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A History of the BMW Motorcycle


The History of BMW Motorcycles

1916 – WWII

In 1916, two companies, Flugzenmaschinenfabrik  and Flugwerke Deutschland, merged to form the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke or Bavarian Airplane Works intent on designing and manufacturing airplane engines. Later, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was renamed the Bayerische Motoren Werke and it became what we now know as Bavarian Motor Works in 1917. The brainchild of  Karl Rapp and Max Friz, the company’s logo represents an airplane propeller in the blue sky, and it has become one of the most recognized pieces of design in the world. It is, of course, still used today on all BMW motorcycles and automobiles.

A former Daimler employee, Joseph Popp, became BMW’s managing director.

Back in the day, and using funds from the German air force, BMW began manufacturing the Fokker DV II, but the fortunes of the company took an evil turn in 1919 with the end of WWI and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. At that time, Germany was forbidden to manufacture airplanes, so without a viable alternative,  Max Friz, BMW’s head designer, turned his attentions to  motorcycle and automobile engine manufacturing to keep the company in business.

And that proved to be an excellent choice.

It took Friz less than a month to design the horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine known today as a “boxer” engine which gives the BMW motorcycle it’s instantly-recognizable profile. The first boxer engine, M2B15, was based on a British design, and while it proved to be a moderate success, the development of the first light alloy cylinder head led to the creation of a second, more successful version of the powerplant. In 1923 with the debut of the first BMW motorcycle, the R32, the new aluminum alloy cylinder heads found their ideal application. Friz designed a 486cc engine with an 8.5 hp output – and a top speed of 60 mph – which took the motorcycling world by storm. That engine and gear box formed a single unit and featured a recirculating wet-sump oiling system – very advanced stuff for 1923. The design laid waste to the total-loss oiling systems of the time, and this advancement proved so successful that it stayed in production  until 1969.

As it turned out, the innovations of the R32 were to become the foundation for all future boxer-powered BMW motorcycles. By orienting the boxer engine with the cylinder heads sticking out horizontally to aid cooling, BMW went manufacturers who aligned the cylinders with the frame (one cylinder facing towards the front the other towards the back), the company solved a major problem and went other makers one better.

But what made the R32 such a monumental success was the inclusion of a shaft drive system, and BMW continued to use shaft drives in all their motorcycles until the introduction of the F650 in 1994. The F650 series is, to this day,  the only model BMW which does not use shaft drive.

Another killer innovation came in 1935 as BMW introduced the first production motorcycle to use telescopic forks.

Add some overhead cam technology to the improved handling of the era’s BMW bikes and what do you get? You get one Ernst Henne taking a supercharged 500cc overhead cam BMW 173.88 MPH – in 1937. Henne’s ride set a world record which stood for 14 years. Henne went on to live a long and placid life in business and philanthropy and died at the age of 101 in 2005.

World War II – 1960

The end of World War II left BMW, as it did most of Germany,  in a pile of rubble. The company’s plant near Munich was leveled  by allied bombing and an entire assembly line at the BMW Eisenach facility was dismantled by the Soviets as part of the spoils of war and shipped off to Russia. That line and tooling were reassembled in Irbit, Russia as ultimately used to make what we now know as Ural motorcycles. The company took another brutal hit following the war as the terms of Germany’s surrender forbade BMW from manufacturing motorcycles. The lion’s share of BMW’s top engineers were whisked off the United Strates and Russia to continue their work on jet engines which BMW had only begun designing and producing at the close of  the war years.

When the ban on motorcycle production was finally lifted, BMW once again set to work. As no plans, blueprints, or schematic drawings survived the war, BMW’s new roster of engineers took what prewar motorcycles they could find to reverse-engineer  new sets of plans, drawings and tooling. It took until 1948 for the first run of  postwar BMW motorcycles to make it into production, but by 1949, BMW had produced 9,200 units and production reached 17,000 units by 1950.

By 1951 BMW introduced the first true sport motorcycle, the R68, and it featured a 594cc single cam engine with 7.5:1 compression ratio, improved carburetors and larger valves. A crushing dropoff in motorcycle sales in 1957 sent three of BMW’s major German competitors  out of business, and the company pounced while the iron was hot. BMW produced 30,000 motorcycles in 1954 and by 1957, while that number fell to 5,500, the company exported 85% of its boxer twin powered motorcycles to the United States in the late 1950’s through Butler & Smith, Inc.,  the exclusive U.S. importer of BMW motorcycles and cars.

The company once again found a foothold as in June of 1959, John Penton took his BMW R69 from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hrs. and 11 min. That record smashed the previous mark of of 77 hrs. 53 min. set by Earl Robinson on a 45 cubic inch Harley-Davidson, and it gave the company the notoriety it needed to push into the growing – and enormous – American market for motorcycles.

1960 – 1984

Sales of BMW motorcycles were strong in the U.S., but BMW was once again in financial trouble overall, but the sell-off of the company’s aircraft engine division and some financing from German industrialist Herbert Quandt insured the survival of the company. Quandt’s investment proved a shrewd move which garnered him outlandish returns, as part of the turnaround in the company’s fortunes came from BMW’s increasing success in the automotive division. It was during this period that BMW offered the last of their single-cylinder models, the R27, and those bikes are now highly-prized by collectors.

1984 – 2012

Early in 1983, BMW introduced a 1000cc, in-line 4 cylinder, water cooled engine to the European market.

This bike, the K100 was introduced to the US market the following year and the company hoped it would be the basis for new models and serve as a  replacement for the boxer flat twin engine. It just didn’t happen and demand for the venerable boxer-powered models did not suffer with the introduction of the new powerplant. The inline four turned out to be relatively popular after a cool initial reception, but the demand for models with the new engine did not meet the company’s expectations. BMW stayed the course and continued to produce boxer models and the new models began to get a foothold with riders as well.

In 1985, a 750cc, three cylinder version of the new 4 cylinder water cooled engine debuted, and it featured counterbalancing and was very, very smooth.

The R100RT boxer-powered sport touring bike which followed featured a monolever rear suspension. BMW introduced new rear suspension on their K-model bikes as well, and those included a double joined single sided swing arm.

In 1989 BMW introduced a full-fairing sport bike, the K1 which was essentially based on the K100 engine. It too featured  4 valves per cylinder and a beefy output close to 100 bhp.

In 1988 BMW introduced ABS on their motorcycles, yet another first for the motorcycle industry, and ABS became a standard fitting on all BMW K models.

Now dubbed BMW Motorrad, all company motorcycle production is done in Berlin, Germany with some engines which are  manufactured in Austria, China, and Taiwan. BMW Motorrad produced 82,631 motorcycles in 2009, and that compares with 104,220 in 2008. That 20% dropoff coincides with a like drop in sales industry wide.

The most popular current BMW models, the R1200GS and the R1200GS Adventure, sold 24,467 units and accounted for more than a quarter BMW’s annual motorcycle production. The current lineup includes a variety of shaft, chain, and belt driven models and engines from 450 cc to 1,649 cc.  In 2008, BMW introduced the DOHC Boxer HP2 Sport, and began to compete seriously in offroad events with the G450X.

The current BMW Motorrad output is categorized by “product families,” each family being assigned a different letter prefix:

  • C series – Maxi-scooters called Urban Mobility Vehicles by BMW
  • F series – parallel-twin engines of 798 cc capacity, featuring either chain or belt drive. Models are F650GS, F800GS, F800R, F800S and F800ST.
  • G series – single-cylinder engines of 449 to 652 cc capacity featuring chain drive. Models are G450X, G650GS (available in some markets), G650 Xmoto, G650 Xchallenge and G650 Xcountry. The 450 cc engines are manufactured by Kymco in Taiwan. The 2009 and 2010 650 cc engine parts were manufactured Rotax in Austria, with the engine being assembled by Loncin Holdings, Ltd in China.
  • R series – twin-cylinder boxer engines of 1,170 cc capacity featuring shaft drive. Models are R1200GS, R1200R, R1200RT and R1200S.
  • K series – four-cylinder engines of 1,157 to 1,649 cc capacity featuring shaft drive. Models are K1200LT, K1300GT, K1300R and K1300S. In 2011, BMW Motorrad launched the six-cylinder 1,649 cc K1600GT and K1600GTL.
  • S1000RR – sport bike with transverse-mounted, 999 cc inline-four engine