BMW’s first production motorcycle (or vehicle, for that matter) was the 1923 R32. Over the next three years, the Germans would go on to make 3,090 examples. How many are left today? Experts suggest 40, but no one really knows for sure. What is certain is how many Peter Nettesheim owns – eight, including #22 off the assembly line. Why is that significant? Because 1-21 don’t exist anymore.
That’s right – Peter owns the oldest BMW in existence.
The Nettesheim Museum isn’t open to the public, and I didn’t know I’d be headed there when this glorious day started. I had just finished meeting Alex Puls of 20th Century Cycles (did you catch yesterday’s Picture Intermission of that shop?), and he made an introduction, telling me that I had to go. “You’ll forget about everything you’ve just seen here once you go to Peter’s.” I didn’t believe him, but I popped the address into my phone’s GPS and headed to Huntington, New York…and I was very confused when I ended up in a suburban neighborhood.
From the outside, the Nettesheim Museum looks like the other homes on the block, so I walked in through the front door and was expecting a typical living room. Let’s just say, I was rendered speechless. Let me try to put you in my shoes – walk through the front door and you’re overloaded with this.
You’ll quickly learn that this museum is 90% presentation, 10% bikes. It’s the best collection of BMW motorcycles in North America, and it’s all due to the dedication of one man. Peter’s day job is selling Freightliner trucks, but he’s got a background in engineering and was even involved with the Lunar Module when he was at Northrop Grumman. The detailed-oriented engineer in him is evident when it comes to the quality of his restorations and the layout of his displays. He’s also clearly given the tour plenty of times, as he’s got tons of stories and he’s very good at telling them.
One example is this framed picture, which diagrams BMW’s “new repair production since the end of the war.” Peter asks me when BMW was allowed to start building motorcycles again after WWII. I did not know (but if you’re quizzed, the answer is 1948 with the R24). Then he mentions that he has a 1946 BMW, and at first I wasn’t sure how that made any sense.
Turns out the ’46 isn’t a motorcycle…it’s cookware! During those few years when they weren’t allowed to make motorcycles, BMW made necessities instead, such as “kochtoffe” (boiling pots), “gussteile” (castings), “landmaschinen” (agricultural machinery), and “werkzeugmaschinen” (machine tools).
BMW’s North American headquarters is about an hour away, and they often borrow motorcycles from Peter for various marketing purposes. The R32 up top was on loan to BMW’s museum in Germany in 2014, and the below R47 was also loaned out at one point. Peter mentions to me that he doesn’t charge BMW for the privilege, but he likes to keep the display pieces that BMW creates and use them in his home afterwards. The R47 is one of BMW’s earliest race bikes – it produced 16 horsepower (compared to 8.5 out of the R32). Check out the rear brake, which is an external shoe on the final drive shaft.
Peter typically travels to Germany twice a year in search of more motorcycles and parts. He’s not scared of a project, and much of his restoration work is done on tools like this Bridgeport mill and Hardinge lathe.
Like any good collection, the Nettesheim Museum has a bar. Keeping up with the theme of the day, it’s much cooler than average. I sit down with Peter at the “Isetta bar” and he pours me a beer from a tap built out of the shell of a boxer motor. Then he takes me downstairs and our discussion changes themes.
“I spend most of my time changing light bulbs.” I laugh it off but I think he might be serious. Each motorcycle is presented immaculately – lighting, humidity, shadows, everything is thought-out, such as the special technique required to lay concrete in the basement to keep moisture from entering via the ground. One of the scenes in the basement involves a 1942 military R75.
I also loved the K1. I’ve always teased this colorway for the similarities to ketchup and mustard, but Peter was the first person to point out to me that it’s actually the red/yellow/black of the German flag. I couldn’t believe I had never noticed that before!
The F76 is one of many rare finds here at the Nettesheim Museum. In fact, Peter owns over 100 bikes – including every BMW model from 1923 through 1970, plus a few “newer” ones. There’s also several BMW cars and even a Mercedes Gullwing on a period Mercedes transporter. Peter’s father was a Mercedes collector, so he grew up with them.
Despite all of this, I didn’t get the feeling that Peter is a motorcycle nut – he prefers riding to verify his fixes instead of riding for pleasure. I think of him more as a fastidious engineer that happens to like motorcycles. He’s a perfectionist first, motorcyclist second. He then surprises me with the line, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Peter’s approximately 60 years old, and he’s looking to the future because of a story he was told in the past. A colleague once told him that it takes a long time to amass a collection like this, but it takes even longer to sell it for the right price. It’s not that Peter’s selling anything right now, he’s just aware that it will take a very particular buyer to be the next caretaker of these machines. Maybe it’ll be you, someday?
Peter’s collection is obviously incredible, but what will stick with me longer than the bikes is his passion. Now whenever I go by a random home in the ‘burbs, I wonder if it houses a “Peter” with a different interest – pinball machines, jetskis, who knows? Check out more photos of Peter’s collection here, and then feel free to dream about what’s hiding in every home you ride by!