Motoring: The bike that thinks it's a car

Small is beautiful: Rolan Brown rides the BMW C1, a novel approach to economical, environmentally friendly motoring
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When it was first revealed at a German motorcycle show six years ago, BMW's prototype C1 was regarded by many people as being much like that other futuristic form of transport, the personal autogiro.

Yes, sure, if in a few years' time we weren't all flying across town with rotor blades strapped to our backs, we'd be commuting in an egg-like construction somewhere between a motorbike and a car, wearing nothing more protective than a business suit.

Except that this time the science fiction may become reality. In spring of the year 2000 the C1 will go on sale, for about pounds 3,500. This new BMW will be able to be ridden, or driven, by anyone with a car licence (after taking the normal motorcycle basic training). And if British transport authorities follow those of Germany, no crash helmet will be required.

The idea of a scooter with a roof is not new, but the C1 certainly is. Previous roofed bikes, from Honda and others, have simply provided weather protection. The C1's key feature is an inbuilt secondary safety system incorporating a frontal impact absorption zone, rider safety cage, seat belts and a headrest.

BMW says that not only is the C1 by far the safest-ever motorcycle, but the protection it provides in a head-on crash approaches that of a small car. Much of that protection comes from the foam-filled beak above the front wheel, and from the aluminium cage, strong enough to support a car on the C1's roof.

The Telelever front suspension system, similar to that of other BMW bikes, is also designed to absorb energy on impact. Given that the rider will remain strapped inside the bike in an accident, BMW says the extra weight of a helmet is a disadvantage.

The C1's powerplant is contrastingly conventional: a 125cc single-cylinder four-stroke unit, equipped with a catalytic converter and producing a maximum of 15bhp. In typical scooter fashion, the water-cooled motor is bolted to the rear swing-arm. Its variable automatic transmission makes riding a simple twist-and-go affair and leaves the handlebars free for scooter-style front and rear brake levers.

Riding the C1 is nevertheless a novel experience, as I discovered when BMW let loose a group of car and bike journalists on prototypes at a test facility near Munich. The feet-forward riding position, windscreen (with wiper) and twin seat-belts are reminiscent of a small car. But once you're under way the C1 is very much a bike, inevitably feeling top-heavy but handling much like a conventional giant scooter.

Performance was modest, with a top speed of 55mph. (Production bikes, which will be fuel-injected, will be slightly quicker). Crucially there was enough acceleration to keep ahead of most traffic in town, although existing motorcyclists and those planning longer trips would find this learner-legal machine distinctly sluggish.

Stability at speed in calm weather was fine, and the C1 cornered reasonably well on its small, scooter-style wheels. The BMW also felt well-balanced and manoeuvrable at slow speed, despite its height. Although it is wider, heavier and less agile than most small bikes, slipping to the front of traffic queues should be easy, with practice. Single disc brakes at front and rear gave adequate stopping power; ABS will be an option.

Other safety features were harder to assess. When one inexperienced motorcyclist toppled over at slow speed, the C1 worked as intended as he stayed strapped in the cockpit without a scratch. But the machine's real value was best illustrated by crash-test videos, in which a dummy remained inside as the C1 hit a car at various angles. Footage of a normal bike in similar accidents would have made gruesome viewing.

Whether the C1's safety advantages will tempt people away from cars and public transport remains to be seen, but it does seem to combine practicality, safety and efficiency - both financial and environmental - in an unprecedented way. The rear platform can be used for luggage-carrying, or adapted to carry a pillion (who will need a helmet and protective clothing) if the rider has passed the bike test. Accessories will include radio/CD player, navigation system and heated seat, with airbags following later.

BMW hopes the C1 will be popular with commuters, families (replacing a second car) and services ranging from police to food delivery. This may depend on whether it can legally be ridden, as intended, without a helmet. If so, the C1 may become a major mode of transport in future.