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IBMWR Bike Cleaning FAQ

How To Keep You Beemer Clean
a step-by-step guide for the anal retentive
by Bill Shaw (

1. Tools of the Trade
2. Bath Time!
3. Polish & Wax
4. Clear Plastic
5. Airheads
6. Oilheads
7. K Bikes & F-650's

8. Wheels

Cleaning Tips, Part 5...Cleaning Airheads

Hello all,

In the first articles, I wrote about how best to wash, polish, wax and generally just clean motorcycles while not specifically referring to any particular BMW model. However, each of three different BMW engine designs, the traditional boxer or Airhead (R 247 series), the new boxer or Oilhead (R 249 series), and the K bikes/F560s, requires a different approach to keep it looking its best. This week I will discuss how I detail Airheads.

The cast, rough finish of the Airhead engine is one of the most recognized, and arguably, beautiful engines in all of motorcycledom. However, of all the motorcycles I have owned the past 22 years, I found the traditional boxer engine the most difficult to keep looking new. In order to dissipate heat effectively, these engines are not painted or clear coated, so they are not as easy to clean as newer BMW models. These engines are also the most susceptible to salt which will permanently pit the exposed aluminum, leaving white "dots" on the cases. This should not be confused with a kind of natural patina that develops over the years…which is just the sign of a well-used, happy engine.

The engine casting and cylinder jugs just seem to be a $#@!% magnet for every bit of road debris that can be thrown at them, and, therefore, need to be regularly cleaned. I have had good results using a 3-step cleaning process. First, and only when the engine is cold, wash it with soap and warm water, rinse, and let the engine dry. I do not advocate using compressed air to facilitate the drying process since this can easily force water into unwanted areas of your engine.

Next, I spray the engine with an over-the-counter engine cleaner such as Foamy Engine Bright, a do-everything cleanser like Simple Green (100% solution), or a specialty product like S-100, and follow the manufacturers recommended instructions. If there are particularly oily/dirty parts of the engine, I use a Scotch Brite pad and scrub the affected area in conjunction with the chosen cleaner (SOS Pads should probably NOT be used since these tend to disintegrate and leave behind small metal filings). There are also a number of commercially available products to assist in cleaning between the cylinder fins such as toilet bowl brushes, scrub pads; i.e., Scotch Brite, and nylon (not brass) toothbrushes. It's important to remember to cover painted surfaces before spraying the engine with a strong cleanser, that's why I usually treat the engine BEFORE I begin washing the bodywork. Rinse with water, and let dry.

The final step is only used when the first two have been unsuccessful. For the really, really stubborn areas, I use the miracle elixir commonly known as WD-40. Since WD-40 was designed as a water dispersant, it is very effective in penetrating dirt and oil, and lifting it away from the engine cases. Using a heavy-duty shop rag, vice a soft diaper, also helps in the event you have to scrub. Continuing on this theme, I also use WD-40 on all the black plastic parts, the front fork legs, gators, frame, switches, and the Para-lever.

Oilheads are next.

Bill Shaw

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