BMW's Bergmeister

When it comes to building a race-winning hillclimber, a little genius goes a long way

BMW's Bergmeister 1
Then-owner Elliott Butler with the 700 RS at Hilton Head in 2012
June 1, 2012

What was that racket?!?

The half-mad banging and crashing sounded like a string of cherry bombs exploding in a garbage can. The gentry strolling the fields of the Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance stopped, looked at each other and rushed toward the noise. Was it a bank robbery? A gang war? Whatever, it was worth seeing.

I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve heard a BMW opposed twin motorcycle engine run with open exhausts. The sheer blam-bang! bam! of it is enough to stop Joan Rivers. It made me wonder why anyone in the earliest days of un-muffled two-cylinder horseless carriages would buy such a hellhound, much less climb aboard and make it move. By comparison, horse exhaust is elegant.

Of course, what was making this blam-bang! bam! was no horseless carriage. To the contrary, it was just 51 years old. And aside from the skull-numbing noise, it had reason to draw a crowd. In 1961, this BMW 700 RS Bergspyder was financially, corporately and philosophically radical. In those fraught times, BMW was on the ropes and had been for 16 desperate years since World War II.

Viewed another way, BMW was free to try whatever it wanted—it had nothing left to lose. With the 700 RS hillclimb car, the company was all in, betting the future on a courageous, imaginative racing gamble it would never have taken in safer times. This brave, brilliant little Bergspyder must capture the German public’s imagination…and sell some cars!

And if not for the RS, BMW’s first purpose-built racer since the war, today you might have no BMWs to buy and drive. You don’t believe that, I know. We’re spoiled gooey by the plethora of modern BMWs; in retrospect, it’s hard for us to imagine how close Munich came to slamming its doors. The Marshall Plan had helped Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen recover, but Bayerische Motoren Werke was going nowhere. It had produced a string of overmatched medium-sized sedans that were far too expensive for the home market, and it followed its Baroque Angels with the beautiful but dazzlingly irrelevant 507 super sports car and high-end 503 coupe, neither of which sold in substantial numbers. All that was keeping BMW afloat was a tiny, egg-shaped golf cart—the BMW-Isetta microcar.

Something had to change.

A modest car for dour times

In such dour times, the Next Big Thing for BMW was the appropriately dour, minimally sporty 700 Coupe. It got its name from the 697cc M107 flat-opposed twin engine it used, which at 30 hp was the mightiest engine BMW could afford to supply in 1959. (The M107 was derived from the M102/M103 motorcycle engine, which gives some indication of BMW’s need for thrift in that era.) The M107 engine led directly to the blam-bang! bam! at Hilton Head, though our furiously racer-ized twin would take shape only well after the 700 Coupe was loosed on the German market.

The 700 was styled by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who had just designed the charismatic Triumph TR-4. BMW’s delicate financial position, however, dictated a 700 with neither the stylistic nor dynamic aplomb of the Triumph. Au contraire, the 700 was as concise, unpretentious and cheap as BMW could make it. After building Isettas for years, Munich knew just how to do that.

And the German public, awash in homely VW Beetles, saw in the new BMW a refreshingly different low-buck alternative. Further kindling interest, in 1960, a factory-supported 700 was raced at all the major hillclimbs. That’s not as lame as it sounds. Hillclimbing was a budget-friendly way to go racing, and “major hillclimbs” was no oxymoron. Germans followed hillclimbing like Monday follows Sunday. For a minor investment, BMW hoped to generate positive attention.

To attract this attention, in 1960, BMW arranged for its modest 700 to be driven by an immortal prewar Grand Prix driver, Hans Stuck Sr. Known as the Bergkönig (King of the Hill) for his early hillclimb triumphs, he graduated to Grand Prix during one of the most intense periods GP racing has ever seen. In the 1930s, Stuck won several Grands Prix and was a master of the mid-engined, fiendishly difficult Porsche-designed Auto Union V16 GP car. Joining BMW in 1958, he’d raced BMW’s 507 while serving as a sort of brand ambassador for the model, winning three hillclimbs in 1958 and seven in ‘59, taking the latter in a 507 heavily modified for racing (#70145).

He had similar success with a 700 Coupe whose M107 was tweaked to 60 hp thanks to larger Dellorto carbs and improved valve gear. In 1960, Stuck won the German hillclimb championship and six races: the 6 Hours of Hockenheim and hillclimbs at Freiburg, Trento-Bondone, the Grosser Bergpreis of Switzerland, Rossfeld and Gaisberg in Austria.

Despite his success, crumpling the jocular, six-foot-four, 60-year-old Stuck into a mundane little 700 Coupe…it wasn’t the dashing image BMW management would’ve liked. Stuck was the Real Item, a legend who had dominated hillclimbs in the Twenties and Thirties. BMW knew Stuck deserved a more racerly, more dignified car. Under the circumstances, BMW couldn’t afford anything elaborate, of course. And for publicity purposes, the car must reflect its 700 Coupe lineage to encourage sales. The strategy worked for Porsche—why not for BMW?

The car that resulted, accelerating 700-Coupe sales and saving the company, was the selfsame blam-bang! bammer! turning heads at Hilton Head.

Eine Kleine Tagmusik

By the time we got to the source of the noise at Hilton Head, it had stopped. God is good. But there is no naysaying the exciting music pure racing engines make. This little 700 sounded as racy as any two-cylinder car engine ever will.

But first glimpsing the 700 RS Bergspyder, I wanted to ask, is it standing in a hole? It was like Hot Wheels for grownups. It came up to just above the ankle, and it was beyond tiny. Parked next to a Lotus 23, which it resembles in a way—and doesn’t resemble in a thousand ways—the Lotus would tower over it like a ‘58 Buick wagon.

The 700 RS is minimal, but no wonder. If it were 1961 and you were designing a sports-racing car around a flat-twin 697cc motorcycle engine, you’d leave off the sunroof and bumpers, too. But under the rules, you’d still have to apply standard headlights. On the 700 RS, they look immense and gawky—like Marty Feldman as Eye-gore in Young Frankenstein.

None of which is to say there’s anything silly about the 700 RS. Unlikely, yes, but not silly. In its small-displacement 1961 hillclimb class, the RS was deadly. It had enough speed to make BMW owners proud. With all the Right Stuff, some of it very advanced, the car met BMW’s other requirement: It was dead cheap to produce. Our featured car is one of only two ever built, and easygoing Watkinsville, Georgia physician’s assistant Elliott Butler is only its third private owner. At Hilton Head, clearly, the RS was Butler’s personal pride and joy.

Information on the 700 RS is scant, but much has been accumulated by Butler over the years, and more can be found in Stefan Knittel’s Touring-Car Racing and Sports Cars published by BMW Classic in 2008.

As Knittel reports, the idea for the RS came from Heinz Eppelein, an engine development specialist who in December 1960 presented his design for a purpose-built sports racer that would capitalize on the success already enjoyed by the 700 Coupe. With Harro Frankenberger, Eppelein drew a low-slung two-seater that would install the 700’s engine in a lightweight chassis to race in the 1.0-liter class.

Building a mini-monster

BMW's Bergmeister 2
The 700 RS engine bay with its distinctive twin-fan M106.

The racing department run by Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen had basically no budget, yet its cadre of in-house craftsmen managed to build two 700 RS sports racers nonetheless. Having survived Germany’s bitter postwar recovery, they were able to get both cars completed in four short months, fabricating virtually everything from scratch but the front axle, which was borrowed from the existing 700 Coupe along with the rear window, which was used on the RS as a front windshield. Its headlamps and rear lights, meanwhile, were taken from a Borgward Isabella, of

all things.

A steel tube frame with 1mm wall thickness was welded together by Rainer Fürchtenicht and Gottlieb Koch. The rear suspension used double wishbones, and the wheels were Amadori alloys from Italy. Once the chassis was complete, it was trucked to the nearby Chiemsee and put on a boat for the Fraueninsel, where talented sheet metal fabricator Willi Huber would hammer out a beautiful aluminum sports-racer body shell. (Huber had started with BMW before the war and afterwards built the bodies for von Falkenhausen’s AFM race cars.) Huber crimped the handsome aluminum body around the mild-steel frame rails—he never expected the car to last long enough for electrolysis to be an issue!

The RS located its engine amidships for better handling and weight distribution, with the five-speed gearbox set to the rear. The engine itself seemed a bigger challenge than the chassis, given the difficulty of converting a motorcycle-based two-cylinder of just 697cc into a tire-burning race engine. Fortunately, BMW had just the right genius-in-residence: the brilliant Austrian Ludwig Apfelbeck.

Starting with the existing M107 flat-twin, Apfelbeck turned its 78 × 73mm cylinders 90 degrees in relation to the crankcase, placing its 38mm Dellorto racing carbs on top and its exhausts at the bottom. (BMW’s motorcycle engines and the M107 car engine located the carbs at the rear and the exhausts at the front, from whence they routed under each cylinder to expel their gases at the rear.)

More interestingly, Apfelbeck retained the bevel-topped shaft drive to the intake cam but used a chain to drive the exhaust camshaft, which gave his twin-cam engine its Kettenhund (chain-dog) nickname. With a compression ratio of 9.8:1, the Kettenhund generated 70 bhp at 8,000 rpm, putting it right on the magic 100-hp-per-liter mark.

And things looked good. The completed 700 RS, fitted with its engine, a stock BMW five-speed gearbox and drum brakes all around, weighed a feathery 650 kilos, or about 1,433 lbs. (Knittel says it weighed 520 kilos, presumably minus its engine as the description of its powertrain follows mention of its weight.) The tiny RS was 136.4 in. long, 57.5 in. wide and 41.7 in. high, with a 2,000mm wheelbase, or 78.7 in. Its power-to-weight ratio was 0.11 horsepower per kilogram, and in 1961, a 650-kilo race car with 70 bhp was nothing to smirk at. Depending on gearing, top speed was between 93 and 124 mph.

As those numbers suggest, the 700 RS was a cutting-edge race car. At the time, only Lotus and Cooper were racing mid-engine cars, while the rest, to their cost, fielded front-engine chassis that couldn’t corner with the mid-engines. Ferrari finally made the switch to mid-engine in F1 in 1961, and Phil Hill rewarded it with the World Championship. But as BMW’s first postwar purpose-built race car, the 700 RS was right from the start. Its mid-engine format had excellent agility and dynamic balance. It must have been a very enjoyable car to drive—provided you didn’t hit any solid objects.

Alpenrennen and all that

As luck would have it, 60-year old Hans Stuck Sr. had long since given up hitting solid objects. He was ready to go.

And now, having been given a true racing BMW, one with no sheet metal top to bang his helmet on, Stuck was in his element. Having begun as a hillclimber in the 1920s, he was right back where he started. Stuck debuted the brand-new 700 RS at Rossfeld on June 18, 1961. Like countless other first-time racers it retired, in this case with clutch failure.

The car next raced six weeks later at the Schauinsland hillclimb in Freiburg, but for this outing Walter Schneider replaced Stuck in #1, “due to restricted space in the cockpit,” Knittel writes. (The second 700 RS was ready by this time and was entered for Herbert Linge, who crashed when his brakes locked up.) According to Knittel, Schneider won the 1,000cc sports car class at Schauinsland and the Gaisberg hillclimb with the 700 RS in 1961.

Racing results from this era are murky, at best. As the long-time owner of 700 RS #1, Butler has compiled records of his own, some of which conflict with the information published by BMW in Sieg mit BMW! or Win with BMW! This book, listing all of the company’s racing victories with cars and motorcycles, was published shortly after the RS’s term as a works racer. Knittel’s 2008 book on sports cars, though exhaustive, doesn’t provide a similar list but does include race results in its text. The complete results must surely exist in the dusty archives of the German Automobile Club (ADAC); we’re saving up the airfare.

In the meantime, we see that the 1961 results in Sieg mit BMW! include a win for Stuck in “GT 1-liter” and a win for Schneider in “Sportwagen 850cc” at the Bergrekord Freiburg at Schauinsland. Conceivably, both of these wins were taken with the RS, as other wins were listed as taking place with the “Tourenwagen 700cc,” which would have been the 700 Coupe.

Later in 1961, Schnieder won with an RS at Gaisberg and the Grosser Bergpreis der Schweiz, where von Falkenhausen took the GT 1-liter victory. For the hillclimbs at Rossfeld and Pirmasens, Sieg mit BMW! says Stuck won with the Tourenwagen 700cc, not the GT 1-liter or the Sportwagen; the book finally lists Dr. Arnulph Pilhatsch as winning “GT/Sportwagen” at the Austrian Alpenfahrt to close the season.

Butler’s records—a handwritten German document about the car’s competition history—have the 700 RS, presumably his own #1 car, going to Eberbach (where it was driven by both Stuck and von Falkenhausen), the Swiss Hillclimb Championship (where von Falkenhausen won in GT 1-liter), Pirmasens (for Stuck, who also won there with the 700 Coupe), the Austrian Hillclimb Championships (Pilhatsch, who won in GT 1-liter), Freiburg (Stuck), and Schorndorf (Eppelein). Hubert Hahne and Heinrich Hülbüsch would drive it, as well.

At the conclusion of the 1961 season, Stuck officially retired after a stellar career that included 411 victories in 40 years. At least one of those came in the 700 RS, the last real racing car the great Stuck Sr. ever drove.

The mini-monster set loose

In 1962, the car (actually, both RSs—they were platooned as the team entry) had another dominant season. This year, Knittel says it got an update on Apfelbeck’s Kettenhund engine, which had proved unreliable due to its cam drive—and an unreliable RS wouldn’t do for building BMW 700 sales. (Butler thinks this update came earlier on the #1 RS, during the 1961 season.)

Abandoning the chain-driven exhaust cam for pushrods, the engine designated as the M106 also went from dual-overhead cams to a single overhead cam per cylinder and rocker-activated intake and exhaust valves. (Its valve gear, says Dr. Karlheinz Lange in his monumental BMW Engines, recalled the arrangement proposed back in 1928 for BMW’s M61a racing boxer.) Each cylinder had its own cooling fan, and these remain intact on Butler’s car today, 51 years later. The M106 was capable of up to 80 hp, but BMW raced it with a stated output of 78 bhp at 8,500 rpm.

Butler thinks his car has the only M106 ever produced, which is confirmed by neither Knittel nor Lange. Knittel does report, however, that a third engine variant was created for the 700 RS in 1964, but this 848cc unit seems to have been an enlarged M106 with an output of 92 hp at 8,500 rpm. Knittel says this engine was used only once, by von Falkenhausen in the last race of his career at Neubiberg on August 16, 1964, after which he retired from racing at 57. Butler believes this engine is the one installed in chassis #2, which took form some time after #1 had begun competing. (Knittel says #2 was ready six weeks after #1 first raced.) Judging from the photographic evidence, von Falkenhausen drove the #2 car in both 1963 and 1964.

Leaving aside the matter of the engines, the 700 RS raced in 1962 at venues that included the famed Nürburgring, with drivers Eppelein, von Falkenhausen and Schneider participating. The cars’ 1962

hillclimbs included Schorndorf, Gaisberg, Eberbach, Neuenahr, Freiburg and

BMW's Bergmeister 3
The 700 RS interior is as Spartan as they come.

the German and Austrian Hillclimb Championships. Sieg mit BMW! lists victories for Schneider in the “GT 700cc” at

the ‘Ring, for von Falkenhausen in the

“GT under 1,300cc” at the International Alpenfahrt (which he may have driven in another car altogether) and for Eppelein at Freiburg and Gaisberg in GT 700.

According to Butler, his #1 chassis was sold into private hands on March 14, 1963; Knittel suggests that both RSs remained as factory cars through both the 1963 and 1964 racing seasons, saying only that both 700 RS cars were sold to Willy Martini “eventually,” presumably at the end of the 1964 season. (The BMW Archive says the photograph that opens this article dates from 1964, and it’s hard to imagine BMW’s motorsport boss racing a car that had already been sold.) It’s possible, however, that the two 700 RSs were sold separately.

Regardless of who owned it, Butler’s records show that his #1 RS competed once in 1963 at Happurg and four times in 1964, at Eberbach, Wallberg, Frieburg and Wolfsfeld. Knittel’s book mentions stiffer competition for 1963 and says that even with more power—78 hp at 8,500 rpm—Eppelein and von Falkenhausen could do no better than second place at Freiburg and Rossfeld in 1963; photos from the latter race show von Falkenhausen racing the silver #2 chassis rather than Butler’s white #1.

Even when it wasn’t winning its class, the sleek BMW was a crowd-pleaser, and it contributed handsomely to BMW’s resurgence. Thanks in part to the RS, BMW was able to pull itself back from the abyss.

The Martini years and today

The racing career of the RS didn’t end when the cars were sold to Willy Martini at the end of 1964—or perhaps earlier. A well-known German racer and car dealer who ran Martini Auto Haus in Adenau, Martini raced the two cars briefly as “Martini RSs” before putting them in long-term storage.

In the early ‘70s, an attempt to update it for racing saw the #2 car heavily molested, a fiberglass body added atop the original hand-hammered aluminum to give the appearance of a new road car. This car was sold to the Hockenheim Race Museum and subsequently repurchased by BMW. After being painstakingly returned to original condition, 700 RS #2 is now on display in the BMW Museum in Munich.

Meanwhile, the #1 car changed hands, too, going from Martini to Wolfgang Franz of Minden, Germany. Franz put the car in storage, where it remained during much of his ownership.

Long before, in 1966, 16-year old Elliott Butler was working on an ex-factory 700 Coupe race car that had been imported to the U.S. in 1963 by Elsco of Jacksonville, Florida. Naturally enough, Butler had a strong affinity for air-cooled BMWs like the 700. And in communication with the Max Hoffman organization in New York, suppliers of BMW parts as well as new cars, he heard of the existence of an overhead-cam 700 engine and a 700 spyder. Without seeing so much as a picture of the car, he dreamt he would someday own it.

Years later, Butler was discussing the existence of this car with his friend Werner Schwark, who said he’d just seen an article in the BMW V8 Magazine from 1986 about an RS in private hands in Germany. Butler told Schwark how long he had coveted such a car, so Schwark phoned Germany, located Franz, and the dance began. First, Franz was willing to sell. Second, he wasn’t. Third…on it went for a year and a half during 1998 and 1999. Finally, an agreement was reached, and in January, 2000, Elliott set off for the small town of Porta Westfalica, just south of Bremen.

The RS hadn’t been run in 14 years, and when Butler tried to sit in the car, it was too small. Yet how could that be—Hans Stuck was six-foot-four! No matter; Butler would deal with it later. The car was loaded into a container and slow-boated to Georgia. Six long weeks later, it arrived—completely undamaged!

Now began the long, painstaking research into what was correct on the car and what was not. The wheels, tires, windshield, mirrors, license and taillight lenses, steering, interior materials and color, exhaust system…everything needed to be authenticated. The car even had an added soft-top!

The engine, at least, was unquestionably the M106, as it should have been. And the original 40mm Weber DCOE2 carbs, each with one of its throats blocked to accomodate the M106’s single intake port per side, were in place as they had been originally. With the exception of a few small spots of rust, the frame was in excellent shape, as were the suspension, steering and brakes. After some penetrating philosophical discussions with various restorers, Butler decided not to “restore” the car but to “conserve” it as an authentic BMW time capsule.

It remains so today. The engine and transmission were scoped, leaks were sealed and running specifications, jetting and timing were noted. The RS badge on the car’s tail was pitted, but Butler learned from his friend Barry McMillan that the BMW roundel was taken from a Type 502 V8. A new one was ordered and mounted. The car’s present windshield was a poor-quality Lexan piece, but Butler searched high and low—coupe, sedan, cabriolet, Goggomobil—for BMW windshield glass that would fit. No luck. Then Werner Schwark handed him the back window out of a 700. Crazy. The RS was a parts-bin racer, and the glass fit like a glove.

When sufficiently refurbished to be started and driven for the first time, Elliott’s car sounded positively strangled. It wouldn’t take throttle without stumbling miserably. But Butler knew the problem—the baffles in the megaphones had broken loose. These repaired, the car was magnificently quick and cornered really well. An original set of Amadori mag wheels were restored as well as they could be—but they have too many cracks to allow anything but static display.

But static display, with a little blam-bang! bam!, is Butler’s goal. Inevitably in a car so rare, some bits and pieces have proved elusive. Butler needs a factory VDO 7,200-rpm redline tachometer that will read the odd pulse of his two-cylinder, four-plug engine, as well as the correct 520-540mm Nardi steering wheel and adapter. The wheel also needs a plaquette from Stuck’s hometown, Grainau, including a yellow rectangle with the mountain peak of the Zugspitze and the word Grainau at the bottom. If you have one of these in a desk drawer, Butler wants to meet you.

From father to son

It’s a footnote to the 700 RS story, perhaps, but a winsome one: When Hans Stuck Sr. was racing the RS in hillclimbs in 1961, inevitably, his nine-year old son, Hans-Joachim, was fascinated by the little race car. And his father did nothing to discourage his interest. Little Hanschen would ride the ski lift to the top of the hillclimb, and every time Stuck Sr. completed a run, his son would be waiting. When all the accumulated cars at the top were released to go back down for the next run, little Hanschen was allowed to drive the 700 RS down to the bottom.

At Stuck Sr.’s retirement in 1961, the young lions of German hillclimbing were vastly relieved that “the old man” who constantly beat them was no longer in the starting field. But not so fast. Hans Stuck Jr. was just getting his feet on the ground, and it didn’t hurt that his father let him drive the 700 RS around the legendary Nürburgring. The 700 RS was the last racer Stuck Sr. drove, but it was also the first racer Stuck Jr. drove.

In years to come—and for just as long as his father had raced before him—brilliant, likable “Stuckie,” as we called him in America, would have an illustrious career in Grand Prix and sports car racing, winning and winning and winning.

And it all started in a 700 RS.

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