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BMW R80 GS: PH2 Heroes

In the first of a new series, PH tracks down and rides the most important bikes in motorcycling history

By Tony Middlehurst / Monday, August 27, 2018

The BMW rider pulling up alongside my steed in the Ringwood traffic knew he was looking at something different. He looked old enough to know - or think he might know - that I was on an original and pristine BMW R80 G/S, the bike that didn't just kick off a whole new class of big-capacity adventure motorcycles but that was also instrumental in saving BMW's entire two-wheeled business.

Maybe he owned one back in the 1980s. Anyway, after a good look up and down and a big thumbs-up, he was off, and I continued on my way, deep in thought.

Riding another G/S some four decades after the last time I rode one was quite a memory shock for me. In 1980, I was a scribbler on SuperBike magazine, the only Northern bloke in a cosmopolitan mix of two cheeky London chappies and two biltong-fed South Africans. The Durban lads were hardcore BMW fanboys. Before coming over to the UK to make their fortune, they had put in plenty of flat-twin miles on both veldt and tarmac. One of them was the editor of the mag, so the non-saffers in the office weren't that surprised when a long-term R80 G/S test bike arrived in the compound.

We were even less surprised to find that the keys were rarely available. That wasn't a massive issue, if I'm honest. Although we appreciated the lightness, quality and civility of BMWs, the Brits on the mag were more into the madness of Japanese multis leavened by a sprinkling of Italian exotica from Ducati, Laverda and MV.

We weren't the only ones who didn't really 'get' the G/S when BMW's first Gelande/Strasse (terrain/street) was released to the goggle-eyed world bike press in 1980. The concept of a dual-purpose bike wasn't new, but the idea of an 800cc shaft-driven BMW one with a single-sided swingarm and a bright orange seat definitely was.

The G/S was particularly weird because it represented such a massive swerve for BMW at the time. For more than half a century, BMW had been turning out expensive, 'premium' naked singles and flat twins designed for relaxed on-road pottering. Then, in the early 1970s, the public's head was turned by explosively quick Japanese superbikes like the Honda CB750 and the Kawasaki Z1.

The British bike industry had already paid the ultimate price for its complacency. By 1979 the Germans were in serious danger of going down the same plughole. Even BMW's poster-child R100RS - the first serious mainstream bike to bring easy three-figure continental cruising speeds within reach of the gentleman rider - didn't have enough developmental headroom in its 1000cc flat twin to stave off the power-driven march of the new Japanese fours.

Something had to be done, and quick. That's what BMW's suits said to Karl-Heinz Gerlinger, the man given the unenviable task of turning the ailing motorcycle division around. The solution turned to be a genuine game-changer, the forerunner of a whole new genre of bike empowering countless round-the-world trips and nearly as many TV series.

The success of the G/S also came as a surprise to BMW. Even at Munich, very few people saw it coming. Its genesis was classic skunkworks stuff. BMW's bike R&D department was crewed by big, fit, stubble-jawed men, not always but quite often called Herman or Manfred. For them, fun was a weekend of two-wheeled dirt-bashing with plenty of wurst and a few steins at the end of it. Annoyingly, however, BMW didn't make any off-roaders. Employees could never be caught riding a bike from another manufacturer, so a group of engineers marshalled by a chap called Laszlo Peres built their own dirtbike, the unprepossessing Red Devil.

Looking very much like the finished G/S, but with a more workmanlike rattle-can paint finish, the Red Devil was about as far removed from the old school sit-up-straight R80 streetbike as you could imagine. It used the sweet-handling R65 frame with a single-sided monoshock swingarm instead of the usual twin-shock setup, and had a high-level exhaust, big front wheel and semi-knobbly tyres.

In 1979 Peres showed the Red Devil to Gerlinger, who was on a bowel-looseningly short 18-month deadline to deliver some results. He liked it. At the very least it would distract folk until the far more important K-series four-cylinder BMWs made their entrance. Gerlinger gave it the green light in 1979 and it was ready to go at the 1980 Cologne show.

Suspension engineer Rüdiger Gutsche, an accomplished ISDT competitor on his own heavily modified R75/5, was the natural choice to develop the bike for motorsport. Single-sided swingarms tend to increase the unsprung weight of the rear suspension, as they need to be pretty beefy to maintain chassis rigidity, but they also simplify rear wheel removal, so that was a handy start for Gutsche. Several Paris-Dakar Rally victories throughout the 1980s by iron-butt supermen like Hubert Auriol and Gaston Rahier testified to Gutsche's skills and to the basic design's desert-smashing talents. Punters naturally wanted the look and as much of the ability of the P-D monsters as possible in a retail offering. The rest is history.

The chap who spotted me in Ringwood on the bike you're looking at here would only have been half right about it being a G/S, because actually it's not a G/S. It's a GS. The distinction is important. The clue is at the back end, where we see the unexpected presence of BMW's Paralever. The original G/S only had the single-pivot 'monolever' swingarm/shaft-drive housing, whereas the later Paralever uses two links to connect the rear drive to the transmission.

So what's the story? This GS is in fact a mule for that following generation of Paralever-equipped BMWs which started in 1986 with the R100GS. It's thought that just fifteen of these GS prototypes were built, and this is one of them.

In the days of that first monolever G/S you could stick any BMW into gear, clamp on the front brake, let the clutch out a bit and amuse your mates as the torque windup through the shaft drive sent the whole back end soaring skywards. The Paralever cuts out much of that shaft-jacking foolishness in exchange for preventing the rear wheel from 'tucking in' quite so markedly under acceleration, or running out of suspension travel so quickly over rocky terrain. It's a good thing.

Nobody's sure how this mule got out of the factory. Normally, these beasts end up in the crusher. I'm glad it did make its own 'great escape', because nearly four decades after I last rode a G/S I'm getting warm feelings about this one.

As with many things in life, it seems a lot smaller than it once did. For various reasons, today's monstrous R1200 GS is not a bike I'd be buying as a long-term ownership proposition. This 1986 GS comes from a different time, when BMW's reputation seemed a good deal more important than image or sales figures. Quality is present in every detail. The bespoke housings for the undersized Motometer quartz clock and tacho flanking the big speedo create a curved dash effect. Unlike the bendy tin stuff you get under a Japanese bike seat, the GS's toolkit looks man enough to dismantle a medium-sized trawler. There's even a useable tyre pump tucked under the tank to inflate the tubeless tyres on their side-laced rims.

The owner of this rare machine is Steve Bateman (Superbike Wholesale Ringwood, 07768 534210, superbikebuyer@aol.com). This one-time short-circuit and endurance racing champ is now a collector and fettler of interesting bikes from recent history. He has replaced the correct flattened-off valve covers with a set of round ones because they're easily interchangeable and make a nice connection with those fearsome Marlboro Elf GS Dakar bombers. The high, narrow centrestand is every bit as hernia-inducing as it was in 1980, but the conventional indicator switch is a blessed relief compared to the over-fussy and unintuitive switchgear BMW went to in later years.

What's it like to ride? In a word: refreshing. Like all GSs, it's a tall bike. The difficulty of deploying the spring-loaded sidestand from the saddle means that anyone under six feet will need to be ready to take on the bike's weight when they dismount.

Time to start. The fuel petcocks (one for each carb) twist and click into their detents with the oiled accuracy of a Heckler & Koch trigger. Click the bar-mounted choke knob and press the starter. After that distinctive BMW kerplunk-spin the GS settles into the smoothest idle I've ever experienced on a Munich twin. Bateman has perfectly balanced the Bing carbs, whose exposed float bowls were always vulnerable to water ingress in a British winter.

Engine noise is practically non-existent, although the dry clutch does rattle like a tin of spanners. Pull in the remarkably light cable to silence the clutch and prod in a gear. The selection process is Germanically deliberate and decisive. Once you're moving, the GS is a doddle to ride. The low-speed balance is fabulous. Introduce even a tiny element of planning into your city riding and you'll rarely need to put your feet down.

Any fears of weight are quickly dismissed. Opinions on the actual weight vary from 185kg to 210kg. The flat-twin BMW engines look big, and the sticky-out cylinders mean you should steer clear of deeply rutted bits of Gelande, but there's not that much heavy metal swinging around inside those crankcases. That's reflected in the GS's quick-steering agility and airy feel.

There's only 50hp to play with, delivered at the sort of revs few are likely to reach (6500rpm). Much better to enjoy the deep Dornier thrum under load and the soft performance that's friendly and accessible rather than in your face and threatening.

If you've ever been on a camel when it's decided to sit down front end first, you'll get on fine with the knees-bend dive of the GS under braking. There's only one disc and one piston, but the action is sharp.

As the Paralever system was refined and improved, the torque arm moved to a new position above the swingarm to boost ground clearance. That's not going to be an issue for me today. The bike would probably permit more larks: it's so docile. But how do you value something like this? I have no number in mind. Whatever it is, it will be a lot higher than the amount featuring on my bank statements, so my progress around the manure-spattered New Forest corner cleverly chosen by photographer John is on the stately side of safe.

By 1987 the G/S's job had been done and it was quietly retired. Funny to think that when the G/S made its debut at Cologne, quite a few journalists wondered what the hell it was supposed to be. Clearly it was too insubstantial for traditional upright BMW touring, and far too big for even semi-serious dirt riding.

Even so, the G/S found buyers. Just under 22,000 of them, in fact. More importantly, it prepared the ground for well over half a million BMW twin-pot adventure bikes - a trend that shows no sign of slowing up, despite the common view that BMW's current adventure bike range has become a grotesquely oversized pastiche of the G/S, and despite the fact that many owners have been bitten hard by corrosion issues, inexcusable really on a machine of this nature.

The first bike to bear the G/S badge was a street machine that could sort of go off road. Any resemblance to an off-road bike was purely coincidental. Das Motorrad, Germany's notoriously partisan motorcycle publication, made the pithy comment that the G/S was "the best road motorcycle BMW has ever built". That kind of sums it up.

797cc horizontally opposed OHV aircooled twin
Power: 50hp at 6500rpm
Torque: 41ft lb at 5000rpm
Transmission: 5-speed gearbox, dry single plate clutch, shaft final drive
0-62mph: 5.6sec
Top speed: 104mph
Frame: Double loop tubular with Monolever swingarm (Paralever on GS prototype shown)
Seat height: 33.9in
Wheels: 21in front, 18in rear
Brakes: (front) single 260mm disc front with Brembo 2-piston caliper; (rear) 200mm drum brake

[Images: John Goodman]

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