BMW DOES things differently Germanly and always has. It I puts
panniers and shaft drive and heated grips on its "sports" bikes while everyone
else is content with clip-ons. It uses an engine so old it was eligible to fight
in the war, yet leads the way in fuel injection, ABS, emissions control, spares
back-up, aftersales and other stuff that misses the headlines, but counts.
The R100R, though, sets new standards in BMW oddness. It's a retro bike, the
factory's first official crack at tapping into the torrent of nostalgia exposed
last year by Kawasaki's Zephyrs.
Kawasaki had presumably first taken a look at what it had — a stable of
16-valve liquid-cooled multis the technological envy of the world; chassis which
joyfully extended the pleasure zone; an image of bright green, mean speed and
hedonistic power—and worked back from there. The development clock was rewound a
decade and out popped Zephyrs.
So what did BMW do? It found some rounded-off valve covers trendy some 40
years ago — good start — but then furnished their new old timer with Japanese
Showa suspension (a first) and eight Brembo pistons biting on a pair of floating
discs (a radical departure). There are also 40mm Bing carbs, an emissions
afterburning circuit, Paralever and a socket into which sophisticated electronic
diagnostic equipment can be plugged. Out popped the R100R; the most advanced
boxer-powered BMW in its 69 year history. Result: future retro? Something
strange at any rate.
Unofficially, all the horizonatally opposed flat-twins (the Rs, aka boxers)
are retro bikes anyway. Someone needed to say it out loud, that's all, which,
with a liquid-cooled four-valve flat-twin due to launch next year, BMW can now
do — cashing in on the stampede for modern classics in the process. There is,
however, more to the R100R than a junked fairing and wire wheels. At 20 paces
it's a random bitsa, at ten it's a R100GS trailie wearing street running gear
and chrome. Not quite Supermotard but not full-blown retro either.
That monolith beneath the tank is 980cc of Paris-Dakar inspired GS motor and
five-speed gearbox. It gets GS big-bore carbs (other street Rs have 32mm Bings)
and a smidgen more torque than the R100RS/RT — 60 snoozey bhp at 6500rpm, 56 fat
lb.ft at just 3750rpm. The double-loop steel frame is GS, too: same laid-back
wheelbase (longer than street Rs), same trailie rake and trail but with 18 and
17 inch wheels, road suspension and narrow bars (because the suffix R is for
The forks, so often too long and soft on BMWs, are not only Japanese but have
recalculated spring and damping rates over much reduced travel 135mm
compared to the R100RS' 175mm. The rear unit has a longer than normal stroke but
is adjustable for rebound damping as well as preload. GS/K1 Paralever, the
double-jointed swing-arm/drive shaft which effectively reduces torque-induced
pitching, finds its way onto a pure-roads R for the first time. It has the
lowest of all BMW seat heights and only the plain R80 weighs less fuelled up —
and that hasn't a capacious 24 litre tank swiped from a GS and given a golden
oldie amethyst paint job.
Retro-trailie-bitsa then, but with carefully selected bits which, assembled
into an R100R, should stimulate a variety of tastes.
BMW describes it as a classic-look road version of the RIOOGS which will
appeal to "the young beginner and somewhat older but young-at-heart-rider
re-entering the motorcycle scene...and the growing group of female riders...".
You know, everyone. Everyone who's never ridden a normal bike.
By 'normal' I now mean Japanese bikes in general. Before discovering the real
R100R you have to cut through the usual hatful of BMW boxer idiosyncrasies —
unbelievable oddness — which, over the early miles, so dominate the experience,
riders returning from a quick spin are often left completely bemused. In my case
refa-miliaristaion took three days, during which time the R100R came close, damn
close, to being dumped in the River Nene and good riddance.
As usual it started with the infamous hinged key. It doesn't do anything bar
trap all the others, jam halfway and scratch the console. Getting the key in is
a one minute operation and is not funny.
Then I remembered there's a spare. It's indistinguishable from the pannier
key which always goes in first — it turns through the parking lights OK
but fails at the last hurdle. Still, 30 seconds is half a minute saved and half
a pint less sweat under the collar. And bang go two paragraphs, on a key.
On the road, finally, the R's performance is dictated not by normal
parameters such as power and handling but by how well the rider copes with the
catastrophic switchgear and bizarre controls. The l'£ twist throttle is heavy,
the brake and clutch levers stubby and of Teutonically wide span. Reaching
beneath the right console for the right winker while going for the lever
re-tweaked a wrist muscle I didn't know existed before BMWs came into my life.
Going for the left one sounded the very honkable horn but only occasionally lit
any bulbs. At best the refamiliarisation period is undignified, at worst it's
dangerous: too much concentration is spent on riding trivia in the face of
Then there's feet. The good news is they stay warm, tucked-in behind those
protuberances known to retro-techno' freaks as cylinders. The bad is that the
R100R sits you upright with feet foward and toes butting up against inlet
tracts, carbs and other clutter. The right protuberance lies further back than
the left which means the right foot does, too, in a unique and, in fairness,
stupid asymetric riding position.
Poncey on-toes riding is one solution. The other is to hold your ground but
that brings unwanted sporadic upshifts (usually into neutral) c/o of a gear
lever that's two inches too tight to the peg. Effectively, the rear drum brake
doesn't exist: its pedal's stashed away between carb and peg in a gap so small
and inboard it's nearly impossible to use safely. There's the get-off,
lean-the-bike, swing-to-earth sidestand which should have gone out with the
Commando. The main requires a grab handle that isn't virtually flush with its
The above took three days either to conquer, come to terms with or endure.
Some is wrong, more is simply Another Way, but all of it detracts from a
basically decent bike.
As the days rolled by, as always happens with me and boxers, my hate mellowed
into disinterest into respect. Miles on boxers are always well rewarded.
The engine and its drivetrain crave affection. Once its been given max' choke
and seven or 16 protracted blasts on the starter (the battery is indefatigueable)
it slogs away in its frame, like all good twins should. It chuffs dry and
tappety, pulling to the right in reaction to its shaft and flywheel but now
fails to squat on the tarmac like those venerable pre-Paralever police BMs.
Accelerating from tickover (which vanished after speed testing) brings a lumpy
judder, then a brief vibration at 3000rpm before moving into its calmer waters.
Before 4000rpm are showing on an excru-tiatingly slow tacho, torque has peaked
and begun to drift slowly downwards as power climbs steadily towards 6500rpm.
The tacho's zones are clearly defined: 1500rpm to 3500rpm: rough and gutsy
urban punch; 3500 to 4500: lusty and smooth and where the tacho gravitates to on
sub-75mph twisties; 4500 to 6000: same eager acceleration but with charm
disappearing in direct proportion to rising revs, now droning like a DC-10; 6000
to 6500: noisy, should have shortshifted ages ago but there's a Golf ahead that
demands a seeing to and power's still flowing; 6500 to deep into the red:
shouldn't be doing this, pegs and bars are beginning to tingle, it's getting
hot, the oil-cpoler seems to be obscured by the mudguard, it's undergeared, my
arms, neck and stomach muscles are indeed enjoying a good work-out.
It'll hold 90mph (about 5500rpm in top) anytime. Or blast onwards, still
pulling at 100, to big speeds if you enjoy playing parachutes. Geared up from
the GS it's still theoretically undergeared but, because approximately no-one
wants to be beaten-up by a constant 125mph headwind, a 116mph top speed at a
valve-bouncing 8000 suffices.
Revs and redlines just aren't its bag. It's a lazy old carthorse that will
break into a gallop only if it's bullied. Response is suitably languid it
likes a squirt of throttle and second-third-fourth shortshifts, which save a
second bite at the throttle and drop it back into the lust zone. The box is lazy
too — slow and sometimes stiff with a long throw — while the cable clutch (as
opposed to the clutch lever) is light but barely breaks drive. Try booting it up
one on falling revs and you'll proabably fail; get the revs wrong on a
downchange and the back end hops about. Neutral is difficult for the same
reason, third goes missing, yet...what a great gearbox. It's fun, erm, a real
rider's box. Don't ask, it just is.
The effect that lot has on the rest of the bike is boxer legend. Everything
from the seat, which cushions and supports like a trooper, to the fork's and
rear shock's early movement is soft and squidgey. An attacked throttle followed
by an upshift invites an exchange between front and rear suspension. As the
throttle's backed off, the shock unloads onto the forks which do a little shimmy
before sending another message rearwards. On slow turns, like roundabouts, a
snatched handful can pull the bike up and offline on lefts, or make it fall into
the kerb on rights. Back off mid-corner with the bars held loosely and they'll
try to shake themselves free of that dreadful switchgear. Blip the throttle on
the way into second gear turns and the torque reaction nudges you sideways.
Unlike the keys and switchgear, this isn't annoying it's genuine
character and holly enjoyable. But it does mean that steering accuracy is hardly
its forte. Understeer, oversteer and, above 80mph, straining arms make general
aiming the order of the day. It bowls along on its trailie geometry — stable (so
long as the bars aren't held in a death grip), feeling just like big trailies do
with much reduced leverage because of those narrow bars. Speed steering is
obviously slow, real underwater biking, and takes enough effort to keep you warm
in winter. The trick on sweepers is to brake early then to turn on a constant or
gradually opening throttle. That way it stays neutral enough and vice free —-
ask any copper the next time you're pulled.
The suspension, much improved on the last R100RT I rode, is built primarily
for comfort at legal speed. It's a set up that cossets its rider without
bottoming out, that maintains control without excelling. It flattens Farmer
Palmer's bumpy B-roads (so long as you're pottering), has no limits on l00mph
sweepers (so long as they've been recently steam-rollered) — it's as good as its
road. It asks you to be gentle with it, to sweep rather than scratch.
That was no hardship either. Using the lump's low centre of gravity to roll
around those steep-walled and skinny Metzelers was like riding a Weeble that
won't fall down. The steering lock is exceptionally useful (feet-up one lane
U-turns), I could travel in comfort for 170 miles before reserve, and the whole
semi-trailie, semi-retro idea began to gel. Furthermore, I got well into R100R
style riding, what the police call "making good progress", and reached home as
ruddy faced and refreshed as I did on the last RC30.1 stayed warm, if not dry,
in snow via its two-heat grips — like a hot bath — while the engine looked after
my legs. Plonking tiresome rucksacks in the boot and a happy pillion on the back
(which slowed performance to that of a hot-hatch) actually damped the suspension
and gave more feedback from the faultless but rather isolated Metzelers. I was
in danger of becoming a convert.
The one flaw in this riding technique is that whatever you do on this bike
requires big handfuls of everything (throttle, clutch, steering) but a gentle
touch. Compared to a flyweight Jap' which responds to microscopic input, those
levers and controls are brutish, and the brakes are no exception. The twin disc
four-piston Brembos are very powerful by boxer standards (the R100GS has one
twin-piston caliper) but their potential hides behind a lever that's easy to use
with two fingers but really needs four. The span is too wide with much of the
lever action not even getting pad to disc. When at last they bite there's more
front-end dive than stopping and the wheel pulls in whatever direction it's
pointing. The faster your speed, the better the brake/fork combination becomes
(best on a BMW yet in fact) but coming to standstill is often a messy business.
Dive, rebound, lurch, much paddling and bashing of shins on protuberances.
The rest of the good kit is very good. Mirrors distinguish Skoda from squad
car at all revs; the headlight melts Shellgrip (but needs adjusting with even
the most undernourished of passengers); the console is a bit placcy but
ergonomically pure; the panniers only leak a tiny trickle; and the toolkit, bulb
kit, puncture kit...everyone knows about that stuff. Tragically, though, road
salt rubbished the alloys almost overnight. At 900 miles, a bike that hadn't
even been launched to the public it was so new, looked a hard year old. And it
wouldn't tickover anymore. Nor would it start in the mornings, not since
Bruntingthorpe's test strip where an R80GS also went rough and dozens ofjap'
bikes in between didn't.
So there's a bundle of unanswered question marks there, but the fundamentals
I'm sure of. Best boxer? Yes. Prefer it to a Kl? Yes. Good value? Yes,
relatively speaking. Would I swap it for two packs of something more normal?
Yes, but ask me the same question this time next decade when I'm older and wiser
and BMW has had a rethink about its keys, switchgear, controls, side-stand and
finish. When BMWs are a little less different. ED