The Life and Times of the BMW GS

Last month, BMW officially unveiled its new R1250 platform, which will power (among other bikes) the 2019 BMW R1250 GS, the German manufacturer’s new flagship adventure bike.

It’s an exciting step forward for the brand, as it introduces a variable valve timing engine design, something that should enable BMW to keep this machine clear of emissions regulations problems for some time to come. It’s important to keep the GS line strong; it’s the bike the company is best-known for at this point, which is kind of funny, considering the whole thing was a parts-bin mash-up when it all started back in the late 1970s.

Today, we’ll take a look at the history of the classic BMW flat twin GS lineup, to see how we got where we’re at with the new R1250. The flagship GS has come a long way since its introduction, and has consistently been given not just complete model updates, but incremental updates during the middle of a specific model’s production. It’s this attention to detail that has made the bike one of the all-time most-loved motorcycles.

The original R80 G/S was an instant favourite, and an instant classic. It was a good-looking bike that had a pleasing blend of power, handling and versatility.

1981 BMW R80 G/S

First shown off in 1980 at a motorcycle show in Cologne, the BMW R80 G/S was an oddity. It was groundbreaking – nobody was making anything similar at the time – but also a retro bike, in that it took many of the principles of the British desert sleds of the 1960s and brought them forward. Through the late ’60s and the ’70s, the offroad scene had been dominated by small Euro and then Japanese dirt bikes; nobody was making full-sized offroaders anymore. You had machines like the Honda XR500 and the Yamaha XT500, but big bore street bikes weren’t being adapted for dirt use. It didn’t help that the biggest sellers of the time, the Japanese inline fours, had engines particularly ill-suited to the idea.

But in the late ’70s, to fight flagging sales, BMW engineers started a skunk works project, an oddball that combined an R65 frame, an R80 engine (with slight modifications), R100 forks and a new Monolever rear suspension. The result was truly revolutionary, as even the previous Brit desert sleds hadn’t really been intended for long-distance adventure riding. The G/S was an all-new breed of bike, and buyers were keen. In the first year, BMW sold more than 6,000 G/S models, good for more than 20 per cent of sales. That’s an overnight success by anyone’s standard.

That original R80 G/S was fairly simple by the standards of today’s adventure bikes. The air-cooled 797 cc engine made 50 hp and 41 lbs.-ft. of torque. Wet weight was just 186 kg, fuel capacity was just under 10 litres, and in some markets, electric start was optional.

Going forward, sales were boosted further by racing success. In those halcyon days, the manufacturers actually raced their adventure bikes at Dakar, and BMW factory rider Hubert Auriol won the event in 1981, with two other G/S riders in the top 10.

The motorcycling public took notice, especially long-distance travelers, who realized they could now carry more luggage into the bush than ever before, and with more comfort — a notion that still sells big-bore adventure bikes today.

Check out that fairing. The R100 GS was starting to look a lot more like a modern adventure bike.

1987 R100 GS

By the late 1980s, other manufacturers were starting to muscle in on the adventure bike game, so BMW pre-empted them all by bringing out the R100 GS for 1987.

The R100 GS improved on the R80 G/S in most ways (bigger engine, better forks, tubeless tires, bigger battery, better Paralever rear suspension). Most of these improvements also made it to the 1987 R80 GS model, which was basically the same but with smaller engine capacity.

Alas, the improvements made the bike heavier, setting the pattern for years to come. Adventure bikes started to differentiate further from dual-sport motorcycles: an adventure bike was a heavy machine, built for going the distance, not flogging about in the woods.

While the R100 platform was an airhead, and most BMWs using this engine were simply air-cooled, the R100 GS had an oil cooler, ostensibly to help with high-heat, low-speed desert riding. Some users complained this oil cooler was easily damaged in a crash, opening up opportunity for the aftermarket to develop protective solutions. Again, this set a pattern for years to come, as increasing complexity made for more opportunities for damage, which made for more need of heavy-duty protective bits.

Wet weight was now 225 kg,  and max power on the new machine was 60 hp, with 56 lbs.-ft. of torque. That’s still far less than today’s flagship models, but at the time, the new machine was greeted enthusiastically by globetrotters, particularly in Europe. Brits and Germans bought these machines like crazy, and rode them madly off in all directions. The GS line was popular by now in the US as well, although North America also took to the competing Kawasaki KLR650 in a way the rest of the world never did.

Maybe the most iconic version of the R100 GS is the very popular Paris-Dakar model, introduced in 1988. With a rally-style fairing from the factory, better crash protection and a larger gas tank, this model set the stage for the specialized GS Adventure models that sell so well today.

The R1100 GS was fairly modern for its time, and is one of the most popular GS models ever, for its blend of toughness and ability.

1994 R1100 GS

Earlier oil-cooled GS models were really airheads with an accessory cooler bolted on. The R1100 GS was the first oilhead, with an engine designed from the start to be oil-cooled. Engine capacity was boosted to 1085 cc and engine output to 80 hp and 72 lbs.-ft. of torque — both significant jumps. The engine still had a five-speed transmission, though, and wet weight was now 243 kg. BMW ditched the carburetors and went with electronic fuel injection, and ABS was optional. The GS had come a long way, from a mashed-together overgrown dirt bike to a technologically advanced adventure touring machine.

The R1100 GS got the new Telelever front end, which was supposed to stop the front end from diving, especially under braking. In back, the Paralever system still did the job.

The headlight fairing was here to stay; the GS line was really coming into its own as an adventure bike, and the weather protection was part of the package. The R1100 GS was no longer a niche bike, but a very popular machine, and still continues to be so, with many hardcore GS fans saying it was the best all-around bike of the line. It had just enough technology to keep you comfortable, but not so much that the bike became overloaded with gadgetry. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

BMW canceled the R80 GS in 1996, then produced an R850 GS until 1998. It was basically the same machine as the R1100, but with less engine capacity. It even had optional ABS, and the Telelever front end was standard.

The most famous user of the R1100 GS? Probably Canadian rock drummer Neil Peart (of Rush), who rode one in the 1990s as part of the healing process after his wife and daughter died. Peart wrote a book about his experiences on the road, Ghost Rider, and followed up with later books featuring more adventures on subsequent GS models.

This R1150 GS, sprayed in the yellow/black paint scheme that so many GS owners have loved over the generations, is very similar in looks to modern adventure bikes. The 1150 made pretty decent power, and whenever CMGers got to ride it in the early days, they were happy campers, for the most part.

1999 R1150 GS

The R1150 is a natural evolution of the R1100’s oilhead design. Engine capacity was boosted to 1130 cc, meaning the motor now made 85 hp and 75 lbs.-ft. of torque. A new six-speed gearbox helped Beemerphiles take better advantage of that power, as well; the R1100 had had a reputation for a buzzy top end, and that was gone now. Many, many owners will cite this tall sixth gear (some say it felt like a seventh gear) as one of the bike’s best features, as it made high-speed highway touring a breeze.

The R1150 GS also had dual spark plug heads and anti-knock sensors on later models, to help the finer-tuned engine run on crummy fuel. The engines also came with some form of electronic management, so you could plug an OBD sensor into the machine and diagnose problems.

ABS was optional again, and a combined braking system was also available on some later models. An electric windscreen was optional as well, and of course, a full complement of hard luggage. Heated grips were also optional, though standard in Canada. Now, that just sounds like good business sense on the part of the manufacturer, but back then, it wasn’t necessarily the case with all the OEMs. Instead of bodging together a bike from aftermarket parts (which certainly did happen, as the ADV boom was great for the aftermarket), buyers could order the machine ideally configured for their needs right from the factory.

So, the move toward technologically advanced touring-friendly machines continued, and the new big Beemers were favourites with the journalists, often winning Best Bike or Best Touring Bike awards for their all-round versatility. Although they weren’t the dune-bashing mules of old, the new R1150 GS was still very competent off-road, but the continuing improvements made it a better and better street bike as well. So good, in fact, that the R1150 GS set a world record for quickest circumnavigation of the world in 2002 and quickest traverse of the Pan-American Highway in 2003. These bikes were built to lay down long, hard miles.

If the standard R1150 GS wasn’t quite good enough, buyers could also opt for the R1150 GS Adventure. It was basically the same model, but with a larger 30 litre fuel tank, long-travel suspension, knobbier tires and more crash protection.

The motorcycling community took notice. The adventure motorcycle market was booming by now, and when Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor filmed their Long Way Round TV special (originally released in 2004), they used BMW R1150 GS Adventures. The face of the new ADV scene was BMW; the R1150 GS was the bike of choice for the well-heeled overlander.

The hexhead GS models (2004-2013) were the last oil-cooled machines in the lineup, and had a pretty good run. They were very competent on the street and off-road as well, which built an extremely loyal customer base.

2004 R1200 GS

This was the final refinement of the oilhead, known to many as the hexhead. The R1200 was the last generation of GS without liquid cooling, and again, it was basically an evolution of the previous edition. Now, along with a boost in engine capacity to 1170 cc (making for 109 hp and 89 lbs.-ft. of torque), the bike also dropped a significant amount of weight, with a 203 kg wet weight for the 2004 model. Traction control was optional for some years.

Again, the engine was considerably smoother running than its predecessor, and the weight loss made for better handling. However, many riders who have owned both still preferred the 1150 models, as many felt they were more solid (fewer plastic parts), and on the street where they’re mostly ridden, a few extra pounds of steel didn’t really hurt.

The improved bike was good enough for Charley and Ewan, and they headed out again, this time getting GS1200s from BMW and heading from the UK to South Africa for the Long Way Down television series that aired in 2007.

The GS models dominated BMW sales now, but the competition was heating up. By the time the hexhead GS had been out a few years, everyone from Triumph to Buell to Ducati to Yamaha had their own take on the big-bore adventure bike. After 2010, most people figured BMW had to change things up, and at the 2012 Intermot show, that’s what happened.

The liquid-cooled R1200 GS line began with the 2013 model year, and ran until 2018. Despite the added complexity, they have been well-regarded by adventure riders, with the only real issue being the front end that faced a global recall.

2013 BMW R1200 GS

The engine size stayed the same for the 2013 model, but BMW took its flagship adventure bike into the modern era by adding liquid-cooled cylinder heads. Most of the engine was more or less the same idea as before, but the addition of liquid cooling was enough to boost engine output to 123 hp, with 92 lbs.-ft. of torque. That might not tickle the fancy of the jaded sportbike enthusiast, but for real-world application, the new and improved GS was more than enough to handle a winding country road at grossly extra-legal speed. And the bike was still pretty good off-road.

Of course, there was an Adventure version of this bike as well, with beefy crash guards and bigger fuel tank, but there were also other extremely interesting options added as the years went by — technology like leaning ABS, traction control, electronic-adjustable suspension and other Star Wars stuff kept the GS up-to-date, in a generation where adventure bikes rapidly adapted the same tech that kept superbikes with the shiny side up.

The aftermarket industry must have been ecstatic over the new model, as it gave the opportunity to retool and build another extensive catalogue of add-on parts, particular for owners who were worried the new liquid-cooled bike needed extra protection. After all, wouldn’t the added complexity mean more problems?

However, after several years in the field, that does not appear to the case. The liquid-cooled R1200 GS has been fairly reliable, except for one issue: the Telelever front end went through a particularly nasty recall in the summer of 2017, where some owners complained the suspension worked itself apart and fell to bits under hard use. While the problems seem to have been fairly isolated, the issue was bad enough for a global recall, and it came at an especially bad time: the competition was ramping up harder than ever, particularly with Honda back in the big-bore ADV game with its Africa Twin after years of avoiding the class. By 2018, when we now see the introduction of the new R1250 platform, BMW’s big-bore GS is no longer the only game in town. Almost every manufacturer now builds a machine in the market segment that BMW pioneered.

But sales for the big GS are still extremely strong, and while the GS may not be the most rugged off-road adventure bike, or might not have the most horsepower for the street, it’s still arguably the best all-around package out of all the big-bore adventure bikes: it’s a machine built for the sensible rider who might want to go around the world, down a local fire road, or just cruise over to Starbucks. Whatever your desire, the GS can handle it, and if the new model can do that as well as all the previous generations, it’ll still be the bike all the other manufacturers are measured against.

One thought on “The Life and Times of the BMW GS”

  1. .. One unique aspect of the original model, was that BMW contracted Laverda to build 2 prototypes based on the 797cc flat twin, and conducted a testing program.

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