This year – 2020 – marks 40 years of the now legendary BMW GS badge, with the very first bike to bear the moniker being the 1980 BMW R 80 G/S.
Don’t have time to read the full article? Listen to episode 2 of High Beam by the Kiwi Rider Podcast.
G/S – in case you didn’t already know – stands for Gelande/Strasse, German for off-road/road, and possibly the most honest way of describing the abilities of the R 80 G/S. It was, after all, a bike designed to be able to comfortably ride both on the road and off it.
These days we’re more than familiar with the concept – but back in July of 1980 when the R 80 G/S debuted the concept of a bike specifically designed to “do it all” was quite novel.
The R 80 G/S, it could be said, was the bike that really kicked off the adventure bike craze.
But there is more to the R 80’s story than just being the first bike to bring world-conquering ability to motorcyclists, it is also responsible in no small part for keeping BMW Motorrad in existence.
You see, in the 1970s all the major European manufacturers were struggling to come up with a way to fight off the growing popularity of the Big Four from Japan. While some tried to emulate the recipe of success the Japanese had discovered, BMW went for something completely out of left field.
As the 1970s came to a close, things were looking dire for BMW which had continued its line of boxer powered motorcycles that, while built like tanks, hardly elicited the same emotional response as the newly coined superbikes from the far east. In fact, things were bad enough that in 1979 when Karl Heinz Gerlinger was made deputy director of BMW Motorrad, he was given the brief to either make the motorcycle division profitable or close it down. YIKES!
Gerlinger could see the writing on the wall. Over in the UK the British motorcycle makers had stubbornly stuck to making motorcycles that were very much built on an old tried and tested formula, and they were dropping like flies. BMW needed to pull a nice fluffy white rabbit out of a hat and fast.
Karl Gerlinger was not the only man at BMW Motorrad to have figured out the problem, however. In fact, a group of company engineers had been quietly doing some thinking and had created a prototype of a radically new type of motorcycle. Better yet, this prototype wasn’t just built but it was already in the testing phase. That prototype had been the brain-child of engineer Laszlo Peres who was an off-road enthusiast.
Until this point, BMW senior management had not been the slightest bit interested in Peres work on off-road BMW bikes and in the early 1970s the sales of BMW motorcycles had been adequate enough for them to think if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it.
With sales declining, however, it was clear to all involved that something now needed fixing. So when Peres and a group of engineers told Karl Gerlinger they had something to show him his interest was piqued and he went with them to be introduced to the prototype Peres and his team had been working on.
Affectionately known as the “Red Devil”.
The “Red Devil” was essentially a boxer engine BMW motorcycle that had been modified for both off-road and on-road use. It was sort of like a big enduro motorcycle with lights. The Japanese however pretty much dominated the enduro market with their lightweight single-cylinder machines that were great off-road, but arguably miserable to ride on the highway.
While the “Red Devil” was heavier, it could do both which put it in a class of its own. This was a real adventure motorcycle, the sort of bike the intrepid early twentieth century “around the world” motorcycle pioneers would have loved. The Japanese weren’t making a motorcycle like this, in fact, no-one was making a motorcycle quite like this.
Just as the successful Honda CB750 had created the “superbike” the Red Devil laid the foundations of the adventure motorcycle as the predecessor of the now-beloved R 80 G/S. Karl Gerlinger decided to take the gamble and build the bike, hoping that this would prove to be the rabbit pulled out of the hat that would save the BMW motorcycle division.
As we now know, the big white rabbit wasn’t quite fluffy, but what it lacked in fluff the R 80
G/S made up for in all-around capability and quickly won a legion of fans.
Recognised the world over as the first large displacement multi-discipline motorcycle on the market, the R 80 G/S was powered by BMW’s 247 boxer twin – affectionately known as an “airhead” due to its use of air cooling – which Motorrad used in various guises for over 25 years between 1969 and 1995.
The version of the airhead used in the R 80 G/S utilised the same 2-valve per cylinder valve train and had a displacement of a healthy 797.5ccs. The R 80 G/S, as is often the case with BMW’s modern GS range, debuted new technologies for the 247 boxer with electronic ignition, Nikasil cylinders being used for the first time. Power-wise, this engine was good for 50hp and 56Nm of torque and which in real-world terms meant it was able to push the R 80 G/S to a top speed in excess of 160km per hour.
Making up the chassis of the R 80 was a mix of old and new designs. The frame itself was refined from the R65’s twin-loop steel frame while the front forks came from the R100. But out in the rear end it was decided by the design team it was time for something completely new and thus a Monolever suspension design – which combined the final drive and rear suspension into one simple unit – was chosen to keep the rear end of the bike in check.
HOW WAS IT RECEIVED?
The G/S was launched at the Cologne Motorcycle Show at the end of 1979. By most accounts, the R80 G/S was an almost instant success and far outstripped BMW Motorrad’s expectations are the time for how the bike was going to be received. After all, in essence the G/S was a hail mary to buy Motorrad time while they worked on developing the K-series of bikes to directly compete with the influx of high power Japanese motorcycles into the market at the time.
Sold under the slogan “Sports machine, touring machine, enduro…Welcome to a motorcycle concept with more than one string to its bow” the G/S was anything but the cumbersome tourer most had come to expect from BMW throughout the 60s and 70s.
While some more dirt focussed riders – used to the single-cylinder machines of the time – were confused by the big twin-cylinder G/S, most riders soon fell in love with the bike.
Weighing in at just 167kg, the R80 G/S was over 30kg lighter than the R80/7 and yet promised equal levels of practicality with a huge (for the time) 19.3-litre fuel tank and comfortable seating arrangement.
Riders flocked to the G/S like ducks to the water, and in 1981 BMW Motorrad sold 6631 G/S models, twice the number the factory had estimated and one in five BMWs sold that year was the G/S.
Possibly the most unlikely arena for success for the R80 G/S, however, was in the realm of motorsport. Considering race bikes these days are purpose-built fire breathing animals, the R80 G/S is quite a mellow platform by comparison. That said, on its debut at the infamous Paris-Dakar rally – the forerunner of today’s Dakar Rally – the R80 G/S shone through.
With one of the driving figures behind the R80 G/S – Rüdiger Gutsche – being a keen off-road racer, even riding a specially prepared R75/5 in the International Six Days Trial, it seems the G/S was always destined to be raced despite its modest power output and focus on being a jack of all trades.
For the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally – only the third running of the event – BMW decided to use the event to further build the public image of the R80 G/S by entering factory race bikes specially prepared by German company HPN Motorradtechnik.
The effort paid off for BMW in a big way, with Hubert Auriol – now an outright Dakar Legend himself and the first person to win on both two wheels and four in the gruelling event – rode a works BMW to his first-ever Dakar victory. Jean-Claude Morellet finished in fourth place and privateer – a German policeman by the name of Bernard Neimer – came in seventh. Overall an astonishing achievement considering at the time it was more common for racers to not even come close to reaching the finish line of the Dakar, let alone score top-10 placings.
It was enough for the motorcycling public to take notice and sales of the R80 G/S rose upward.
BMW returned to the podium of the Paris-Dakar Rally again in 1983 with the R80G/S, with Hubert Auriol winning again on a bike which was fitted with an engine with its capacity upped to 980cc to boost power to 70hp power.
Not content with winning the Dakar for a second time, Auriol and his bike then travelled to Mexico and took out the treacherous 1,200 kilometre Baja California race as well.
For the 1984 Paris-Dakar things only got better for BMW with Belgian rider Gaston Rahier taking his first win at the Dakar – which he would repeat again the following year –with Hubert Auriol riding into the finish line in a more than respectable second place.
It was this result that pushed BMW to create a special R80 G/S “Dakar” production model in celebration – a moniker that would again return in the 1990s for the single-cylinder F650GS.
There is no denying that BMW went well of the standard playbook when they debuted the R80 G/S in 1980. In a time when most manufacturers were looking to build the next “super bike” in the same vein as the Japanese monsters that were taking the world by storm, BMW did something different, and more importantly, lasting.
Take a look at the motorcycling world of today, 40 years on from the first debut of the R80 G/S and what you do see as the biggest selling breed of motorcycle?
It isn’t the firebreathing high-performance superbike format, but the go anywhere, do anything Gelande/Strasse style which BMW pioneered – essentially by accident.
So next time you start fantasising over that do it all adventure motorcycle - regardless of who builds it - take a minute to thank the men and women of BMW Motorrad. The creators of the original adventure motorcycle. The BMW R80 G/S.