I recently acquired a classic 1965 BMW R50 model 500cc touring and sports motorcycle. It’s in wonderful condition and has been lovingly owned and maintained by the donors, Charis and George Schwarz, in Sydney for over 50 years. The bike itself looks magnificent but it’s the associated collection of clothing, 1960s maps, passports, unique travel mementos and archive as well as its perfect provenance which makes this acquisition so special.
The bike, together with the couple’s “leathers”, are included the Museum’s 2017 Love is: Australian wedding fashion exhibition and a better love story could not be imagined. Charis, an Australian nurse, met the dashing, Swiss-born artist, George, on a beach in Spain. They purchased the bike new in 1965, rode it out of the BMW factory in Germany back to Spain, then set out together riding overland to Australia so that George could ask Charis’ Baptist pastor father for her hand in marriage. Charis wore her mother’s 1937 wedding dress and a hat she purchased in Sibi, Pakistan.
It was ‘rough and ready’ travelling. To save money they avoided toll roads, slept next to the bike or sought shelter in abandoned buildings, police compounds and were occasionally taken into people’s homes. Sometimes they cooked and ate fresh roadkill found on the road. They not only had to navigate rough roads and dramatic mountain passes with basic paper maps, some hand drawn (turn left at the tree at the top of the ridge), but negotiate the maze of official visas and import/export paperwork to travel. This was achieved with none of the laptops, tablets, language translation apps, GPs devices or mobile phones readily available to travellers today.
The couple rode through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, West Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Singapore and finally to Australia. After their marriage in Sandringham, Victoria, on 16 April 1966, they continued their travels by ship to Egypt, then back on the bike across through North Africa to their home in Almunecar, Spain, in July 1966. It wasn’t long before the call of the road was too much to ignore so they saved up again and left in September 1967. This time they sailed across the Atlantic for a second adventure, riding down through Canada, the USA and South America, before arriving back in Spain in March 1968.
An account of their adventurous expeditions is evocatively related in Charis’ self-published 2004 book, ‘Highlights of the Road: A Narrative’. Whether sleeping on the ground either side of the bike holding hands or Charis referring to George as ‘my hero’, their strong romance and love of their bike is evident throughout the book. All proceeds from its sales were used to establish the Motorcycle Accident Rehabilitation Initiative (MARI) at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney to benefit motorcycle riders unfortunate enough to sustain an accident. Despite their extensive travels the couple had never had an accident but wanted to help those who had and sold copies at club meetings, rallies and various gatherings.
For a lifetime of exceptional personal loyalty to their BMW, affectionately known as ‘Du’ (its number plate was DU 582) and community work, George and Charis Schwarz were both awarded BMW’s ‘Friend of the Marque‘ in 2005, with only a handful of Australians so honoured including the racing car driver, Frank Gardner.
Riding their motorcycle has not just been a mode of transport for the Schwarz’s but a way of life and they have always regarded Du as a treasured child. So whether it’s the handmade Spanish kidney belt, pudding basin helmets, or the rabbit skin pelt from roadkill souvenired while riding across the Nullarbor to their wedding, this collection documents the close relationship two riders have had over a lifetime with a motorcycle which is rarely so well recorded.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, September 2017