BMW motorcycle history

BMW Motorcycle History – Part 1

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want… I want an idea of just when BMWs became sexy and cool…

BMW R 100 RSWe ‘ere at CB-Net will draw a line in the sand and say it was around the mid-1990s and we list the top 20 bikes they produced that finally weren’t the sort bought by your old man… Remember, in the late 1970s and early 1980s BMWs seemed, well, a little lost and nowhere near as cool as a pair of flares were – but it wasn’t always the way…

Just before the Second World War, BMW were big into racing and all forms of competition. Back in 1939 BMW was the first ‘foreign’ manufacturer to win an Isle of Man TT race with Georg Meier, taking the Kompressor BMW to Senior TT glory. Fast forward some years and BMW produced one of the best-handling superbikes of the 1970s – the R90 S. This thing may not have had as much power as a comparable big Kawasaki Zed of the time, but it was such a sweet handler. So much so, that in 1976 Steve McLaughlin won the first national-level Superbike race at Daytona in the USA on a BMW R90 S. Steve was to become known as the ‘father of World Superbikes’ setting up the series in the late 1980s.

Then things got a bit, well, stale. BMWs such as the R100 RS built on the success of the bikini-faired S and 100 S and became more utilitarian. BMWs suddenly became part and parcel of the ‘pipe and slippers’ brigade and when thousands of BMWs were bought by polices forces around the UK in the 1980s and 1990s (often later being passed on to IAM or BMF instructors at auction) the fate of the marque was sealed! BMWs, it seemed, were for ‘tourers’.

But there was the odd ray of sunlight… machines like the gloriously OTT K1 of 1989 showed what they could do. Here was a big lump of motorcycle but with some cutting-edge bits such as ABS, fully-faired (and then some) and complete with a wacky paint job that shouted ‘LOOK AT ME’ more than the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane…

BMW R60/SStaff changes helped too.  David Robb joined BMW in 1984, moved to BMW Motorrad in 1993 and eventually became head of motorcycle design before his departure in 2012. He’s one of the key appointments in making Beemers cool again. He says: “When I joined we had about eight different motorcycles in the range and it seemed as if they were doing the same job. They didn’t have different personalities or appeal to different people. My first project was the K1200 RS and LT series, and they may have shared something like 70% commonality but they had completely different personalities. The same was true with machines such as the K1300 series – different machines, but sharing many identical parts. With the S1000 RR we were criticised for it being perhaps too ‘Japanese’ but we felt with that original look, it was still very BMW…”

We won’t bore you with too much more history as you will doubtless want to argue with our top 20 selection of bikes (and the few we call out as ‘Lemons). It’s safe to say that there have been highlights of how BMW has been made sexier, including with racing. Dave Morris who won Isle of Man TT wins in 1998 and 1999 as well as the British Supermono title in 1999. In an emotional win, John McGuinness would take one of Dave’s bikes to the 2000 TT singles win in a team run by Lee and Neil Morris following their parents’ Dave and Alison’s untimely deaths a year before. BMW wouldn’t win another TT race until 75 years later – 2014, with Michael Dunlop.

In MotoGP BMW ran the BMW Boxer Cup support class between 1999 and 2004, using the saucy R1100 S and SS/Replikas (more of which later) to good effect. Sure, these bikes weren’t out-and-out sports machines, but having cool guest riders such as Randy Mamola helped get some coverage! Let’s not forget Chris Pfeiffer – doing some simply unbelievable stunts on an-almost stock F800 road bike, and then of course came the BMW S1000 RR and a factory team with Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus for 2009. So they never won the title, but they know the value of racing and have returned in factory form with the latest 1000 RR ridden by Tom Sykes and Markus Reiterberger.

BMW R90SSo what do we reckon are the best of BMW over the last 40 or so years? Well, we had to start our list off with ‘the daddy’ of Munich cool… Here in age related order then, and with a couple of ‘Bad Beemers’ thrown in for good measure too…


1973 – R90 S

At a time when BMW were celebrating 50-years of their boxer-twin, horizontally opposed design, out came this beasty. Derived from the ‘Type 247’ motor seen in a number of capacities with classics such as the R50/5, R60/5 and R75/5, the R90 S would have an 898cc air-cooled flat twin pumping out 67bhp. That wasn’t even much for the time, but it was the chassis that rocked while others (think big Zeds) rocked AND rolled before spitting the rider off. Even so, race-tuned R90 S machines would hit 100bhp and 175 kilos! They were eventually replaced by the R100 series in 1977.

1980 – R80 G/S

BMW R80 GSThe first of the family of hugely successful GS machines, the R80 was launched in 1980 off the back of some off-road success in competition. The bike itself was also brought about thanks to some keen off-road engineers in BMW itself. The flat-twin boxer engine 797.5cc pumped out a mild 50bhp, but the chassis and the simplicity of design meant that it was a good choice for world travellers on two wheels. Successive versions came and improved the breed: 1986 saw the R100 GS, 1993 saw the launch of the R1100 GS (a very different machine with four-valves per pot and the ‘oil-cooled’ head.) 1999 saw the arrival of the 1150 GS and later the more rugged ‘Adventure’ version but the 1200 GS of 2004-on had 30 kilos less and 20% more power… This year the new R1250 GS was born – it’s still a popular bike and it all started with the humble R80 G/S.

1989 – K1

BMW K1Quirky, interesting and quick – if not blisteringly fast – the K1 used much of previous models (such as the 987cc liquid-cooled four-cylinder motor, ‘laid down’ longitudinally) from the earlier K-models. With only around 100bhp on tap and 235 kilos or so, it was marketed as a sports-tourer and came with fully enclosed bodywork in a range of striking colours. While it sold in modest numbers (around 7000 units between 1989 and 1993) it showed the way forward for BMW in being bold and different.


1993 – R1100 RS

BMW R1100 RSThe modern era of BMW effectively began in 1993, with the arrival of the R1100 RS, which had the new OHV boxer twin with air-oil cooling and a new chassis, equipped with a Paralever rear-end (a shaft drive, single-sided rear-end) and a Telelever front end (basically a wish-bone connected to a shock and the forks). It was weird, but it worked – with the boxer-twin pumping out around 90bhp and the chassis coping well with the not inconsiderable weight. The RS also used fuel-injection and adjustable seat/position before anyone. So why do we call it a bad Beemer? Well, look at it! It handled and worked well, but the looks were really all over the place – and it wasn’t quite a sports bike and more of a sports-tourer and better was to come… even if it was uglier!

1995 – R1100 RT

Yes, the RT is one ugly mo’ fo’, but it showed that BMW were learning because despite being based on the 1100 RS running gear, the touring-biased RT was actually three kilos lighter than its older, sportier brother. And it was successful with 60,000 being sold between 1995 and its replacement in 2001. Looks were functional as the generous fairing kept the weather at bay. Many police forces used ‘em, even ChiPs duo Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox ditched their Kawasakis for RTs in ‘ChiPs ‘99’ – a film remake of the lightweight 1970s bike-cop TV show.

1997 – K1200 RS

Yes, so the four-cylinder motor in the K1200 RS was based on the slow-to-rev 1100 (they lengthened the stroke by 5mm) but it did have enough torque, even if it took an age to get to its 9000rpm redline. It handled nicely enough, too – despite a claimed 285kilos to push! The two things, which set the 1200 RS apart though – and what made it an epoch-marking bike for them – was the fact that it looked good and also that it was BMW which ignored the previous self-imposed manufacturer limit of 100bhp, with a bike pushing out a claimed 130bhp.


R1200 C

BMW’s first cruiser was a real Marmite bike. Costing more than £10K, this featured the proven Boxer twin, raised to 1170cc, delivering around 70bhp pushing 265kilos. Despite a ‘classic’ look based in some part on older BMWs, the R1200C did show that Munich weren’t afraid to push the barriers as it did have some original design cues. Clearly, they weren’t the most popular of machines as the bike is no longer in the range, but they did get a starring role alongside Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, but then again how many co-stars in a Bond film also disappear without a trace?


1998 – K1200 LT

Please ignore the many MCN awards this machine received for best tourer: It’s not better than a Gold Wing and it’s not better than its Boxer-twin brother the 1100/1150 RT. BMW married a huge bike, with fat guppy fish looks with that old-style, slow-to-respond four-pot motor. The result was a bloater on wheels. The boxer twin is much better – sorry!

1999 – R1100 S

Released in September 1998, the 1100 S looked like a sportsbike – albeit BMW’s version of one. A single-sided swingarm and under-seat pipes was a big nod to the Ducati 916 which was a style icon of the time, while the half-faired bodywork and lop-sided monocled headlight stare kept it just on the German side of design. An SS version (only the Germans could miss the bad use of an acronym like that) was produced a few years later, with 10bhp more, better suspension and a wider rear rim.

R1150 GS

A true classic: the 1130cc oil-air-cooled lump is good for 85bhp, but it’s the whole plot that comes together as greater than the sum of its parts. The lazy-revving engine doesn’t over-stress the plush suspension, which on blighted roads means this thing is able to strum along at a fair lick! The 1150 GS was later released in 2002 in ‘Adventure’ trim, with longer travel suspension, shorter gearing, EVO brakes, a host of optional extras and the ability to use lower-quality fuel often found at pump stations out in the boonies.

2001 – R1150 RT

The biggest changes were to the looks to this great tourer: you got a smoother fairing, a wider headlight and curves that were designed to move water away from the rider – the electric screen helped with this too. It all works. Improvements on the 1100 RT included wider rear rim for better rubber, less weight, a new gearbox, and five more bhp. The machine was later re-born as the R1200 RT with even better looks, handling and motor.