The ultimate riding machine

BMW's much-loved bikes lost ground to competitors, but they're back with a nod to born-again bikers, reports Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Long before the era of the born-again biker, when motorcycling was a sub-culture dedicated to the worship of leather and hot lubricants, there was one way for a respectable motorcyclist to stand out. You rode a BMW. It meant that, while privately celebrating you machine's technological superiority and comfort, you also sent a message about your identity. It said something along the lines of "I ride a motorcycle because I am interesting and adventurous, but do not be deceived, I am not poor nor am I socially dysfunctional". For male riders, who were in those days an even larger majority of the total riding population than they are today, this statement included a subtext that read: "This classy piece of Teutonic technology will carry two in comfort and is smart-looking enough to park in front of expensive restaurants."

Long before the era of the born-again biker, when motorcycling was a sub-culture dedicated to the worship of leather and hot lubricants, there was one way for a respectable motorcyclist to stand out. You rode a BMW. It meant that, while privately celebrating you machine's technological superiority and comfort, you also sent a message about your identity. It said something along the lines of "I ride a motorcycle because I am interesting and adventurous, but do not be deceived, I am not poor nor am I socially dysfunctional". For male riders, who were in those days an even larger majority of the total riding population than they are today, this statement included a subtext that read: "This classy piece of Teutonic technology will carry two in comfort and is smart-looking enough to park in front of expensive restaurants."

BMW's ground-breaking R100RS sports tourer, launched in 1976, was not the cheapskate's alternative to an open-top car. It outperformed most sports cars and looked at least as expensive. By the early 1980s, Swiss alpine passes, Italian lakes and Greek beaches became fashion platforms for a new type of glamour model. She was slim, bilingual; clad in a partially unzipped one-piece jumpsuit, usually German and riding pillion on a BMW. If the helmet was bad for her hair, she knew that the moulded clip-on panniers contained everything required to repair the damage as soon as she had checked into her hotel. Perhaps it was my own late adolescent insecurity, but it felt as if the BMWs were ridden by mature men and the Japanese and Italian bikes that fizzed impotently in their wake by spotty youths. I could not afford a BMW.

By the time I could, I no longer wanted one. It was not just that other manufacturers had started to produce serious long-distance machines to compete with the BMW range. The German manufacturer seemed to have lost its way as well. BMW's unique horizontally opposed boxer engine, of which the R100 range was a late refinement, had been supplemented by more powerful straight fours. The K100 range, first seen in 1983, was fast, practical and refined. But, to many traditionalists, it just did not look or feel like a BMW. The company seemed to be consciously fleeing its reputation as manufacturer of the aristocracy of two-wheeled transport and going in pursuit of the mass market.

Granted, BMW is Europe's largest motorcycle manufacturer. It has thrived despite war, the seizure of its original factory by the Soviet Union and supplying more than 18,000 R75 sidecar models to Hitler's Wehrmacht. It has never been a purely niche manufacturer and it has always been innovative; that R75 included a sidecar with a powered wheel that made it more effective off-road than most 4x4s. But having been the company that pioneered technology everyone else would follow (ABS braking for example) BMW briefly lost the plot. The most glaring example was the BMW C1 motorcycle with a roof. Launched in the spring of 2000, the C1 was intended, in BMW's words, to "combine the benefits of a motorised two-wheeler with all the safety features of an automobile". It had seat-belts, crumple zones and a 125cc fuel-injected engine. The idea was that a commuter would be able to use it without a helmet or protective clothing. It never had a chance in Britain. The Department of Transport ruled that C1 riders would be treated as ordinary motorcyclists and would have to wear helmets.

You still see a few C1s in continental cities. Some French and German parents have bought them for their children. The bizarre hybrid's safety features give it some purpose as a training vehicle for novices. But riding it is as much like driving a Smart Car as riding a real motorbike. This was never going to lead BMW into dominating the market for small, commuter motorcycles. Even without statutory barriers to climb, the C1 was just too sophisticated and too expensive for the daily trip to and from the office. A Japanese, French or Italian moped will perform that role competently and for a lot less. The C1 does not feature in BMW's 2004 product range, but the bikes that do confirm that the company has come full circle and learned to combine the best of its aristocratic heritage and its appetite for experimentation. BMW Motorrad, as the company now brands its two-wheel range, includes modernised versions of the classic boxers, prize-winning large capacity tourers and sophisticated entry-level single cylinder 650cc machines.

For those wishing to enjoy the high-speed, long-distance touring for which BMW bikes are so highly prized, the four-cylinder K1200LT is superb. It was Motorcycle News' "Tourer of the Year" in 2003 and in each of the previous four years as well. For comfortable riding across continents there are few competitors. More traditional BMW fans may opt for the R1200GS or, my absolute favourite, the R850R Classic that is just beginning to reach BMW Motorrad's British dealerships.

The R850R was launched in response to demands from born-again bikers for a classic BMW to remind them of the machines of the 1970s and 1980s. The high prices still paid for good second-hand models of that vintage convinced the company that traditional bikes retain their appeal. The result is that the R850R has the traditional twin-cylinder boxer engine upgraded to deliver 70bhp. I rode the first model to be imported to this country. It felt strong and dependable, but with looks that make safety feel attractive. BMW describe the bike as perfect for the born-again biker. It is, but not just for nostalgic reasons. This machine feels as comfortable on cobbles as it does on a motorway. It is equally comfortable winding down country lanes or blasting up steep inclines. The R850R is a commuter bike, recreational luxury and serious tourer rolled into one.

There are alternatives. To a rider with a newly acquired full licence the 50bhp F650 range offers proper grown up motorbikes at not too high a risk. These bikes are fast enough for comfortable motorway riding but not so quick as to tempt a responsible newcomer from pass to ban in one foolish step. The F650s are belt driven, which makes for simple maintenance and smooth power delivery. Every bike comes with a power socket for heated clothing, and the low riding position makes the F650 ideal for female riders. ABS is not fitted as standard but can be added for £360.

BMW sold 4,216 bikes in Britain last year. That suggests that the machines remain niche products for a prosperous and discerning clientele. They are more expensive than Japanese motorbikes, but the quality is discernible throughout the range.

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