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Hugo Vanneck
Little did I know
when I bought
a 1961 Citroen
2CV in France in
1974 for about $200, that I was starting a long-term
love affair with air-cooled, horizontally opposed
engines. I thrashed that car for the next 7 years and
being young and without money learnt how to keep it
going. Advertising literature for 2CVs in the 50's
claimed that the 425cc engined 2CV could be run at
maximum revs day in and day without harm. It can and
loves it.

After a couple of other 2CVs and a few years, in 1987
to be exact, I bought another air-cooled car - a 1972
Porsche 911S. I was 32 and had a good job with a
good salary and decided if I didn't get a sports car then,
I never would. I decided on an old 911 after reading an
article extolling its virtues in Classic Car magazine. In
the article, the writer, who also happened to be an
R90S rider, claimed the 911 was the nearest thing on 4
wheels to a motorcycle. There was a photo of his
R90S next to his 911S and that image stuck in my mind.




3 years later I changed jobs and found myself commuting into
central London - whereas before I had a parking space I didn't
now and was taking the train. After 2 weeks of that, and tearing
my hair out at the delays and being packed like a sardine I
decided I had to get a bike. Like many people I think, I'd had a
secret desire to try motorcycling for quite a while and now here
was a damned good reason. I just wanted a little commuter, a
200cc something or other, and said as much to an R100RT riding
friend, Chris. Asking him for his opinion of a Kawasaki I was
considering I got the reply, 'I know you, Hugo. You want quality.
You want something that goes, 'Dofty-dofty', not something that
goes, 'Wheeeeeeinggg'. You want a BMW!'. It turns out he was
right.

He promised to help me buy one and I found one I could afford in
'Loot', an English weekly classified paper. It was a 1983 R65LS
and had been in a crash. It was straight but without a cowling
and was only 800 quid (about $1200). Chris and I went to have
a look and after a short ride Chris affirmed it rode straight and I
bought it. Another 50 quid or so for a 2nd hand cowl and fittings
I was a biker. My first impression of the LS was how unlike a
bicycle it was - one subconscious fear I realised I'd had was that
a motorcycle was like a bicycle and that very hard front braking
would send me flying over the handlebars. I was amazed at
how the front 'gave' on the LS, it being much softer than the bike
I'd passed my test on at the riding school.

That bike changed my life. One of the first pleasures I was
struck by was the feeling of moving through the air without being
all enclosed as in a car. Also, how there was nothing between
you and the world around you. I loved it! I had no idea about
dressing for the task and got soaked and froze my nuts off quite
a few times before I discovered there was a whole world of
winter biking wear suppliers out there. I've been learning ever
since. I was also loved the feeling of comradeship typical among
bikers in the UK... the waves and nodded greetings.
My first long ride on that bike was from London, through France,
Spain and Portugal before Spain again and by ferry to Morocco.
My girlfriend Yuko flew out to meet me and we toured Morocco
for a couple of weeks. I covered 3500 miles in 5 weeks. For an
account of that trip, see:
There's an account on the same site of a much later trip I made in
Japan at:

I sold the LS when I moved to Japan in 1994 and shortly after
arriving here bought a 1987 R65. In the following 8 years I
covered 80,000 kms on it going all over Japan. It was about 2
years after coming here that I discovered the Airhead Mailing List
and thanks to the collective knowledge of people there have
managed to do all my own servicing and repairs and to keep
mobile. When I bought the R65 the steering head bearings were
loose and after taking it back to the dealer 3 times gave up on
them and decided that if I wanted my bike to run as I wanted I'd
better do the work myself. The dealer wouldn't even sell me the
36mm BMW steering head nut tool, saying that they didn't sell
special tools to 'ordinary' people.
Japan is an odd country when it comes to bike maintenance,
especially to someone from the UK where tinkering with
machines is almost genetic. I was shocked when I found out
that the vast majority of Japanese riders take their bikes to the
dealer for everything, including oil changes. Not what you'd
expect from the world's foremost bike and car manufacturer.
They aren't encouraged by dealers who do everything they
can to protect their income either.

After 7 years here I bought an accident damaged '87 R80 as a
'fast bike' project and then a 1983 R80ST which has since
become my favourite BMW airhead, although the LS and the R65
still have a special place in my feelings - if and when I have
garage space and the money I shall get one of each again. I sold
the R65 to a friend and now help him keep it running. In fact, I'm
directly responsible for 7 Japanese friends buying airheads.
They started by saying, 'Wow... BMW... expensive to
keep running'. I say, 'Nah, you can pick them up cheap if they
have more than 30,000 miles on the clock, when they break
they're easy to repair and parts are cheap if you source them in
the UK or the USA.' Thing is, the Japanese are not great riders.
Some will cover many miles, of course, but for maybe 95%
yearly averages of 2 or 3000 miles is the norm. Hence, there are
any number of very low mileage, 30-year-old BMWs for sale for
top dollar. The average person sees 30,000 miles as basket
case material and have no idea that at that point the bike is just
run in and has another 40 or 50,000 miles to go before the rings
will need renewing. Lucky us!

So here we are in 2003 and I'm now the Airhead Beemer Club's
Asia representative, or 'Airmarshal'. There are only 6 members
or so but another 5 or so friends with airheads and we all help
each other out with repairs and beer (whoops) and go on rides
together and stay at hot spas or camp out. My girlfriend Yuko, a
long time Moto Guzzi rider now rides a 1981 R80G/S and we
occasionally go to Tsukuba Circuit for a bit of track practice. I
ride as much as possible and my only transport is of the 2-wheel
variety. I have no interest in owning a car, although I might by
another Porsche 911 one day. I have a small English language
school here in Tokyo with about 40 students with another 30
students at 4 companies I have contracts with to provide English
lessons for their employees. I'm now 48 and my only problem
with riding is the result of an old horse riding accident. I sprained
my right wrist and that gets sore after a long ride. Otherwise, I'm
just as much in love with riding as I ever was.

I had a... well, not a bad accident but one that smashed my right
ankle very badly - imagine sliding foot-first into a brick wall at
about 40 mph. I needed a 7-and-a-half hour operation to repair it
- the socket was pushed hard into the socket they had to throw
20% of the socket away and replace it with bone from my hip. It
was 2 years before I could walk without a walking stick. Before
the operation I asked the doctor if I'd walk properly again. He
replied, 'Well, Mr Vanneck, you aren't a young man (that in itself
was quite a shock) and healing will take time and there is a good
chance you will be left with a limp. After about 20 years, due to
the cartilage damage, the joint might become so painful that the
only thing to do will be to fuse the ankle to prevent movement'.
Tears welled up in my eyes and I thought I should give up riding
rather than risk more damage in the future. It was after about 5
minutes of feeling very sorry for myself that I realised that
stopping riding would mean the loss of such an enormous
source of joy in my life that there was no way could I give it up. I
decided there and then I would just have to become a better rider
instead. That was 5 years ago and I'm still riding and loving it.
My ankle is fine.
Imperial Japanese ABC AirMarshal Hugo Vanneck san
all photos Yuko Aikawa
copyright 2003 john branstrom, hugo vanneck,
yuko aikawa all rights reserved