Vision Quest: BMW R90S Street Scrambler

BMW R90S Scrambler

Trans-Canadian Custom: Michael Ritzker’s 1976 BMW R90S…  

In 2015, no less than Peter Egan of Cycle World declared that the BMW R90S, introduced in 1974, was “the BMW that invented sport-touring.” The bike was intended to compete against the likes of the Honda CB750, Kawasaki Z1, Norton Commando, and other such machines.

However, in true BMW fashion, this 900cc Hans Muth-designed flagship offered an aesthetic and riding experience quite unlike anything else on the market:

“You might say the BMW’s secret was—and still is—a delicate balance, right on the hyphen between ‘sport’ and ‘touring.’ The bike has slightly rearset pegs and a low handlebar, but it puts you in an all-day-comfortable forward lean with decent leg room and not too much weight on your wrists…But it isn’t just comfort that invites long-distance travel. The R90S, like most BMW boxer twins, has a well-earned reputation for reliability along with a smooth and reassuring engine cadence that whispers into your helmet, ‘I can do this forever.'”


Our new friend Michael Ritzker — formerly from Ontario and now a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia — certainly put his own R90S to that test. He bought his ’76 from a dealer showroom in 1978 and set forth on the road of adventure:

“I rode it across Canada, departing on October 16, 1979, outrunning the snow. I rode it around Toronto in the winter and the cops pulled me over just to talk to the nut on this bike. I was 22. I rode it home across the States in the summer of 1980; it was so hot that I developed a cooling system of jumping into ponds in my jeans and jean jacket and riding soaking wet until dry, about 45 minutes. “

After 30 years of rot. Cobalt blue / silver smoke paint by “Boots.”

After that pair of transcontinental rides, he sold the bike to a friend who let it rot for some 30 years. Michael bought back his R90S and “went kinda overboard.” He worked out of his carport, dodging flying ants and cold winters, and enlisted the help of trusted craftsmen to create the R90S street scrambler you see here.

BMW R90S Scrambler

While a scrambler might seem like the most expected direction for an R90S, Michael’s own history with the bike speaks to its suitability for the role:

“When I rode the R90S back in the day, I sometimes would take it on dirt roads and simple trails and it went along with aplomb, so that figured into it as well. The current trend for retro scramblers would be a nice kind of backdrop for this bike, as if to say, no, this is the way.”

’78 or ’79 on the trails.

We don’t want to say too much, as Michael’s own story of his bike and build is one of the most entertaining tales we’ve read in quite some time. Suffice it to say, it sometimes seemed destiny or a higher power was at work in the process…and sometimes not. Before we hand over the reins to Michael, we’ll leave you with some of our favorite words of wisdom from his story:

“Motorcycles are unique…in that they are selected for what emotional appreciation they generate, instead of practicality and performance alone. But you cannot have the former without the latter, that is the trick.”

BMW R90S Street Scrambler: In the Builder’s Words

R90S Scrambler

Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.

I am essentially still a 15-year-old kid who read every bike magazine there was during the late 60s and through the 70s, and on, even until today, somewhat (hence BikeBound). So my sensibilities were formed around The Ten Best Bikes of 1975, or the then Cycle World annual Buyer’s Guide. Bikes like the various ultra-cool CCMs that were featured, the Suzuki Titan winning best bike, the alluring Italian beauties and the trick Spanish purebreds — that sort of thing. It wasn’t until my 16th birthday (1973) that I could get on a bike; I signed up for the “British Columbia Safety Counsel Rider Training Course” at the Delta B.C. airstrip, only because they had bikes. I would scream up and down the runway on the Kawasaki K100 because it went the fastest. They only had small bikes there. You could also do your test with them for your licence. I credit this for making me a safe rider all these years.

Eventually I had my own bikes, beginning with a clapped-out DT250, a new RD400, and this BMW R90S, just because it was so pretty. It was in a dealer’s showroom. The shop belonged to the quirky and irrepressible Phillip Funnell, with a club foot who had toured the world aboard a BMW. The bike had been crashed and repaired but I didn’t care. It was repainted in a beautiful cobalt blue / silver smoke copy of the stock pattern by “Boots,” who was the custom guy of the day. I rode it across Canada, departing on October 16, 1979, outrunning the snow. I rode it around Toronto in the winter and the cops pulled me over just to talk to the nut on this bike. I was 22. I rode it home across the States in the summer of 1980; it was so hot that I developed a cooling system of jumping into ponds in my jeans and jean jacket and riding soaking wet until dry, about 45 minutes. I thereby discovered how it was like to ride inside of a clothes dryer.

I eventually sold the R90S to a buddy and purchased an R80GS the first year they came out. After a few years I traded that for a BSA B50MX (and cash) that was licensed for the street. It looked tough and went as fast as the BMW, up to a point. It got me hooked on BSAs. I now have five, including a rare 1967 VGP, and a ’72 Rocket triple that I modified into a Hurricane tribute. Over the years I developed various special high-end skills like fixing cantankerous BSAs at the roadside using stuff I found lying around and what I brought in my tool kit. I can do stuff like clean a carb jet, set points, fix broken brackets with wire and tape, and trace broken wires. But that is the extent of my skills in that department. I can also clean parts, sand, buff, and paint. So I pay guys who know how to assemble machinery and that sort of thing. My main talent is my eye for cool-looking designs, which I attribute to the aforementioned magazines, of which at a critically impressionable age I read hundreds, all the different ones they had back then, mostly all gone now.

Why was this bike built?

About ten years ago I bought the R90s back from my buddy who had crashed it and let it rot for 30 plus years. So instead of paying to restore it, and it needed almost everything, it was in such poor shape, I eventually ended up going full rogue. The carbs had somehow fused themselves to the cylinders, and crumbled from the stress of trying to dislodge them. The suspension was shot. There was rust inside the engine, etc. So eventually after some accidental events I decided to take a precious R90S and make it even sportier. I’m not gonna lie, I also enjoyed the thought of annoying the standard crowd who give likes to all the subsequent R90S posts in their FB groups, despite the fact that each and every one of them are exactly the same. My bike was going to be much better and very cool, that was the limited extent at that time of my vision.

Naked version with BSA seat, circa 2016

I don’t have a workshop. I have a carport. So painting up here in Canada is a seasonal affair. Best to avoid flying ant time in August, FYI. But I have learned the hard way about who will do an honest job on the work I contract out, and after about six years of up and down results, I finally found the connections that helped me.

The main mechanical guy is a highly skilled Dutchman who was BMW factory trained, now in his 50s, but unfortunately also is deeply infused with autistic tendencies, to the extent that when I first brought him the bike five years ago, it resulted in him disassembling it right down to the last washer. Because he found dirt. Or rust. Or something. The charging system problem I had originally wanted him to fix was far down on his list of priorities. So now the build became a bit more comprehensive, as, since it was now all in pieces, albeit nicely organized in various tins, yogurt cups, and so forth, I decided to make the best of it — may as well put it back together with spirit.

The Dutchman’s work…

Hence the polished crank, all new bearings and seals, lightened flywheel, beefy u-joint, modern upgraded charging components, the Siebenrock 1 L kit (have to out-run all those standards, right?). Plus, since I know that the legendary Kenny Roberts made the Lectron carbs famous, as I had read back then, so I had to have them. They are gorgeous, with the shiny bright silver alloy and the clear floats and the flat-slide slimness, they look pearl-handled six-gun serious. And they work so well, no idle speed / mixture screws! The mechanic was slightly baffled by that. But they sure make smooth power, the bike further benefiting also from the modern lightweight pistons, and the perfect fueling. The Motogadget system Herbert Von Karajan style orchestrates it all.

I am a big fan of the site (Vintage Flat Track), and from there I scored a Benelli Mohave NOS tank. You can read the break-in instruction sticker on this tank, which I initially bought just because it is so rare and I liked its shape (the seller thought it was a “Ducati or something”). You will see some very cool bikes and parts on VFT and the way that site is presented just makes it seem as if you can smell the bikes and gasoline and oil while you are there. So legit.

Benelli Mojave tank. “Italian steel, which is faster…”

When it came time to envision the look for the R90s, that tank hit the spot, as in the rest was going to follow. I was going to do something nobody had done as far as I could see, and that was I was going to use an R90S to replicate a sort of 70s style scrambler, and believe it or not, one of my main influences was the Harley/Aermacchi Baja 100 scrambler — one of the coolest bikes I ever saw. I am a huge fan of Italian motive design sensibilities, or ethos, or whatever it is. The lines and proportions and textures are often exquisite. Also, when I rode the R90S back in the day, I sometimes would take it on dirt roads and simple trails and it went along with aplomb, so that figured into it as well. The current trend for retro scramblers would be a nice kind of backdrop for this bike, as if to say, no, this is the way.

Harley/Aermacchi Baja 100

This bike has a Ducati front end off an 848 Monster, which I found from a salvage site. I really did not know exactly what kind of Ducati it came from until I had to find brake pads, and the mystery cost me an incorrect purchase and numerous phone calls, emailed photos and so on, until Island Ducati in Victoria B.C. had a mechanic with enough experience to identify it (thanks!). The front end was overhauled and lengthened by an ex-racer who ended up in a wheelchair after a motorcycle race crash and remained hands-on bikes with a custom suspension shop. Remarkable guy.

The front wheel was a nightmare. I wanted spokes on alloy rims, 21″ front tire, so I sourced a spoke hub off of a 1000 GT Ducati and tried to fit with that. Disaster, nothing lined up. I ended up with a custom machined-from-billet hub and a strange configuration where the hub is very narrow and the rim is far away, so it resembles a bicycle wheel. Like the rest of this build it was a fluke that just seemed to make it better. This was now revealed to be an on-going theme as I began to notice. Some of this build was like following a vision quest, a lot was sheer dumb luck, some not so good, but eventually good.

The rear is a stock hub mated to an alloy 19″ rim, all from Central Wheel in the UK. One of the few straightforward sections of the build. As were the Öhlins shocks, which were made for this model. Another fluky result was that the black anodized spokes have rather large-ish bright stainless silver nipples, which against the black anodized rims and spokes give an impressive contrast and a jewel-like effect.

BMW R90S Scrambler

Dumb luck strikes again, just like the paint on the frame which is another disaster that turned out stellar. What happened is that I watched too many Youtube videos and created a hodgepodge with silver metallic, silver flake, Dodge B5 blue (God’s Cobalt) and Rat Fink candy gold. All rattle-can. It was all going along ok until I presented the gold candy a little too much, as in hardly at all, and now much of my blue was more green than I had wanted. But Youtube taught me how to do this crazy dark ghost effect on top so I was not too concerned, as the initial idea was a kind of black with hidden hues.

However, the ghost was actually an evil spirit and a cataclysmic battle erupted. All the paint began to seeth and squirm, and eventually settled into a bizarre electrified crackle motif where every element was randomly expressed throughout the frame. I let it cure, afraid to disturb it lest the war break out again, but it settled down and took the clear coat passively. I buffed and polished it and now I have witnessed that it reacts to sunlight as if blessed by a benevolent paint God. Painting is a very religious experience, so I have learned. Painfully yes. But sometimes I am rewarded in trusting in a greater power.

BMW R90S Scrambler

Because of another of my obsessions from my formative years, with the mythic Maico Square Barrel 501, the fenders and seat appeared. I don’t consider anyone who is not impressed with that bike, the profile, the inherent brute menace, as ever being capable of really being moved by anything. Someone once said of the 501 that it really had no reason for existing, so that is precisely why it made its way to my bike, which might attract the same commentary. But Airtech knows. And they made the fenders for me in carbon fibre.

I sourced a seat pan and foam from DC Plastics, who have the good sense to make them, but it needed some trim and re-shape to fit the frame and tank, but not much. To get it blacker than black, I used suede. A local upholstery tradesman by the name of Chuck Constable put it all nicely together, including the tank fitment. This is yet another example of a random association I made in selecting these pieces. But subconsciously, the work was being attended to, as the shapes all seemed to attract one another, like the final scene from “The Iron Giant.”

One thing for sure is that I knew exactly what I did not want. I dislike the BMW stock tanks, (all except the toaster style, in Dodge B3 blue, preferably.) Bing CV carbs, no. They are the sensible orthopedic shoes of carburetors. Any saveable weight — gone. I used titanium or nylon fasteners throughout. Antigravity LiPo battery, which loves its home in the former air box. Sure, the Mohave tank is steel, but it is smaller than stock, and is Italian steel, which is faster.

The tail light weighs about a gram. It is by Kellerman and it is possessed with irrational brightness. The R90S was light to begin with, the frame noticeably so, because I was going to use a later model single-shock frame at one point, but noticed it was far heavier than the R90S, which had residual crash damage from long long ago. It was repaired by an expert welder from the Australian Outback, where repairs go to live long and prosper, and whose eyesight collapsed soon afterward. Talk about bad and good luck. But overall, my focus on making the bike lighter, sportier, faster, sexier aka more Italian, was paying off. The headlight is from Australia’s Purpose Built Moto and it compliments the other elements, abrupt, all business, but sparse and slick. As are the indicators from Kellerman.

Ducati Monster front end, PBM headlight

The stock R90S handlebars, so lovely and perfect, they had to remain, but they required slight lengthening to fit the controls, which are Thomaselli and Magura. Darren Churches, (a kidney transplant survivor following 10 years on dialysis) who is an Englishman and journeyman mechanic, whom I recruited from our local Sunday morning coffee rider congregation, took on a thousand small jobs to fit it all together, including widening the bars.

Plus an epic experience with Flanders Co., who built the beautiful race-spec, split throttle cables. I decided to make sure of fitment and length, and so I sent one carb and the Thomaselli throttle down to them in California, but the postal system seemed to have eaten the project on the way down, and on the way back, disgorging it only after digesting for over four months. The cables, after all that, turned out to be about a lousy 2 mm too short, so Darren had to learn cable soldering. Of course he did.

I found an OEM rubber front fender mounting gasket on eBay, which was uneventful but nonetheless wholly satisfying. You can’t see it but I warrant that it is there. My friend Bill Beekman gave me the full stainless Supertrapp system, just because it was lying around in his nice tidy, retired aircraft mechanic’s shop, and he loves motorcycles, and builds 1920’s Indian Scouts. You know, that kind of guy.

I painted the fenders, which as I said came from Airtech in a beautiful carbon fibre clear coat, despite the possibility of demonic interference. I candied them with, you guessed it, Dodge B5 blue candy rattle can and re-cleared them. It produced a wonderful transparent blue hue upon the carbon fibre visible beneath, so I am particularly proud of that and the good fortune of no flying ants that day or two, or three. Plenty of buffing and polishing ensued and I only dropped one once, to no great disastrous effect, such that another spritz of two-part rattle-can clear coat couldn’t fix.

I am also proud of the way we eliminated the engine air intake castings, which developed through one of innumerable conversations I had with Darren (the bike was not built in my carport, but in Darren’s little Englishman-sized work-shed). I sent the airbox cases to a retired 83-year-old pulp mill machinist in Crofton B.C. named Bob Higgins who has a shop in his house. I knew he was the right guy because you could eat off the floor of his shop, it was so well rigged. He shaved them down, made the plates and holes and wire mesh for them.

I employed my unique high-end skills by applying a mixture of old paint and used engine oil to dirty them up to match the rest of the engine. I had previously concocted a vile combination of substances which gave the other various engine coverings an “enhanced” patina instead of the Facebook lovers’ preference for vapour-blasting perfection. This is a secret proprietary formula, which I probably could never replicate in any event, just like most of this bike. The result is stunning, I believe, in that the lines of the engine cases are thus improved with the elimination of the air ducts. Nobody else has tried this as far as I know. Credit to Darren for saying “great idea!”

So to sum up the design plan (which is non-existent), this bike is a product of my imagination, the almost random involvement and contribution of some very interesting people and experiences, and coincidence. But — was it actually coincidence? Or was it destiny — that some 50 years after some kid from the suburbs developed lifetime obsessions with the aesthetics of motorcycle form, design, and the special coolness of bikes the-likes-of-which we will never see again, randomly assembled this bike? Or is this bike just an answer to a question which nobody asked?

Can you tell us what it’s like to ride the completed bike?

Remarkably smooth, agile, quick, handles great. Stable. Impressive sound, not too loud, but racy. The main impression however revolves around the surprising result of how all these fairly disparate elements so cohesively managed to combine into a solid ride. Integrated, I suppose. The tires are Bates Baja, so that is a very apt connection to the Harley Baja, plus they are great tires.

The suspension and brakes are especially impressive, and are a complete success. I have owned many bikes since the original R90S, including a KTM 950 Adventure. After that one, I decided that modern brakes and suspension were imperative, so I have incorporated them on the bikes I have built, since the modern front ends in my opinion actually look great on classic bikes. One axiom about motorcycle design is that you cannot spoil a look with beefy front ends (hello Harley), you just can’t. But wimpy spindly ones look crummy. That is my view.

Also, modern electrics are an imperative which I have accepted due to my various forays home behind a sketchy BSA headlight, that is, if the bike actually decided to start. The R90S starts and idles easy, it has no flat spots. The lights and signals function to an almost excessive degree. The switch buttons resemble to me the ornaments on the wrists of a pretty woman. The bike, like when I first spotted it so long ago, is just very pretty, and that is important to me.

Motorcycles are unique in that respect, in that they are selected for what emotional appreciation they generate, instead of practicality and performance alone. But you cannot have the former without the latter, that is the trick.

It occurs to me that the crew of misfits who contributed, with all their various ailments, setbacks and challenges, had in a manner helped to achieve an instance of “perfection” while transcending their own imperfect selves. I suppose that to be connected to the emotional factor and the power of aesthetics.

Build Sheet

  • Full stainless Supertrapp exhaust
  • Ducati (Showa) front end from 848 Monster
  • Custom billet hub
  • Custom alloy Central Wheels UK: 21″ front wheel, 19″ rear wheel
  • Siebenrock 1 L. kit
  • Custom machined airbox cases (Antigravity battery home)
  • Lectron Carbs
  • LIghtened flywheel,
  • Motogadget system and gauge
  • Motorrad Electrix alternator, etc
  • Maico 72 carbon fibre pattern mudguards Airtech
  • Maico 72 seat pan, foam trimmed. Suede leather cover
  • Ohlins shocks
  • Bates Baja rubber.
  • Purpose Built Moto headlight
  • Motogadget front inidicators
  • Kellerman rear indicators and tiny tiny stop light
  • Heavy Duty universal joint
  • NOS Benelli tank with original break-in sticker for 250 Mohave
  • Stock R90s handlebars slightly widened.
  • Tommaselli controls
  • Highsider mirrors
  • Titanium and nylon fasteners
  • Super light, weight unknown but guessing probably around 350 lbs.
  • Stock frame, customized rear section
  • Custom random mistake paint job that looks good so was kept (paint blend fought itself)
  • Custom valve cover treatment, secret recipe
  • Super smooth, great handler, nice power, brakes, and sound




  1. You tell a great story. Had me all the way to the end. I was practically rolling on the floor with you paint episode description! Awesome looking bike. You described it perfectly. Thank you!

  2. Wi loved this story, the paint would have killed me off, so chapeau to you! The bike looks entirely unique , sporty, classy and ready to go, anywhere!

    I love it

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