BMW motorcycle Citybike article by Maynard Hershon and my comments, high speed wobbles
Citybike article “Duane” and my comments
|I Know How to Do That…
|My R75/5 began slowly shaking its head, then wobbled itself to full steering lock…
I Know How to Do That… This piece is about my worst-ever encounter with a motorcycle guy, a BMW wizard named Duane. I never met Duane, just talked to him on the phone, but I remember our conversation crystal clear 30 years later. Yup, 30 years. I know you’re wondering: Why write about it now?
When it happened, I had no column in CityBike or Motorcycle Sport and Leisure. I was just Joe, Dude motorcycle rider. You could treat me badly, and all I could do was tell my friends. That’s still so, but these days I have more friends. In those days, the early ’70s, I lived in Belmont, on the San Francisco Peninsula. I bought street and dirt bikes from my friend Roger Selby at Selby Motors in nearby Redwood City. I felt like a friend of the shop as I belonged.
When the new, not-so-stodgy BMW twins came out, I bought an R60/5 from Roger and rode it happily. I must’ve lusted for still more power because I sold that bike and bought a ’72 R75. I loved it and could ride it pretty fast, for a slow guy.
I put a Craven rack and cool Craven hard bags on the bike, and rode it up and down the state, to Alice’s, on the Sunday Ride, everywhere. It was great.
One weekend I rode down to Southern Cal, spent the night in Big Bear, then started for home. I was on Highway 101 near King City, on a clear, breezy day, traveling 15-over, about 85mph. The road was lightly brushed, not grooved. My R75/5 began slowly shaking its head, then wobbled itself to full steering lock and pitched me over the bars into the highway. As I rolled and flopped, I could hear the road grind away the side of my helmet. I watched my bike flipping behind me, sparks flying, bags breaking apart, their contents scattering over the road. Wasn’t big fun, any of it. Without sounding overly dramatic, I believe I was never the same after that crash. I’d always trusted the machines, never doubted that my bikes were stable and on my side. Now, if a bike shakes its head even a little, I get spooked.
After I got out of the hospital, despite my clavicle strap I began rebuilding my battered BMW at Selby Motors. As we dismantled and replaced pieces, we checked everything we thought might possibly have caused the crash. We found nothing. The steering bearings were fine, the swing-arm bearings were fine, the wheel bearings were fine. The frame was straight, the tires held proper pressure, the forks and shocks worked fine, on and on. We were baffled.
Guys said I’d fallen asleep or somehow set this thing in motion myself, this wobble. I disagreed. No one had an explanation I trusted. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep the bike and ride it, knowing we hadn’t FIXED anything? Or should I sell it after warning the buyer that it had been treacherous and we’d never found the problem? Would it go out of control again?
At that point, I began to hear about other, similar bikes wobbling, putting guys in emergency rooms and, for all I knew, morgues.
I heard about Duane, who was reputed to know all about those bikes, especially about the wobbling. In those days he had a BMW store north of San Francisco. I called him. Duane, I said, my name’s Maynard Hershon. I live on the Peninsula. My R75 wobbled and spit me off on the freeway. I’m hurt but I’m rebuilding it and can’t find anything to blame for the crash. I hear you know how to fix these bikes.
I do, he said, I know how to do that. I know why they wobble and how to fix them. I fix all the bikes I sell here at the store. I don’t tell people how to fix the bikes, and I don’t fix bikes other stores sold.
Duane, I explained, the bike banged me up pretty good. I still want to ride it; I really like it. If you want me to haul it to your shop in a truck, I’ll do that. You can fix it. I’m happy to pay for the work. I’m not trying to pick your brain so I can fix it myself.
Duane repeated what he’d told me, just as you read in the paragraph before last. He said he knew how to do it, how to fix the bikes. He said he fixed the ones he sold in his store but he wouldn’t tell you how to fix them. And he wouldn’t fix your bike if you’d bought it someplace else.
Duane, I said slowly, (still in my clavicle strap, still all scraped up from the crash, still unaware of how badly I’d been traumatized) the bike tried to KILL me. I’m not jerking you around, I want to get my bike fixed. Will you help me?
Duane repeated what he’d told me twice previously. He knew how to do it, he said, but…
I couldn’t get over it. I was a motorcyclist, a BMW rider even. Evidently, ol’ Duane didn’t care if my bike wobbled or didn’t wobble. If I’d bought the bike elsewhere, he couldn’t care less about my motorcycle or my safety.
Thanks, Duane, I said, and hung up.
I don’t know to this day if Duane knew a damn thing about why those bikes were unstable and dangerous. He may have wanted you to THINK that he did, that he knew things you didn’t know so he could deny you the information or help you needed.
As I reflect on it now, I feel he didn’t know anything. All his claims to special knowledge were merest fabrication, purest bullshit so he could feel and act superior.
I hadn’t heard Duane’s name for years. Recently I noticed he was mentioned on some BMW-focused Internet site. He’s still involved, still making pronouncements about BMWs.
In my four decades of motorcycling, Duane made the standout worst impression. My distaste for him has lasted three decades, full-strength.
I admit I’ve made mistakes myself, not been as nice as I could’ve been or as attentive. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, my life has been too much about me.
But I’ve never turned away a kindred spirit who came to me for help.
Especially if that person asked me to do what I did anyway or did for a living, and offered to pay me for my services.
Turning away someone who’s in need and asking for your help… Well, I’m slow to forgive that kinda behavior. I’ve never forgiven ol’ Duane.
You’d have forgiven him, I know. Hey, in 30 years…
If I were a better guy, I’d forgive him too. I’d hate the sin but love the sinner. I’d try to think the best of Duane and put the outrage and distaste behind me.
I know how to do that, but…
– by Maynard Hershon
I have no memory of this conversation or hundreds of others that were similar. I will, therefore, assume that what is reported is true. I remember the technical and political situation of that time and how this issue evolved. I have reported on various aspects of it on a few BMW forums on the Internet, and this is my website.
BMW of Marin “mission.”
BMW of Marin was my project, and I was in control of it. Even though I had a partner, Gene Shirley, I was responsible for all aspects of its operation. Blame me.
We worked only on BMW motorcycles. There was never another brand machine in the shop for service. The mechanics and our accountant all rode BMWs. Gail and Kari Prager, former owners of California BMW in Mountain View, Ca. were employees of mine and trained under me. Bryan Hilton, our young mechanic, became a legend for his genius at mechanics. The employees were loyal and wonderful.
While the greater San Francisco Bay Area had 6 BMW dealers, none were exclusively BMW. A couple were famous crooks, and the rest had multiple brands with which to deal. My goal was to be the very best in any market anywhere. Others may judge whether that goal was realized.
I had four full-time year around mechanics. To keep fully trained mechanics, it was necessary to keep them all year. It also took a year to train a mechanic to become profitable, so I couldn’t let one go. All of my local competitors hired for summer and laid off for winter. A Honda shop next door had 6-7 mechanics during summer and only one during the slow season. We didn’t have enough mechanics during the summer to do the work. Often we worked 60-hour weeks to try to keep up. I bought up all of the wrecks possible to provide work during the wintertime. We had at least 20 transmissions that we would rebuild during the winter and swap them out during the summer. In this way, we transferred summer work to winter. A customer could ride in with a bad transmission and ride out in an hour with a rebuilt one. It wasn’t just limited to transmissions but several aspects of BMW motorcycle repair. No other BMW dealer anywhere provided that service.
I had to set priorities.
During the riding season, we always had more service work than we could do. This was our priority list.
1. Touring riders got nearly instant service and repair. We would stay up till the wee hours to get a touring rider back on the road. One example was the BMW dealer in Merced that had a touring rider that needed a straight frame due to an accident. To strip a frame, send it out for straightening, and then remount the parts takes a few weeks. He called Flanders, the west coast distributor. He called Butler and Smith, and nobody had a frame. We just happened to have a new one in stock, a long story.
The dealer’s son brought the customer’s bike in on a pickup truck early, and I assigned two mechanics to do the job. By late afternoon the bike was finished and loaded up on the truck. No other BMW dealer in the country could have done that job. That dealer and I are still good friends to this day in 2023.
2. Buyers of our new and used BMW motorcycles were our priority. We felt greater loyalty to these buyers of bikes from us than those that purchased the BMW from our competition. We sold new bikes for the full price. Our competitors sold for whatever they could get. Other dealers heavily discounted many bikes.
3. Longtime service customers of bikes bought from private parties and dealers. During the busy summer season, we kept a list of persons in this group that were waiting for service. That list was often a month behind.
Buyers of bikes from my competitors had surveyed the market and made a decision about which dealer could best provide for their needs as a buyer. We always encouraged them to take the bike back to the selling dealer for warranty, service, and repairs. During the slow season, November through February, we would take any bike that was out of warranty for service. We seldom ran out of work from our loyal customers.
A customer bought a new bike from us and paid the full price. When the customer brought it back to us for service, would that customer be happy to wait while my mechanics are servicing bikes bought at a discount from another dealer? Maybe our customers felt that paying a premium price deserved super service. So, we provided it.
Any dealer that wants to stay in business must pay special attention to the most important of customers, the buyer of a new bike. Maybe it is different today, but that is how it was then and how I did it.
The economics of warranty work
A new /5 had a 6-month warranty, as I remember. In 1972 our shop labor rate was $16 per hour. I paid the mechanics $4.50 to $5.50 per hour. Butler and Smith (B&S), the BMW importers, paid us $4 per hour for warranty work. Our shop overhead was about $6-$7 per hour. That included the accounting, insurance, rent, utilities, service writer labor, etc. The shop had about $11-$13 per hour in a job. It would then appear that we lost $$7-$9 per hour while working on warranty problems. This “loss” came out of the profit from the original sale.
There is more to the story. B&S had to pay for warranty work directly out of their profit. It wasn’t reimbursable by BMW. Their solution was to “reject” most warranty claims from dealers. In 1972 the B&S rejection rate was 75%. That means that only 1/4 of the warranty work is reimbursed. So instead of $4 per hour, we were getting about $1 per hour for warranty work. My paperwork time to fill out the warranty claim cost more than this. In 1973 I didn’t turn in a single warranty. It was cheaper to do the work and chalk it up to the sale.
That policy resulted in a big firestorm from B&S. When they confronted me on this issue, it was at the yearly dealer meeting. They wanted to know why I didn’t turn in a single warranty for a full year. Several silent BMW factory people were in the room. I asked if they had a single complaint from a customer of mine. “Not one” was the answer. I asked why they cared and was told how could BMW know what was wrong with the machines if they didn’t get the warranty claim information.
I was in heaven at this point. My answer was more or less, “When I complained about your refusal to pay warranty claims, I was told to assign the job to whatever warranty jobs were being paid at that time. How could fake warranty claims help the factory know the technical problems?” The subject was quickly changed. Later one of the factory people followed me into the restroom to let me know that they could hardly keep from laughing as they already knew what was going on the whole time. The BMW factory contract with B&S wasn’t renewed.
That is one of the reasons why other dealers were reluctant to do warranty work. The other reason was that they seldom knew how to “fix” the problem and often ended up in a morass of quicksand with the resulting “callback” work. It would cost them even more loss than us because they often didn’t know the fix. They were financially better off by “stalling” the customer. The only recourse open to the owner was to complain to Butler and Smith. Lots of good that did. Some owners wrote directly to BMW in Germany and complained. BMW was obligated by contract to refer them to Butler and Smith. A very frustrating catch-22. I learned later that it was not unnoticed by the factory. They had zero complaints about my dealership.
You, the public, must judge this, should I, as a BMW dealer, lose money to subsidize B&S and the buyer from another shop in order to try to keep everybody happy? It would cost me $7-8 an hour to do this. How much would you be willing to pay to work on “other’s” machines? While we were mainly a hobby shop, we still had to make a profit to stay in business.
The wobble issue
It is now well known that the early /5 had a problem with stability. In short, many wobbled. It was injuring and killing people, and BMW had lawsuits from many countries. This isn’t the place for the long story about this issue, so I will only skim over it as it pertains to this article.
When we discovered the reason for the wobble, I called B&S and told them. They told me that I was wrong. They refused to cover them under warranty. They even refused to cover the one that wobbled when new and was owned by my employee. They said that there was no problem and the bikes didn’t wobble.
As the owner of the dealership, I decided to recall all of our new sales in 72 and correct them. This was my decision, and we weren’t paid a dime to fix every bike that we had sold. Fortunately, we discovered this early and only had to recall a dozen or so. We corrected the rest before they got to the showroom floor, and no further wobble risk to riders occurred on bikes that were sold by us. No other BMW dealer in the USA was fixing the wobbles.
B&S called me and asked me to fix a wobble on a bike that had been sold by Selby Motors. Selby had tried many times to fix it and couldn’t. I was stunned and in heaven. Here is how it went as I remember;
1. Me, “How can I fix what doesn’t exist?”
2. B&S, “This one has a wobble, and it needs to be fixed.”
3. Me, “Let me get this straight, you want me to fix a motorcycle sold by another dealer with a problem that doesn’t exist, and I lose money on it too?”
4. B&S, Oh, we will pay for the warranty on it.
5. Me, “Oh, the same as the $4 per hour that you wouldn’t pay me to fix our bikes?”
This went on for a while, and I finally relented when they offered me some freebies. I insisted on a somewhat unusual procedure. I required the owner himself to bring the bike in, not Selby Motors. I was friends with Roger Selby, the owner, as he was a good guy. He sold many brands, and his shop wasn’t specialized in BMW. They were the selling dealer of Maynard’s bike. I was trying to force the hand of B&S to admit that there was a wobble problem; it could be fixed and that we knew how to do it. The politically correct procedure was to keep this hidden away from the public and “take care of it” quietly. I think that this was the fall of 72. We fixed the bike, and the owner was happy. It was stable as a rock when it left our shop, and we never heard of it again.
At about the same time, two board members of BMWMOA came to my shop to tell me of their concerns. The wobbles were so dangerous and commonly reported to them that they were considering a class-action lawsuit. I explained what the problem was and how to fix it. I further explained that B&S had been told and was “doing something” with this issue. What B&S was doing was ignoring it, but that wouldn’t sound good. The result was that they decided not to file the suit. Maybe that was a mistake on my part.
In January of 73, I went to Germany for business. I had been personally invited to tour the production facility at Spandau Werke in Berlin by the director of the entire BMW motorcycle division, Horst Spindler, during a personal visit to my shop in the previous year. There is more to that story that I just recently learned.
I got a great morning tour; after lunch, four engineers took me into a conference room for a discussion. They fully admitted the wobble problem and told me of the great number of lawsuits worldwide. No surprise there. One of the engineers owned an R60/5, and it wobbled so badly that he couldn’t ride it. Nobody at the factory could fix it. Somehow they had heard that I was fixing them, and they wanted to know how.
I had gone to “Mecca” to be enlightened, not to be the teacher.
We spent a few hours going over the issue. We went back into the production line and observed the failure(s) that I had noticed earlier. I showed them the poorly machined parts when new and couldn’t work. I showed them that they had no quality control test for the fork alignment. After all of this, they gave up and said there was no way they could correct the source of the problem, the forks. The production line “timing” didn’t allow for it. In a few months, they found and implemented a “fix” of sorts. They lengthened the swing arm by 2″, which increased the stability enough that it was hard to get a wobble started. We refer to it today as the LWB or long wheelbase. It came out in the middle of the production of the 1973 model, and we called it the 73 1/2 model. The previous one is the SWB or short wheelbase.
I felt torn by my interest in safety, knowledge of the problem and solution, and my attempts to get the proper authorities’ attention. I have several times wondered if the problem would have gotten fixed faster if I hadn’t discouraged the class action suit. Hard to say now because the factory wanted to fix them but didn’t know how.
I failed to disclose any information on this issue to the general public. It was to keep the masses from going bonkers over this very serious issue while doing what I could to assist B&S and BMW in implementing a solution. This was one of many fixes to various mechanical problems that we knew about but did not disclose the solution to our competitors. Most didn’t know of the safety issue and why I should arm my competition with the secrets we learned through our hard work. Part of our success was that we were the only ones that knew certain things. We charged top dollar at that time and promised top-quality work. The wobble issue and resolution was never one of us trying to hide the info. My choice of how to approach it can be in question.
This was just one of many mechanical errors that we learned how to fix. Often, I would call Butler and Smith to inform them of some mechanical issues and the solution. Not once was I thanked, or was the solution shared with other dealers.
You decide if that was the correct avenue.
That was the background behind my policy for shop work. I am sure that hundreds of owners were told that we wouldn’t work on their bikes. I always tried to explain our position and priorities. I used this as a sales tool. If we sold the bike, then it would get priority service. We would be happy to work on the machine after it is out of warranty, during the slow season, and if we had the time available. Since we were in business to service BMWs and make money, we were able to often “convert” an owner into being our customer.
Did his shop inform Maynard that they very well knew that I had fixed one previously that they couldn’t fix? Where during this mess with B&S did Maynard make his call to me? I have no idea. Did I explain anything about why? I have no idea. Did he forget some of the conversations? I have no idea. I am also sorry that he was injured by a fault caused by the brand that I loved and represented. Was I supposed to deny knowing anything about the solution?
The technical solution is still somewhat controversial. No mechanic or dealer that I spoke with had ever heard of the precision needed in the fork, and none believed me. We were the only BMW dealer that could fix them.
To see someone so traumatized by an accident and be so tormented by this experience is unfortunate. To write about it after 30 years amazes me. I think it is time for some counseling.
I hope that this article will put this issue to rest. After three years had passed since this article, I received over 50 emails about it. One blamed me, one was neutral, and all of the rest were totally supportive. Several explained that they had been in the same situation in another industry. They understood my position completely.
Updated 30 March 2023