BMW Motorcycle History

BMW Motorcycle History provided by: Motorcycle Repair & Rendezvous, 7021 S Commerce Park Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84047. Tel: 801-255-1444

In The Beginning...

Two companies, Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH, and Gustav Ott Flugmaschinenfabrik, combined on March 7, 1916, to form BFW or Bayerische Flugzeuzwerke AG. This was renamed Bayerische Motoren Werke AG or BavarianMotor Work the following year, and produced aircraft engines up until the end of the WWI.

The first motorcycle by BMW was built at 76 Neulerchenfelder Strasse in 1920-1922, powered by a three-port two-stroke engine of 148cc with 53mm bore and 60mm stroke. This bike was known as the Flink and looked much like a bicycle with the engine mounted just ahead of the foot pedals and the gas tank slung under the seat-to-steering head bar.

The next step was the construction of the M2B15 engine, named the Bavarian Light Engine which was a horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine with a 68mm bore and 68mm stroke, and developed 6.5 horsepower at 2,800 rpm. From 1921 to 1923 this engine was sold to other German companies but became well known through use in BMW’s own Helios motorcycle in 1923. On this M2B15 model, the engine was installed fore and aft instead of transversely as today’s bikes.

Max Friz was the Chief Design Engineer starting with the company at its inception in 1916. Max designed the aircraft engines, the Flink cycle of 1920, and then the M2B15 Helios. Max, being a normal engineer and not easily pleased with things as-is, was not satisfied with Helios and introduced a new model at the 1932 Paris Motor Show, the BMW R32, which had the engine mounted transverse with a cardan drive using a three-speed transmission through a drive-shaft with sealed lubrication. These became famous for the blue and white paint. Continued development brought the introduction of the pressed steel frame in 1929; the 1935 telescopic fork replacing the short-pivot suspension; the 1936 tubular frame; and, the 1938 introduction of the telescopic rear suspension.

In 1955 the all-pivot frame of the BMW RS racing bike was taken over for production models.

The fun and exciting seventies - /5, /6 & /7

Starting with this historical perspective in 1970, all year model designations noted here are for USA bikes. Some other markets had M.Y. designations one year earlier i.e. USA R80GS, the first MY was designated as 1981, AG was designated as 1980.

1970: BMW introduced the “slash five” which was probably the most overall upgrade improvement of the BMW bike to date, including the boxer twin engine. These included the 500, 600 and 750 displacement R50/5, R60/5, R75/5. All engines had the same stroke, with different bores resulting in differing displacements. All had point ignitions. The 500 and 600 had Bing slide type carbs similar to the /2 models. The 750 had a new style Constant Velocity (CV) Bing which was a big technology step for its day. All had 4 speed transmissions, telescopic forks with a mechanical friction steering damper fitted, swing arm rear suspension, and drum brakes front and rear. All models had exactly the same chassis, gear boxes and rear drive units except the rear drives had different ratios for each displacement. So, the R50/5 weighed the same as the R75/5. The headlight nacelle had an integrated speedometer & tachometer unit and all bikes used an ignition switch “key” that looked like a nail.

While BMW was still building a 2 cylinder, drum braked, stogy, slow, odd looking bike that had a nail for an ignition key, Honda came out with their 4 cylinder, fast, smooth, disc brake equipped CB750. Triumph, BSA, Norton, and Ducati were building relatively fast, modern and beautiful bikes. Harley ruled the luxury touring market. Unfortunately, BMW was slow to respond to these new and growing markets. The /5 BMW’s really only appealed to older guys who preferred total reliability and function over excitement and technology, and who were rich because at that time an R75/5 cost almost as much as 2 CB750s! It took years after BMW began to build bikes that were really better than the rest of the bikes available worldwide to overcome their “old man” stereotype.

1971-1973: In late 1973 a /5 series with a longer swing arm to lengthen the wheelbase and improve poor hi speed handling was introduced as a 1973 1/2 model.

1974: introduced the /6 series in 500, 600, 750 and 900 displacements. RXX/6 designations. They all had the longer wheel base of the 1973 ½ /5. The 750 and 900 had single disc front brakes and the CV carbs. The smaller bikes retained the drum brakes and slide style carbs. All models continued to share the same chassis, transmission and rear drives. The transmissions were updated 5 speeds. Modernized instrumentation included a separate tachometer / speedometer unit that mounted above the forks like modern motorcycles, and a real key for the ignition (were BMW’s being stolen?).

Also, in 1974 the R90S was introduced. It had dual disc front brakes, special heads, high compression and Delorto pumper carbs that increased its power and braking performance levels substantially over the R90/6. It also had a smaller alternator to increase the engine’s ability to rev faster and not explode at the then-heady rev limit of 7500rpm. It was also the first production motorcycle to be fitted with a fairing, a small bubble shaped item that included a dash with a clock and a volt meter. To celebrate Reg Pridmore’s win of the super bike race in Daytona (yes, BMW’s were actually competitive in road racing at one time!) the 1975 model R90S was released in a two tone orange and pearl white fogged paint job called Daytona Safety Orange to mimic Reg’s winning BMW.

1975-1976: offered no changes.

1977: began the /7 models in 750, 800 and 1000 cc displacements. All models were CV equipped, had disc front brakes and stronger frames than the /6. “S” models in the 1000cc only had dual disc front brakes and a single disc rear. They retained the R90S fairing on the R100S model.

1977 also introduced the R100RS which history has shown to be the beginning of the Sport/Touring market. It included the first frame mounted full coverage, wind tunnel designed fairing in motorcycle history. The fairing completely covered the rider’s legs and torso and the motorcycles handlebars were engulfed by it. It was the first motorcycle produced that combined the best handling of its day with wind and weather protection that would allow very high mileage, high speed riding in good comfort. It is in the opinion of many, including this author, to be the best sport touring fairing ever produced. The shape of the fairing also produced a down force at speed, further enhancing the high speed handling. The RS shared the R100S dual disc front brake/single disc rear. The R100S and RS had larger 40mm Bing CV carbs, bigger valves and higher compression to increase the power.

1978: was a no-changes year.

The slash is slashed

1979 was the year that BMW discontinued the slash “/” designations. Models included the R80 and R100, R100S, RS and the new R100RT which was a “gentleman’s express” based heavily on the R100RS. The RT shared all the performance enhancing items of the RS, even the lower part of the fairing was identical, but the upper fairing size was substantially increased to include a larger and adjustable windshield and fairing upper to keep the rider completely out of the weather. The very low RS handlebar was replaced with a higher sit-up-and-beg bar. The RT was fitted with saddlebags as standard equipment. Also, the R65 was introduced. The R65 was the first models to have its own frame and was smaller and lighter than even the R50’s it replaced. It had the best handling chassis of any BMW built to that point. However, the engines were very underpowered.

1980 was a year spend by the German engineers finalizing the landmark bikes to come out the following year.

A New Era

1981 was a landmark year for BMW. Butler and Smith was no longer the importer, moving to BMWNA which was controlled by BMWAG (Germany). The many improvements of the 1981 models also were now available at a lower price than the 1980 models. Boy, were the 1980 model owners happy about that! The now aging suspension was updated, frames strengthened, cast-iron cylinder liners were replaced with Nikasil plated aluminum, and electronic ignition replaced the points. High performance Brembo brakes replaced the old heavy and less powerful ATE swing calipers on the front wheels. The heavy flywheels were replaced with a stamped steel clutch carrier that reduced the rotating mass substantially to allow the engines to rev much more quickly. These changes were mandatory for BMW to stay in the motorcycle business because by 1980 the BMW motorcycles were slow, poor handling, expensive and frumpy compared to the existing Japanese and other European bikes. The 1981 was a so much better motorcycle than the prior models that the used BMW market crashed and older BMW’s were now available at Honda-esque prices.

The GS series was introduced in 1981 as an 800cc adventure touring bike. The R80G/S began the whole adventure touring market. The G/S had technology that forecasted the upcoming bike technologies. It had the first single side swing arm in BMW history, and the first production model in the world to have that.

1982 offered no changes.

1983 - 1984 showed little change. Although there were almost no differences between the 1981 and 1983/4 models, the 1983 celebrated the 60th anniversary of BMW motorcycles and special editions of the R100S, RS and RT models were produced and sold as 60th anniversary models. The RS and RT were pearl white and came with a certificate showing they were 60th anniversary models. They came with a special accessory package including a dual seat and a sport seat and a higher price tag. Then, in 1984, BMW said they were going to discontinue the R100 completely in 1985 with the then unannounced but produced K series. So BMW produced a “Last Edition” model RS and RT, with the same pearl paint and accessory package as the 60th anniversary model form 1983! The only difference was the stickers on the side covers of the bike: the 1983’s said “60th Anniversary”; the 1984’s said “Last Edition”. What was BMW thinking? Then, to top it off, in 1988, they re-introduced the R100RS and RT models. The RS was even, you guessed it, pearl white! The people who bought the ”Last Edition” models were enraged that they had paid extra for a last edition and then later BMW would introduce it again! Owners of Last Editions were given a BMW helmet to try to appease them, further adding insult to injury. It was an awkward time in the politics at BMW. BMW was aware that they needed to make a big change if they wanted to maintain a position in the motorcycle market. There were rumors that BMW would quit making bikes altogether and just build automobiles. The motorcycle division had been operating at a deficit and the cars were bearing the costs. Luckily for us all, the family that owns BMW said no; as long as there was a BMW, there would be motorcycles.

The K bikes are here

1985 was a significant year. To address this rapidly changing motorcycle market, the K series was designed. The K designates Kompact drive, because the engine/transmission would be the structure for the motorcycle rather than a frame and engine setup. 1985 introduced the K100, K100RS and K100RT models. These bikes were engineering marvels of their day. Four cylinders, fuel injected, water cooled, 90 hp. They had state of the art brakes, big tires, and marvelous suspension. The standard K100 was the beginning of the hi-tech, hi performance naked bikes that are still the rage today. The RS and RT models continued to address the sport and luxury touring markets. The K100RS was voted bike of the year by most publications in 1985. BMW also improved the airheads in frame and suspension areas, but the R100 was no longer made. The R65 and R80 continued.

1986 brought the K75, a 3 cylinder version of the K100. It was substantially lighter and was the smoothest engine BMW has ever built. Although they made a respectable 75 HP, they were plagued with heavy engine parts resulting in slow throttle response. A K75 S model was introduced with BMW’s first real “Sport” suspension and it was a huge success.

1987 resulted in no changes.

ABS for motorcycles

1988 brought the “new” R100 models back as RT, RS and GS models. The GS once again predicted the upcoming changes to future models with a linked rear suspension called the paralever that reduced the rear end jacking of the standard drive shaft models. Also that year BMW introduced the K1, a 1000 cc 4v K engine powered sport bike with 100 HP and paralever rear suspension in fully enclosed bodywork with integrated saddlebags.

BMW introduced ABS to the motorcycling world in 1988, the first time a production bike was fitted with this technology, on the K100RS “Special Edition” and on the K1. This was a technological leap over a barrier that only cars and airplanes had up to then. BMW is still the only motorcycle manufacturer that offers ABS on every model they produce and has it as standard equipment on most models. The ABS (which later became known as ABS I as improvements were made in later years) was a very effective system, although by today’s standards would be considered slow to react and heavy. BMW has led the technology in ABS since then, and is still is the leader in that technology.

1989 was another different year of no changes.

4 valves are better than 2

1990 saw all 4 cylinder K engines with 4v, and 100 HP in RS and LT trims. The K100 4v was updated to a 4v 1100cc engine in RS and RT models, and the new LT luxury models. The LT had an electrically adjustable windshield and factory installed sound system. The 1100 models also had paralever rear suspension.

1991-1993 brought no changes.

1994 BMW introduced the R1100 models, starting the new twins and BMW's reentry into being motorcycling’s leader in technology.

The End of the Airhead

1994 brought many changes to BMW, most obviously by the introduction of the “R259” series twins and the elimination of the old standby “Airhead” twins that had been BMW’s trademark for seven decades.

While it is interesting to look at all the technologies introduced during the 1994 to 2004 time block, it is also exciting to look into what was going on as far as changes in BMW more esoteric than measurable. In this author’s opinion there were unspoken changes in BMW’s mindset and philosophy. BMW had forged it’s reputation for long lasting, simple machines built to the highest standards and quality; aimed at a dwindling, older (OK, Jeff, more mature) market of enthusiastic but eccentric riders. They built motorcycles that were easy for the owners to maintain and modify to fit their specific wants. BMW had always built their bikes their way; often it seemed like they did so in spite of what the younger and upwardly mobile riders were looking for.

By 1994, the airhead was simply not a sellable motorcycle; the buying market was younger and wanted performance in line with what the Japanese products offered at much lower prices. The K 75/100 series that were so far ahead of their time in 1984 when they were introduced were also showing their age. No doubt, BMW knew this was coming many years before the new “Oil Head” was introduced. They knew that the riding community had reduced its mean age substantially. The younger riders had money to spend on a bike that had to be BMW, yet had to be totally more modern both in performance and in perception than what BMW had been selling. Thus, the R259 was born.

The Birth of the R259 Twins

The new BMW corporate mindset, if you will, was no longer concerned with selling motorcycles that would be handed down from one generation to the next, nor was BMW concerned about ease of maintenance with standard hand tools. Although the new bikes were still able to outlast the riders, the concern for building units to last a quarter-million miles was not so much in the forefront of the design. The new models would have to be powerful, fast, handle better than anything on the road; they would need to offer a standard of technology that the Japanese would never build. They should be complex pieces of rolling art. Most obvious, though, was that they would build a product aimed at an entirely new market of riders who would likely not be interested in maintaining the bikes themselves or really understanding the nuances of design. The new customers BMW was looking for were serious riders who were more interested in the fun and excitement of riding than they were in savoring the history of the older designs. Really, in every way measurable, the R259 was better than the airhead it replaced. The changes in the K series during this time period also resulted in better motorcycles. It was a special time in BMW’s history, resulting in the amazing bikes we have today, but before the factory began too much of the “technology for the sake of technology” that came about after 2004. I believe that fifty years down the road, this time period will be viewed as one of BMW’s best hours.

From Bing Carbs to Twin-Spark Heads

1994 -The R259 was introduced. It was a complete new design of an opposed twin cylinder BMW.

Engine: The new engine shared almost no parts with its predecessor. It was 1100cc, the largest twin BMW had ever produced, Hi-cam, 4 valve cylinder heads, oil and air-cooled and fuel injected. They had power outputs up to 90 BHP. It had “fractured” connecting rods, rather than the rod being forged in a main rod and a rod end cap. These new rods were forged as one piece, and then actually broken in two parts at the big-end bearing area. The two parts then fit perfectly as the ridges of the cap had to exactly match the rod, so the strength of the rod and its alignment were increased even though the mass of the rod was radically decreased.

All USA models were equipped with a Catalytic Converter, a first in the world for “Green” motorcycles. In other countries, the Cat was an optional, extra cost item.

Chassis: The R259 was the first BMW to be produced with the Telelever front suspension. It was the first and still the only mass-produced motorcycle line that used something other than telescopic forks. The design eliminated flex and sliding friction. The Telelever also reduced or eliminate front end dive (it could be tuned to actually lift the front end under braking, although BMW never opted to do so). BMW chose to make the dive reduction about 75% of what a forked motorcycle would have because the riders found it an odd feeling to not have some dive. In later years, as riders became more accustomed or open-minded to the lack of dive, the suspension was tuned to about a 90% dive reduction on some models.

The engine was used as a stressed member, similar in concept the Kompact drive of the earlier K series.

Rear suspension was an updated and improved version of the Paralever system first introduced on the R100GS in 1988. The shock was moved to a central location to improve mass centralization and probably also to give the bike the look that there was nothing holding the back of it up, certainly a modern styling exercise.

Brakes: All models were equipped with very large diameter disc brakes, twin floating on the front and single disc on the rear. The new ABSII was introduced as well. It was much faster operating and lighter than the ABSI it replaced.

Styling & Models: The R259 was first introduced as an RS model with wind tunnel designs as cutting edge as its technologies. It looked like nothing else on the market. While being unmistakably a BMW twin, it was modern and exciting.

Other 1994 models included an 850cc version of the R259, released as an “R” models without a fairing. The “R” was also available in an 1100cc. The R model was a homely bike with styling often viewed as odd, even sometimes as down right ugly. It has a single gauge, a speedometer that was mounted off center in the dash. It has oil coolers that were hung out on the frame as if they were forgotten until after the design was penned and than added on as a last minute change. The tank shape was odd, as well as the seat. We often joked that BMW made them ugly, because it was such a fantastic bike to ride that if it were also pretty BMW would have been unable to keep production on par with the demand. It was perhaps the best handling BMW built to that point in time.

The 1994 K series were all upped to 1100cc and fitted with the more modern Motronic engine management systems similar to the R259. Although the 1993 K1100LT had been available a year earlier, the new 1100cc engine had updates to make it more powerful and smoother. They still had forks for front suspension.

1995 introduced the R1100GS. The GS was available in the USA only as an 1100cc version, although the 850cc version was available in other markets. It shared the same technologies as the RS and R models with the addition of long travel suspension and other items to make it better for light duty off road use. It was the first of the Giant sized Adventure Tourers that make up such a large percentage of the motorcycles around the world today. It was capable of 1000-mile days, yet amazingly competent off the beaten path. It could be overloaded with camping gear and still work well, yet show its taillight to most sport bikes on a twisty mountain road. While the GS had been the Swedish Army Knife of motorcycling since its introduction as an 800 in 1984, the new 1100 set a standard that the rest of the adventure touring market is still trying to catch up to. The styling, like the R, was so ugly that BMW was able to keep up with production demands.

1996 introduced the R1100RT, arguable the finest Sport Touring bike of its time. A full coverage faring cradled the rider and passenger in a cocoon of still air, while the magic of the R1100RS performance and acumen allowed it to be ridden as a sport bike when so desired. The styling was modern and beautiful.

1997 was another banner year for BMW. The R1100S was introduced as BMW’s first attempt at a serious Sport bike. It had higher compression, more radical cam timing, improved head port shapes and a less restrictive exhaust, all resulting in over 100 BHP in a package weighing less than 500 pounds. The 6 speed gearbox was a first for BMW. It was the most radical BMW produced to that date. Styling was stunningly beautiful with very low bars, a tiny windshield, under-seat exhaust and a cowling that made the dual seat look like a solo item. The suspension was “track-tuned” for handling that was beyond what even most professional riders could fully use. As one of the ten “pre-release” test riders chosen by BMW to evaluate this bike, I was almost beyond words when given the opportunity to rate this bike. Interestingly enough, talking to others of the ten riders years later, BMW did not respond to even one of our suggestions, even though we had all requested similar changes. Most of those changes are on the 2007 R1200S models though!

Also in 1997, BMW released the K1200RS. It was the first K bike to use the Telelever suspension. It also was the first to use an alloy frame of massive strength, allowing BMW to isolate the engine vibration from the rider, no longer using the engine as a stressed member. The 1200cc engine was rated at 130 BHP, making the bike the fastest BMW ever. The engine vibration was so muted that it was eerie to ride, and the acceleration was close to scary. A six speed gearbox was fitted. It handled like a very long wheel-base race bike; with tremendous stability and slightly heavy steering making it confidence inspiring. The styling was very modern, with multi-colored paint and graphics that would have made Max Fritz turn over in his grave. It was a totally modern bike in every way, showing the other manufacturers that BMW was seriously in the Sport bike market.

The F650, which had been available in other countries, was finally brought into the USA in 1997 as well. It was a “Badge BMW”; a single cylinder Rotax engine-powered bike built for BMW by Aprillia. As this seminar is supposed to take only 90 minutes, I will not go into much detail on the F650. We have an F650 history paper written and would be more than happy to give you a copy of it. The F650 was an awesome bike, filling a need for an entry-level bike in BMW’s line that was devoid of one.

1998 had no significant changes, allowing all of us in the industry to take a deep breath. We had seen more changes in BMW’s line-up and company feel in the last four years than had been seen in the previous four decades.

1999 was the year BMW introduced the K1200LT, pushing BMW squarely into the Luxury Touring Market. The LT looked the Honda Goldwing directly in the eye and challenged it to a duel. It was based largely on the K1200RS and was a wildly sophisticated mileage eater. Standard equipment included cruise control, 8 speaker stereo systems with a cassette-tape player and 6 CD changer, heated grips and seats, a reverse gear, integrated wind tunnel designed saddlebags and top trunk, and many other touring niceties. The power was reduced from the RS to about 100 hp, upping the torque in the lower rpm ranges where BMW thought the riders would live. The Luxury Touring market was suddenly turned upside down with this bike that was as comfortable as a Goldwing, yet handled like nothing its size should be able to. It took years for Honda to even come close to the LT, and even now the LT, other than for some minor refinements, has hardly changed since 1999. It was said to be the 7 series of the motorcycle market; unrelenting in its endeavor to provide luxury in a platform of exhilarating performance.

2000-2003: Over the next couple of years, BMW upped all the R259 series (except the R1100S) to 1150cc and fitted them with 6 speed gearboxes. The 1150cc engine was smoother than the 1100cc it replaced and the new six speed gearbox shifted better, and had an over drive sixth gear that made the bikes feel like they were just loafing along at 100 mph. (or so I have been told. That speed is illegal in the USA). There were minor improvements made to the Telelever suspension on the twins and detail improvements made to all models.

The R1100R received a major face-lift when it became the R1150R, resulting in one of the most beautiful lines ever produced in the naked bike market.

The R1150GS Adventure model was released, a massive redo of the GS with a huge fuel tank, lower gearing for off-road use, even taller suspension, and knobby tires rated at 100 mph. Whew—when is enough just too much?

The R1150RT had minor cosmetic changes, mostly to the headlight area with a design that looked much better than it worked.

Also, in 2002, the K1200RS received a bit of a styling update and was fitted with the electronic cruise control from the LT

IABS: 2002 brought one big change in BMW’s line with the introduction of IABS (Integrated Anti-lock Brake System). This system was touted by BMW to be the ultimate motorcycle braking system. It was a computer controlled, electronically power-assisted system that integrated the front and rear brake systems. On the sportier models, a partially integrated system was used that allowed the rider to use just the rear brake, or a combination of front and rear, but did not allow just the front to be used independently of the rear. On the touring models, the front and rear were always integrated in what was termed a fully integrated system. The system was a technological marvel, supposedly operating both brakes to their optimum regardless of how stupid the rider was. In reality, the system was inconsistent and unpredictable in operation, nonlinear in feel, expensive to maintain, noisy as the power-assist pumps were energized, and gave yet another added benefit of being able to use so much electrical energy that the charging system was unable to keep up with it if it was used in an aggressive manner, such as during track days, or even on endurance rallies in poor weather conditions. Changes were made to this “perfect system” over the next few years; we expect it be phased out altogether sometime in the future. I guess even BMW can make a mistake!

2004 brought about a dual-spark plug head for the R series. That, in combination with remapped engine management parameters, resulted in an almost 100% surge free engine. Models up to 2004 were constantly criticized for a small throttle-opening surge. BMW never addressed the issue, stating that it was not a problem (what problem?). The dual spark motor was said by them to be a cleaner engine to meet ever-tightening emission standards, but the redo did eliminate the surge. Prior to the dual-spark heads, BMW still met every emission requirement, even in California. It was nice of them to fix a non-problem while meeting an unneeded pollution requirement.