In this era of high tech, when every motorcycle spec sheet seems to contain a dizzying array of acronyms, it’s reassuring to see that old school skills are alive and well.
This extraordinary drag racer looks like it belongs on the pages of a 1930s Boy’s Own Annual. But it was completed just a few days ago by VTR Customs of Switzerland and will race in the Sultans of Sprint series in Europe.
VTR’s latest build is based on an R1200 R supplied by BMW. It’s also a collaboration with the Dutch watchmaker TW Steel, which has just released a rather beautiful new collection of automatic watches called ACE Spitfire.
Anyone with even a cursory interest in aviation matters will know the Supermarine Spitfire. The famous fighter first took to the skies in 1936 and retired from RAF duties in 1954—by which time the Merlin engine had been superseded by a 2,050 hp supercharged Griffon.
VTR’s production methods are decidedly old school. So old school, in fact, that they’d be familiar to the builders of the Spitfire itself. No computers are involved: it’s simply sketching and then metalworking, using hammers, sand sacks and an English wheel.
VTR boss Daniel Weidmann worked as a technician on vintage aircraft in his early career, so he’s comfortable with these methods. But even so, his skills—and those of head tech Cello Brauchli—were stretched to the limit.
“This is the most challenging and complex bike we have ever made,” Dani admits. “We had to make the tail end three times to get the look we were after. I now have to wear my back protector at work, because I fear Cello is going to kill me with a knife from behind!”
The effort was worth it because the bodywork is extraordinary. And not just from a distance, or in profile. The riveting is remarkable and follows the same techniques used in the 1930s. (It helps that Dani has access to authentic materials and original tools.)
It was also clear that the bike would not be a museum piece. The word ‘spectacular’ was bandied around, and the name soon followed. “We wanted the bike to shoot real flames from the tailpipe, like old radial engines used to,” says Dani. The name “Spitfire” was born.
The design inspiration came from Dani’s own career in aviation and a sketch from the French studio Barbara Design. A torpedo-like monster, completely sheathed in aluminum, would be immediately reminiscent of old airplanes.
With a straight upper bodywork line set at around 90 cm off the ground, the job was to avoid anything looking clumsy underneath.
According to Dani, the hardest work was shaping the air intakes, deciding where to split the sheets of aluminum, and figuring out the opening for the front wheel, to keep the ‘fully enclosed’ look.
But those difficulties have been overcome, and the result is one of the most striking custom builds of recent years.
The bodywork should give VTR a head start in the Sultans of Sprint because the race series is not only based on speed—it also rewards creativity and style. But that doesn’t mean you can neglect performance.
The ‘Factory Class’ allows for a few mods, and builders inevitably stretch the rules to the limit. So this 2017 BMW R1200 R is not quite a showroom spec bike.
There are restrictions on the power-to-weight ratio, so VTR could not modify the internals of the boxer engine. Instead, they’ve simply freed up breathing with a free-flowing intake and custom exhaust system. It delivers a modest power boost from 125 to around 135 hp.
This is no ordinary exhaust pipework, though: There is a discreet setting on the bike that allows the tailpipes to literally spit fire—a characteristic of the Supermarine Spitfire itself, which was occasionally fitted with ‘blinkers’ over the exhaust to shield the pilots’ eyes from bright flames.
“We found a control unit that can generate a signal for the flame system,” Dani reveals. “We got an ignition coil, and fitted a standard spark plug in the exhaust.” About 30cm upstream of the plug is a fuel injector nozzle, which takes fuel from the gas tank and its pump.
There are two switches in the cockpit: one to activate the ignition, and one to activate the fuel spray. “We only use this before and after races to scare our competitors,” Dani laughs. “While racing, the system is off.”
To help stabilize the BMW and keep it flat on the ground during sprint runs, VTR has stretched the wheelbase by the maximum 20% allowed. Most sprint bikes use a lengthened swingarm to do this, but the BMW’s shaft drive makes that difficult.
So Dani and his crew have modified the front part of the frame instead. They’ve also lowered the bike by dropping the forks a whopping 30 centimeters (almost 12 inches). “That was a challenge,” says Dani wryly. “We had to make sure the fork does still work, and still has 3.5 cm of travel to meet the Factory Class rules.”
There’s a smattering of high-end parts throughout Spitfire, such as Magura HC1 radial brake and clutch master cylinders. They’ll help crack pilot Amelie Mooseder control the bike in the heat of the moment.
But the most interesting additions are original cockpit instruments, identical to those fitted to Spitfires in WWII. “I got them in the UK from a company that specializes in spare parts for Spitfires,” says Dani. “They came in the original boxes from the 1940s—you could still smell that.”
VTR now have two incredible BMWs ready for combat at the Sultans of Sprint: as well as the TW Steel Spitfire, they will be running their blown R80 ‘Polizei’ bike in the more open ‘Freak’ class.
And since the scoring factors in style as well as speed, we’re betting that VTR will be amongst the front-runners. If you’re within riding distance of Monza, Italy, you can catch the first round of races at The Reunion, the café-racer-and-classics show at the beautiful Autodromo Nazionale Monza track.
Just remember not to stand too close to Spitfire when Frau Mooseder fires up the engine and flips the flamethrower switch…