ROBERTS — In October, Bob Clement test drove a piece of history.
As motorists strained to catch a better view, Clement cruised along Highway 212 north of Roberts on a World War II German motorcycle with a machine gun mounted to the sidecar and a cartridge belt of bullets dangling from the breech.
Technically, the 1941 BMW R75 is a sidecar rig.
“It’s not a trike. It’s not a motorcycle,” said Clement, a mechanic who works on vintage BMW motorcycles and owns Bob’s Motorwerks near Roberts.
For 15 years, the bike’s owner, Maj. Darren Purcell, of Bozeman, has pursued the bike’s resurrection. Purcell figures there are fewer than 25 of the bikes in the U.S.
“Of those, only about 10 are actually running,” he said.
Purcell, 42, teaches military science through the ROTC program at Montana State University in Bozeman. He pegs the bike’s value at more than $50,000, but he has no plans to sell it.
“The thing’s a treasure,” said Clement, who is one of a string of mechanics on two continents who labored to restore the World War II machine after decades of disuse.
Last spring, on a preliminary test drive, an alarmed high school coach called the sheriff’s department when Clement pulled into a gas station in Joliet. Fortunately, Clement had alerted a Carbon County deputy sheriff and the Montana Highway Patrol that the sidecar’s machine gun was permanently disabled.
The bike’s odyssey to Roberts began in the mid-1990s.
Purcell spent a year in Bosnia and then was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, for four years. Back then, Purcell already owned a vintage BMW motorcycle from the 1970s. In Germany, he marveled at the advanced engineering of the war-era bikes. During the war, the R75s had two drive shafts, one connected to the rear wheel and another to the sidecar’s wheel.
After the fall of the Third Reich, many of those BMWs ended up in Poland or the Soviet Union.
Purcell’s platoon sergeant’s girlfriend put him in touch with a somewhat unsavory motorcycle gang in St. Petersburg, Russia. The connection led to a treasure trove of World War II era motorcycles and parts.
Most of the bikes were “basket cases,” he said.
Purcell hired a German mechanic to rebuild the BMW transmission and another to rebuild the engine. When Purcell left Germany, the “household goods” he shipped home included four motorcycles and a huge quantity of motorcycle parts, which he later sold.
In 2001, Purcell brought the bike to Peter von Sneidern, a semi-retired BMW dealer in New Hampshire, Purcell’s home state. At the time, the bike consisted of a rebuilt engine, rebuilt transmission and the rear drive. The rest was in pieces.
“It was like a giant model car kit with no instructions,” said von Sneidern, who works on vintage BMWs.
For nine years, von Sneidern worked on the bike in fits and starts. At times, he slapped a tarp over it to keep from smashing it with a sledgehammer. A friend did the body work.
“It’s a huge sense of accomplishment to take a bucket of parts and save a piece of history,” von Sneidern said.
The bike, built for military use, is sturdy and tough.
“It’s really a tractor of a motorcycle,” Clement said. “It’s not a coast-to-coast interstate cruiser.”
The bike can go up to around 60 mph, but while the rebuilt engine was broken in, the “sweet spot” was slightly below 40 mph.
The bike has four speeds, along with a high-range and low-range transmission.
“In the low range, it can go along with marching troops without overheating,” Purcell said.
The bike is two-wheel drive, utilizing one drive shaft from the transmission to the rear wheel and another drive shaft to the sidecar’s wheel. It has a differential, just like a car, but it also has a lever that puts it into direct drive, so both wheels turn at the same speed to help it get out of mud or snow.
Because the bike is so heavy, a reverse gear aids in maneuvering it.
It’s a workhorse, not a showpiece,” Clement said. A few ripples and dents were intentionally left in the bodywork.
“It was left like the German soldiers just got off the thing and went in to have a meal or something,” Clement said.
During World War II, the motorcycles helped deliver messages and do reconnaissance. They were also grouped into special motorized infantry assault units, especially during Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Europe, and saw service on every major front. Cycles painted the color of desert sand were involved in Rommel’s North Africa campaign.
After the war, Soviet police painted the bikes a bright greenish color. Purcell’s sidecar, which is not original, showed traces of the blue-green paint.
While von Sneidern worked on the bike, Purcell returned to Germany for another five years. In 2009, he moved to Montana and in August of 2010 he brought the bike to Clement.
“The first time I went to start it, I kicked it through a few times — and I know these are low-performance, low-compression — but there was nobody home,” Clement said.
Slowly, Clement redid the wiring and got the generator working. The rebuilt engine had dropped an exhaust valve seat. Luckily, it hadn’t wrecked the engine, but fixing the damage required pulling the exhaust system, carburetors and the left cylinder head.
By spring, Clement could start the engine, but it would quit when it got hot. The problem was with the magneto, which generates the voltage needed to fire a spark plug. Two replacement coils from Germany and a rebuilt coil from Chicago failed to cure the problem. After troubleshooting every other component in the ignition system, Clement realized the glitch was an internal defect in the magneto. At the end of September, a replacement magneto arrived from Germany and Clement once again began to test drive the bike.
In mid-October, Clement gave Purcell a lesson on driving the sidecar rig. Then Purcell brought the BMW back to Bozeman on a trailer.
The first day he drove it, a policeman pulled him over. The officer made sure the machine gun was disabled, then snapped a photo.
Within a week the motorcycle’s disabled machine gun was banned from the MSU campus in Bozeman. Purcell intends to keep driving the sidecar rig, minus the machine gun mount, to his office on campus. He also plans to make it available for use in war movies. Another motorcycle, a 1942 Harley-Davidson that he bought in Russia for $2,500, appeared in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor” before he sold it.