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Tale of an Overhead Cam Twin PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Tale of an Overhead Cam Twin: Henry Dirrigl, The Nürnberger Craftsman by David Percival

  

            “Dave, you live near Canada, find this guy !”

 

 

              So began the conversation in the early nineteen nineties with my good friend, Heinz Luthringshauser in Otterbach, Germany. He was referring to an article that he had seen in the Vintage Bulletin about a man from Canada that had reproduced an over head cam BMW 500cc motorcycle engine. During those years, I was lucky enough to be able to make several trips to Germany per year and as part of these trips, was my day set aside to spend with Heinz. Heinz was the last standard bearer to campaign the BMW Rennsport sidecar on the Grand Prix race events. ( His story, by itself will be for another day, and what a fantastic story and life he lived.)

            With the vintage racing scene just starting to pick up tons of momentum in Europe, the BMW Rennsport sidecars that had dominated the world championships for some twenty years, from the mid fifties to the mid seventies, were starting to disappear from the grids. Several reasons for this decline contributed to their disappearances, mainly the increased value of these precious motors, and the lack of spare parts when mechanical failure occurred. Heinz, the die hard BMW guy that he was, wanted an alterative motor that racers could use, and that were affordable to build and maintain.

            The article that he had seen was about a Canadian who had converted a R 51/3 motor into a single over head cam " Rennsport" motor.

            Upon returning to the United States, I set out on what was to become one of the great conquests for knowledge about what makes BMW folks tick. First, I contacted the editor of the magazine and he provided me with the name of the article's author.  This lead to a telephone number in Canada, and the first of three calls to the author. I was firstly informed that I should not try to find the motor builder directly, as his name was spelled wrong for a reason. He was not a man that was seeking publicity and wanted to remain in the background. I had explained to the author why I was trying to contact this motor builder, and that I was doing a favor for my German friend, Heinz. ( Lord knows, I owed him many, many favors.) About a week later, I had a call from the author, and he told me that he had contacted the motor builder, and that it was alright if I telephoned him directly to talk about what it was that I was seeking in the way of information. He even provided me with a telephone number, and the man's correct name.

            The next day, I phoned the number, without success, and continued to try for the next couple days with the same result. Then on the weekend, I tried again, and heard a voice on the other end of the line. I nervously introduced myself, and his first comment was, “I have been expecting your call”. I dove right into my “pitch” about wanting to know about his engine building, and only got short one or two word answers. ( I concluded that this was not going to be easy.)  They say that timing is everything, and as fate would have it, timing was on my side. The motor builder lived on Canada’s west coast, and as Heinz had said that I lived close to Canada, I did. Fifty miles from the Quebec border, but three thousand plus miles from the motor builder. However, about once every two months, my work took me to, Washington.

            After trying to carry on a one-sided conversation with my new acquaintance, I finally made arrangements to take an extra day during my next trip to the west and cross the border for a visit with the motor builder. The only thing that I had gleaned from this conversation was the he was a fan of sidecar racing that took place during the forties and early fifties in Germany. (I now had some much needed ammunition with which to enter into a meaningful conversation when I finally met the motor builder.)

            On my next trip west, I had an extra piece of luggage that contained as much information and pictures about sidecar racing as I could stuff in. Getting into Canada was no problem, getting to Vancouver was alright but finding the correct address for an east coast country boy, was another story. I was looking for a house with an out garage where all of the genius work was done, but came up short.

            The house numbers seemed to not be in order and finally, I stopped in front of a house that could be correct, and if not, I would ask for directions. I had stopped at the right house, but the man that answered the door was not the motor builder, but the author. This was at about mid-morning, and the next three hours were filled with me pouring out all of my knowledge about sidecar racing, along with loads of pictures, in an effort to try and converse with the builder. The author was most personable and a fine conversationalist, and the time flew by. At long last, the motor builder asked if I would like to see the motorcycles with the engines that he had built. (After building a single overhead cam motor, he had then built a double over head motor.) We did not go out back to a garage, but rather to his cellar. There before me was a complete machine shop, with drill presses, lathes, grinders, and milling machines, and two creations. I was like a boy in a candy store with the keys to the ice cream freezer. I could not believe that anyone could take a 51/3 motor and turn it into a very fine looking copy of a Rennsport motor. The day flew by and as it approached time for me to return to the U.S.A.,asked if I could come for another visit the next time that I was on the west coast. The answer was yes, so taking my leave, I started south. On my way back to the US, I realized that I had nearly lost my voice in trying to make conversation, and had, perhaps heard just a few hundred words from the motor builder during the entire day.

            Over the next few years, every time I had to go west, I always made extra time to visit north of the border.  After a couple of years, I could even not lose my voice during my visits, as the motor builder and I were starting to engage in long, meaningful conversations about BMW, racing and life in general. I got to the point where I was looking forward to my visits even more than to my work on the west coast, and that work paid real money.

            Like any good consulting job, eventually the trips to the west coast ceased, and although I remained in phone contact with the motor builder, I missed our bi-monthly visits.

            The original desire was to see if Heinz could have access to the plans and drawings that the motor builder had developed. The short of it was, all of the knowledge that was developed was stored in the motor builder's head, and he was not one to put pen to paper.

            A few more years passed, and one day, out of the blue, my secretary informed me that I had a phone call from the motor builders wife. After the opening chit-chat, I inquired about the motor builder, and his wife told me that he was very ill. This was the reason for the phone call, and she, being a nurse filled me in on all of the details. The outlook was bleak, at best, and the motor builder was setting his affairs in order. I tried to offer some encouragement, which was like trying to preach religion to the Pope. She knew it, and I also knew it. She informed me what her husband wanted from me and although I was shocked and wondering, I informed her that I had to think about it." Do that," she said" but you must act quickly, as there is not much time left." After talking it over with a good friend, whose opinion I trusted under these types of situations, his comment was that you could not deny a dying man's wish, and I called the wife back, telling her that I would agree to his wishes. Within a month, I once again arrived in Vancouver, but this time with truck and trailer. The motor builder, who at our first was meeting, appeared to weigh about 160-170 pounds, now weighed less than 100 pounds. Frail was a generous description of his condition, but we tried to talk around the inevitable, knowing all too well that this would be our last meeting on this earth. His last wish pertaining to me was that I have his two beloved, home made Rennsports. It was one of the saddest days in my life when I finally got ready to leave. Needless to say, many tears were shed by the both of us, and as I rose to take my leave, the motor builder struggled what seemed like for hours to stand, and asked," Dave do you know why I want you to have theses motorcycles?" I responded that quite frankly, I did not." Because," he said, " two things that I know about, you will take good care of these bikes, and you will ride them, and that is why I built them".

            This was the Genius that walked among us, who built two homemade Rennsports and started a third, using parts that I would ship to him in an effort to prolong his days with us. This was Henry Dirrigl, The Nürnberger Craftsman, machine genius. Among some of his other accomplishments, are his three cylinder diesel motor, seven cylinder radial motor, Harley two cylinder motor, and BMW twin motor, all of which run, and can be held in the palm of your hand.

 

 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 29 July 2008 )
 
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