This covers most of the basic wire colors used on Airheads. As the electronics got more complex, more combinations came into play so it’s possible a few of the more obscure ones may see other uses. Always double check factory wiring diagrams, and yes, even they can have a mistake or two. PowerBoxer.de has a copy of the Haynes ones. And here’s a link for more about Airhead relays and terminal designations.
Category: General Electrical System
Headlight Switches & Headlight Relays
This article was originally written (and since then, expanded/edited numerous times) because someone asked about the left-hand switch of BMW Airhead motorcycles if using higher powered headlight bulbs. He did not understand why the existing stock headlight relay would not automatically eliminate wear on the switchgear. The simplified reason is that the stock headlight relay does not do what many think it does, at least on most, especially later, Airhead models. Variances of his question have come up many times, often on the Airheads LIST, but also on various other forums, and even for other BMW models.
It is important to know that the main purpose of the stock headlight relay FROM 1978 is to turn off the headlight, leaving the dash lights and rear running lamp on, during the time the starter motor is cranking the engine. The relay turns off the headlight during cranking, and that’s all.The stock headlight relay from 1978 also does not do theswitching between high & low beams. NOTE that the high beam flasher (‘passing lamp’) function remains, due to a green wire from the ignition switch, as a separate circuit. The headlight relay may or may not turn off the headlight, during engine cranking, depending on year, model, & country shipped-to. On some Airheads, the high beam flasher button (‘passing lamp’ function) MAY be available with the ignition off. It is a matter of where the green-colored wire goes to. It is easy to move a green wire at the ignition switch, and thereby have the ignition be ON, but the headlight OFF, in the PARK function, but there is more to this, and this is not the point of this article.
Using additional relays to control higher-powered headlamps (stock is 55/60 watt) is a must; although some have gotten away with not doing so for some time. Note that the left bars switch assembly is fairly expensive. It is not designed to handle high-powered headlamps, and it would have been, …perhaps, …better if a relay had been used by BMW to handle all the current flow to the low and high beams. This is not difficult to accomplish, and such as the Eastern Beaver kit does it. With that kit installed (or, your own two relays), the bars light switch(s) would only pass current to the extra relay’s COILS. This means that using accessory relays will reduce wear on the left switchgear even with the stock headlight; and usually will increase light output slightly due to a more direct current path from the battery to the relay. This increases the headlight voltage to closer to battery voltage….another way of saying this is that a more direct power path reduces wire and some switching losses.
Sources for appropriate relays are any auto-parts store. However, www.EasternBeaver.com sells complete plug and play kits for your motorcycle, and they may even still have a version with a modulator if you wanted that.
Basic Electricity 101+
The below article was written to furnish THREE types of information:
(1) CONSIDERABLE amount of BASIC & SLIGHTLY ADVANCED INFORMATION on electricity & Airhead problems. The approach used here is probably different than in most manuals & troubleshooting guides. Although some hints are given in this article on some common faults, this article should be used in conjunction with my other articles, particularly: http://bmwmotorcycletech.info/electricalhints.htm
(2) Common problem areas, explanations of some of the circuitry. A discussion of such as batteries; starter motors, voltage regulators, etc. Other articles will get far deeper into these things.
(3) An addendum that may discuss particular points that has come up, or some topic of interest. Some is at the very end of this article.
Available to you are certain helpful booklets from such as Motorrad Elektrik, Chitech, Haynes and/or Clymers manuals (and, perhaps, a schematic in the rear of your owners booklet or on the Snowbum website). In my opinion the Chitech electrics manual and the owners book or factory schematic, or schematics on the Snowbum website (and some elsewhere’s, and I have links to these on the Snowbum website), are THE BEST sources for electrical information for the Airheads.
I recommend you at least purchase at the Chitech Electrics Manual. The Chitech (Chicago Region BMW Owners Assoc.) BMW Electric School Manual is THE BEST manual for BMW electrics, from basics to full-blown technical details, components, diagrams, etc., & includes the singles & all Airheads; even some on the /2 era. It is VERY complete. Only a few errors, for which i wrote an article/Critique: http://bmwmotorcycletech.info/chitechelmnl.htm
See http://bmwmotorcycletech.info/url.htm for more information on Chitech, and how to order their publication. Some of the total-bike schematics are not reproduced well, that is the only substantial problem with that manual. Get the manual anyway.
Electrical Wire Upgrade
To help the voltage regulator and the entire charging system, an easy and inexpensive upgrade is to replace old, small, worn and sometimes corroded stock BMW wires with a set of upgraded heavier wires you make yourself. Here’s how:
The Best Wire to Use
For the best wire, go to a marine supply store and look at their selection of bulk wire. They will have wire as thin as 22 gage and as thick as 6 gage, with costs ranging from $.11 to $.49 per foot. The marine wire is rated for 600 volts, is oil-water-gasoline resistant, and is made with very fine multiple strand wire. The finer the wire used in the multi-strand wire, the more flexible the wire will be to handle and install, which is important when working within the tight confines of a motorcycle.
If you can’t find a marine supply store, auto parts and hardware stores also carry quality multi-strand wire at reasonable prices. I have used this material in the past and it works well but is not as flexible as the marine grade wire.