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BMW Kompressors at the Isle, 1939

The 2009 Isle of Man TT, featuring a single-lap race for zero-emissions vehicles, will be historic. But BMW Motorrad wants us to remember another historic TT that took place 70 years before.

That was the year a non-UK rider would win the famed Tourist Trophy. He was an ex-motorcycle cop and mechanic named Georg Meier who got the nickname “Iron Georg” after winning a huge number of enduros for the Weimar Republic Army’s racing team. He won the 1937 ISDT race in Wales against the odds – he had no road-race experience and had to lap the British competitiors under handicapping rules – and went on to join BMW’s works team in 1937. The bike would be the Type 255 Kompressor.

BMW is squeamish about its Nazi-era history, and who can blame it? BMW motorcycles led the Wehrmacht war machine as it crushed and brutalized entire continents. Its excellent aircraft engines – built in part with slave labor as early as 1938 – powered the Luftwaffe that bombed “subhuman races” into subjugation. But before all that, BMW, encouraged by Nazi propagandists, fielded its factory racing team, demonstrating German technological and sporting prowess. The Type 255, with Meier on board, was suited to demonstrate such dominance. With high-tech features like bevel-gear-operated cams, sprung rear suspension (for 1938) and a shrieking supercharger, the 60 hp, 136-mph machines must have terrorized their single-cylinder-mounted competition.

Even so, the Kompressors weren’t immediately successful; they had wide engines and weren’t well-known for handling. The sweeter-handling Nortons of the era still dominated racetracks, especially when the awesome power of the Kompressors couldn’t be brought fully to bear. But Norton, busy preparing for armed competition that was just six months away, didn’t enter the TT in 1939. There were still 42 other competitors, however, and Meier’s teammate Karl Gall died after a practice-lap crash on the Ballugh Bridge jump, so it wasn’t exactly a squad of confident Aryan ubermenschen swaggering up to the start line that June.

I’ll let Iron Georg take up the narrative from here:

“I was really under great mental stress at the start, with each rider setting out in thirty-second intervals,” said Meier much later. “I was able to complete the seven laps without any significant incidents and I received good news from the pits every time, so that I knew exactly what was going on. Filling up the tank twice in about 17 seconds, which allowed me to change my glasses and have a refreshing drink, went very well. And then, after 2 hours and 57 minutes, I at last saw the man with the black-and-white checkered flag waving me in as the winner. What I really wanted to do most at that point was literally kiss and hug my wonderful machine with its white-and-blue colours on the tank which, apart from all those flies on the wind deflector, still looked brand new, without the slightest trace of oil or any signs of the incredible race we had just been through.”

Meier and teammate (Englishman Jock West) finished 1-2, and that was the last hurrah for the great era of pre-war motorcycle racing. When racing was reborn in the ’50s, supercharging was a no-no. Meier trained military police motorcyclists and even served as a driver to Abwher (military intelligence) chief Wilhelm Canaris, a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance during the war. He went on to a long life of racing, wrenching and riding – he rode an original pre-war Kompressor (owned by John Surtees) in a parade lap at the Isle in 1989 – before he died in 1999 at the ripe old age of 89.

This weekend, another rider will be vaulted into history, but like Georg he won’t be thinking about how the world is sliding into destruction and turmoil. He’ll just be another guy giving it his all, hoping his bike makes it to the end with him safely on board.

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MD Readers Respond:

  • Lawd o’ Mercy, would I ever love to have a large photo or poster of
    that photo with the airborne BMW on your home page!
    Have any idea where I might be able to get one? Brad

  • Great, I love reading this stuff. It’s time for Gabe to collaborate with mscuddy and produce the set of road and off-road coffee table books! David
  • “BMW motorcycles led the Wehrmacht war machine as it crushed and brutalized
    entire continents. Its excellent aircraft engines – built in part with slave
    labor as early as 1938 – powered the Luftwaffe that bombed “subhuman races”
    into subjugation.”

    How soon we forget. Americans are outraged by Iran’s suggestion that the
    Holocaust didn’t happen. While we buy products from the company that helped
    kill millions in WWII. Not me. Not ever.

    Sometimes I wonder how many people went to see “Saving Private Ryan” then
    got into their BMW autos (and motorcycles) and drove home blissfully
    ignorant. I wonder what auto Stephen Spielberg drives. BMW? Mercedes? AMG?

    When I was young I drove all over Los Angeles in VW beetles. I had no
    historical perspective or appreciation. Now I do. It’s funny, I never made
    it part of my conscious decision, but I ended up with a Ford Ranger pickup
    and a Harley Electra Glide. I have no regrets. Frank