Saying Goodbye To Jack Potter With The BMW That He Owned

TORRINGTON, CT – It was a promise made to myself nearly five years ago when buying a beloved motorcycle from Jack Potter. I vowed then that when he died, it would be ridden to calling hours and parked in front of the funeral home so mourners could gaze upon the 1987 BMW R80RT that he’d enjoyed for so many years.

Jack was 91 years old when he sold me the BMW and hadn’t ridden any motorcycle recently. Advancing age and the death of a son in a motorcycle crash had conspired to drain his enthusiasm for riding after decades of enjoying the wind in his face. 

He’d called me a few days earlier to inquire if I knew of a mechanic who could get his 2006 Suzuki DL650 V-Strom running so that he could sell it. I passed along my mechanic’s name and immediately asked, “What are you going to do with the BMW?”

Jack said he planned to sell it, too. How much? He replied that he was thinking $700. I didn’t hesitate in responding, “For you, Jack, I’ll give $750.” 

Jack Potter and Bud Wilkinson on sale day

Owners of old BMWs may be shaking their heads in amazement at this point. “Air-head” models were becoming increasing valuable and collectable at the time, and still are. In reliable running condition, the BMW might have been worth $3,000 or more. 

Jack’s R80RT had been sitting, though, and would at the very least require a new battery, new tires, fresh fluids, and possibly quite a lot more to be roadworthy again. I picked it up shortly thereafter, grateful for the opportunity to be its caretaker. 

Since then, the Beemer has been extremely reliable and pleasurable. It’s not particularly fast. Its handling doesn’t match that of a sportier model. But it has personality thanks to its boxer engine and enchanting quirks and rattles. 

It took roughly $2,250 to get it back on the road, which included sending the instrument cluster to California to be rebuilt. Jack no doubt realized it would need some costly work, hence the astonishing low asking price. 

The BMW R80RT at the graveside service

As you might suspect by now, if you don’t know it already, Jack passed away recently. A Torrington native, he died on June 2 at 96. He’d ridden motorcycles for more than 60 of those years. He bought his first motorcycle in 1948, a two-year-old Harley-Davidson with a foot clutch and hand shifter. Just how many years he owned the BMW isn’t known.

Somehow I missed his obit in the local Republican-American newspaper, but received a phone call from his son-in-law, Dave McConnell of Burlington, informing me of his passing. The family recalled my quiet wish to bring the BMW to Jack’s goodbye and Dave said that it would be fine to do so.

Their thoughtfulness made me smile. I figured Jack would appreciate the gesture. It also made me smile because of the timing. 

The BMW R80RT outside the funeral home

New bikes don’t become old bikes without regular maintenance, especially BMWs. When Dave phoned the BMW was out getting major service done by Tom MacBurnie in Winsted. Besides being decarbonized, it was getting new piston rings, new valve springs, new bearings on the rocker arm shafts, a new throttle cable and more.

The BMW had been gone for more than two weeks and Jack’s funeral was just three days away. Could it be ready in time?

That I’d be chosen to be caretaker of Jack’s BMW is somewhat amazing considering my first impression of it. I’d taken up riding at age 51 in the fall of 2004. I met Jack the next year and soon wrote about him and his motorcycle adventures in an early RIDE-CT column in the newspaper in October 2005. 

It was a sunny fall day when Jack and I got together 18 years ago. He rode up on the fully-faired BMW. Still being a newbie at riding, I viewed the R80RT as huge. I’d never have the skill to operate a model so large. 

By the time Jack called 13 years later seeking advice, I was an experienced rider who had already bought and sold an old BMW R100RT; basically the same model as the R80RT but with an even larger engine.

Fortunately, the BMW was finished in time. I rode it to the funeral home on the appointed day and parked it on the front lawn. Yes, folks who came to express condolences recognized the BMW and commented.

The BMW R80RT stands sentry at the graveside service

After a short service at the funeral home, the BMW was unexpectedly tapped to ride at the front of the procession to the cemetery and to stand sentry at the gravesite as final words were spoken by Pastor Steve Darr of Torrington’s First Congregational Church. It was an honor.

Even after almost five years of having my name on the BMW’s title, I still consider it to be Jack’s bike. It will always be Jack’s bike. I’m just minding it for him until it someone else takes over the responsibility. Just wish I’d have thought to suggest that his ashes be carried to the cemetery on the BMW so that he could have had one final ride. 

(A version of this column first appeared in the “Republican-American” on June 24, 2023.)

About Bud Wilkinson

Bud Wilkinson writes the "RIDE-CT" motorcycle column and the "My Ride" classic car feature in the "Republican-American" newspaper in Waterbury, CT. A graduate of Vermont Academy, he received a B.A. degree journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1975. He is the recipient of a Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award in 1992 and a 1991-92 regional Emmy Award for commentary. He currently rides a 1987 BMW R 80 RT and a 2014 Triumph Bonneville and drives a 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata and 2008 Ford Ranger pickup.

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