This is an article I wrote back in 2014, hoping it would be published in a motorcycle magazine or two, but somehow it didn’t get very far. It’s definitely a story worth telling, however!
An Enduring Relationship
Little did Bernd Maywald realize how long he would own his Simson SR1 when, at the age of 19, he bought it new in 1956. It was the first year the East German moped was on the market and people were buying them as fast as they came off the production line. The 50cc moped was the machine that first mobilized the masses in the GDR, much like the NSU Quickly in West Germany. The SR1 was a typical East German machine: simple, robust, and practical. A real “bread and butter” mode of transportation.
Maywald had learned how to ride a motorcycle, an AWO 250, as a member of a local sports association, but “couldn’t afford anything more than a moped, and the SR was the only one on offer.” Today, more than 60 years later, he still rides the moped and although he no longer takes trips to the Baltic Sea or the Czech Republic, he still manages to get to local antique vehicle meets, where he is a well-know face. “I even took part in the 60-year anniversary celebrations for the SR1 at the Simson Museum in 2015”, he says with a twinkle in his eye. At 82, he’s not ready to stop riding yet. “In the old days every town had 2-stroke mix at its gas stations and it was even permitted to ride the moped on the Autobahn. The ‘Esser’ is only good for about 50 kph, so that tells you how much traffic there was back then! (I cringe at the thought of doing that now, when cars move along these highways at over 200 kph.) I tuned up my ‘petrol pony’ a bit by modifying the cylinder head, so the SR will do more than the official 45 kph. It was common to do this back then, and there was even a little booklet used by 2-stroke racers that showed how it was done,” he recalls.
Maywald used his moped to go on numerous trips when he was on vacation. He went to the Baltic Sea many times and also rode to Brno in Czechoslovakia to see a Grand Prix race. His longest trip, however, was in 1961 to Mainz, in what was then West Germany. The trip to the west, to see his grandmother, actually took place two days after the Berlin Wall had gone up. How did he get across the border between east and west at a time when it was officially forbidden? Maywald explains that he had gotten a temporary visa to go on the trip from his local police department a few days before he intended to leave, and this allowed him two weeks in which to travel. He left East Berlin on the 14th of August (one day after the wall had gone up!) on a train heading west to Magdeburg. From there he slowly rode to the border at Marienborn, arriving at 6 am on the 15th of August. He had wondered why the highway was so empty, and had only heard some vague details about the wall going up, so assumed it was normal. The border guards on both sides looked at his visa and waved him on. It wasn’t until later that he heard about the wall and realized the orders preventing anyone from crossing the border hadn’t arrived from Berlin yet, meaning that he was probably one of the last citizens of the GDR to legally leave the country. Once across the border, he figured he might as well continue on his trip, as he said “No one knew what was to come, and since I had the visa I wanted to continue with my vacation”. And he wanted to see his grandmother! With 20 marks (about 5 dollars) in his pocket, he spent 4 nights traveling from youth hostel to youth hostel, travelling as far as Mainz before crossing back into the GDR at another border crossing. He remembers that there was a long line of people waiting to get back into East Germany. When I asked him why he didn’t stay in the west he answers that “In the east I had a good home, a secure job and a lot of friends. In the west all I had was a moped, a sleeping bag and a grandmother in a retirement home. And no one had a clue that the border I crossed on that peaceful day in 1961 would become one of the most dangerous ones in the world for nearly 30 years”. On that trip he rode over 1400 km in seven days with little more than “a tire pump, a sleeping bag, a couple of sandwiches and a camera.
As late as 2014 the 78-year-old put up to 2000 km on his old moped per year, with the longest one-day trip being just over 200 km. He estimates that the SR has about 100,000 km on it, as it’s been in fairly constant use for 60 years. Aside from modifying the head, Maywald has made relatively few changes over the years. “I put a fuel tank from a newer SR2 model on my moped because it holds six liters of fuel, which is one and a half more than the original tank. The old tank allowed me to ride about 200 kms, but with the new one I could go a good deal further. The new tank was made of thinner metal, however, and rust put a rapid end to it.” He also added a second rack to the back so he could carry a jerry can full of mix on his longer journeys. He fastened two bicycle panniers to the original rack and sometimes uses a small tank bag as well. He also added a horn from an SR2 and when on trips took a second rotor with him plus a few other spare parts. An additional improvement is the freewheel bottom bracket from an SR2, which allows him to start the moped on its stand, using the pedals as a kick-starter. Before this, the moped could only be started while riding.
As Bernd Maywald says, his life has consistently moved “straight ahead in a zigzag fashion”. He worked as a director of television shows in East Germany and was one of the driving forces behind the first television show about German-language rock music, Die Notenbank. In 1964 Maywald thought about “retiring” his moped and even made a short film about it as an epilogue. In the end, though, he changed his mind and has never regretted it. He says because there is so much history between the two of them, it would be impossible to part with his Simson. Although he later had an MZ and a Trabant, he kept riding his old moped and it even featured in a book he later wrote about restoring a windmill he once owned. At some point he repainted the SR, using the original dark red maron color (RAL 3007), but he says the new pin-striping is too thick. The new paint doesn’t completely hide the patina caused by its long use, however. The Esser looks like it’s ready for its next adventure, and still starts on the first kick. Maywald says some people laugh when they see him on it, but notes that “The SR always has the last laugh!”
For a video of Bernd Maywald and his SR1 (in German!), go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKUJ2oXsOFQ
Simson – The Company
Simson, which was founded in 1856 by brothers Löb and Moses Simson, had a long and colorful history. It grew to be a large producer of weapons and cars before being aryanized in 1933. After WWII it was taken over by the Soviets before becoming one of of East Germany’s ‘Publically Owned Operations’ (VEB), when it became one of the world’s largest producers of mopeds. In 1965 the factory had 4000 employees and produced 200,000 mopeds, many of which were exported around the world. The SR1 was the first model developed by the company, which continued to produce firearms, bicycles and motorcycles. After reunification in 1989 several attempts were undertaken to modernize the firm and bring new products onto the market, without success. The company finally closed its doors in 2003, but its old motorcycles and mopeds have now gained cult status throughout the country.
Development of the SR1
Individual travel was not easy in much of Europe in the early 1950s, and was especially difficult in the GDR. There were few cars or motorcycles and most people could afford little more than a bicycle. Mopeds were beginning to be built in many countries and the West Germans had had them since 1953. Laws in both Germanys generally stipulated that they be limited to 50cc in power, use pedals instead of a kick-starter and have coaster breaks. When Simson developed its first moped, the SR1, in 1955, interest in this new mode of transportation was great, especially considering that it was the only one on the market. The moped had one seat and a 2-stroke, 48cc engine that produced 1.5 hp. The 2-speed gearbox was shifted by a twist-grip shifter. The 26-inch wheels were bigger than the majority of mopeds of the day, and riding the moped was very similar to riding a bicycle. The higher sitting position allowed the rider to pedal up steep hills if the engine needed a little help, or to reach one’s destination if fuel ran out. Drum brakes in the front and back, along with a simple but good suspension system, gave the moped a safe and comfortable ride on the rough roads of the day. Slightly more than 150,000 SR1s were built during its two-year run of production. The SR1 was succeeded by the SR2 in 1957, small numbers of which were also sold in the United States. The newer moped had a variety of improvements (bigger tank, 23-inch wheels, improved suspension) to make it more attractive as an export product. In order to better market its mopeds, Simson also supported riders who went on extended trips around Europe (15,000 km in 1956) and even through Africa and Asia (33 countries, 50,000 km between 1960 and 1961.
Interest in these old mopeds has grown steadily over the past few years and there is a very active scene, both in Germany and the many countries where the SR was exported to. A network of suppliers has emerged and most spare parts are available. Prices of SR1s start at 800 euros for a project bike and go up to 3000 euros for a completely restored example.
Country: East Germany
Engine: Air-cooled, single cylinder 2-stroke
Ignition: Magneto, 6V
Power rating: 1.5bhp @ 5,000rpm
Fuel system: BVF NKJ 122-4, 12mm carburetor
Fuel: 2-stroke mixture, 1:33
Suspension: Front swing arm, rear swing arm with single spring
Brakes: Front and rear drum
Carrying Capacity: approx. 198lbs
Top speed: 27mph / 45kph