England
In Britain, the designs for the RT 125 were handed over to BSA, but initially no one knew what to do with them. Such a small engine just seemed to have no market in Britain where four strokes dominated the market. In 1948, BSA took a leap and developed the RT 125 into the Bantam in response to a potential export contract. The contract fell through however and so the Bantam was released in Britain, where its low cost and reliability made it an instant winner. The Bantam would become one of the best selling British motorcycles of all time, with a production run from 1948 to 1973 turning out almost half a million units.

For many in post-war Britain, the 'little rooster' was their first ride.

BSA's subsidiary, Ariel, also received the plans to DKW's parallel twin 250cc engine which they eventually used in their radical new motorcycle design, the Ariel Leader in 1958.

Although the Leader's styling was unique, the engine design was not. It was based on DKW's proven parallel twin, a design also copied by the German company, Adler.

Across the Pond
In the US, Harley-Davidson had also received the designs for the RT 125 and in 1948 released their version as the Model 125. For Harley-Davidson, who specialised in big twin four strokes, this was their first foray into two stroke engines. In 1953, the engine size was increased to 165cc, but in 1955, they reverted back to the 125cc engine and renamed the bike the Hummer. It would continue in production until 1959.

Not quite the whole hog... and a two stroke to boot!

In 1960 Harley-Davidson used a 165cc DKW two stroke in their scooter, the Harley-Davidson Topper. The engine was built by the Italian motorcycle manufacturer, Aeromacchi, whom H-D had partnered with to build the Topper. Ultimately it wasn't a successful venture.

Long regarded as a failure (it was), the Topper is now quite sought after due to its rarity.

And in the far east
Even in far away Japan the RT 125 was making its mark. In 1955 Yamaha reverse engineered an RT125 and releasing it as the YA-1. Exactly where they acquired their pattern is uncertain. It could have been from a German import, a Soviet version picked up in China, or even a copy of a Harley-Davidson Hummer acquired from US occupation forces. Regardless, the YA-1's design origins were clear. In later years Yamaha would copy the NZ35o and other German machines, like the Adler 250cc. Parallel twin two strokes following the DKW/Adler design would be copied by other Japanese manufacturers including Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki and be produced in their millions right up to the present day.

Dejavu.... again.

And Resurrection.
After the loss of its Zwickau factory DKW re-established itself in Ingolstadt in West Germany and began manufacturing the RT 125 and NZ 330 motorcycles. Car production didn't restart until 1948. In 1955 DKW attempted to break into the scooter market with the Hobby. Powered by a small 75cc engine, the enigmatic little scooter featured automatic, variable speed drive that gave it a surprisingly nimble performance. But the Hobby didn't sell as well as DKW hoped so they sold the manufacturing rights to the French scooter company Manuhurin which continued producing it into the early 60s.

I almost bought this gorgeous 1955 Hobby when I bought the Troll in 2008. It was very tempting but I decided that buying three scooters would just be a little too extravagant.

In 1958 DKW re-entered the moped market with the beautifully styled 49cc Hummel, but once again it failed to be the success they hoped for. In 1960 DKW's moped arm merged with Victoria and Express to form Zweirad Union. ZU continued with the Hummel and various derivatives for a number of years.

The DKW Hummel was space age in its styling but never a big seller.

Daimler-Benz bought out DKW and the Auto-Union in 1957 but its continued financial decline led them to sell it to Volkswagen in 1964. Volkswagen was not so keen on maintaining DKWs line of economical two stroke cars and wound up DKW in 1966, reviving the Audi brand instead.

A life at half speed - East Germany
But of course that wasn't the end. In East Germany, the Zschopau factory was resurrected by VEB, the state owned auto conglomerate in 1948. In 1950 they began producing versions of the RT 125 and NZ 350 under the name IFA (Industrieverband Fahrzeugau AG).

An IFA and a MZ version of the RT 125cc at the East German Motorcycle Museum in Berlin.

IFA even resurrected DKW's racing heritage to compete in European championships.

In 1956, IFA was renamed Motorrad Zschopau, or MZ for short, and were soon producing a range of engines for their motorcycles varying in size between 125, 150, 175 and 250. MZ supplied the engines for the IWL range of scooters and Simson mopeds. In fact, VEB cancelled all four stroke engine development for cars and motorcycles in favour of the cheaper and simpler MZ engine.

IWL's Pitty and Wiesel featured the DKW 125cc engine. Whilst it could push the little RT 125 along at a cracking pace, the engine really struggled to move these heavy beasts. In 1959 MZ increased the engine size to 143cc for the IWL Berlin and Troll. They were still underpowered though.

In 1962 the DKW 125cc engine, now more than 30 years old appeared in a new generation of MZ motorcycle - the ES125. The ES range led on to the distinctive styling of the MZ Trophy, East Germany's successful export motorcycle.

A group of early MZ ES and ETS models at the East German Motorcycle Museum.

MZ stuck with its two strokes until 1990 when it introduced the MZ 500-R four stroke. Unlike other Eastern European motor companies, MZ had built a strong export market for their motorcycles which enabled them to survive the transition from socialism to capitalism a little better than most. However, by 1993 MuZ (as it was then known) had pretty much lots its domestic market to Japanese imports and went into receivership. Its motorcycle production facilities were sold to the Turkish Kanuni motorcycle company, which still produces new bikes and spares for almost the entire range of MZ machines - which makes restoring an IWL or MZ bike far less taxing than it could be!

In 2010 the MZ company was revived by two former MZ racing identities. The company is once again manufacturing motorbikes and scooters, albeit on a small scale.

Here is a German video documentary about DKW and MZ.

IFA did not disappear with the name change in 1956. IFA took over the Audi production facilities at Zwickau to manufacture a range of heavy duty trucks and the East German 'people's car', the Trabant.  , The Trabant was powered by an air-cooled, two cylinder two-stroke engine based on a prewar DKW motorcycle engine. 3 million Trabants would be built before production ceased in the mid 1990s.

The infamous two stroke Trabant engine was the direct descendent of DKW's two stroke motorcycle engine developed in the 1930s.

When it comes to longevity, there is little to compare with DKW's two-stroke engines. Their 125cc really was the first modern, reliable two stroke and its modern derivatives are still manufactured by Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Minsk today - almost 80 years after they were first invented.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Not quite close enough

Today was a day of great expectations. The Ariel was finally ready so I took a day off work and popped around to the Vespa Shop to pick her up. She looked great with the new whitewall tyres and the side panels and fender repainted. She started up easily and ran smoothly.

I was very nervous riding her. Firstly, as the polarity of the Leader's electrics is reversed from almost every other bike, the standard 6 volt flasher unit I'd bought wouldn't work so we removed the indicators at the last minute. I'll try and find a replacement and install them later. When you suddenly find yourself riding without indicators you realise how 'out there' you are on the road. I also struggled with the right hand gear change and almost constantly knocked myself out of gear every time I tried to brake. I felt very unsafe.

That said, the bike is surprising pleasant to ride. Despite her weighty appearance she is light and sprightly and can manouver tightly. I can fully understand why the Leader was voted Best New Motorcycle in 1959. All of the contemporary reviews I've read have expressed surprise and delight at her handling. I'm just going to have to acclimatise to the controls and that'll come with time.

So once again I queued at the inspection centre. There was a lot of interest in the bike - almost everyone came over for look and chat. Several old guys recognised her and we all had a long conversation about Ariel Square Fours. Then the inspection got underway and I had to remove the side panels, which was time consuming but not a difficult. The bike had been sitting almost an hour when we tested the electrics and there was immediately a problem. The headlight, so bright earlier in the morning, faded out. I suggested we run her and get the charge back up, but she just wouldn't start. It was the Troll fiasco all over again! After two hours exhausting myself trying to get her started I called Ivo and he and Roberto drove around to the centre (I did get her running eventually and rode her around the yard for half an hour to warm up, but she died again as soon as I stopped). We fiddled around with it for another half an hour but the spark was gone. We thought it was a problem with a coil as one cylinder would spark but not the other, so then it was back to the shop. As soon as a new battery went in the Ariel jumped back to life so I rode it back to the inspection centre. Things then got very frustrating.

I'd bought the bike from a dealer, who picked it up from a deceased estate, where it had been sitting for decades in a shed. It had not been licensed since the 1970's. But we were now told that unless there is record in the national database, they could not register the bike. The national database goes back to... ugh, 1990 something. Unless of course I could get the original registration. But, even if I could get the original registration it still wouldn't be in the database so... we went around a merry circle. I even got Barry from the Vintage Motorcycle Swapshop on the phone who offered to do a stat dec on the circumstances of where he got the bike, but that was 'unacceptable.' It was extemely frustrating. This all just bureaucracy. There will be a way around this. Hell, basket cases and barn finds are restored and put back on the road all the time!

Finally, at 4pm, after another hours wait, during which time the inspectors had decided they wouldn't test ride the bike after all, but neglected to tell me, I left. I'd spent the whole day at the licensing centre - not the best day I've had.

On the ride home things didn't get better. I took the backstreets as I didn't want to ride in peak hour traffic but as I reached the main roads near my house the engine started backfiring and smoking like a steam train. Damn it - more problems - serious problems. I managed to nurse it home but I think it's time for new rings and probably electronic ignition too. Maybe that will solve the electrical problems once and for all.

In the meantime I have more investigation to do to overcome the registration 'challenge.' It makes me wonder what will happen to all the old bikes that get sold on ebay without papers - there are lots! How are their new owners going to go when the front up for inspection?

Okay, so she's not quite running but boy she is a handsome bike.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Whiteman Park Motor Museum

It was something of a quiet Easter Monday so Shelly and I headed up to Whiteman Park to visit the Western Australian Motor Museum. The museum hosts the biggest collection of vintage motor vehicles in Western Australia, although not all of the collection is on display. It doesn't compare with Sinshiem in Germany for scale but it made a nice outing.

Of particular interest to me was the Percy Markham Collection of vintage cars. Percy Markham is my father's uncle and once owned one of the most important private collections of vintage cars in Australia. He had made his fortune in real estate in the post war years and began collecting old cars and motorbikes from around the world. Eventually he established the Antique Auto Museum in Wembley. When he retired he found maintaining the museum a little impractical so in 1969 he sold 22 of the most important cars in the collection to the WA Museum on the understanding that they would maintain the collection. I can remember going to the Perth Museum as a kid and seeing the whole collection spread out on the ground floor. Then, in the wheeler dealer 1980s, our state government decided to sell off the collection. Publicly they said it was because none of the cars had a specifically West Australian connection, but in reality it was because they realized they were sitting on a gold mine of rare vehicles that they'd paid virtually nothing for. The government of that time was nothing if not greedy (the premier and a number of his cronies would later spend some years behind bars for corruption) and in the face of public outcry and protests sold 10 of the cars at auction in 1980. Nine of the cars were sold and most have left the country, never to return. The remaining twelve cars were removed from public display and placed in storage where they could be safely forgotten.

The sale remains a controversial issue even today. Nearly forty years after the event the WA Museum still refuses to discuss the matter. The sale continues to get occasional airplay in parliament.

One of the side effects of this event was that the motoring community of Western Australia came together and created the foundation that would become the Motor Museum of Western Australia. The government granted land and permitted the establishment of museum at Whiteman Park. The WA Museum has loaned several surviving Markham collection cars to the Motor Museum. Hopefully these photos give a good impression of the collection as it was in 2010.

The Veteran and Vintage Collection

A row of vintage cars

1932 Rockne, a shortlived budget marque by Studebaker.

Morris Cowley 'bull nose.' Although this is not the Markham car, the Morris Cowley was the first vintage car that Percy Markham bought. He bought it as a family project to give his sons some mechanical experience. Percy's son John remembers sitting around the kitchen table with his brothers as kids polishing panels. This was a time when vintage cars didn't really have much value and soon after they'd finished that project people in the neighbourhood were asking Percy if he was interested in taking their grandparents old rust buckets off them. Percy took on a Dodge for the second project and the rest was history.

The Model T Ford on the left is from the Markham collection. This was was Percy's youngest son, Barry's, favourite vehicle.

The Moon is one of those obscure marques that few people remember.

A 1920's Detroit Electric car and an Austin 7 Baby. The extraordinary Detroit electric car must have seemed quite anachronistic for its time with its distinctly Edwardian styling and vis-a-vis (face to face) seating and tiller steering. This was part of the Percy Markham collection and used to be one of my favourites as kid.

This car was owned by a little old lady who lived in Claremont (or was it Nedlands?) who'd owned it since new.

Detroit interior showing the face to face seating and tiller steering.

A Model T ambulance (one for my dad, who used to work for St John).



A 1924 Bentley with a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost in the background. The Rolls was part of the Percy Markham Collection and was always my favourite.

This 1924 Vauxhall was part of the Markham collection.


Another Packard (I think?)

The Veterans

The oldest car in the collection, the 1898 Star and a 1905 De Dion Bouton. Both were part of the Percy Markham Collection.

The Star was originally bought by Percy Markham from a famous Scottish veteran car collection called the Sword Collection. The Sword collection was sold off in the 1970s after the owner died. The collection was considered to be of outstanding value and importance, but no museum was prepared to purchase the lot. Eventually the collection was auctioned and distributed around the world. A decade later people began to realize that the country (UK) had lost something that could never be recovered.

I love the distinctive shovel nose bonnet of the De Dion Bouton.

This Benz chassis is one of the oldest vehicles in Western Australia.

1908 Rover. This was part of the Markham collection.

1910 BSA. This unfinished restoration project was part of the Markham collection.

The 1950s and 60's

A 1950's Hudson

Ford Thunderbird

1949 Ford


Bedford truck

A very cool DeSoto Airflow. This was the little brother of the famous Chrysler Airflow. This is a very early model from 1934 as the backlash against the Airflow's styling lead to a complete restyling of the grill the following year.

The iconic Fiat bambino

Two peoples' cars - the VW and the Mini

An Austin A40. My parents once owned one of these.

The Motorcycle Collection

1925 Bradshaw

The 1947 Salsbury Super scooter

Two BMWs, a Honda Dream and a Calthorpe. Unfortunately the display is a little bit cramped and it's difficult to appreciate the bikes properly.

A very rare 1948 Swallow Gadabout. The English Swallow company build motorcycle side cars and in 1946 ventured into scooters. The design closely resembles an American Cushman (probably copied from military versions used during the war). Construction was very simple -the chassis was a modified industrial ladder frame with a ubiquitous Villiers motorcycle engine. About 2000 were built and very few survive. Here's a link to some more information abot these rare scooters provided by enthusiast Michael Nangreave.

The 1950 Corgi folding scooter was another British wartime design. Originally designed as a military transport that could be carried by troops or dropped by parachute, but it proved too unreliable for actual use. After the war Corgi improved the engine and released it for civilian use. Many thousands were built and there are a surprisingly large number still in existence.

A beautiful 1927 Indian with a 1935 Calthorpe behind. The Indian was part of the Markham collection.

The charming BSA Bantam. After the Second World War BSA received the designs of DKW's advanced two stroke engine as part of war reparations, but the tiny engine was only 125ccs and no one in England could see much use for it. In 1948 however BSA decided to use it in a light-weight, cheap motorcycle. It was an absolute winner and became one of the best selling British motorcycles of all time, remaining in production until 1973. BSA also received DKW's designs for a 250cc two stroke engine and passed that along to their subsidary, Ariel, but that's another story...

Behind the Bantum is a Royal Enfield Bullet. Royal Enfield introduced the Bullet in the early 1950s. The design and tooling was sold to Madras Motors in India in 1955 and they have been producing the same motorbike ever since, more or less.

1928 Excelsior X four cylinder. One of the few American bikes in the display.

1927 Levis. This was part of the Markham collection.

Ariel sidecar racer. This championship winning bike has been so modified that it barely resembles the Ariel it was built from.

A row of Velocettes

Velocette Venom

The Holden Display

FJ Holden

Holden 48/215

The Holden 48-215, otherwise known as the FX. The design was copied from a Chevrolet design as the original Holden design was a little too.. English.

Holden FB

Holden EH Premier

Aussie muscle - Holden Monaro GTS

Back end of the Holden display

The Tractor Museum

Trams run around Whiteman Park

Bill the Steam Shovel

Steam Traction engine