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Bavarian two-wheeled persuasion


It’s always good to know the history behind the things that we ride and drive on a daily basis. So I decided to have a look at the illustrious history of BMW Motorrad since I’ve been using the trusty F 800 R to complete my daily commute for the past month or so.

Before I get in to the history of this marque, allow me to delve in to some of my experiences with the F 800 R, particularly in terms of fuel consumption as I’ve been riding this bike to work instead of using my Subaru WRX STI.

Now I know what you’re thinking, commuting by tank, top-fuel dragster, helicopter or fighter jet is probably more economical than a modified Subaru, however, even when compared to a budget car, the bike stacks up favourably.

I have put R500 worth of fuel into the bike and have covered around 700km, and I still have fuel left as I write this. But as I said a few weeks back, if you’re considering a motorcycle as a means of transportation, remember the pros and cons and think about it very carefully before taking the plunge.

For those who aren’t aware of the BMW brand’s history, allow me to fill you in. In 1916 BMW opened shop as an aircraft engine manufacturer, with production commencing before the advent of the First World War.

Yet their new-found business was soon stopped as the Treaty of Versailles banned not only the German Air Force, but also the manufacturing of aircraft in Germany. Forced to stay afloat without the aircraft engines, BMW instead turned their focus to producing air brakes, industrial engines, agricultural machinery, toolboxes, office furniture and, eventually, motorcycles and cars.

The motorcycle aspect of the business really kicked into a higher gear in January 1917 when 33-year-old Swabian engineer, Max Friz, started working for BMW. He soon established himself in the company and became head designer before turning his attention to motorcycle design.

In 1921, BMW began manufacturing the Friz-designed M2B15 flat-twin for use as a portable industrial engine, yet the this soon found its way to other motorcycle manufacturers, notably Victoria of Nuremberg and Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, who utilised the engine in their Helios motorcycle – a move that inspired Friz and the BMW bosses.

Some four weeks after the order was issued in December 1922, Friz had put the first BMW motorcycle on the drawing board to original scale with the BMW “boxer” engine at the core of the new drive concept.

As such, the Motorrad division of BMW was officially born in 1923, making it 93 years old this year. Friz designed the first “across the frame” version of the boxer engine and the R 32 model made its debut at the glamorous Berlin Automobile Show in September of 1923. Remember, up until the end of the First World War, only aircraft, truck and boat engines were built by the Bavarian Motor Works.

The 1923 R 32 had a 486 cc engine with 6.3 kW of power and a top speed of 95 km/h which, for the time, was up to standard. The engine and gearbox formed a bolt-up single unit. The concept Friz put forth was simple: instead of the cylinders being positioned longitudinally, they were placed transversely to the direction of travel.

To address the problem of engine cooling, Friz found a simple solution in fitting the gearbox directly onto the engine so that it is driven directly by the longitudinally mounted crankshaft. The shaft drive takes on the task of direct transmission of the engine power to the rear wheel in the first BMW. These three components, as the fundamental concept of the BMW boxer, have proved effective for over 85 years and are still used in the BMW model range today.

The 1930’s brought with it some technical innovation from BMW in the form of the hydraulically damped telescopic front wheel fork that replaced the leaf spring set-up in the R 12 and the R 17, a principle still in use today in almost all motorcycles.

The later R 5 was a completely new design by Rudolf Schleicher and naturally Ernst Henne was at it again in 1937 when he attempted a new world speed record with the latest 79 kW, 500 cc supercharged machine. The result – a speed of 279.5 km/h – saw Henne become the fastest man on two wheels for a period of 14 years.

Fast-forward fifty years where BMW decided to foray into off-road racing in 1980. This machine soon went into production as the R 80 G/S, with the G standing for “Gelände” (off-road) and the S for “Strasse” (road).

The rest, as they say is history, as this model saw BMW establish the segment for large, comfortable travel Enduro bikes. The R 80 G/S was a massive success for BMW, even claiming victory in the Paris-Dakar Rally from 1983 to 1985.

A mere 20 years later, BMW produced their one millionth motorcycle in March 1991. The bike in question was a K 75 RT and was handed over to the Berlin Senator for Trade and Technology.

What followed was a raft of successful Boxer-powered models until we get to the twentieth century and the birth of the F 650 GS and F 650 Dakar. BMW saw the need for a smaller dual-purpose bike and transferred the Enduro concept to the single cylinder models.

Two-thousand-and-six  was an important year for BMW as they launched the G series of all terrain motorcycles, which included the now legendary GS 1200 R and R 1200 S. While the Boxer engine is one of the key features of the BMW brand’s products, they have seen that a more conventional four-cylinder set-up has merit too.

The S 1000 RR was BMW’s first four-cylinder superbike and is used by road enthusiasts and in racing championships around the world. There is a push towards increased safety for all modes of transportation and, as such, the prominence of the ABS, traction control systems and variable driving modes is now standard on most BMW Motorcycles.

The 90 year journey from a single design brief to an entire range of motorcycles competing at the highest level in both motorsport and on the sales front is astounding. While their cars and engines often take the lion’s share of publicity, the Motorrad division has been quietly chipping away and gaining more control of the motorcycle market.

Article written by Sean Nurse
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