The launch of the BMW R18 in itself is not a scoop. News first broke cover in late 2018, sort of, when BMW commission Japanese builders at Custom Works Zon to build a one-off show bike around a massive new 1800cc air-cooled engine. In 2019, we saw another custom, from Revival Cycles, and then BMW debuted the Concept R18 cruiser. That bike made it around the show circuit in 2019-2020 (sadly, we didn’t see it at Canadian shows, but I did ogle it at Long Beach’s IMS show). Now, the production version is coming to dealerships.
When I saw the concept in-person at the California show, it was obvious the bike was an attention-grabber; the display was almost always packed with show-goers pointing out all the bits they liked. But still, there’s been a question hanging over the R18 since the engine first appeared on the market: What is BMW doing entering the custom cruiser market? What are they thinking?
Simple: BMW’s bigwigs think the cruiser market isn’t as dead as the naysayers believe. People may not buy as many cruisers as they used to, but they’re still buying them. And sure, Harley-Davidson’s numbers have been slipping in the past few years, but that’s partly because other companies are muscling into its market share. BMW figures it can get a piece of that action, too. Specifically, management reckons there’s room in the custom-cruiser segment, with a bike that’s aimed to compete with machines like the Softail Slim. That’s how we ended up with the R18.
BMW’s plan is simple: Build a bike for the American market, and enhance profits with a US-style business plan. Specifically, BMW spent a lot of time analyzing the current cruiser market, figuring out a niche it could enter, with an ideal customer in mind. The result is the R18, aimed at the 40-year-old single dad with a creative, white-collar job—the kind of guy who likes shorter rides on the weekend, not longer distance touring. This customer has some money to spare, and values brands like Bell Helmets, Red Wing boots, Carhartt clothing—names that echo retro Americana, even if the modern buyers are far removed from the blue collar guys who built those brands’ reputations.
You could go down a nice little rabbit trail here, exploring North America’s fascination with its not-too-distant past. It seems everyone wants to be reminded of an era when real wages were higher and home ownership wasn’t just a wild fantasy. Today’s grown-up millennial doesn’t want to work in a factory, but they want to look like their dads who did, and had a lifestyle they figure is better than the current outlook.
Whatever the socio-economic reasons for this, the result is a renewed interest in retro-styled bikes, like the R18. While the competition (Indian, Harley-Davidson) tends to build machines that recall the post-World War II era, BMW’s gone pre-war with this machine. The R18 draws a lot of inspiration from the R5 roadster that sold from 1936 through 1937. It’s got the same Art Deco lines, the same air-cooled flat twin (although the R18 engine is obviously much larger). BMW’s designers put considerable effort into making the R18 look like a classic continental luxury motorcycle from the interwar period, aiming for hardtail lines and making just about everything out of machined metal. Where the Japanese would use a plastic part, BMW uses steel or aluminum.
While some of the details are different, this is basically the same plan that Harley-Davidson’s used in North America for decades, and more recently, Indian, Triumph and even Kawasaki. Find a target customer with extra income, build a bike for them that recalls the brand’s heritage, prioritize aesthetics over practicality, and maximize profits by offering a high-end finish. Then, offer an extensive catalogue of accessories, all guaranteed to fit because they’re built to OEM specs. While the production version of the motorcycle doesn’t look quite as good as the concept bike did, particularly the exhaust, the accessory catalogue can help you change that.
Some of BMW’s accessories for the GS or other lines might be built by third-party manufacturers, but they aren’t visibly branded that way. On the R18, though, the third-party tie-ins are front-and-centre. Again, it’s all part of the heritage appeal; Mustang seats, Vance & Hines exhaust, and other bits from Roland Sands Design. These brands all have the retro angle figured out, and it adds to the whole Americana schtick that BMW’s going for here.
The real machine
You get the message by now—although this bike is made in Berlin, BMW’s working hard to capture American buyers, wistful for bygone glory days. But once you get past that, what’s this machine actually all about?
First off, it’s obviously built around an absolutely massive air/oil-cooled flat twin. The 1,802cc Boxer makes 91 horsepower at 4,750 rpm, and a whopping 116 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s all down-low in the rev range. Again, this is just what American buyers are looking for. You can read Costa’s discussion of the engine here).
Because this is a BMW, you’re getting more tech than you would with most equivalent cruisers from the competitors. The bike comes with three ride modes: Rain, Rock & Roll, which offer varied output to match your riding conditions. Traction control is standard, and so is linked ABS. You can add a hill start assist system, an adaptive headlight and reverse assist; cruise control will be available at some point, too.
So, while this bike looks old-fashioned, you’ll get much of the same tech you’d find on a more contemporary bike. And, BMW’s managed to hide away all the wiring. It’s all very tidy.
This machine comes as a standard single-seat custom-style cruiser, but BMW offers pillion seat possibilities. More interesting, BMW also appears to be planning a full-sized touring machine or bagger built on the R18 platform, just like it did with the old R1200C platform. We’ve already seen spy shots of this bike, and BMW’s bigwigs alluded to its existence during our Zoom call. One of them suggested that’s why the bike is so heavy—it needed to be able to handle the full saddlebag-and-fairing package, although he didn’t say it in those exact words.
Make no mistake: This bike is indeed very heavy. With a 345 kg curb weight, it already outweighs competing machines, and that’s without any fairing, etc. Good thing it’s got dual front disc brakes …
Will it sell?
For 2021, the R18’s Canadian MSRP is $20,895 ($22,095 after fees). Is that a realistic price? With COVID’s interference with the economy, it’s hard to predict 2021 buying trends. This summer, small bikes have been the fastest-selling machines. If we get a bit of stability by next riding season, it’s possible we’ll see buyers more confident in big-dollar spending. The R18 certainly looks like it’s what the market wants.
Add in reduced output from Harley-Davidson, growing diversity in the cruiser scene and the timing could work out even better than BMW could have hoped. It’s a big gamble for BMW to move back into the cruiser market, but the payoff could be massive. Time will tell.