The BMW GS is definitely one of the most iconic motorcycles ever made. It has been produced for almost four decades and in 2009 the 500,000th GS came out of the factory. To understand the reason of this huge success we’ll take a look at the history.
The German with the Italian grandfather
In the 70s, BMW was a motorcycle brand built under the typical German standard: strong, reliable, and incredibly out of fashion. The fairings of those BMW were constructed to protect the rider from head to toe and they’re still ridiculous today. Sure, BMW had its part in the history of racing but those days were gone for a while by then. So they decided to make a significant shift regarding their motorcycle models.
For the lack of experience in off-road racing, BMW turned to Laverda to commission two prototypes on the base of the flat twin engine. In the mid-70s, the R60 motor was delivered and bored out to 800cc. The Italians prepared a super light enduro that weighed just 142 kg and called it GS800. Although it was a good base to start, Piero Laverda himself refers to their hybrid as the grandfather of the GS and not the father. So after some modification, in 1980 the very first GS came out, the R80 G/S. But it wasn’t really what you’d call an immediate success.
Some of the first reviews were pretty harsh. The Motorcyclist called it “outrageous”- it was too heavy for serious off-roading and not good enough for the street. Compared to a dirt bike it was like dragging a whale on dry land, and on the road, it suffered from the off-road modifications. Nobody could understand the point of this, at least not in the beginning.
The first win at the Dakar Rally
G/S stands for Gelände/Straße which is german for off-road/street, later updated in GS Gelände Sport. In 1981, BMW won the 3rd edition of the Dakar Rally with Hubert Auriol and then again in ‘83, ‘84, and ‘85 with the R100GS. Winning the hardest race on earth proved the effectiveness and toughness of their GS.
BMW defined the dual-sport class by developing a motorcycle able to bring you anywhere. If you sacrifice top performance on the off-road and on the street, you gain something else entirely. Having a bike with a wide range of action meant opening the world for adventure and exploration.
The Flat-Twin Oilheads
In 1993, BMW completely redesigned the machine with dramatic changes. The engine size was increased to 1100cc for more power and more torque but also meant more heat. This was solved by the oil cooling just in the cylinder heads. The bike was also bigger and heavier so the brakes were updated with a second disc in the front. But there was another problem they had to face. Having such a big bike with a long fork will dive while braking. To solve this problem, BMW came up with a brilliant solution, the Telelever. Unlike a conventional fork, the Telelever works more like a car suspension than a motorcycle one. It feels stable in pretty much any condition and gives the solid support the bike needs while braking. (You can find more about the R1100GS here)
My personal experience with the GS
I’ve made a 12,000 km trip on an R1100GS crossing Europe and part of the Sahara desert. That motorcycle was my home for a month and I was amazed of how much it could carry without making the handling suffer. It could digest any bad gasoline I found in Morocco and on what was probably a bet, I was able to ride from Marrakesh to Gibraltar in just one day. 800 km sounds manageable but consider these: I crossed the desert, mountains, three countries, two border crossings, and a sea. Although the last one was on a ferry. The GS made it possible.
In 1999 the GS was updated with the R1150GS. The features included a redesigned fairing and a slight increase in engine size. But for the first time, we can see the Adventure model with motor protections and a bigger tank (30 L instead of the 22 L of the standard model) for long expeditions.
In 2004 the GS has another radical change with the R1200GS. A completely new frame was designed together with a new engine, and a lot of electronic controls. It was lighter, way more powerful than the previous model and had a larger fuel capacity (the Adventure model 33 L).
The single cylinder, not quite a small GS
The F650RR won the Dakar Rally in 1999 and 2000, proving the potential of their single cylinder bike. I tested the F650GS in 2007 in Crete on and off-road. To be precise, I had the Dakar version which had a higher seat, taller suspensions, a 21-inch front wheel. These made it brilliant off-road but not so on the tarmac, and I have to admit that after the test I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting a smaller version of the big GS based on the name but I was wrong. The F650GS Dakar suffered on the street from all the off-road modifications, so I think it didn’t really deserve the letters GS. On the other side, this might be a reason why the called it “Dakar” and not “Adventure” and I’m just an idiot.
The Parallel Twin
In 2007, BMW revolutionized the small GS by replacing the F650GS with the F800GS. They went from the single cylinder engine to the parallel twin with a more “off-road” style. I liked the design way more than on the old one and they also made the right technical improvements although it never competed in the Dakar.
The water cooled
The big GS changed again in 2013 with a completely new engine that solved some problems known to long time owners. For example, to change the clutch on the flat twin engine compared to a Ducati or a Japanese inline four was the same difference between heart surgery and a haircut. For this model, they moved the clutch to the front of the engine and the gearbox to the bottom which made the motor compact and easier to inspect. At the presentation, the GS aficionados were a bit skeptic about the water cooling but the benefits in power and reliability were pretty convincing.
The GS of the future
Last week BMW presented an updated version of the R1200GS XDrive, a 170 HP, hybrid, two-wheel-drive bike that made it to the North Pole and back. (You can find more about this model here). I don’t know what the GS of the future will look like, but if we look at what they’ve done in the last four decades, the XDrive certainly seems like a taste of it.