|Kim Newcombe and his Konig Grand Prix bike|
Once in a generation there emerges a racing prodigy who defies belief and achieves success far beyond the odds. These men and women display innate and remarkable talent that is often so extraordinary that they become legends in their own time. They are the mythical “naturals”, those who perform complex tasks extraordinarily well despite their lack of experience. New Zealand motorcycle racer Kim Newcombe was one such prodigy, and one of the most tantalizing “what ifs” of motorcycle racing. He entered competition as a novice and immediately began to beat seasoned veterans. Not only that, but he single-handedly crafted and maintained his own machine – which he then campaigned successfully at the top level of the sport against the greatest riders of the 1970s. The tale of Kim and his Konig 500 GP motorbike is a true motorsports Cinderella story, and one of the most fascinating and tragic tales from the golden era of motorcycle road racing.
Kim Newcombe was born in Nelson, New Zealand in 1944 and grew up in Auckland, where he met the love of his life - Janeen. Married in their teens, Kim and Janeen moved to Australia in 1963 for two reasons – to be closer to Janeen’s mother, and to pursue Kim’s love of motorcycle racing.
Kim was a skilled rider who had an unstoppable passion for bikes, and displayed remarkable talent on dirt tracks, much to the astonishment of his more experienced competition. He competed successfully in various motocross venues across New Zealand and Australia in the 1960s. He was famously offered a chance to “try out” speedway racing on a borrowed Jawa offered by seasoned rider Jack White, and promptly won the first four races he entered. If it had two wheels, Kim could win with it – regardless of his apparent lack of experience.
After several years of successful competition on two wheels, Kim would be introduced to aquatic racing, a move that would have a profound influence on his life. It was while working as a marine engine mechanic for Bob Jackson in Melbourne that Kim was introduced to the König racing outboard motor. The König was a 494cc, two-stroke, flat-four boxer-layout engine that made impressive power and performed well in hydroplane racing. Kim was immediately smitten by the simple and powerful König engine, and wanted to meet the man behind the design. In 1968 Kim got his wish and was introduced to Dieter König - who offered Kim a position at the König factory in Germany.
Kim and Janeen moved across the world to West Berlin, where Kim would work on hydroplane development. The König marque had been producing marine engines in Berlin since 1928 and were well known in competition circles for their two-stroke racing motors. It was while working in the experimental department that he was offered a unique opportunity. A German racer by the name of Wolf Braun had built a motorcycle chassis around a König 500cc four, but was forced to abandon the project due to an injury. Dieter asked Kim to take over development, and he promptly devoted himself wholeheartedly to the endeavor.
Regardless of Kim’s enthusiasm and Braun’s experiment, the was still a boat engine and was designed as such. Fitting it into a bike was not straightforward and it required a great deal of development work to make the whole package function, let alone win a race.
Marine engines drives their propshaft directly with no transmission in between, so to fit a gearbox the König had to have a chain-driven primary added to the left side of the engine, connected to a Norton gearbox housing and clutch with an upgraded six-speed gear set. The long motor had to be tipped up at the rear to give room for the gearbox, which gave it a characteristic off-kilter look.
Outboard motors are cooled by water circulated from the surface they are racing on, which means the coolant temperature is always low and heat can be dissipated quickly. This isn’t the case with liquid cooled land-based engines, which re-circulate the coolant through a radiator. Temperatures are controlled, but the coolant remains relatively (scalding) hot – if the coolant passages and water jackets aren’t designed to deal with this elevated temperature you run into problems... Which is exactly what happened with the König motor. Through trial and error an effective radiator system was developed along with a unique cooling system for the crankcases. Normally liquid cooled engines only need to directly cool the barrels and sometimes the heads. Two-strokes, however, route their fuel charge through the crankcases before being sucked into cylinders. If the crankcases get too hot, the intake charge gets overheated and power suffers. This was a problem with the König, so Kim developed a clever liquid-cooled magnesium sump bolted to the bottom of the engine to keep temperatures in check.
|Notice the toothed belt for the rotary valve. The pulley drives the waterpump. |
This sump interfered with the placement of the exhaust ports on the bottom of the engine, so the cylinders were reversed and exhausts were pointed up – right next to the intake. This caused packaging problems as the carburettors occupied the space between the exhaust headers. The fully vertical downdraught inlet ports also caused issues as most motorcycle carburettyors were sidedraught designs. This necessitated the use of American Tillotson diaphragm items, designed for use in multiple positions and used on Harley Davidsons and snowmobiles, but not in road racing - which meant limited tuning potential compared to more popular brands of carburettors.
|Factory prototype. Notice the underslung exhausts which were not used on the racing Konigs. |
Despite the drawbacks once the prototypes were up and running the König 500 proved to be a force to be reckoned with. For the time it was an advanced design that incorporated many innovations that would later become standard in racing two-strokes – rotary (disc) valve induction, loop scavenging, and expansion chamber exhausts. Rotary valves are operated via a rotating disc that separates the carburetor from the crankcase opening. The crankshaft spins the disc, opening and closing the port and accurately timing the intake charge. The König used a disc driven by a toothed belt that made a 90-degree turn from the right side of the engine up over the crankcase.
Exhausts with expansion chambers are critical to proper two-stroke tuning, and the König was one of the first motorcycles to use the massive chambers that would later become common on two-stroke bikes in later years. In fact they had been using expansion chambers on outboard motors for years. The purpose is to redirect exhaust pulses backwards - because the intake and exhaust ports on a two stroke are open together, cross flow and fuel mixture leaking into the exhaust is inevitable. The ideal two stroke mix is a non-turbulent and complete filling of the chamber, without leaking the unburned mixture through the exhaust ports. Expansion chambers reflect the pulses of the exhaust flow back into the cylinder to push the fuel mix back into the cylinder and increase charge pressure – more efficiency, more power. The König used paired headers, with one pipe for the front pair of cylinders and one for the rear, which reduced the amount of pipework significantly.
Up until the 1960s two-stroke bikes were considered the cheap and nasty option, a simple and crude alternative to four-strokes, particularly in racing. Two-stroke performance tuning was still in its infancy and smokers struggled to compete against the well-developed four-stroke opposition in international competition. In the late 60s the tide was beginning to turn as Japanese manufacturers developed two-strokes into viable contenders on the track, but for the time being it was still the very much the era of the four-stroke racer. At this time four strokes and two strokes competed with equal displacement - there were no displacement penalties for 'smokers, because at the time two-strokes were not sufficiently developed or reliable enough to have any unfair advantage. The König was thus one of the first two-stroke racers to achieve notable success, preluding the two-stroke dominance of road racing that would occur in the 1970s.
When the first prototype was completed in 1969 it produced 68hp and had impressive performance, at the expense of any semblance of reliability. Despite possessing the stout engineering of a racing outboard, the engine was fragile when adapted for use in a bike. The König got a reputation for being fast when it wasn’t blowing up or eating transmissions. It took significant development, testing, and tweaking, all done by Kim on the fly, to make the König a competitive racer.
In 1970 power was improved to 75hp - serious go in a bike that weighed just over 250lbs. Later versions made over 80hp. In 1971 the bike was campaigned with rider John Dodds at the helm and Kim acting as engineer/mechanic. Reliability was still an issue. Dodds became tired of constant breakdowns and left the König team to race a Yamaha, which left the avenue open for Kim to take the reins.
Knowing the König better than anyone else, and willing to work through its flaws and give it the babying and development it needed to be reliable, it was perhaps only natural that Kim would become the principal rider. But Kim wasn’t a road racer – he didn’t have an FIM racing license, nor had he ever competed on asphalt. But once again, his performance would defy belief and his exploits would become the stuff of legend.
Kim won his first time out, taking first at the Avus track in Berlin and putting the König on the map. He began racking up victories at an astonishing pace. Word spread quickly about the German-made bike that was dominating the field. It's only natural that local fans would go nuts: here was one of the first German bikes to achieve success since the pre-war BMWs and DKWs had turned their wheels in anger. Kim became equally revered, quickly earning his FIM license and proving to be just as skilled at road racing as he had been on dirt – and this was on a bike that he had effectively built himself, which he maintained and fixed himself.
|Kim, Janeen and Mark|
Road racing in the early 70s, even at the Grand Prix level, was a much more humble pursuit than it is today. We are accustomed to seeing celebrity racers who earn seven-figure incomes backed up by teams of engineers and mechanics. In the 1970s you had the Continental Circus, a caravan of racers and their families who shuttled themselves from venue to venue with their own modest equipment. They setup their lives in the paddocks and slept in campers or tents. Wives, girlfriends and children followed the riders in their nomadic lifestyle, including Kim’s wife Janeen and their young son Mark. Money was tight and sponsorship limited and only a few top-level racers like Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini, both with MV Agusta, got the luxury treatment. Racing in general was much more down to earth and the riders formed a tight knit community. Most raced for the pure love of the sport – it certainly was not for the money.
As an upstart with no experience Kim was forced to operate on a shoestring budget. He became friends with many riders in the paddocks and some, recognizing his talent, helped him establish himself in the Circus and get the odd sponsor to pay the way. When he entered the 1972 500 Grand Prix he was a one-man operation, working as rider and mechanic and rebuilding the bike himself between races. Later during the season he met an old friend from Australia, Rod Tingate, whom he hired as his personal mechanic for the next two seasons.
|Kim and Mark on the podium with Giacomo Agostini|
Despite the difficulty he and his tiny operation faced against better-funded factory teams, Kim achieved some notable successes. He took third place at the grueling West German Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring, on his first outing at the legendarily difficult course. The König was seriously fast, powerful enough to overtake the champion MV Agustas on the straights. And Kim was clearly a highly skilled rider, able to place on the podium at unfamiliar tracks with only minimal preparation. Unfortunately Kim’s season was cut short by an accident at the Dutch Grand Prix that resulted in a broken vertebrae. He placed 10th at the close of the season, an impressive finish for a rookie rider who didn't complete the full schedule of races. He made a full recovery and returned for the 1973 season.
So remarkable was the success of the König in Grand Prix that series production was started at the König factory. Bikes were sold as complete turn-key racers, or as do-it-yourself kits. Perhaps most surprising was the interest that BMW showed in the possibility of a street-legal König-powered motorcycle. Two prototypes were built in 1972 in secret by BMW. Both prototypes used an extended R90/6 chassis built around detuned König flat fours that were mated to a BMW transmission and driveshaft. One was a 350cc “sports” model, the other a 500cc “tourer”. Both prototypes survive today, the 350 is in storage at the König factory while the 500 has been fully restored and registered for road use. Unlike the Grand Prix bike the engine was mounted across the frame in traditional BMW boxer fashion. The project, unfortunately, never progressed past the prototype stage – BMW was fiercely dedicated to four-strokes and were not interested in producing a two-stroke of any description.
|BMW-Konig 500cc Tourer Prototype |
When Kim returned to the Grand Prix in 1973 his performance was stellar and threatened to unseat the all-conquering MVs. He placed on the podium consistently, and such was the performance of the König that he was passing the vaunted MV 500 triples on the straights. After a win at the Yugoslavian Grand Prix the upstart from New Zealand, complete with stylized Kiwi bird on his helmet, now led the championship in points. An unknown rider who built his own bike around a boat motor was overturning the traditional racing hierarchy. To give an idea of how significant this upset was, the last bike that had threatened MV Agusta’s unstoppable championship streak was a factory-backed, no-expenses-spared Honda. Ridden by Mike "The Bike" Hailwood, one of the finest riders of all time. And it lost.
|The 1973 Monza crash|
Near the end of the season Kim and his König were invited to an unlimited category series in the UK, with the first race at the Silverstone Circuit. Rumour had it that the John Player Norton team was looking to pick a fight with the König on home turf, and Kim was offered tantalizing starting money. The race wasn’t a championship event but it offered the opportunity for Kim to make some extra money before the end of the season, and he was thrilled to have been invited – such was his growing fame that he was starting to get offers after years of riding in relative obscurity.
A 680cc version of the König was prepared and Kim, Janeen and Mark hopped across the channel to enter the event. The day before the race Kim did his usual walk around to familiarize himself with the track. He noticed that one particular corner, Stowe, had a dip in the surface right before a sharp turn facing a wall of wooden beams. Concerned for rider safety he approached Vernon Cooper, clerk of the course, about placing hay bales in front of the wall. Cooper was incensed. He angrily rebuffed Kim and threatened him with expulsion from the series if he had the audacity to complain again.
|Silverstone layout in 1973|
Kim never regained consciousness and was declared brain dead on August 14th. Janeen gave permission for him to be taken off life support and his organs donated. He was 29 years old, and he posthumously took second place in the 1973 500cc Grand Prix, beating Agostini and finishing behind Phil Read.
Dieter provided a spare engine to Rod Tingate before Rod returned to Australia. Tingate would subsequently build an exact replica of Kim’s championship bike.
|Janeen and Mark Newcombe, 2004 |
After 1973 the König motorcycle faded into history. The production bikes continued racing in various categories, and König-powered sidecar hacks won the 1974, ‘75 and ‘76 Sidecar GPs. 1973 would remain the last year of Grand Prix competition for König. The MV Agusta winning streak would continue until 1975, when Giacomo Agostini jumped ship and won the championship aboard a Yamaha – the first two-stroke to win a 500cc World Championship and the herald of a new era in motorcycle racing.
|Mark, Janeen and Phil Read at the 2004 Bikers' Classic |
Mark Newcombe would ride a König at the 2004 Spa-Francorchamps Bikers’ Classic race, wearing his father’s iconic black and yellow leathers. Renzo Pasolini Jr. was also present, riding his father’s Benelli. It was a touching tribute to two of history’s greatest riders who were both killed in the tragic 1973 season.
Kim Newcombe was a true underdog in Grand Prix competition, a scrappy and talented rider who defied the odds and surprised the world by threatening the dominance of MV Agusta’s factory effort with one of the most unlikely pieces of machinery anyone could imagine at the time. Nobody expected a friendly, soft-spoken Kiwi riding a land-going outboard motor to challenge the racing hierarchy, let alone lead the 500cc World Championship. But Kim did just that, working almost entirely on his own and performing astonishingly well at the highest level of the sport despite a complete lack of experience. He was a legend in his own time that was taken away in his prime in the most unfortunate of circumstances – a fatal accident that he foresaw and tried to prevent. It would take years of fighting and boycotts for safety standards to improve in motorsports, with the 1970s being the final decade of the "killer years" before serious action was taken. Today we enjoy relatively safe and well-funded racing that Kim and his contemporaries could only dream of as they shuttled themselves and their families from circuit to circuit, chasing wins across Europe.
Tim Hanna's book documenting the Kim Newcombe story
Motorcycling Australia article on the Konig
NZ Herald on Kim's story
1972 BMW-Konig prototypes
Konig motorcycle specialist
Konig photo gallery
Grand Prix: The Killer Years, an excellent documentary that profiles the people who sought to improve safety conditions for drivers