Ernst Stuhlinger PDF Print E-mail
Written by BMWVMCA NEWS   
Tuesday, 05 August 2008

Ernst Stuhlinger
Continued from previous issue

Dear Erik,

First, I would like to thank you for your recent letter, and for the BMW VMCA News with the very nice write-up on my BMW experiences seventy years ago, illustrated with a nice photo taken at the BMW rally! I would really like to continue talking BMW with you. – You also wished to know how my personal experience with a BMW came to an end; so I’m writing down some of my memories for you in this letter, but we should also see each other again soon and do some more talking. I had a somewhat turbulent time recently, visitors, meetings, writing of papers, doctor’s visits – all superimposed by the relentless process of getting older…

In 1936, I finished studying physics at the University of Tuebingen and then accepted a staff position at the Physics Institute of the Technical University of Berlin. Later that year, I made my old dream come true and bought a second hand R11 BMW! This was a decisive step in my life, adding a new dimension of personal freedom! On late afternoons, I drove to the woods and beautiful lakes in the vicinity of Berlin, and during vacations I extended my trips to other parts of Germany, and to Switzerland with its fabulous mountain passes, to France, Austria, and Italy. A solid friendship developed quickly between the two of us. I soon had a name for my motorcycle, suggested by my mother: Kunibert. On all my longer trips, I took my little one-man tent with me and camped in the open, just to save money for gasoline: eighteen cents a gallon!

My father was not too happy about my possession of a motorbike. He was aware of how dangerous those machines can be. “When you sell it again”, he said, “I will give you twenty marks on the spot” – but I did not sell it!

In 1939, World War II began, and pretty soon almost everything began to change. Gasoline was harder and harder to get, privately owned and used motor vehicles became rarer, the Government began to confiscate vehicles for the Military. I realized that it would be only a matter of time before I would lose my Kunibert, so I decided in the fall of 1939, that the two of us should make a last joint trip to places that I had particularly liked on previous trips that I had made as a teenager with my bicycle, or later with Kunibert. Back in 1937, I had bought a sidecar that I could attach and detach very quickly with a few screws. Driving with a sidecar is quite different from driving with the bike alone, but I had learned both techniques quickly, and I enjoyed both. The sidecar was very welcome when somebody shared a shorter or longer trip with me, and it was also very useful for the transport of all the luggage needed on a multi-week camping trip.

In the fall of 1939, I drove from Berlin to Munich, then to Salzburg in Austria, then to the Tyrol in northern Italy – still within this most beautiful alpine mountain world. Then I had to turn north again, toward Salzburg. One evening, still between the high mountains and sparkling mountain rivers, I found a very nice place for my tent, a green, freshly mowed meadow. There was a house and something like a workshop a few hundred feet away.

Early the next morning, after a refreshing night’s rest, I stuck my head out of my tent, and what did I see? – There were a man and a woman standing near Kunibert, very quietly. “Good Morning!” I said, “I hope you don’t mind that I pitched my tent on your meadow!” – “Not at all”, the man said, “you are very welcome. We are just admiring your beautiful motorcycle!” Then his wife spoke: “Isn’t that an R 11, the model you always dreamed of?” – “Sure enough, and it is one of the finest models BMW ever built”, the husband replied, and he very softly touched the tank, the gearshift, and the cylinders… Then he asked: “You would not consider selling it, would you?” That was an unexpected question, and it took me a while before I could answer, doing a lot of quick thinking first.

The thought that Kunibert and I would have to terminate our close friendship and continue our lives separately had become more and more realistic for me the more the war progressed. The possibility that Kunibert would be drafted into the Army and may lose his life at the battlefront was a sad prospect indeed. But, would he have a better chance to survive here in this idyllic Austrian mountain village? – “Sir”, I said, “the war is worsening; would you not have to fear that the bike would be confiscated by the Military pretty soon?” – “Oh no”, he said. “You see, I am a blacksmith. My shop is over there. But I am also the plumber and the electrician and the auto mechanic for our community here which is widely spread out over this and the adjacent valleys, I have to do work at many places, and people will see to it that I can keep my mobility, so I will always keep my vehicle, and even get gasoline.” – That made much good sense to me, so I said:” You see, I am presently on a big tour through the country. I have to be in Salzburg tomorrow night. I will spend the night there in that little hotel (I remembered its name, he knew the hotel, but I have now forgotten its name). If you can be at this hotel in the morning after tomorrow, I will sell you the bike with the sidecar.” – “Thank you, Sir! Thank you! I will be at the hotel. How much will it cost?” – “Four hundred marks” (about 150 dollars at that time) – “Good, I will be there!”

So, I packed up my camping gear and drove – slowly – through the mountain valley and up to Salzburg, checking in at the little hotel where I had spent a night three weeks earlier. When I opened the door of my room the next morning, who was standing quietly in the hallway? – The man and his wife! They had a canister full of gasoline, a small handbag, and an envelope with 400 marks in it. “Thank you very much!” the man continued to say, and his wife added: “You made him very happy, Sir, indeed!”

Then we went down to Kunibert. The man first touched it very gently. “I will treat it well. I know how you feel about it. Such things have a way to grow on you”. Then, he started the engine; his wife climbed into the sidecar, and he took off like an old pro. In no time they had all disappeared in the city traffic.

With my suitcase and heavy pouch full of camping gear, I took a cab to the railroad station, and boarded a northbound train. I made a brief stopover in Tübingen to see my parents. My father opened the house door. “Where is your motorcycle?” were his first words. – “I sold it.” – Without saying another word, he turned around and came back with a twenty-mark note: “Here, as I promised. I am so glad! Now, please, tell us all about it!”

Well, I soon was sitting in the train back to Berlin, but Kunibert would continue to stay alive in my memory, up to this very day. Actually, our 3 ½ years together were a love story, a little sad when it came to its end, but full of highlights and loving events while it evolved. Kunibert had been a dear friend, powerful and reliable. Other motorbikes make a thunderous noise while they run; Kunibert, as a true BMW,  had a heartbeat instead…



An update on the ongoing saga of my interview with Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger regarding his pre-WW2 involvement with BMW’s. Out of the blue the following letter arrived.

“Dear Erik,

You wrote me a nice letter recently and offered to come over with your BMW and sidecar, but I waited long with my response – for three reasons: first, we had a chain of visitors; second, I had repeated doctor’s appointments, and third, I was searching through my mountain of old photographs looking for a picture of my sidecar (bought in 1937!), without success so far (I’m sure I will find it sometime!). – I include photos of my old BMW, you may keep them and use them as you like. They were made in 1936, seventy years ago! The two men were colleagues at the Technical University in Berlin. Too bad that one did not take more photos at the time.

It would really be nice if we could see each other – including one of your BMW’s - , perhaps on Saturday, July 1, or on Saturday July 8, around 10 or 11 in the morning? Just give me a ring so we can determine a date.

Best Wishes,
Ernst. “

Ernst enclosed two black and white photos showing his R11. The photo taken at the gas station has Ernst sitting on his R11 (far right). The second photo shows his colleagues.

Immediately after receiving the letter I gave Ernst a call. We set up a meeting on the morning of July 1 to go for a ride on my 1967 R60/2 with Hollandia sidecar. Upon arriving, Ernst presented me with two hardbound BMW Mobile Tradition books covering the history of the motorcycle from 1923 to 1998 in German text. In the front cover of each book he wrote a nice message and signed them. What a great gift!

At 92 ½ Ernst is still getting around quite well. With Ernst in the sidecar and me riding the bike we took a nice 5 mile trip around the mountain. He enjoyed it very much. Then we went to a large parking lot behind a local church and I let Ernst take a turn at driving the rig. After a few simple instructions, I jumped into the sidecar and off we went. We took about 8 laps around the large parking lot with Ernst getting more and more comfortable each time and opening up the throttle more and more.  It was great fun. I did take about 4 minutes of digital video from the sidecar while Ernst was driving. I have also attached a photo to this letter showing Ernst after the ride. We both left with big smiles and I left him an open offer to call at any time and we can do it again.

Erik Bahl

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 June 2009 )
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