Kim Newcombe’s Konig 500
The Kim Newcombe Konig 500
An iconic motorcycle in nearly every sense of the phrase. An outboard two-stroke motor and a very talented rider at the controls gave birth to a combination that, together, was the first to challenge the mighty MV Agustas of the time.
Like something from a Hollywood blockbuster, what a guy from New Zealand managed to make went out on track and stunned the racing world. This is the story of that motorcycle.
If you wrote this as a fictional story for the big screen now, people would probably say it was too far-fetched a raving fable. But this was as real as it gets. In the early 1970s Kim Newcombe developed a 500cc outboard engine inside a self- designed frame. Working in a small workshop in Germany and against the odds, the Kiwi's plan worked. And won a 500cc Grand Prix. Newcombe was an incredibly talented New Zealander. Already an accomplished motocross rider in NZ and Australia, he landed a job in Berlin with the Konig outboard engine factory in 1969, and found that a local had unsuccessfully tried to fit a Konig 500cc motor into a Manx Norton frame. He took up the engineering challenge and then had to learn to road race to develop the Konig 500 himself. His riding experience and engineering work developed in parallel to the point where Newcombe stood on the World 500cc podium on two occasions in 1972. The Konig factory sold a number of examples in kit form to privateers. By the 1973 season the Konig 500 was more reliable and faster in a straight line than the factory MV Agustas of the great Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read. At one point during 1973 Newcombe actually lead the world 500cc championship! Newcombe and his low-budget effort split the MV Agusta team by the season’s end to finish second in the championship to Phil Read, and ahead of Agostini.
But Newcombe tragically lost his life after hitting a concrete barrier in an avoidable incident at Stowe Corner, during an August 1973 British F750 international race at Silverstone. He posthumously finished second in the world 500cc title chase with one title round remaining. Australian Rod Tingate became his mechanic that year and, several decades later, built up a Konig 500 using original and fabricated parts as a personal tribute to his old friend and racing mate. My privileged ride came during a Classic Register meeting at the Hampton Downs circuit in New Zealand. Even taking the Konig through scrutineering was an event. Because sump plugs have to be wired for racetrack safety, during inspection the question was asked: “Where is the sump plug?” expecting it hadn’t been wired as it wasn’t visible. Tingate replied: “This one’s a bit unusual as the gearbox is upside down!” Which pretty well sums up a lot of the engineering on the Konig in order to take a vertically mounted, high performance, four-cylinder outboard motor and somehow make it work horizontally in between a 1430mm wheelbase. Another example is the chain adjuster, which is engineered into the swingarm mount rather than the rear wheel axle. Newcombe also built a box section swingarm when round ones were used, years ahead of its time. The Konig 500 seat is very low at 730mm, with padding. Unlike today’s bikes, 35 years ago the footpegs were placed so high and far back that I found it a small challenge just getting on the bike. Newcombe was a tall six feet and two inches, some three inches taller than myself, and my knees couldn’t quite tuck into the recessed fuel tank, behind the Kawasaki H1R fairing. It’s a good stretch to the handlebars which left the upper part of my body relatively relaxed while my legs were angled so tight they quickly became numb from lack of circulation. I was about to head out for the first ride by a Kiwi on a Konig in NZ, since Newcombe did all the development work in Germany and never road-raced at home. Kim’s son Mark Newcombe proudly rode two laps of honour on a Hans de Wit-owned Konig 500 at a Sachsenring demonstration in 2004. To avoid any of the plugs fouling, the engine needs to be revved when standing still. Like Newcombe did in the seventies, we didn’t warm the bike up – during development he discovered the radiator couldn’t keep the engine cool enough, so he would start the machine and go
straight away, which is almost exactly what I did, except I was unexpectedly held in the pit lane for a minute. The moment, which seemed like a lifetime, was not lost on me, as I was about to taste a very large slice of motorcycle history!
Out and about
Tingate had warned me about burning my legs on the two protruding exhaust pipes, but it only struck home when we started it up for my ride. Within 30 seconds the engine generated enough heat in the exhaust pipes to burn my left leg fairly well, with the right expansion chamber following suit. I had to stand up to find relief from the inner-leg barbecue. Time to go, but travelling down the pit lane I felt more heat from the pipes. Once on the track all was forgotten as more challenges lay ahead and I had just five laps to figure out the machine on which Newcombe won the 1973 Yugoslav Grand Prix, at Opatija, on June 17. The Hampton Downs spectators were treated to the four-cylinder Konig’s distinctive and loud staccato exhaust note emanating from its two unsilenced pipes. Like the rear cylinders, the front pair of the flat-four cylinders fire at 180° intervals and share the same high-level expansion chamber, with Newcombe theorising each outlet pressure wave helping to extract spent gases from the other cylinder. The busy ‘twin’ sounding crackle could be heard miles away. On the bike the noise seemed even worse, although that was the last thing on my mind as I tipped it into the first turn. The pre-unit Quaife five-speed gearbox has a right-hand gear shifter set in a reverse ‘race’ pattern one-up and four-down arrangement. Once underway I found the 493cc engine to be very smooth throughout the 10,500 rev range. There is no powerband to speak of and I was very surprised how well the motor pulled from the mid-range for a two-stroke. The engine was running slightly rich #160 main jets in the ex-porsche twin 40mm Solex carburettors, causing a noticeable top-end power loss, along with slightly ‘off’ ignition timing. However, my greatest issue was changing gears because I had so much difficulty moving my legs or feet to shift the lever on a machine Rod set up for himself. As such I found neutral a few times while I figured out how to tackle the unexpected problem. Unfortunately, when I came in the engine stalled itself just as I came into our pit. On checking, Tingate found a broken 10mm toothed rotary disc intake drive belt that he’d just replaced after breaking one at Pukekohe. This was an issue Newcombe encountered during the Seventies, replacing the belt before every race, which is hardly surprising as the short belt is creatively twisted 90° from its drive. Tingate replaced the belt then took the Konig out before my second stint. However, that belt broke on his first lap, leaving the task of finding another late on a Saturday.
Second time around
By Sunday morning we’d found a replacement that Tingate installed and re-timed the points. The extra effort was rewarded with a motor that ran sweeter and had more power, even if still running rich. I also knew what to expect in regard to the riding position and did stretching exercises to give my legs and feet a greater chance of movement on a bike that is significantly more leg cramped than even Dani Pedrosa’s factory Repsol Honda Motogp bike. And Dani can really fit into a cramped space, so his bike isn’t what you’d call roomy. For the second day the Classic Register kindly provided a track free of other machines, so I didn’t have to worry about inadvertent collisions. Rod and I started the bike and this time I went straight out to avoid further leg burns from the pipes. I immediately felt the motor had more zest and, although the newly-fitted Krober electronic rev counter wasn’t operating correctly by reading every second ignition impulse, it revved out at the top-end much cleaner too. When I hooked fifth gear along the front straight, the motor held its revs better to offer more speed than the previous day’s session. It became clear that having a six-speed transmission would have been a significant advantage for Newcombe on faster world-level racetracks. With the rev counter askew, I can only estimate the unusual 85hp two-stroke powerplant was most tractable from 7000-8000rpm, giving Newcombe a healthy 2500-3500rpm working range while racing. In 1973 it made enough power for regular podiums against works MV Agustas. The issue was how on earth Newcombe managed to fit on and race his Konig 500 for grands prix back then! Even if Tingate said he had short legs. On the track I discovered it was more comfortable around the corners when I hung off the side of the bike. Stopping came easy from the 230mm diameter Ceriani four leading shoe drum front brake, even if a little ‘grabby’ on initial take-up. It worked so well the bike would embarrass a few 1980s machines with its power and feel. With the lever fitted on the left side, the Ceriani rear brake also had enough stopping power for me to lock the rear wheel on occasion going into corners, yet it was gradual enough to be controllable. Weighing just 120kg dry, the narrow Konig was super-easy to flick into and drive around the turns on its spoked 18in Borrani alloy rims fitted with modern Bridgestone Battlax BT45 tyres. The Konig’s wheelbase was 55mm longer than the 1973 MV Agusta 4s 1375mm because Newcombe needed the extra space to fit the transmission behind the motor. Particularly in the slower corners, I could feel the relatively long wheelbase, which also happened to give the bike excellent stability for the faster turns. Little wonder Newcombe performed so well on the big European circuits. It is a tribute to his design and engineering skill, and to Tingate for recently producing a good frame from poor original factory drawings. Konig took third in the 1973 constructors’ title as five other Konig riders scored points
in the world 500cc championship. Excluding the unique Isle of Man TT road course (Jack Findlay won on a Suzuki), no other manufacturer won a 500cc race that year, other than the two works teams of MV Agusta and Yamaha, and the low-budget Konig 500 that was designed, built and raced by New Zealander Kim Newcombe living in Berlin.
Right: Agostini, Alberto Pagani and Kim Newcombe chat, in 1972.
Left: Agostini, A Pagani, Kim Newcombe, 250 winner Jarno Saarinen, Dieter Braun. West German GP April 30, 1972.
Above: The Konig 500 frame.
Left: The Konig 500 – beautiful, simply fast and iconic.
Above: Kim in the Konig workshop showing bare frame.
Right: Kim Newcombe and Rod Tingate preparing bikes. German GP, Hockenheim, 1973.
The Konig 500 – a long way to the bars. Above right: The Konig 500 engine.
Rod Tingate with his Konig 500.
Below: Yugoslav GP programme. Opatija, June 17, 1973.
Left: Rod Gould, Agostini, Kim Newcombe. East German GP, Sachsenring, July 9, 1972.
Bottom: Terry Stevenson and Rod Tingate with the Konig.