Musing: The Joys of Being A Minimalist

A minimalist is someone who follows this creed,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”, A. Einstein.

It is a “scientific” creed similar to Occam’s razor summarized as, “The simplest explanation is usually correct.” These two guiding principles provide direction when you are looking for explanations and aren’t sure how to proceed. But, they also underpin a philosophy of design that creates unadorned, straightforward products that are a delight to experience.

My appreciation of BMW airhead motorcycles is a practical expression of Einstein’s prescription of what the result of science should look like. Airhead design is functional, not elaborate nor flamboyant. The styling relies on form following function for its appeal, not on plastic panels and extraneous amenities that distract from the direct understanding of how the machine works. Even when BMW introduced the first motorcycle with a manufacturer integrated full fairing in 1977, the R100RS, the shape of the fairing was defined by aerodynamic necessity and the requirement to protect the rider from adverse weather. I think the RS fairing is a design that solves several hard problems as simply as possible, but no simpler.

For BMW airheads, the art in the design lies in engineering control of material properties and precision machining during manufacture. For example, machined tapers with press fits are preferred to castle nuts with tab washers when connecting driven components on a turning shaft. Parts inventory is minimized and the assembly procedure is simple.

Another example is the tool kit that comes with the bike. With it, you can disassemble just about anything on the motorcycle. I’ve used the tool kit to remove the top end to replace rings and then reassemble it. I have removed the transmission, the drive shaft, the entire rear sub-frame and the rear wheel with it. Nothing else in my tool box was required. That lowly, hidden tool kit is an elegant expression of the minimalist mindset.

The joy of motorcycling comes from a direct, frictionless connection between mind and action, but that is deepened when the machine you are riding is an elegant execution of the minimalist creed espoused by Einstein.

I think that’s why I got so involved in airhead wrenching over the last decade.

16 thoughts on “Musing: The Joys of Being A Minimalist

  1. Well said, Brook…and I totally agree with your thoughts. You should submit this to the BMW-ON editor for publication in the BMWMOA magazine.

    • Hi Frank,

      Hmmm … one three part article from me should last them a long time, don’t you think? 🙂


  2. Brook,
    as usual, you are quite the wordsmith, I always enjoy reading your skillfully written articles.
    I couldn’t agree with the content any more. Except to maybe add that this simple approach to motorcycling also is making the ride itself fun again. The difference I personally feel between riding my R100RS or the K1200LT are almost a world apart. The Airhead is FUN, the semi aggressive riding position makes me want to chew through miles and miles of back country roads. The stock 3/4 (or 1 1/2 seat as Hans put it) is the best seat I own. As we know, the K1200LT is a very capable touring bike, but after a trip from MD to TX on the R77, that bike is equally capable AND it is FUN to ride. As I write this, the K Bike is for sale, already have a buyer.

    • Andy,

      I agree with your observation about the “fun” of the ride when on the airhead vs. more “modern” and complex machines. As I noted to Britt, there is a resurgence of minimalism in the motorcycle business centered on the small displacement market; 250-350 cc bikes. This is a welcome trend IMHO.

      I think another value of minimalism is the opportunity to personally understand the “cause and effect” of the machine sufficiently that maintenance and repair can become a self-taught skill. The post-war machines of the 50’s-early 70’s were designed to enable the owner to do their own work on them. For that reason, those who found delight in fixing what they owned found delight in owning what they could fix. That seems to have been part of the BMW design philosophy until maybe the mid-1980’s, to pick a loose cut-off date.

      I see signs of that older post-war ethic of self-reliance that comes from fixing what you own resurfacing in the Maker movement, to pick one example. I wrote a couple blogs several years ago about the interconnection of the brain, hand and well-being which may explain why this is so. You will find them in the “Musing” category.

      IMHO, “first world” culture is healthier when more people find worth in spending time learning, knowing and doing than in tweeting, snap chatting and face booking in the narcissistic reflecting pool of “social media”. But, I’m an old fart, so what do I know. 🙂


  3. Thank you for the wise words, Sir.

    So perhaps, that explains my attachment with the 60’s and 70’s ( of course including the venerable airheads ), when -in my view- we achieved such “sweet” balance between design and technology. Clean, unpretentious aesthetics lived in harmony with unaffected engineering.


    Luis Etchenique

    • Luis,

      Yes, those 60’s-70’s bikes (the era I first started riding) were typically a minimalist design relying on mechanical engineering, a dash of electrical engineering, and no software engineering. Rider navigation was by paper so you already saw where you were going before you went, not a GPS screen which pulled your attention from what is around you, machine health was monitored via analog gauges, not screens and screens of information. I think in that era, the overall experience of riding and maintaining was at the scale of “one”, you and your machine with less distractions that dilute that melding.

      There are downsides to that era including: “eventual” brakes, minimal protective clothing choices, frequent maintenance intervals, and tires that got good mileage, but did not have great traction.

      Nonetheless, I feel many of today’s motorcycle designs have over indulged in “pampering and thinking” for the rider with a concomitant separation of the rider from what’s really happening with the machine. And, service and repair are now much less approachable with multiple computers in between the mechanical engineering and the operation of the machinery.

      Onward …


  4. “Even when BMW introduced the first motorcycle with a manufacturer integrated fairing in 1977, the R100RS, the shape of the fairing was defined by aerodynamic necessity and the requirement to protect the rider from adverse weather.”

    Some will surely find that a debatable statement, as BMW had the fairing equipped R90S available in ’73, though perhaps the meaning was to say full fairing. Although, Vincent had the Black Knight and Prince, faired and enclosed in ’54. I think perhaps what distinguished the R100RS was being the first bike made with the full fairing design developed with the help of a wind tunnel.
    Your site is such a real pleasure to read Brook, please keep it and your musings going!
    George Charleton

    • Hi George,

      Well, yes one could debate that statement from BMW marketing when they introduced the RS. In defense of BMW’s marketing claim, “… manufacturer integrated full fairing” maybe more accurate.

      Two design goals of the RS fairing were: (1) increased down force on the front wheel to avoid problems found with other 3rd party designs where the front wheel started to lift at higher speeds, and (2) lower drag coefficient to improve speed and mileage. To me, the humorous part of that second goal is the way Hans Muth denigrated the Windjammer (by inference, not reference). In fact, Craig Vetter designed it to reduce drag and improve mileage as well and was quite successful with his design. Better mileage has defined his design efforts starting with the Windjammer project and continuing to the present day.

      The R90S fairing could be considered “bolt-on” rather than “integrated” in the sense it only attaches to the handlebar. The RS fairing is integrated in the sense it attaches to the frame and integrates the headlight. But, as I said, it’s “marketing” speaking so we expect a bit of arm waving :-).

      I am not knowledgeable about the Vincent company integration of a fairing in the ’50s. Where BMW designed and manufactured theirs to meet their goals, I wonder if the same is true for Vincent, or if they sold one designed by others with appropriate hardware to attach to the Black Knight and Prince?

      I’m pleased the site has proven useful to you. Although I’ve been quiet for awhile, I anticipate another rebuild starting soon for a 1983 RS. My plan is to use this project to teach our Colorado Airheads Beemer Club members as I go along. If more folks learn how about how to maintain and rebuild these bikes, they may last 100+ years 🙂


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