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
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 "road").
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
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 oncoming Volvos.
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 sidepanel.
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
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
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
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
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
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