Date:8 November 2013
On the face of it, there’s nothing especially unusual about the life of Freek de Villiers. In the morning, he dons his work gear – in his case, an SAA captain’s uniform – and heads off to put in a solid day’s work piloting a Boeing 737 on the domestic circuit. Duty done, he returns to his home in Durbanville in the Western Cape, where he seamlessly switches roles to become a father and dutiful husband. In other words, a regular sort of guy.
However, appearances can be deceiving. Just scratch the surface – or, more appropriately in this case, hit the Open button on his garage remote – and you’ll notice there’s much more to De Villiers than meets the eye. The first telltale is the glossy black-and-white chequered floor of the double garage; it’s so clean that you’d be happy to eat off it. But then your glance falls on the rows of immaculate old Beemers, and the penny drops: De Villiers is an enthusiastic and utterly shameless “Airhead” – a moniker happily adopted by fans of old air-cooled BMW boxer twins – and he has a very cool collection to prove it.
Like all obsessions, his began innocently enough. Having grown up with a can-do dad (who recently built his own 1928 Ford pick-up from scratch), De Villiers enjoys working with his hands. An itch for a new project was starting to develop, and building a café racer seemed like a damn fine idea. His quest led him to a 1979 BMW motorcycle that struck a chord deep inside him. “I prefer to own things that have meaning,” he explains. “This bike was the same vintage as me, so I just had to have it.”
Then came the hard part: convincing his pregnant wife. “We’d just been for a 13-week scan and discovered we were having a boy. So I did a hard sell, convincing her that the bike was really his and that I’d never sell it. Ever. It worked. Don’t tell her this, but I’m married to an incredible woman.”
Birth of Franken Beemer
Converting the old traffic cop’s bike (with sirens still intact) into his, er, son’s “Franken Beemer” entailed the pillaging of parts from the oddest of places, not to mention a fair amount of hard labour. Fortunately, De Villiers’ flying schedule allows him plenty of spare time to source components and tinker on his creations. “When I’m not flying, I’m creating,” he says. “I buy bits from car scrapyards, antique shops, off Gumtree… you name it. And what I can’t find – for example, items such as mudguards, seats or frame parts – I make from scratch.” One of his top tips: visit a scrapyard and rip out the complete wiring looms from scrapped German cars. Once home, he spends “about six beers” (in our opinion, an eminently sensible measure of passing time) dismantling the lot and categorising the wires by thickness and colour before rewiring his bikes to as-new specs. Regardless of what bike he’s working on, you can be assured that each design will be as individual as the next. As De Villiers tells it: “I treat all my creations like they’re giant 3D jigsaw puzzles, but ones you can ride! Each bike is unique and styled to preference. Because of this, no two are ever alike.”
The components that went into Franken Beemer offer some idea of what he means. For example, the headlamp, found in a second-hand shop, originally belonged to a 1932 Rolls-Royce coupé. The tail light came from a 1928 Ford pick-up, the tank once straddled the frame of a Yamaha cruiser, and the rear mudguard comes off a 1980s Eddie Lawson Kawasaki replica. The rear shocks originally belonged to a Yamaha quad bike and the speedometer housing was fabricated from glass fibre, using a measuring cup “borrowed” from the kitchen for use as a mould. To craft the hand-made leather seat, De Villiers had to buy the hide of an entire cow.
And the obsession grows
Having completed the Franken Beemer project to his satisfaction, De Villiers was well into his stride. Riding the bike was a blast, and the compliments he started receiving from other bikers made it clear that he’d done a good job. In no time, he was getting requests for orders – and suddenly, without quite realising how it had happened, he was in business.
Not surprisingly, the transformation of his hobby into a commercial enterprise introduced a whole bunch of new challenges, including the need for feedstock (you know, old motorcycles and stuff). He wasn’t to know that many of these old bikes would one day form part of a much-admired collection, or that he’d end up with a “man cave” that was the envy of his mates.
De Villiers’ next purchase was a 1962 model R50/2 from Pretoria. It was in great condition for its age, he recalls, but it came with a catch. If he wanted it, insisted the seller, he had to take “that piece of crap” (a dismantled 1976 model R75/6) with it. Having concluded the deal, he spent a day sorting out the R50’s electrics, then promptly rode it home, travelling via Lesotho. Years later, he recalls the ride with great satisfaction: “It was the best thing I’d ever done in my life. If you’re looking for ‘Me’ time and an opportunity to clear your head, this is definitely the way to go.”
When the aforesaid “piece of crap” arrived in Cape Town in a collection of boxes, de Villiers unpacked a rather sad-looking frame, two wheels (“rusted to bits”), part of an engine and no electronic components whatsoever. Overcoming his disbelief, he set to work, devoting every evening over a period of three months to getting the old BMW back on the road. “I couldn’t afford to fix it up properly, so I did things like co-opt components such as switches from Japanese bikes. But every part was sanded, painted or fabricated here. Nothing left the premises.” When he tracked down a collector in Port Elizabeth selling a 1972 model R50/5 (aka “the Toaster” because of the silver panels on both sides of its tank), De
Villiers was delighted – mainly because it meant another road trip. “This bike was the first Beemer to be built with telescopic forks. It was designed for the American market to compete with Harleys; hence all the bling. Best of all, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. I rode it back to Cape Town, using Route 62 from start to finish. Once home, all I really did was polish it up a bit.”
Another prized possession is his gold 1976 model R90s. Stroking its plain-looking black vinyl seat, De Villiers tells its story: “It’s a piece of motorcycle history. One of these won the first AMA Superbike Championship, way back in 1976. It has just 15 714 km on the clock, has been serviced only twice since new, and still has the original sealed first aid kit stashed under its seat. I just had to have it!” His latest project is an R60/2 from the late Fifties. De Villiers recalls that he and his wife had invited friends over for a braai, and had just lit the fire when a friend called to say that he’d seen an old Beemer in a barn while on a business trip near Barrydale. “When my wife woke the following morning, I was gone. By the time she phoned, I was already halfway to Barrydale. Two hours later, I had it on the trailer and was on my way home.”
Eight months later, while trying to source a front rim for the bike, he met a fellow collector in his mid-80s. They struck up a conversation and De Villiers showed him a photo of what he was doing. Amazingly, the older man promptly dug up some photos of the same bike. It turned out that when the man was much younger, he’d owned the bike and toured extensively with it. De Villiers recalls being absolutely stunned. “This bike has truly gone full circle. I want to restore it, then get him to ride it one last time – it just seems like the right thing to do.”
Having finally run out of space at home, and acknowledging that he’s pushed his luck as far as he can go on the domestic front, De Villiers has opened up a workshop- cum-museum-cum-gathering place for fellow “Airheads”. It’s much more than a shop, he says… more like a home-from-home. In future, he plans to hold regular workshops at which he’ll teach like-minded tourers how to fix their Beemers should they get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Oh, and the new premises come with another, slightly more personal advantage: “By moving my Beemer fixation away from home, it’s going to be much easier for me to hide stuff from my wife.” For more information, contact Final Drive Classic Worx on 083 450 0711 or visit www.fdworx.co.za
Story and pictures by Sean Woods