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This bespoke BMW R18 echoes the Junkers ‘Iron Annie’ Ju 52

VTR Customs reimagines Beemer’s long-legged cruiser as a long-range... er, “transport aircraft”

Published: 22 Feb 2023

If the riveted metal, flat paint and cooling fins didn’t already give so much away, there’s something of an aeronautical bent to VTR Custom’s version of BMW’s R18 cruiser. 

Of course, there’s also something of a café racer bent as well. The Rolling Stones-esque paint-it-black treatment on anything with the temerity to be not black is a fair start, as are the tank-knocking clip on bars, minimalist headlight cowl and fibreglass-wrapped headers. Fitting custom front forks that lower the nose by 7cm gets that dead-flat form and stance that’s the mark of any properly beautiful bike. This has all the right proportions to earn proper cafe racer cred. And a spot on BikeEXIF, naturally. 

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It’s likely a lot more useful than your average BikeEXIF build, too; that front wheel is a full 21 inches across – the size of your average motocross bike – while the rear is 18 inches. Which probably makes this the first café racer to ever laugh in the face of potholes. The brakes are actually nigh-on racer-spec, as well, coming from stopping supremos Magura. The clutch is also a Magura unit (hydraulically actuated, naturally), for fingertip control of a f...lipping huge motorcycle. 

It might not look terribly big – those larger wheels, the utterly unadorned aesthetic, that lowered stance and streamlined bodywork do some seriously heavy lifting. But they kind of have to – the ’18’ part in the R18’s name comes from the 1.8-litre, twin-cylinder engine that powers it, with broadly endless low-down impetus, an ‘is that all?’ peak figure of 90-odd horsepower, and the weight of... well, an entire motocross bike – 110kg. 

And yet, despite the cruiser weight* and café racer kit, it’s safe to say the Iron Annie has much more of an... airy goal? Yeah, we know. 

That hand-formed and riveted aluminium could not say ‘vintage aeroplane’ any more if it wing-walked the words over to you, but the livery, the corrugations in the metalwork around the seat and the name make it plain that this R18 takes its inspiration from just one plane: the Junkers Ju 52, or ‘Iron Annie’. 

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And here’s where things get a touch confusing. While ‘Iron Annie’ was a common nickname for the Ju 52 in general, the Iron Annie custom bike references one particular Iron Annie that was bought by an American and christened... Iron Annie. 

Built by German aircraft manufacturer Junkers in 1936, it did duty as a commercial airliner in Norway, then became German property again in 1940 for reasons we don’t need to enter into further. After that, it did a bit more work in Norway, then Ecuador (because of course, right?), and finally retired from service in 1963. From there, it was bought by an ex-USAF pilot, who sold it to his fellow American in 1975.

This owner, author Martin Caiden (us neither), decided to name his Iron Annie... well, we’ve covered this bit. After his tenure, which apparently included unofficial wing-walking and short take-off records, he sold it to Lufthansa. Which promptly renamed it the Berlin-Templehof and painted it in Lufthansa livery. So, just to keep track, this custom Beemer’s inspiration has metalwork from the Thirties. And a name from the Seventies... that was also from the Thirties. And livery painted in the Eighties... that echoed the livery that the old Deutsche Luft Hansa was using in the Thirties. 

While the history feels as dense as a late-stage Habsburg and the nomenclature like an Abbott and Costello skit in the making, it’s hard to argue with the results. If there’s one thing better than the 1920s/30s ideas of functionalism, Bauhaus and Art Deco, it’s the 1930s ideas of Streamline Moderne and aeronautics. Or, to put it in less of a ‘I spend my weekends at the Tate’ kind of way, custom bikes that look like 1930s aeroplanes are just tremendous. 

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But, given the... fraught nature of the 1930s, perhaps bike builders should make sure – like VTR Customs has – that the specific plane in question has a good history, rather than one that involves Guernica. If not, there’s the risk that someone will do an ode to the Boeing Superfortress, based on the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy...

*Ha! Unintentional boxing puns... and it has a boxer engine! Oh, the hits just keep coming
 

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