It was 1994 when BMW decided to reinvent the dual-sport class, sending the R 100 GS to retirement and presenting the R 1100 GS. The “B” in BMW stands for Bavaria, which is where the car company comes from, but for the motorcycles is a different story. In fact, every bike comes from Berlin which in 1994 was still under construction after the reunification. The city was trying to find a new identity like a teenager who wants to grow up fast. It looked for a while like those old, worn out boots that you don’t want to see anymore. But the impact on this category was immense and every motorcycle company had to work on their adventure models because BMW raised the bar to the next level.
The engine: bigger, better
The flat-twin engine with shaft drive were completely redesigned. One of the changes was increasing the size to about 1100 cc. They fitted partial oil-cooling, four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. Today 80 HP doesn’t sound like much power for such a big bike but, if you only read the numbers you’ll get just half of the story. It develops 97 Nm, which means it has so much torque to move whatever you put on the bike almost without noticing it. So they made it bigger without focusing on HP and that’s why it’s so smooth. The maintenance is pretty easy on this bike, even valve clearance is easy to adjust compared to transverse engines. The only downside is the clutch position which is between the engine and the gearbox making it pretty difficult to reach.
The secret weapon
The frame and the suspensions, both with adjustable preload, work so well that the bike is stable and good to ride even fully loaded. But the key is the front end. The Telelever is more like the kind of suspension you’ll find on a car than on a bike. It gives more rigidity and stability to the front. The result is a big and heavy bike, with a fork that doesn’t sink when you pull the brake. I rode it on tarmac, gravel, sand and even on tiles (it was in a corridor of a hotel, it’s a long story…) and it was good and enjoyable in any situation.
Let me say this, if the Honda Africa Twin is bulletproof, the 1100GS is bombproof. It’s solid, reliable, with a boxer engine almost impossible to kill. Look at that shaft drive, it’s gigantic, it looks like it was stolen from a Tiger tank. And on top of that, it’s a Berliner, which gives it the charm of an activist, not a lot of power but with good intentions.
The original case closing system is brilliant. But if you leave them at home you should consider bringing a bag with you because this bike doesn’t have any rear seat trunk. Seriously, not even space for a single chewing gum. Instead of that, they fitted the best-equipped toolbox I’ve ever seen on a bike. And you could have it with heated grips and ABS.
One thing went terribly wrong designing this bike. It’s the control position. They put every single button in the wrong place. But let me give you an example. On any modern bike, the layout is almost identical, like the blinkers. You have one button, push it to the right to go right, push it to the left to go left and in the middle to deactivate it. Easy. BMW thought it was too easy and replaced it with three (yes, three) buttons. The left blinker button is in the horn’s place, the right in the place of the ignition and the one to deactivate them is above it. And you have to lift it which is totally unnatural.
And I have to admit, it was not the prettiest bike around in the 90ies. But this is just a small price to pay for such an epic bike and frankly, you don’t buy a GS for how it looks. It’s like buying a Ducati 916 for comfort. You buy it for what it does and its connection to adventure. In that time, there were lots of motorcycles made to cross the desert, surely better than this. But if you consider reaching the desert first, then cross it and coming back, this was the bike for the whole journey. And believe me on this, I did it.
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