Sunday, June 7, 2009

Visit to the BMW Zentrum

April 9, 2009, about two months ago.

I had wanted to visit the BMW Zentrum that is over in Greer South Carolina ever since I bought my bike, but it is only open Monday through Friday, between 9:30 AM and 5:30 PM, so I have never been able to go because of work. The engineer in me and the motorcyclist that I am becoming are both interested in seeing what is there.

Oh, and I believe they make cars there, too. Maybe they will have some of them on display.

You may be curious, so I looked it up: According to, the word Zentrum means center in German.

The Zentrum is not far from home, about thirty miles. It is a weekday, so I must work some, and I ride to work in the morning. It is about fifty-five degrees, so I put on some layers to keep the chill out. It turns out that I have to work longer than I intended to -- the work has to get done, and there is no one else to do it -- but I get away in the early afternoon. The temperature has warmed into the high sixties, but the winds are gusting strongly.

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The route requires me to ride the I-85 superslab for about twenty miles, through the heart of Greenville and beyond. I have not ridden much on interstate highways, especially in the city, so I am not looking forward to this part of the trip very much. Now it isn't like Chicago or New York here, but it is certainly busier than many of the roads I usually ride. I take the surface streets to the entrance and merge into fairly heavy traffic. It gets worse as I near Greenville, and I am buffeted by the winds and by the shedding vortices of the transport trucks speeding by. The speed limit is sixty miles per hour, but I am running sixty-five and there is a lot of traffic passing me. I ride mostly in the second lane from the right to avoid merging vehicles, and I am mostly not holding up traffic too badly.

I finally see the Zentrum on my left, so the exit is coming up.

I turn off, then go a little ways to the BMW driveway and turn in there. Even with the poor economy, they are expanding their manufacturing plant to the tune of $750 million. (Click on the "expansion update" link to see a panable aerial view.) BMW laid off more than 700 contract employees at its local complex in response to the dramatic sales downturn in the fall, but about 5,000 people still work at the complex. The 1.5-million-square-foot expansion, will boost production capacity by 50,000 vehicles a year, to 200,000, and prepare the complex to make the next generation of the BMW X3. The expanded paint shop is already complete. Currently, BMW makes the X5 and X6 sports activity vehicles here.

I slowly ride to the parking lot, but don't immediately see any spots reserved for motorcycles. Odd: A motorcycle manufacturer that doesn't cater to them. I later see a few, but it is too late now. I settle on one of the other plentiful parking spaces, park, dismount, gather my tank bag and helmet, set my alarm, and begin walking. The parking lot is quite a ways from the building entrance, about two tenths of a mile.

I snap a few pictures on the way, so this walk isn't entirely wasted. Side view of the Zentrum. The manufacturing plant and offices are to the right of the building.

An inviting entrance.

Once inside, I ask the receptionist where I can stow my bag, helmet and jacket. She walks to a row of nicely finished cabinets and opens a door. Apparently these are the coat closets as there are clothes rods and hangers inside. Once that is done, I begin to wander through the displays. There are bunches of motorcycles here along with many vintage BMW automobiles.

Next is a Z3 Roadster. In fact it is the very first Z3 to come off the assembly line. It was James Bond's car in the 1995 film "GoldenEye". Seeing that it was Agent 007's car, the VIN ends with the digits 007. More Z3s were built in a single day than the entire number of 507s produced. It was also the first BMW automobile built entirely in the United States.

Next up is the Z1 Roadster. This was developed by the BMW engineering think tank known as Technik. It was never intended to be a production vehicle, but public reaction was good enough to produce it in limited numbers -- 8000. It has a tubular space frame, a thermoplastic body, electrically retracted doors, and six-cylinder engine.

The Alpina Roadster has a nice writeup reproduced here.

After the roadsters, there is a display of various BMW engines and transmissions (and some motorcycles there in the background that we'll see in a few minutes).

The R 60/5 Engine was originally conceived my Max Friz, one of BMW's founding fathers. It has the typical boxer layout of horizontally opposed cylinders and integrated shaft drive. The horizontally opposed cylinders help reduce vibration of other configurations.

Here is an engineering drawing showing the general arrangement of the horizontally opposed engine, transmission, and shaft drive.

And now the motorcycles. Some key models are displayed on this sloping track replica, starting with the oldest.

The R 47 is the successor to the R 37.

Note the location of the R 47 rear brake and the pedal that operates it directly.

And the controls are pretty nifty. Look at those levers and the hand shift.

The R 27 fit into the category of under 200 cc in displacement, so a driver's license was not required to operate one in the first half of the twentieth century. Therefore, BMW introduced this single cylinder model. The engine was mounted in rubber blocks to reduce vibration transmitted to the frame. This was the last of the single cylinder motorcycles produced by BMW until the introduction of the F 650 in 1993.

The R 50 was equipped with a swing arm suspension. Introduced at about the same time as the Isetta that we will see later, it was priced higher! Therefore, many of the mini cars were sold, having the advantage of an enclosed passenger compartment.

The R 90 S was more streamlined than the previous models and had an airbrushed paint job over the molded body. It had front dual disk brakes.

The K 75 S introduced the Compact Drive System. The three-cylinder engine was water cooled and mounted longitudinally in the frame with its axis in line with the bike centerline.

The R 1100 RS was a redesign to reduce noise and emissions. It had a four valve per cylinder design with digital electronic control and had antilock brakes. This particular motorcycle was one that was prepared for the Battle of the Legends where the great racers riding identical motorcycles were pitted against one another.

Now back to the, um, cars.

Post World War II Europe needed inexpensive transportation, so an Italian company Iso developed a small car with a motorcycle engine and licensed it to other manufacturers. BMW expanded the line to several models.

And a bit larger version.

And another combination for the camping family.

Then some more motorcycles. I didn't get the specs on these. This first one is sure an eye popper, though. It is a K1 of about 1990.

Look at the story about this one.

Lots of tough miles, including in the dense jungles! ...and we complain about city streets.

And some classic BMW automobiles.

Here is an example of current production at this BMW plant, the X5.

The manufacturing plant where I work is about to begin making a part that will go into the X5 and X6, so I get down on my hands and knees with my head on the floor and underneath the side of the vehicles on display to see whether I can spot the location of our part. It turns out that I cannot, as it is behind some other components.

Apparently someone saw my gymnastics, because a man walked up to me a few minutes later and politely asked if he could help me with anything. I just as politely told him that I was just trying to see the underside of the vehicle. Now I am sure that many people who are wearing leather motorcycle suits slip under the vehicles on display just like I did, looking at their design.

Maybe I am not that out of the ordinary....or maybe I am.

Nearby is a small stand-up movie theatre where they show a film about engineering and assembly of the BMW X series.

I finish my tour and retrieve my belongings from the fine cabinets near the entrance. It is rush hour now, so I put on all my gear and prepare to go into the teeth of the traffic once again. The wind has not died down much and remains gusty, so the trip back is about the same as my trip here. Once I get home, I find that I have ridden about 73 miles.

I'm glad I went. There were a lot of interesting vehicles to see.

If you go, bring your camera and spend a couple of hours looking around. There is a gift shop so you can take home a souvenir. They also offer a plant tour that I didn't have time for. Maybe next time.

A parting shot: Another picture of that red K1 with the yellow wheels. I'm think I'm getting the fever.


1 comment:

footballboy3 said...

Hey Bucky, footballboy3 here (from carolina rider forum). I rode with you once with stretch and some other guys. I was on the Red Kawasaki Versys. Saw your blog on carolina riders. Good writeup on the Zentrum. I've been in the upstate about 9 years and I've never been there. Gotta check it out sometime. Ride safe!!