A Canadian Heinkel Story

by Hugh MacLean

Note: This text originally appeared in the Vespa Club of America's member magazine American Scooterist, Autumn 2001.

A Canadian Heinkel Story.

“Are you interested in a 1945 German scooter?”, the voice on the phone said. The year was 1985 and it was a friend who worked at the local Honda shop calling. They had just got a call from a lady who lived south of the city asking the same question. They, of course, said no, but they did mention that they just might know someone who would be interested and asked if they could give me her name and number.

Telephone numbers exchanged, calls made, and a time to meet arranged, a friend with a truck and I headed north about 15 miles to an old limestone farmhouse on the shores of Sydenkan Lake. “It’s in the horse barn,” she said. “It was my husband’s, but we’ve been divorced for a long time and now that my kids have grown and gone I need to move to the city. So I have to get rid of things.”

Steve and I went in to catch our first glimpse of the Heinkel. I had heard of them before, but had never seen one. We checked it out and examined it carefully. Most of it was there as far as we could tell. There were a few dings and scrapes--good honest battle scars really. To begin with, all the rubber was rotten, the cables and muffler needed replacing, the seat needed recovering, all the rodents needed to be evicted, and the machine was badly in need of a general cleaning. The carburetor and batteries were also missing along with the luggage carrier, mirror, access door to the carburetor, and some other minor bits here and there. The original Dutch license plate was still attached with the number 1945 showing quite plainly, which cleared up one mystery. I had been fairly certain that the Heinkel factory had been producing a much different product in 1945 than a large touring scooter. We found the identification plate under the seat which indicated that it was a 1958 Heinkel model 103-A1.

“Do you want it?” “Yes. How much?” “$300.” Ouch--problems, problems, problems, no parts, not running, no ownership, cables to be improvised, finding a carburetor and modifying it, how are the internals?, the motor is free but...Hmmm... “How about $100? I feel it’s just too much work for more.” The only opposition was from someone who wanted to cut it down and turn it into a trail bike. I at least wanted to get it back on the road as originally made, so I got the nod. Into the truck it went and then back home with my new prize. A return visit the next day produced most of the carburetor and one of the batteries. Heinkels are 12 volt, but as there were no 12 volt motorcycle batteries then they ran two 6 volts in series. The owner’s manual was also produced in pristine condition, although being in Dutch, it was a little difficult to read. It did, however, have a wiring diagram, which was a great help.

It was around this time that I started finding out about the history of my machine. It was purchase in Holland in the Spring of 1958 as a high school graduation gift for a Dutch student. It was then driven around Europe for four years while the owner went to the university. Upon graduation, he emigrated to Canada in 1961 or 1962. The Heinkel was driven here during the summer and then duly put up for the winter, never to be run again until 1987 when I got it back on the road. Heinkels were never imported into Canada and by the time he put it up the scooter needed a few things--cables, generator brushes, and a new carburetor float (I suspect water in the float bowl had frozen over the winter). But no dealer in Canada meant ordering parts from overseas. And this, coupled with the start up of a young family and the added expenses for food and accommodation, put the scooter low on the list of priorities.

The original owner actually called me after the scooter was on the road. I had given a couple photos to the lady I purchased it from and she sent one to him in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was now living. He was glad it was back on the road and rung. He had hoped to do it himself, but the usual problems of time and money interfered. “I hope you realize”, he told me, “just how special this vehicle is. I was hoping for a Vespa or Lambretta, but my parents splurged and bought the Heinkel. It’s like having a new Mercedes given to you for your first car.” To go along with this, I recently looked up the prices of a few bikes and scooters in an old British motorcycle magazine. What they show is revealing:

This will give some idea of just how special a vehicle a Heinkel was.

My own Tourist was happily ensconced in my garage after having its portrait taken at every possible angle and stage of undress so that I would remember where everything went when I tried to put it back together at some future date. The search then started for information. I began by writing the German embassy in Ottawa for the address of Heinkel in Germany, if they still existed. The embassy forwarded my letter to the German trade commission in Toronto, who sent me a photocopy of a telephone book page with Heinkel’s address on it. I duly sent off a letter (in English) and received a reply (in German) stating that they no longer had anything to do with the scooters, but that they had taken the liberty of forwarding my letter to the Heinkel Club of Germany. The day after the Heinkel letter arrived, I got another one from the HCD. “Welcome Heinkel Friend!,” the salutation stated and the letter just kept getting better and better.

The Heinkel Club Deutschland is a large, very competent, organization dedicated to the health, happiness, and preservation of all Heinkel scooters, mopeds, and bubblecars. They supply parts (reasonably priced), information (good), and support for any Heinkel owner, anywhere in the world. If you have a Heinkel--join now! You will save yourself a lot of time money and frustration. You even get a parts book and price list for your model when you join.

The rebuilding went as most seem to. Some stuff was easy, some stuff was hard. The factory tools from the HCD were a must. Just as an example, the countershaft sprocket is in an aluminum hole, which the puller just barely fits into, and the puller has a left handed metric fine thread needed to attach itself to the sprocket. Try and make that up somehow.

The scooter itself weighs about 350 pounds, half of which is motor. This means you don’t pick it up like a Vespa engine and casually move it around. I had an engine stand made (the dimensions were in the workshop manual--thank you very much!) and that really helped. Originally, since the motor was free and had compression, I was just going to leave it. A friend convinced me to at least check things inside. I found a cup or two of sand in the sump. Later the owners children told me they had dumped sand into it while playing many years ago. Just to be sure, I put in new bearings and seals, a first oversize piston, valve seats for unleaded fuel, clutch plates, and a gasket set. This was accompanied by generator brushes, points and condenser, and a new spark plug. As an aside, the original plug was a KLG rebuildable unit which came apart in three pieces. I gather you could replace each piece as it wore out. Since I have never heard of another one, this was apparently a road not taken in the motor industry.

The body and chassis were painted in the original burgundy and light gray. The seat was redone in light gray. The speedometer was rebuilt. New rubber engine mounts, cables, tires, brakes, gaiters, etc. were ordered from Germany. The German bits take about six weeks to arrive if sent by surface, but I’ve had some orders arrive on my door in seven days when I faxed the order and specified “Luftpost.”

It took roughly two years to get the Heinkel back on the road. part of the problem of a restoration is knowing what to leave and what to rebuild. On a Heinkel you can rebuild everything if you wish to. No black boxes here. No plastic anywhere to speak of. Even the tail light lens is glass. Most of the questions solved themselves. A certain piece would be taken apart and if it was worn it would be replaced; if not it would be put back together.

The result was quite pleasing. It started right up after only a few revolutions and has continued to run quite well ever since, with only a few minor glitches here and there along the way. I’ve managed to put about 45,000 miles or so on the clock since 1987, which when added to the original 12,000 miles amounts to a good, healthy figure. It should be able to do at least as much again without too many problems. Mind you, it is no Vespa. If you don’t do your maintenance on a regular basis it will cease to function. You should maintain your Vespa, of course, but Heinkels seem to need much more loving care to remain in top shape.

A Canadian Heinkel Story.

Tourist is the model name and tour is what it does really well. I’ve had mine all over Ontario and Quebec and down to New York and Vermont. I cruise at around 55 mph, a speed which is extremely comfortable. You can stay on it for many hours with no problems at all Vibration is non-existent due to the rubber engine mounting. There is lots of room for your feet to move around and because of the saddle length you can move that part of your body around as well.

The gearbox is very wide ratio with a stump puller for first, whereas fourth is autobahn designed. The motor has lots of torque, but be warned that there is almost no overlap between gears. You are either in the right gear or you are most definitely not. To compound this, the gearshift is probably the weakest design of the entire machine. It works like a Vespa, but there is no real detent for each gear, so it is really, really easy to over or under shift while changing up or down. I’ve found second gear to be the worst, but practice, practice, and more practice does make it better.

The gearshift problem is helped somewhat by the massive crankshaft flywheel assembly. Together the rotating bits weigh over 20 pounds and this also makes it difficult to change speeds rapidly. The bike does not accelerate--it just accumulates speed. It does this at a rate faster than growing bamboo, but very little else. The flip side of this is that once at speed it tends to stay there very smoothly. The tuners of the world had best stay with Vespas and Lambrettas since they would have a real battle trying to do things with a Tourist. This is not to say that Heinkels are not sporting. They have won hundreds of medals and prizes. Endurance racing and rallying are their forte. There are a couple of neat photos of three factory race bikes with number plates and dropped bars motoring along quite nicely that I rather enjoy.

Brakes are large and by 1958 standards quite good, although certainly lacking in comparison with contemporary brakes. Handling is good with more with more rake and trail than a Vespa, giving better straight line stability. You can scrape both sides of the cast aluminum footboard in corners if you wish, but the machine is really sprung a little softly for this type of riding. The HCD offers a Koni shock absorber with adjustable preload, adjustable internal damping, and a progressively wound spring, which works really well on the bike.

In many ways, the Heinkel is very modern--certainly a cutting edge machine for 1958. Electric starting that really worked, a large generator for great lights. I run a 60/60 watt headlight in mine. What a change from older Vespas! You can even get a halogen conversion for the 103-A2, which is the model after mine. The carburetor has an accelerator pump for better throttle response and easier starting (there is no choke). The rear end is a mono-shock design (no shock for Vespa owners, of course) and the motor is isolated from the frame for less vibration.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying goes, and scooters are no exception. My idea is not to restore machines like these, but rather to rebuild them to be used again. In this light, mine has been in many varied situations. I’ve traveled down abandoned railway lines (minus the ties though!) and hard-packed trails, and many hundreds of miles of gravel roads. Yes, the Heinkel gets dusty and has more than its share of stone chips. It has even been on many interstate highways. Quite frankly, I find interstate highways not a very comfortable place to be and try and avoid them whenever possible. I did make a fairly quick trip down from near New York City to back home (about 450 miles) along them and it behaved fine, but with increasing speeds and traffic volume I’m doing this less and less.

Where the Heinkel really shines is on the paved back roads (the five series roads as we call them in Ontario). The best ones are the winding narrow tree lined roads in Vermont, the Laurentian shield, and the Adirondack mountains. The Heinkel is fast enough to get you where you want to go, but slow enough to smell the daisies as you motor past. People are friendly, the motorcyclists surprised, and you tend to feel content. With the four stroke motor things seem much less frenzied. Because of the longer wheelbase and different geometry in the front end, the machine is much less affected by sidewinds than say a P200.

So there you have it. The Heinkel is a quiet, comfortable, capable touring scooter that will take you where you want to go in style and luxury (relative of course). It has its quirks and is certainly not for the mechanically inept. There are few occasions when you meet other owners (the most I’ve seen is four together), but all the ones I’ve met are friendly and are certainly more than willing to provide help and advice. Mine would be the last bike I sold since it really is the most fun. I’ve put far more money into it than it is worth and quite frankly I don’t care. I’ll put in more if I have to. I guess it just boils down to being more than a scooter--it’s a passion.

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