The CMG Chat: Edgar Heinrich and BMW’s electric future

Writing for CMG is a pretty good gig — the fame, the fortune, the endless parade of new motorcycles. We’re not often jealous. Of Edgar Heinrich, however, we are absolutely envious. As chief designer for BMW Motorrad, he has one of the coolest jobs in the world.

When CMG last spoke to him, Heinrich had just launched a wildly ambitious sci-fi concept, the Vision Next 100.  Now, he’s dreaming big again. We caught up with him in Munich, at BMW headquarters, where Motorrad launched its first serious electric motorcycle concept, the Vision DC Roadster.

We talked about being beat to the electric bike punch by Harley-Davidson, when the R18 cruiser will hit showrooms, his love of knobbies, and his completely out-of-control collection of home-built custom motorcycles.

Edgar Heinrich is involved in every stage of the design of every new BMW motorcycle, and the gear that goes with them.

CMG: How did you get this amazing job designing motorbikes?

HEINRICH: I’ve been with BMW motorbikes since 1987. I’m a dinosaur, kind of. I started as a sketch monkey and made it all the way through somehow. I rode motorbikes even before I knew I wanted to be a designer. My mom, she kept these school books and they’re full of my drawings: muscle cars, motorbikes, excavators, [Dakar] ‘rally tanks.’ I’ve always been fascinated by speed and bikes, everything that moves.

When did you learn to ride?

When we were kids, we were always riding in the fields. I grew up in the countryside, with my brothers. We took out old cars, old bikes — way before we had driving licences.

In 1987, when you were starting out in this job, did you ever imagine you’d be designing an electric motorcycle?

Actually, even if you’d asked me maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve said come on, this is stupid, we don’t need it. But the more you deal with [electric motorcycles], the more interesting they get.

The all-electric DC Roadster makes its debut in Germany.

BMW bikes are, in large part, defined by the boxer engine. But you can’t carry that into the electric era. So, how do you keep BMW’s identity, its soul?

That’s exactly the question we wrestle with. We’re going to go electric. There were two big questions in the room. The first was how do you make an electric motorbike emotional, because they’re perceived as vacuum cleaners or washing machines. The second question is how do you make a BMW out of it when you’re basically making obsolete this mechanical icon [the boxer engine].

Right, bikes are all engine!

Nowadays the real cool bikes, the iconic bikes, they are defined by their combustion engines, like the V-twin, or a Ducati L-twin, or an in-line four or a boxer engine. If you take these away, it gets very… non-iconic. And that’s why electric bikes are lacking a little emotion. On the other hand, when you ride an electric motorbike or a scooter, these things are really emotional. You have to try it. The performance, acceleration: it’s really cool. But, the feeling about them: not so cool.

The DC Roadster sticks its hottest parts into the cooling airstream, just as the mechanical boxer cylinders do.

So, what’s the solution? The DC Roadster concept has boxer-like bulges. What are those?

First, make it emotional. Then, make it a BMW. We were looking for design cues from BMW. What Max Friz did in 1923, when he designed the R32 [BMW’s first motorcycle], is he took this boxer engine and turned it 90-degrees, putting the hottest part of the bike in the airstream. He put the cooling parts out where the air is. So, we did the same on this [DC Roadster]. Electric engines and the batteries still needs cooling: the coolers are in the airstream.

Harley-Davidson will beat BMW to market with an electric bike. How do you feel about that?

Yeah, I’m okay with it. I personally feel super happy that Harley-Davidson is trying to [make an electric bike]. Zero and Energica, they’re doing it their own way. We’re trying our way. And, in 20 years we’ll see who did it better.

Not everything will make production, but there’s no point rushing the process, says Heinrich.

Electric bikes are kind of a blank slate right now, there’s no set formula.

It’s super interesting because it opens up a completely new range of opportunities. In the 1910s and ‘20s, there were so many different solutions — steam, electric. You had so many different ways to do brakes, seats, engines and so on. Now we’re in a similar situation. Nobody knows what the benchmark is here.

When can we expect BMW’s first electric motorcycle?

I’d say mid-term we can expect something from BMW. I’m not allowed to say a date yet.

What is the minimum range an electric BMW motorcycle would need?

Our big electric scooter has a range, now, of 60 kilometres which is okay for urban or suburban environments.

So… more than 200 km?

[He shrugs and nods as his public-relations handler looks on intently.]

The R18 concept hearkens back to BMW’s vintage bikes.

The recently unveiled R18 concept is totally old-school, the complete opposite of the DC Roadster. Will you build it?

That’s an analog sculpture. Personally, I’m super excited that now we can do both those bikes.

When will the R18 arrive in showrooms?

In the second half of 2020, this is when we can expect the production bike.

We can expect a production version of this R18 next fall.

Among your rivals in the bike world, whose work do you admire right now?

Since I’m a biker nerd, there’s really very, very many interesting bikes out there. Kiska is doing really cool stuff, especially in design [for Husqvarna and KTM]. Also Honda, not the mainstream stuff we see, but they are doing cool things. Ducati too. There are so many. The motorbike industry is small, and the design world is a microcosm. I know most of these guys. We mingle at all the shows. Everybody has deep respect for the other guys. It’s honest, healthy competition. We’re all biker nerds.

Does the custom bike trend inspire you?

People always want to have their own individual thing. What I really like a lot, it’s not that you can’t buy this individual style, but many people are making it for themselves. And this is amazing. I especially like in France, if you go to Biarritz [the Wheels and Waves motorcycle show] you see these junkyard bikes: old CB400s, which are dirt cheap. With very creative changes, they’re making a cool bike out of it. I totally admire this.

Do you tinker with your own bikes?

Yeah, very few of my bikes are not customized. Only my childhood hero bikes aren’t: CB500, CB750, CL450 and these kind of bikes. The rest are all over the place.

Heinrich in one of his two shops, with some of his personal collection.

What’s in your garage right now?

How much time do you have? It’s about 20 bikes. I have two shops, one extra garage. It’s terrible. I have old bikes like a Honda CB750 K6, and a CB500 which was actually run by my friend when we were young. A Honda CL450 because I’ve always been a Scrambler freak; I like everything with knobbies. I have a BMW R 100 GS by HPN, the rally guys; they are my buddies. And an HP2, very different from stock. An HP2 Megamoto. An R51/3, also customized. An R100S which is a café racer now. A Ducati Sport 1000, also customized. I made some body parts new; I didn’t like the tail so much. I have an old Matchless G3, which I’m trying to turn into a race bike. I have an old Royal Enfield, which I made into a Scrambler. I tinker with some scooters, an old Vespa.

The Matchless G3, which might one day become a race bike.

What ever happened to the RnineT Lac Rose concept bike? I really wanted one of those…

Some of the parts are actually available: the seat. We don’t have the big tank; that was more of a design concept. I personally love these kinds of bikes. I’m going to build my own. That’s always my problem: too many cool bikes, too little space.

The RnineT Lac Rose concept – one of Matt’s dream bikes.

One thought on “The CMG Chat: Edgar Heinrich and BMW’s electric future”

  1. A very interesting individual who I’d love to have a chat with over a glass of rye.

    How about holding a CMG pub night in Munich? 😉

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