In the relatively small universe of vintage BMW motorcycle aficionados, there are perhaps a dozen or so names that are universally recognized and respected for their dedication, knowledge, skills, and their collections of these unique vintage motorcycles. In the past decade, one name, that of Long Islander Peter Nettesheim, has grown remarkably in significance and respect among this passionate group of enthusiasts. BMW MOA members met Peter Nettesheim (MOA 66171) in the February 2004 ON through the feature article, “One Man’s Fascination” (p44).That issue’s cover showed Peter in front of his Ultimate Backyard Garage alongside a pristine and historically important 1923 R32.
Ten years have passed, and Peter’s museum, collection, as well as the focus and direction of his driving passion have grown and evolved. During a recent visit to his home and museum, ON learned more of the man, the collection and evolving emphasis. First, what has changed?
Peter’s original quest was to collect and restore vintage BMW motorcycles; now, he confides that his focus has changed since beginning the collection and restorations; “I now want to share and celebrate BMW’s unique history, their background, successes and hard times, and their rich culture as a firm that is enduring, innovative, and consistently replicates ‘fundamental quality during manufacture’ every time. This involves more than just my motorcycles, although the moto-viewpoint is still my primary focus.”
The original backyard garage, actually a large two-story barn-like structure, is on the family’s spacious two-acre lot in an attractive Huntington, Long Island residential neighborhood. The peaceful community features wide streets, mature trees and gracious homes, and the garage-museum remains largely as it was ten years ago. Peter noted that before the original building was constructed in 2000, his attorneys spent five years to obtain the necessary permissions, and the garage is now the largest legal such structure, over 3,000 square feet, in Huntington. Nearly full on our last visit, so it remains, and most pieces on display then are mostly as they were. In 2004, the Nettesheim Collection contained approximately forty motorcycles; in the past decade, the count has risen to over one hundred.
“70% of the entire collection contains historically notable pieces,” Peter noted, adding that currently there really are no additional important motorcycles to be added. “The collection holds virtually every regular production BMW motorcycle from 1923 to 1970, with the exception of some easily-obtainable singles of little interest.” To house the additions and properly display them, as well as many non-moto items of interest, Peter added an entire wing to his existing residence, and from the outside, it simply appears to be just that, a larger graceful residence. The new wing has more than twice as much space as the original backyard garage; the backyard facility is still presented as a museum, with the resultant ‘hush-hush, look-but-don’t-touch’ aura of a museum, while the new wing is done in a Disney-esque ‘BMW World’ format, a comfy den-like atmosphere with spacious couches, Persian rugs on granite floors, elegant wood walls and ceilings, appropriate music, display lighting and décor that replicates southern German villages during the 1920s and ‘30s. “It’s intended to be a fun, interactive, ‘touch, feel, experience’ place to visit.” Peter adds.
Along with bikes that are on display in the new facility, Peter has amassed many other items of BMW interest that highlight more about the history, culture, the passion for quality that is, and always has been the hallmark of BMW as a manufacturing firm.
Examples of other BMW products include quality aluminum cookware that the firm turned out in post-war 1946 so as to keep the firm alive and manufacturing something, anything. The first BMW aircraft engine, the Model IIIA inline naturally-aspirated six-cylinder engine used in the 1918 Fokker biplane is represented by a large model of the aircraft hanging from the ceiling.
Several notable certificates are on display, including the Gerhardt Knochlein (ED NOTE: ‘o’ in Khochlein requires umlaut, dunno how to do it) Award from BMW Mobile Tradition – Peter is the first American to be so recognized – and a certificate from BMW AG of Munchen that confirms that one of Peter’s eight R32 motorcycles is the oldest existing BMW vehicle, be it motorcycle or auto, in the world. That machine has been on loan to BMW.
An additional eight notable BMW motorcycles from the collection are currently at the well-known Saratoga Automobile Museum in New York; BMW itself has also loaned several pieces to this facility. The American Motorcyclist Association Museum in Pickerington, Ohio recently had several of Peter’s bikes on display, and when the event ended, graciously donated their professionally-produced backdrops to include in Peter’s museum.
Peter Nettesheim worked with author Peter Gantriis, who used much of Peter’s collection for his book, ‘The Art of BMW: 85 Years of Motorcycling Excellence’. This coffee-table style photo-rich volume is available at online booksellers, and is a quality piece. The Nettesheim collection has been featured in over twenty magazines over the past ten years, as well.
2011 was a bad year for Peter, and put the entire collection in jeopardy; suffering from severe back troubles caused by improperly lifting heavy motorcycle parts, and straining to lift bikes onto the poorly-engineered centerstands of the older machines, walking became nearly unbearable. After seeking nearly all treatments except actual surgery, he began using physical therapy and careful work habits that have largely mitigated the debility. For a time, says Peter, he thought he would have to dispose of the collection.
Long time collaborators in his work include Georgia’s John Landstrom of Blue Moon Cycles, and local compatriots Pip Sarser and Jim Ricci. Nearby neighbor, musician Bill Joel of Oyster Bay, LI, has an interesting collection, as well, and Joel and Nettesheim occasionally trade visits. Bill Joel, says Peter, can buy anything he wants, but mainly collects Japanese machines, Moto Guzzis, a Vincent or two and some Meridian Triumphs, BMWs, and BSAs; Joel tends to favor bikes with electric starters, and seems attracted to bikes of his own youth.
In exploring and celebrating the entire heritage of BMW and the earlier days of fine machinery and quality of manufacture, some newer items include a 1:7 scale model steam engine that would have been used in an early twentieth-century industrial factory to supply electricity and steam-power; the level of detail and intricate workmanship is breathtaking. An early BMW stationary engine, an M2B15, is on display, as well as engines manufactured by BMW and installed in bikes of other makers such as Victoria, Bison, Helios and SMZ. An unrestored Victoria graces the collection. Many enthusiasts believe that a BMW motor was also used in the British Douglas of Robert Fulton fame (‘One Man Caravan’), with cylinders aligned fore and aft, rather than athwart-ships as all BMW Boxer motors are configured, but that is incorrect. The engine used in the Douglas is, however, widely considered a possible inspiration for BMW engineer and designer Max Friz, who developed the original Boxer engine for the R32, BMW’s first actual complete motorcycle introduced in 1923.
BMW Motorrad has increasingly been involved with Peter Nettesheim, donating several items of interest; “I help further BMW’s heritage and culture, and so it’s in their best interest to provide interesting pieces.” Peter noted. His facility has regularly hosted attendees in Motorrad’s Service Technician Education Program, and is intended to instill the deep roots of heritage into these folks when they return to their work-bays. This year, the Museum has hosted visits by Mr. Ludwig W. Willish, President and CEO BMW NA LLC, and several other top-tier BMW executives. Another notable visitor has been Mr. Hans Blesse, VP BMW Motorrad USA. Mid-level executives from BMW’s nearby New Jersey headquarters are regular visitors as they work with Peter to plan and execute various cooperative promotional ventures. The venue regularly hosts receptions for BMW Dealer Meetings, and again, with the intent to deepen and widen dealers’ cumulative awareness of the firm’s rich history.
Over the years, Peter has reduced his involvement in shows, displays and concours events, limiting his participation to the most prestigious ones such as Pebble Beach. However, he almost always brings a strong presence to BMW MOA International Rallies, missing only two in the past ten years. He is also very active with local clubs in the Long Island and New York area, and is always ready to assist a local enthusiast with his or her restoration project.
Now the talk turns to the actual motorcycles. Peter owns eight R32 bikes, the original model sold to the public beginning in 1923, including the aforementioned oldest existing BMW vehicle of any type. The collection is now at over one hundred pieces. Interesting pieces noticed during ON’s visit include a BMW sidecar rig recently featured on the cover of ON, a 1966 R60 powered by an R1150 engine, and a 1951 R51/3, his original BMW motorcycle. Peter began restoration work as a youth, working beside his father restoring Mercedes-Benz autos; after a brief flirt restoring BMW autos – they were ‘more exciting’ than Mercedes’ – Peter discovered motorcycles. The original R51/3 was not reliable, however, so he began restoring it to become a daily rider, and the rest is history – and his road to history is still being written.
While the rich and fascinating past is the primary focus, the modern era is represented by a gleaming red, white and blue Boxer Cup bike ridden by racer Brian Parriott to 2nd place in the 2003 International Boxer Cup. It was another donation from BMW Motorrad. A blue-and-white S1000RR HP4 competition race bike represents the current pinnacle of the art; “It’s an interesting ride,” notes Peter, going on to comment on the proactive rider-assists that now festoon RRs and are now migrating down into various road and dual-sport BMWs.
His favorite? The R32, unsurprisingly. It was the machine that launched the legend that became the basis for BMW’s most memorable advertising line; “The Legendary Motorcycles of Germany.” The R32 lit the torch of quality, reliability and functional comfort for nearly fifty years, into the 1960s. During this time, most other makes were anything but reliable, oil-tight or comfortable.
As a result of my misspent youth nearly living in a BMW motorcycle shop, 441 Cycles of Fort Lauderdale, I well remember the sales demonstration that often sold BMWs over other brands; the store’s owner would park a Brit-bike on the centerstand, start it if he could, and while in neutral, rev the engine. The parallel twin would roar, dance and skitter across the concrete floor while on the centerstand due to the engine’s vibrations. Then, the same treatment was given to the BMW machine; it started quietly on the first kick, and simply purred softly, remaining stock-still as the engine-speed rose and fell. The well-to-do gentleman rider would usually unlimber his checkbook and ride away on the BMW.
Peter adds that his favorite bike to ride would have to be the R69S; this model represents the pinnacle of BMW quality, innovation and development prior to the beginning of the Slash Five ‘modern era,’ when most makers’ quality of manufacture, led by Honda, began to improve markedly. “The R69S does everything well, and is a pleasure to ride.”
New items come almost exclusively from Europe, with an emphasis on southern Germany, particularly BMW AG’s home of Bavaria. In the first half of the twentieth century, most motorcycle makers sold products mainly in their regional markets, and Bavaria still produces many vintage finds. As the Nettesheim name became widely known, many pieces he owns now actually found him. An article in a German magazine brought him two R32 machines; one of them was the 92nd BMW motorcycle built, with the early original engine used before some flying production changes. This contact also furnished some valuable R32 bits, some late 1960 pieces, and many with the all-important provenance attached. Peter is always willing to consider buying an interesting piece, so members are welcome to contact him if one has something of interest. As the value of vintage BMW motorcycles has grown, a larger-than-cottage industry of reproduction – ‘repops’ – parts as well as complete motorcycles have begun to appear in the marketplace, and a number of unwary buyers have been duped. Most come from Asia, including, surprisingly, Vietnam. Peter explains than some repop parts are first produced and then aged and distressed so as to appear genuine. So, vintage collectors now have something else to consider when picking.
Peter still does most of his own machining and restoration work, and still contracts out all painting. “I do occasionally send machining out, now, though, when another craftsman can do a better job on a critical piece.” The new addition contains a complete machine shop equipped with a state-of-the-art HLV Super-Precision class Hardinge lathe, a milling machine, and assorted other quality tools. Peter does all of his own cylinder-head work.
In addition to the aforementioned Victoria, the only other non-BMW machine is a prewar Zundapp K800, a 4-cylinder flat four.
In the 2004 magazine article, it was a point of pride to Peter that all of his motorcycles were registered, tagged and insured, and all ridden in rotation. He commented at the time that maintaining the forty-odd bikes in running condition was a larger-than-life task. Today, New York motorcycle registration cost have trebled, and it would cost nearly $4,000 per year now to keep all of the current collection road-legal, so only about fifty bikes are registered and ridden on the street. Most of these are from 1920s and ‘30s; Peter does put some enjoyable miles on the S1000RR HP4, though.
The next target? “There really isn’t one,” Peter responded, “I have every important BMW motorcycle and there really is nothing else that I’m searching to find now.”
The future of the Peter Nettesheim collection, and his personal ambitions; “For the past five years, I’ve also been a pilot, with a private pilot’s certificate, and own a 1943 Boeing Stearman Model PT-17 aircraft. I enjoy the mastery of the machine.” Perhaps he is subconsciously connecting with BMW’s aero-roots of the early twentieth century through elementary aviation.
The museum and collection are a hobby, not a business. Peter continues to operate his Freightliner truck dealership five days a week. Peter considered buying a local BMW motorcycle business; he has wide experience in both new-vehicle sales, and BMW motorcycles, but in the end, decided against the venture. The collection is, and always will be a solo operation. The museum is not open to the general public, but can be opened to interested parties, organizations and clubs that have a sincere and specific interest in BMW motorcycles – this must be prearranged with Peter - and increasingly, in the heritage and culture of this proud firm. “I want to share my passion about these elements with others who are like-minded. I’m not interested in television exposure, or putting my life’s work in front of those who have no interest in what I’ve done.”
Potential plans are on the drawing board for another separate building on the property, nearly double the size of the existing stand-alone museum and possibly standing two stories tall. Peter has created a public educational foundation on the advice of his financial team; one benefit is that others may donate pieces to the museum, should they be so inclined, and receive favorable tax benefits. Adding new items is one thing, but when asked if would sell anything, Peter responded firmly; “No! Not yet, anyway.”
Ask what he hopes members of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America can take away from this article and his accomplishments and collection, he immediately spoke of passing along to members and other interested enthusiasts more about the strong BMW brand, and the pride one should feel from association with a firm whose entire mission has been centered around innovation and quality of manufacture. He hopes to further the knowledge and passion of these elements in others so like-minded. The museum and collection have become a life’s dedication, no longer a mere hobby and Peter admitted that may not be completely a good thing; “When I started collection, my father – a Mercedes dealer who had his own Mercedes collection – told me; ‘First, you will drive the collection, and then the collection will drive you.’ And that has come to pass.”
Peter notes that gentlemen visitors usually ask; “Where do you find the time to do all this?” while the ladies usually inquire; “Who cleans all these?”
Another concern on the horizon is the long-term future of the collection. “My family has no interest in the collection. My son Alex works with me in the truck business, but he isn’t into motorcycles; my daughter Kate works on a private 330-foot yacht, sailing the world. I’m concerned that after my life has passed, the collection could be dumped on the market; can you image what would happen to collectible-motorcycle values if eight pristine R32s came up for sale at the same time? Right now, it’s a question I just can’t answer!” Peter is working with his advisors to seek ways to keep the collection intact, and maintain the integrity of the collection, the value of the collection, as well as the value of others’ collections.
“I have no really big aspirations now; there’s nothing I want to add, nothing I need to complete the work, although I’m always interested in looking. I still travel to Europe regularly and look around. That’s not necessarily good, not bad, but just the way it is, and I’m comfortable with what I’ve done.”
Peter can be reached at: BMWMUSEUM@hotmail.com. Like-minded enthusiasts are always welcome to contact Peter Nettesheim; he will always consider visit requests, as well as offer advice and insights about vintage BMW motorcycles.