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Saturday, February 22, 2020

RIP Joachim Groeger - The Passing of a Legend

Joachim "Joe" Groeger  1920-2020. 

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Joachim "Joe" Groeger, just three weeks shy of his 100th birthday.

In the paragraphs below, I will attempt to relay a bit of Joe's life story which I gathered from stories he told me over countless breakfasts, and hours in his shop "Groeger Special Tooling".

Joachim “Joe” Groeger was born in 1920 in the town of Nakel on the river Netze, which at the time was a part of Germany.  (The town currently resides within the Polish border.)  Not long after he was born, his family relocated to the sea-side town of Seestadt Wismar, on the Baltic Coast where he spent his formative years.  

Growing up, Joe was fascinated with all things mechanical, a trait he inherited from his father.  Joes father had served in world war one, during which time he was in charge of railway operations.  This proved useful in the postwar times where as an agricultural supervisor for a large producer of sugar beets, Joe’s father helped to maintain the rail system put in place to move produce from field to factory.  Family pressure had initially set Joe’s father on the path to be a lawyer, however a strong desire to work outdoors lead him away from law school and into a profession as an agricultural engineer charged with maintaining and monitoring the “health” of sugar beets, a staple crop in Germany at the time.  

This task required much time spent in the field carefully monitoring the plants for disease or infestation, which necessitated countless trips deep into the vast field of sugar beets.  The trips were made easier by the use of a motorbike, an R11 which Joe fondly remembers riding two-up with his dad.  As a young boy he was not allowed to ride the bike on any regular basis, but did fire up the machine on one occasion to put it away in the garden shed across the street from the family home where it was kept.

Joe's father and sister on the R11. Mid 1930's, Germany. 


It was from the shed in 1942 that German officers relieved the bike of its tires for use in the war effort.  As Joe recalls it didn’t matter much since gas was essentially unobtainable by that time anyway.  

Three years later the bike met with an auspicious end when a neighbor gave up the location of the tire-less motorbike to two American GI’s in exchange for two loaves of bread.  Joe recalls that the American soldiers took it apart and boxed it up for shipment back home.  It would be many more years however before Joe would eventually own a BMW of his own.  

As a young boy Joe was fascintated with flight.  Aviation was still a relatively new field at the time and the Germans as well as the Americans were captivated with building stronger, faster, more reliable aircraft.  As a teen, he was given the opportunity to attend glider school.  It was there that he learned to design, build and fly aluminum clad wooden gliders.  This experience paved the way for an apprenticeship at Dornier Flugzeugwerke Wismar, then one of the larger aircraft manufacturers in Germany.  It was at Dornier that Joe began his mastery of metal craft, applying his skills not as a common laborer, but as an engineer designing tooling, dies, etc.  It was his uncommon vision for design that helped him escape the front lines when Germany was at war with the Allies. 

Proving too valuable as a designer, Joe was given a “pass” each time the German army came to the factory looking for new “recruits”.  It wasn’t until April of 1945, when Dornier Werke was leveled by two Allied bombs, that Joe was eventually drafted into the army.  After attending basic training in Copenhagen, then under German control, he was given a rifle and sent into action.  Thankfully it was not long before the war was to end and Joe was able to safely return home.  

After the war, Joe switched gears so to speak.   Obviously all heavy industry, including the manufacture of aircraft, ceased to exist after the war.  Joe eventually went to work for a town jeweler doing watch repair and ultimately became a certified journeyman watchmaker. 

A young Joe Groeger working on a watch lathe. 


At the time Joe was living in Braunschweig, home to Franke and Heidecke.  Shutterbugs will know this company as the maker of the Rolleiflex line of cameras.  Having an interest in all things mechanical, Joe took a position at the company. At a time when it generally took 20+ years of dedication to a company to move up the ranks, Joe leap-frogged his way to the top in no time.  His ability to envision new concepts and ideas was identified by Dr. Heidecke who promoted Joe to the experimental lab where Joe was free to experiment with new designs and techniques.  He developed one of the first mechanical timer shutter release mechanisms.  No doubt his watch making skills came in handy.  It was at Franke and Heidecke where Joe first developed an interest in stereocameras, an interest that he maintained throughout the rest of his life.  

While working for Franke and Heidecke, it came to light through the company that there was an outfit counterfeiting camera parts that were patented.  The rumor was that the parts may have been coming from the US, and San Francisco in particular.  Joe was asked by the company to “snoop around” and see if he couldn’t find the source.  It was this task that lead Joe to the Bay Area, and ultimately a new chapter in his life.

Rolleiflex camera film transport mechanism. 


Franke and Heidecke, Braunschweig ca. 1959


Inside the Franke and Heidecke factory, Braunschweig. 


After working for a while in San Francisco at a camera shop, Joe eventually moved to Redwood City where he would live out the remainder of his life.   He quickly found work as a tool and die maker, and eventually opened his own tool and die shop, Groeger Special Tooling, which is still in business today.

For nearly seventy years, Groeger Special Tooling was the the go-to place for anyone in the silicon valley who needed specialty die work.  Joe was fond of telling stories of customers seeking his advice when everyone else said a job couldn't be done.  He relished in accomplishing what others couldn't.  

A machine fabricated from scratch by Joe Groeger.  The collet holds a small metal can and a pneumatically controlled roller folds over the end to close it.  This was designed for manufacturing specialty batteries.  
In the below video, Joe demonstrates the action of the machine. 




Anyone who has been to San Francisco knows that the often narrow and hilly streets, congested with traffic, can be difficult to navigate.  It’s no surprise then that the city was, and still is, home to innumerable motorcycle enthusiasts who find two wheeled transportation easier and more affordable than the four wheeled alternative.  In 1956 Joe purchased his first real motorcycle, an R50.  (While living in Germany Joe had owned a Wanderer moped.)  In the 1950's, Joe's R50 was a "new" bike, providing reliable transportation for him and his young family.  It wasn't until the sixties that Joe undertook his first BMW motorcycle restoration.  

Most BMW enthusiasts can remember back to the one fateful moment when they were bit by the BMW bug, contracting was has been known as the “white and blue flu”.  For Joe it was an auspicious beginning.  

A friend had told him of an abandoned BMW R51/3 near the coast.  His friends "hippy" brother had parked it, leaned up against a barn, a few years prior.  The cost of the bike was a tank full of gas for his friend’s truck in order to retrieve the motorcycle. 

Joe recounted to me vividly how dilapidated the bike was.  The San Francisco climate can be rough on bikes that are properly stored inside, and can wreak havoc on one left outdoors to the elements.  Once Joe freed the bike from its cocoon of weeds and overgrowth, he and his son hoisted it into the back of the truck.  Joe recalled that when they went to lift up on the handlebars, they folded in half from the rust that had eaten its way clear through. 

After a thorough cleaning at the local car wash, Joe set about to getting the bike running. He was astounded how good a condition the bike was internally.  With the front engine cover removed, he noted the inside looked fresh and unfazed by the years of neglect.  After some fresh gas and oil, and with some adjustment of the timing, Joe was able to fire the bike up, much to his astonishment.  

And so began an era of Joe's involvment in the "vintage" BMW scene.  Over the ensuing decades Joe became well known as the go-to guy for help with pre-1970's BMWs in the Bay Area.  Joe's ingenuity led to the development of many special tools for working on the old bikes.  As a tool and die maker, he often produced parts that were no longer available at the time.  When parts weren't available, or weren't affordable, Joe would make them.  He even supplied parts to many of the vintage dealers in the states and Germany.  

Joe Groeger astride his 1939 R71.  To the left is long time friend Paul Seibert. 1986


I still remember vividly the day I first met Joe.  It was 2001, and I had recently moved to Palo Alto to begin my Radiology Residency at Stanford.  A couple years earlier, I had accompanied a friend who purschased a /2 from Bob's BMW in Maryland.  I had never seen an old BMW motorcycle before that and I immediately resigned myself to one day owning a vintage BMW as well.  

After scraping together some money, I purchased a complete, but very delapidated 1961 R69S from a fellow in Washington state.  Not having any past experience in motorcycle restoration, I began seaching this "new" thing called the internet.  This led me to Marco Hyman's restoration website snafu.org (we'd now call it a Blog I suppose).  Marco said to meet up at Groeger Special Tooling on Saturday, so I put the bike in the back of my pickup and headed to Joe's shop.  By mid day Saturday we had the engine started, and by the end of the day, we began tearing down the bike for complete restoration. 

My R69S on the stand in the "engine room" at Groeger Special Tooling. 


Over the ensuing 2 years I would spend a great deal of time at the shop restoring the bike under Joe's watchful eye.  As I had worked in a machine shop in college, I was somewhat familiar with machining, but my knowledge and experience grew significantly with Joe's tutelage. 

I am forever grateful to Joe.  Without him I would not have been introduced to what has now become a wonderful hobby.  The people I've met and the friends I've made in the vintage BMW community have enriched my life tremendously along the way.  

So long my friend.  Rest in peace.  

Joe and the regular Saturday crew heading to breakfast in Redwood City.
A spry 85 year old Joe Groeger received the award for "oldest rider" at a BMW club event. 

At 96 years old, Joe still going strong.  At the shop 5 days a week, and hosting breakfast on Saturdays.  A tradition that  he carried on his entire life. In his 90's, Joe fashioned a sleeping cot in his office at the shop to get a mid day nap in.  Joe was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave every day.  

Machining valve guides out of bronze for a /2 head. 

Machining the case of a rare BMW R5 racing gearbox to accept a modern seal. 

A funny memory I have from years of working in Joe's shop was his fondness for classical music.  He often had Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. playing in the background.  I once asked Joe's cousin Volkhard if he thought Joe would mind if we played some classic country music like Willie Nelson.  Volkhard told me that Joe absolutely forbaid the playing of Willie Nelson in the shop.  I asked why, and he told me that Willie Nelson once smoked pot on the steps of the state capitol, and since that day Willie's music was "verboten"!

Joe with his son Mike celebrating Joe's 95th birthday with friends and family. (snafu.org)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Goodwood Revival 2019 - Barry Sheen Memorial Trophy - BMW Rennsport OL Special

This past September I was extremely fortunate to be part of the BMW team at the Goodwood Revival 2019.  We entered the #52 BMW Rennsport Oskar Liebmann Special with riders Sebastian Gutsch and Maria Costello.  

The bike has an amazing history in the US.  It was built by Oskar Liebmann in the mid 1960's at AMOL Precision in Dumont, New Jersey with support from the BMW factory works race shop. The OL Special was raced competitively for over 30 years by Oskar's son Kurt.  A more extensive history of the bike, along with extensive contemporary as well as modern photos can be found at bmw-rennsport.com

Below is footage from Goodwood Revival 2019. The video is of the entire second day of racing.  The Barry Sheen Memorial Trophy is the first race.  If you are impatient and want to skip the pre-prace interviews, the actual start of the race is at the 9:00 minute mark and coverage ends at 46:10.  Enjoy!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

BMW R7 and modern hommage

There were many interesting bikes on display at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este this year.  Among them was the one and only R7 prototype which was resurrected from boxes of parts that had languished in the basement at the BMW archive for some 70 years.

Since the R7 was debuted again to the public, an enterprising company named NMOTO has designed a kit that can transform a modern R9T into an R7 Hommage bike.   I have to say that seeing the  two bikes side by side really shows the extent to which NMOTO went to get the details right.  There's no hiding its a modern bike with disk brakes, modern shaped cylinder heads, etc.  However the overall form and major styling cues are there.  Impressive indeed.  NMOTO is still taking orders, and I'm told that the bike can be custom made to fit the owner, in terms of height, seat position, etc.




Friday, May 31, 2019

The Pre-BMW BMW

Most true BMW enthusiasts are aware that BMW had it's beginnings in the aircraft business, with BMW being formed by bringing together two separate companies, Ropp Moterenwerke and Bavarian Flugzeugwerke in 1916.  

However, many people, enthusiast or not, are unaware that motorcycle production preceded car production by several years.  Furthermore, prior to the production of the first in-house BMW motorcycle, the R32, BMW was an engine manufacturer supplying motors to companies such as Victoria, Bison and Flink.

Below is a nice example of a Victoria, outfitted with a BMW M2B15 motor.  This is from BMW's collection and was on display at the Concorso d'Eleganza this year (2019).



Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Quail Motorcycle Gathering - 2019

Another great event this year at the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA.  This year the event showcased Brough as well as the Honda CB 750.  Tremendous examples of each marque were on hand for enthusiasts to pour over.

For the second year in a row, an R90S took top honors in the "Other European" class.

Also on hand in the "Custom" category was the tremendously popular, and much disussed, Revival Cycles "Birdcage" bike.  A titanium trellised frame cradles the impossibly large 1800cc prototype BMW boxer motor.  An intelligently crafted design exercise, the "Birdcage" evokes the land speed record machines of the 1930's piloted by Ernst Henne.

Can't wait for BMW to be the featured Marque at the Quail.  2023 would seem an appropriate year, as this will represent 100 years of BMW motorcyles.  We'll have to wait and see.




Ernst Henne on a land speed record attempt.  Most likely on the road between Munich and Ingolstadt, a common location for record attempts at the time as the road was flat and straight. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Art imitating Life

I have to admit, I'm not much of a jewelry guy.  But every now and then a piece just speaks to you.

I subscribe to a few BMW motorcycle groups on Facebook.  The other day, a fellow on FB posted about a silversmith friend of his who was casting mens rings in the form an R68/R69S valve cover.

The castings were spot on, and I had to have one. Despite originally being made in up to a size 12, Bruce agreed to fabricate one for my fat finger in a 13.

So it's in production now.   If it looks half as good as the pics on his site, I'll be very pleased.  I opted for the oxide version as it gives a sort of aged, worn look and I liked the contrast.  Much like the valve covers on my bikes. Check them out, or order one for yourself at www.keisersterling.com

Update: My ring arrived and it's awesome!  Very cool piece that doubles as a weapon in pinch!



Saturday, March 2, 2019

Art Deco Masterpiece

Berlin 1929
Continuing the theme of BMW advertising, I present to you one the most iconic pictures I've ever seen!  As part of a recent press campaign to highlight the achievements of BMW over the last 100 years, BMW made available this historic photo.

Splendidly captured in sepia tone is a BMW salesroom in Berlin, 1929.

Lets take a closer look.  Huge glass windows really open the space up to the outside.  Minimalist lit signage letters proudly display the brand name, flanked by the classic and iconic BMW roundel.  The room is brightly lit by an enormous panel of lights.  The internal decor is sparse other than strategically placed flowers.  The emphasis here is clearly on the product. The sleek tiled walls with a classic stylized art deco motif complete the classic art deco look of the day, elegant, understated, exceptional.

Fast forward 90 years and we can see the same theme at work in your local shopping mall.  TESLA has taken what BMW did nearly a century ago, and modernized it slightly.  However you can see that the concept is nearly identical.  In 1929 you would have likely left the showroom with a nice paper brochure listing the models and specifications.  Today you simply access those details on your phone or at the wall kiosk.  Otherwise not much has changed!




Thursday, February 28, 2019

OL Special - Oscar Liebmann/Kurt Liebmann

If you have come across my blog, it's most likely because you are a fan of historic BMW sport and racing motorcycles.

I have recently created a web page as a tribute to a very interesting, and famous racing BMW from here in the US,  the OL Special.

BMW-Rennsport.com

As you'll learn from the site, the OL Special was a BMW Rennsport based racebike crafted by Oscar Liebmann of AMOL Precision in Dumont, New Jersey.  The bike was campaigned for over 3 decades by Kurt Liebmann in the US, Canada and Europe.

The website showcases from very cool period photos by Stuart Davis and Ed Cunningham.  Take a look around, and enjoy.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

BMW Enamel Advertising Signs

In todays world, companies and corporations turn to the web for advertising.  Encouraging "likes" on Facebook, flashing pics on Instagram, and employing an army of "influencers" posting endless reviews and showcasing "lifestyles" utilizing the companies brands and products seems to be the norm.

Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciated the advertising of yesteryear.  Colorful, artfully designed posters and enamel (Email in German) signs were the mainstay of advertising for many decades, well before the advent television and the subsequent digital age.  In other words, long before there was email there was "Email".

Collectors of BMW motorcycles, myself included, are always on the look out for such items as they relate to, and can enhance, a motorcycle collection.  Advertising provides context to the experience of owning, restoring and sharing the wonderful machines from Munich.  

Below are two examples of BMW enamel signs.  Both are original and in "New Old Stock" (NOS) condition.  I was lucky enough to purchase them from a defunct dealership here in the US that operated from the 1950's through the mid 1980's.  

Each sign is 60cm in diameter and of convex metal construction.  Enamel provided longevity for these signs that were often nailed or screwed to the outside of dealerships. 

The earlier of the two signs employs the older, serif, font with the lettering in yellow.  Notice also that the blue is a darker, richer hue than the later style.  I do not know the exact years of production of this version. 



Add caption

The later sign is of nearly identical construction but employs the sans-serif font, and a lighter blue.  Curiously, the mounting hole pattern is different between the two versions. 



The firm of Boos-Hahn, the maker of the later sign, was an enamel specialist in the town of Ortenberg, Baden-Wurttenberg.  Founded by Wilhelm Boos and Anton Hahn around the time of the first World War, the company specialized in the production of enamel signs for industry and advertising.  Their work, especially as it pertains advertising, is sought amongst collectors.  

I am sure that these signs came in other variations.  I have seen smaller versions of the earlier yellow, serif type sign. I have also seen the later style sign as a clock.   Of course there is no shortage of reproduction signs in the marketplace.  Original signs tend to have chips and some missing enamel.  Often discoloration related to weathering can be seen as well.   I provide the above information to educate those looking to purchase a genuine sign as an aide in evaluating its authenticity.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Goodwood Revival 2018 - Barry Sheene Trophy Day 2

Troy Corser and Herbert Schwab did the unthinkable.  Day two saw Herbert Schwab get away cleanly at the start of the Barry Sheene trophy race  He turned in very quick laps and kept the R57 Kompressor BMW within striking distance of the leaders English and McGuinness on the Manx Norton.  After the rider change Corser put the hammer down, turning in fastest lap and whittling the lead down from 17 seconds to just over 3 seconds in a matter of only a couple laps.  Then just after the chicane, Corser eases past McGuiness, giving him a tap on the back-side.  A combination of "here I am" and "bet you didn't see this coming."  Corser went on to win day two with a comfortable lead.

Meanwhile Sebastian Gutsch and Klaus Ottlinger did a fantastic job aboard Sebastian's R5SS.  Starting from 9th position on the grid, Sebastian passed several riders on the first lap and had the bike up into third before the rider change.  Ottlinger fought hard and the duo ended up 5th on the day.  A tremendous result for a normally aspirated true 500cc pre-war bike!