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‘38 Zündapp K800

Posted on January 25, 2016 by Andrew in Classic. 15 comments


The name may sound like a ‘special’ Amsterdam lollipop, but it is in fact that of a truly innovative pre-war motorcycle company. Zündapp, the now defunct German motorcycle makers based in Nuremberg, had two very distinct types of motorbikes they produced. Largely defined by the periods pre and post World War II, their post war motorcycles like the Sport Combinette have been featured on these pages before. They were a small capacity 2-stroke with just 2.6hp – basically a lightweight urban transport vehicle. But before the war, Zündapp produced “Heavy” motorbikes that came under the K classification, standing for “Kardanantrieb”. What does that mean? We’re glad you asked…


First unveiled at the Berlin Motor Show in 1933 the K series was produced in a range of engine sizes, but this 1938 K800 represents the finest of all examples, the flagship model that introduced new technologies and a level of sophistication rarely seen anywhere else in the world. The styling was elegant, clean and very German in its precision, the engine cases hide all the components, including the carburettor the designers didn’t want you to see. The large spoked wheels accentuate the smooth lines of the frame that encased the fuel tank, while the fenders were manufactured to the most rigorous of standards ensuring a level of fit and finish that would impress to this day. But as good as it looked the K800 was largely engineered to be a reliable, go anywhere machine that used the very best of technologies to combine performance and function few others could match and it’s engine was front and centre in the fight.


Zündapp wasn’t the only German maker producing Boxer engines at the time, but it’s clear from the design aesthetics that BMW and others took a few hints from their fellow Germans. Clearly Zündapp was ahead of the curve when it came to refining their own flat engines to look as good as they performed. Early K series engines were as small as 200cc, but it was the advent of the 600 and then the 800cc units that became the staple of the line up. The 4-cylinder, horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine was developed over a number of years and only released to the market when the engineers were entirely satisfied that both peak performance and reliability had been achieved. The conrods featured a bronze-backed bearing while later models featured needle bearings on the big end. The air-cooled heads were side valve but were known for their exceptional flow properties that produced a flat torque curve across the rev range.


Fueling for the 1938 model was provided by an Amal carburetor resulting in 20hp or 22hp for those models fitted with an accelerator pump. The beautifully constructed twin exhausts would set the standard for years to come and their increased length meant that although redline was not far beyond 4000rpm, controlled back pressure made tuning for a smooth ride much easier for the Zündapp engineers. Spark was provided by a Magneto and a heavy boot on the left-side mounted kickstarter fired the relatively big capacity four into life. Electronics were relatively simple, although standard at the time, 6v but still enough that the German Army favoured the K800 for it’s all round ability including being able to power external lights or even a field radio.


But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the entire K series model range was the “Kardanantrieb” a fully enclosed drivetrain that featured a smooth operating driveshaft. In a time when many manufacturers still featured engines with exposed valve springs and pushrods, not to mention almost exclusive use of separate engine and gearbox housings, this fully combined system was state of the art.


The flat four with driveshaft would later be copied by Honda on it’s 1974 Goldwing and has been renowned ever since for its smooth operation. Feeding the driveshaft was a well matched 4 speed gearbox with a single plate clutch that provided both easy operation and reliability that was almost unheard of at the time. The drivetrain was all but flawless, expect for the need to clean the rear cylinder spark plugs that were known to foul due to insufficient cooling.


Unlike modern roadbikes that feature lightweight frames, fully adjustable suspension and slicker tyres by the year, the one feature they are neither designed for nor need to contend with are the brutally bumpy unpaved roads of the 1930’s. For Zündapp’s team of engineers these were the roads their motorcycles would have to deal with on a daily basis and the challenge of creating a smooth, sporty tourer that could withstand such extremes was not an easy one to overcome.


Technology at the time necessitated a driveshaft engine could only use a rigid frame, but to build into the frame a level of controlled flexibility, style and lasting strength they turned to pressed steel that in gloss black paint also looked every bit as incredible as it performed. The front end utilised a shock sprung girder, the forks of which used the same steel as the frame and the engineers were so fixated on perfection the links combine to perform the perfect parallelogram, still not as common as you might expect.


Stopping power came courtesy of drum brakes front and rear and with a relatively low weight of 215kg and top speed of 110km/h proved to be more than adequate. The controls were simply stunning, bar end levers and soft gripped bars provided easy operation and steering, while the rubber footpegs soaked up the last of any vibrations that were not tempered by the shaft drive. The rider sat aboard a beautifully stitched sprung solo seat and when it came time to pull up, simply folded out the footboard that brilliantly doubles as a sidestand.


You can’t imagine what it must have been like to climb aboard such a majestic machine in 1938, but thanks to The Motorworld by V.Sheyanov (the Russian owners of this Zündapp and also owners of one of the most impressive pre ‘45 collections of motorcycles in the world) you can more than just imagine. Special individual tours of their museum are now available. And by ‘special’ they mean ‘you get to ride any bike you damn well want’. Apparently, it’s the only place in the world that lets you do this. Sounds like our kind of holiday.

  • Hardley T Whipsnade III

    Absolutely gorgeous . A production bike from the 30’s that puts many if not most of todays ‘ customs ‘ to shame both in its design , quality of execution as well as function . Fact is there’s many a lesson to be learned from this gem that the majority of todays builders would do well to take to heart . Sadly though , most will not .

    As far as the rough roads from the 30’s comment Andrew ? Seriously ? You ridden on any of our [ US ] roads of late ? Suffice it to say there’s a reason ADV’s are the number one seller in the US as well as why the Scrambler craze is being beaten to death by every Tom . Dick and Patty custom builder here in the US of A . Our roads nationwide are abysmal as is most of our infrastructure these days .e.g Manufactures as well as custom builders would do well to learn the suspension lessons this Zundapp has to offer as well seeing as how the UK and now the EU are facing the very same problems . Oh well . Everything that goes around comes around

    In closing . Kudos Andrew for this entire series . Here’s hoping there’s more to come , but here’s especially hoping the lessons on offer from the past will be learned , modernized . updated and adapted by at least a few of your custom builder readers

    • ccc40821

      The K800 us unusually beautiful, and would indeed put a lot of custom bikes to shame. Only the famous BMW R7 prototype tops this one (see picture below)

      In all fairness most factory bikes’ design by definition age better than custom bikes do; the former are designed to look modern for many years on, while the latter are built following different rules – like ‘lotsa chrome’ or ‘longer forks’ – that often are popular for a brief period of time only.
      Most 4-cyl. boxers of that time never made it past the prototype stage. Only Puch from Austria built an 800 cc boxer (second picture), which somehow lacked the elegance of the German bikes.

      • Jack Eero Burrows

        I disagree concerning custom bikes not really being timeless or modern for years to come. A lot of production bikes have actually been designed stuck in the past. It kind of why British motorcycles stopped being around for awhile and why Japanese iron took over for a good amount of time. Harley is still using cheap Chinese forks on their “new” bikes.

        What custom builders do is actually push the limits of design, heck its how its always been done, and if what they create is well designed and built then it kind of stands alone. Now trends are something else completely, but a lot of great custom builders don’t follow trends, they make what they want to make.

        Guys like Shinya Kimura, Ian Barry and Chicara Nagata are only three examples of guys doing very different custom bikes that will remain timeless, they even go as far as being classics in both an old world and modern way.

        And in regards to custom builders following different rules, who said anyone had to play by the rules? I wish a lot more manufacturors would stop pushing stupid rules that don’t really do anything but manufacture more terribly designed factory bikes. Manufacturors have the opportunity just as much, even more so, to change the “rules” just as much as custom builder do.

        Just imagine if Triumph started talking with Ian Barry for a little styling tips?

        And if the new Norton designers thought a little more about making all their components out of carbon fibre and then sticking them on a very silly over weight steel frame?

        Maybe Harley could stop producing more over sized bikes with these terribly ugly over/under powered engines and start getting back into designing beautiful machines again. They say they are modernising because they designed an electric bike that will go into production in 2020, just 14 years later than companies that have been doing it already.

        I just don’t want you to forget that “custom” builders are the reason we have motorcycles in the first place. Hey look a hill, and a bicycle, how can we get up the hill without having to pedal? What if we did something different and put a motor on it and called it a motorcycle? No, we have to follow the rules and make it look modern for years to come instead of being innovative, it will never work. lol

        • ccc40821

          I was speaking broadly. Of course there are factory bikes whose designs age quickly, or even look like crap to begin with. As well as there are custom bikes that end up ‘timeless’ (whatever that means), and looking as good today as they did in – say – 1975. But they are few and far between. I’m also a great admirer of Shinya Kimura and Chicara Nagata, and think they do outstanding work, which resonates with our time. Question is whether their creations will look as great to a motorcyclist in 2095, as the Zündapp K800 does to us today.

          • Jack Eero Burrows

            Just for an example buell was a really good idea with terrible styling. Lol I’ve chopped a buell for a friend and it took more to make it right than it would have just to start from the ground up. Other companies are starting to get it, Yamaha just did backyard build with a bunch of custom builders and they are showing what can be done on their platform which is a step in the right direction. As for whether or not the work of kimura, Nagata and barry will stand up over time, it’s simple, good design is good design. These guys are just three examples but there are many. If anything I think they will be even more coveted in 2095. Kind of like a Raphael painting was worth a good deal in his day but look at what they are worth in today’s art market. I think the Zundapp is in the same market.

            There are also a lot of hacks. I cringe hearing the words Orange County anything. I’m not cutting them down but there is something missing with them. Ness on the other hand, I don’t always love his stuff, actually there is only a few I like but generally they have a kind of creativity, craftsmenship and quality about them.

      • Interestingly enough your second photo is of Puch P800 from “The Motorworld by V.Sheyanov” collection!

    • guvnor67

      The roads in Victoria, Australia are bordering on criminal!

  • Jim Stuart

    Streamlining at its best.

  • TeamObsolete

    I’ve owned one in mint condition for two years in the eighties, absolutely loved this machine. Not my daily, but certainly my weekly ride. Should have kept it but needed the cash for the purchase of a BMW R16 that was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The R16 is probably worth more but that Zundapp was every bit as good as stated in this article.

  • guvnor67

    Awesome!! The footboard/ sidestand idea is so clever in it’s simplicity. I knew someone that had one back in the 80s, and they’re such an attractive bike, and very solid. Another for my wish list!

  • mtnsicl


  • Mike Dunn

    A couple of corrections to your article here on the Zundapp K800. First the motorcycle was NEVER a magneto motor, never. It is a battery ignition, 6 volt. Also the side stand is and was an accessory and never factory stock. You had to request it. This has a center stand under the frame, this is why there is a grab handle on the left side of the motorcycle. In all honestly, I have never heard any German first hand account powering anything with a K800? Also the two main work horse bikes of the German Army was the KS600 and KS750 if we are talking Zundapp only.

    Mike Dunn
    Vintage German Motorcycles