By the end of the 1970s, the Japanese fully dominated the motorcycle market worldwide, having successfully surpassed English, German and American makers with full ranges of inexpensive, reliable bikes. BMW, with its two-cylinder boxer engines and traditional touring models, was quickly becoming irrelevant in a new market dominated by inline-twins and –fours in bolted up to lighter, sportier chassis. Something fresh was needed to take the company into the next decade and beyond.
In late 1977, BMW test engineer Laszlo Peres was rolling around on a purpose-built GS 800, an 800-cc boxer sport bike with off-road capabilities. The company had been flirting with the concept for years after receiving requests from customers for such a bike. The German motorsport authorities announced a new over-750-cc class for off-road racing for the 1978 season, opening the door for Peres to compete with a registration-approved version of the development bike, with which he took second place for the season. A year later, BMW took the championship. This would serve as the basis for what would eventually become a hallmark of the modern BMW Motorrad brand, the dual-sport G/S (for “Gelande/Strasse” or “off-road/street”) motorcycle.
In September of 1980, BMW presented the production R 80 G/S to motorcycle journalists in Avignon, France. It featured a 50-hp, 798-cc boxer (known internally as the 247 engine), weighed in at 440 pounds and employed shaft drive and an all-new single swing-arm rear suspension. The concept of a motorcycle that blended both touring and off-road abilities was met with initial skepticism, but critics soon discovered that BMW’s execution of the idea resulted in a great all-around bike instead of simply a poor compromise, leading Germany’s Motorrad magazine to proclaim it the “best road motorcycle BMW has ever built” at the time of its launch.
The first R 80 G/S was developed with the rigors of both off-roading and long-distance touring in mind. The frame was essentially the same as that of an R 65, housing the proven overhead-valve flat-twin. The engine received numerous upgrades for G/S service, including a stronger engine case with upgraded lubrication for a long service life under tough conditions as well as for greater thermal stability, and an external skidplate protected the engine case from potential off-road hazards. Lightweight cylinders shed more than seven pounds from the powerplant, while a new lightweight clutch assembly that doubled as a flywheel carved off another ten pounds. That loss of rotational mass resulted in a more responsive engine, while a breakerless electronic ignition helped to ensure reliable running in all conditions.
This new bike pushed the boundaries of what was possible in an off-road-capable motorcycle. The 50-hp R 80 G/S was good for more than 100 mph on the open road, requiring new tires that combined off-road grip with a 180-km/h speed rating. Other firsts for an enduro-type bike were disc brakes (borrowed from the BMW R 100/7) and a halogen H4 headlamp. Just like that, BMW had established an all-new class of motorcycle.
Riders flocked to the G/S for the sense of adventure it implied. By the end of 1981, its first production year, the R 80 G/S was selling at twice its original pace, with more than 6600 delivered. That year, the G/S accounted for one of every five BMW motorcycles sold, firmly planting it as a cornerstone of the BMW lineup, where it remains important to this day.
But the G/S was about more than just imagery; in 1981 a flock of them competed in the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally. An R 80 G/S ridden by Hubert Auriol took first place in the motorcycle class, three hours ahead of his nearest competitor, while other BMWs took fourth and seventh places. The G/S continued to chalk up victories at Dakar and at Baja, cementing its reputation as a seriously capable and reliable off-road touring machine.
Riding the wave of endurance racing victories, BMW issued a special-edition R 80 G/S “Paris-Dakar” model in late 1984. The special model feature a larger 8.5-gallon fuel tank, a single seat with a luggage rack in place of the second position, protective bars, side stands and Michelin off-road tires. In addition to factory-built “Dakar” bikes, the company also offered the components separately in kit form for existing G/S owners to upgrade their bikes.
By the end of its first generation, the R 80 G/S was selling quite well, with a total of 21,864 of them being delivered by July of 1987. At this point the second-generation of GS bikes (now branded without the slash between the G and S) debuted, and a second model was added. By using the 980-cc engine from the R 100 RS, the lineup now included the 50-hp R 80 GS and the new 60-hp R 100 GS.
In addition to the new engine, the entire range received an updated rear suspension, christened Paralever. This new design, which used a parallelogram-type geometry, greatly reduced the lifting effect of the original Monolever suspension under acceleration. A new front suspension was also employed, improving ride comfort. Other new features included cross-spoke wheels that allowed the use of tubeless tires and resulted in spokes that were replaceable without having to dismount the wheel or tire. The chassis also received upgrades, resulting in a stronger platform on which all these new components could be installed.
Other improvements to all GS models made them even better touring bikes, such as a larger fuel tank (6.9 gallons instead of 5.2) and a more comfortable seat. The front fender was developed in a wind tunnel to help reduce the effects of sway at highway speeds. The larger R 100 GS got a standard windscreen and protective bars.
Sales success continued for the GS range, bolstered in part by the addition of a German-market R 65 GS entry-level bike, which featured a 27-hp engine intended specifically to meet a new German law for novice riders. But it was the return of the popular Paris-Dakar model in 1989 that really kept the sales going, aided by continuing success in world-class off-road racing. By the end of its run, more than 45,000 R 80 GS and R 100 GS models had made their way into owners’ hands.
In 1994, an all-new third generation of GS arrived in the form of the R 1100 GS. The big news was the move from two-valves-per-cylinder technology to a new four-valve, overhead-cam arrangement. The new engine featured side-mounted camshafts driven by three timing chains and an intermediate gear. This need for four-valve heads was largely spurred by more stringent emissions requirements, and was paired with a closed-loop catalytic converter — the first fitted to an enduro bike — and a new stainless exhaust system.
Power from the larger 1085-cc engine was an impressive 80 horsepower thanks to improved breathing. Meanwhile, fuel consumption, emissions, and engine noise all dropped as a result.
The Paralever rear suspension and shaft drive remained, though the chassis’ main frame was completely new. The engine and transmission now formed a stressed member in the overall assembly, suspended from a steel rear subframe. The rear spring strut was now adjustable for preload and rebound damping.
The front suspension featured a new design dubbed “Telelever” that combined a swing arm with a telescopic fork, an advancement of BMW’s original hydraulic telescoping fork. The new system, which separated the job of locating the wheel from that of damping its motion, resulted in better steering response while still providing the comfortable ride attributes the GS had become known for.
The cross-spoke wheel design was carried over from the previous generation, with dual disc brakes fitted in front and a single disc mounted in the rear. Anti-lock braking with the ability to disengage it for off-road use was offered as an option on the R 1100 GS — the first ABS system offered an off-road cycle.
By the spring of 1994, the R 1100 GS was the top-selling BMW motorcycle. A single-cylinder model, powered by a 50-hp 652-cc liquid-cooled motor from Rotax, offered entry-level riders access to the BMW dual-sport club in the form of the F 650. Despite its lack of a boxer engine and shaft drive (it used a conventional chain), the F 650 offered the same combination of on-road comfort and off-road capability as its bigger brothers, with as much power as the original R 80 G/S. Not only was it cheap, it was also easy to ride and very fuel-efficient, ensuring its place in the BMW lineup to this day.
Not every variation on the GS theme proved as popular, however. A short run of R 850 GSs, using the 70-hp 848-cc engine from the R 850 R, failed to make a dent in sales and was quickly discontinued. Only 1954 of these smaller boxer-engined GS models were sold in sharp contrast to the more than 43,000 R 1100 GS versions.
An anniversary edition of the R 1100 GS was introduced in 1998, commemorating BMW’s 75th anniversary in building motorcycles, but shortly afterward the R 1150 GS debuted. Power was now up to 85 hp from 1130 cc of displacement, a result of using the R 1200 C’s cylinders and pistons and the R 1100 S’s crank and heads. A more compact hydraulic clutch, a six-speed transmission, and performance exhaust finished the package.
In 2000, the popular F 650 officially received GS designation. The F 650 GS and F 650 GS Dakar debuted with numerous changes over the previous non-GS model, most notably new bodywork. A perimeter frame replaced the old loop-type chassis, and the gas tank moved to a new position below the seat for a lower center of gravity. Three-way catalysts and fuel injection were standard now for emissions reasons. The F 650 GS Dakar featured a 21-inch front wheel, longer spring travel and a windscreen; the Dakar became so popular that its status as a special edition was changed to a permanent member of the lineup.
In 2002, the big-daddy R 1150 GS gained a special “Adventure” model. Fitted with longer spring struts, anodized wheels, a more robust skid plate, a large windshield and a single-piece seat, the Adventure was designed for long-distance, all-condition riding. Heavy-duty aluminum luggage, a 7.9-gallon fuel tank and heated grips made long-distance travel even more safe and enjoyable. The bike was made famous by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, who rode theirs around the world for BBC’s “Long Way Round” TV series.
Sales success of the GS range continued with more than 71,000 R 1150 GS models eventually sold, including the popular Adventure models.
The next evolution of the boxer-powered GS arrived in 2004 with the R 1200 GS. The goal of this new generation was to reduce some of the accumulated weight of previous improvements. Despite a larger, more powerful engine (1170 cc and 98 hp), the new GS weighed in nearly 70 pounds lighter than its predecessor at 440 pounds dry. Nearly every component system contributed to the diet, including the engine itself, which dropped six pounds for the cause. An all-new electrical system using CAN-BUS technology eliminated pounds of traditional wiring while improving the functionality of the information display.
The new bike wore fresh bodywork that reflected its leaner attitude. Cast alloy wheels were fitted as standard to reduce weight and rotational mass for better response, though the traditional cross-spokes were still available as an option.
An Adventure model of the R 1200 GS was added a year after its introduction, and the large GS range continued as the most popular BMW model, with more than 100,000 R 1200 GS bikes sold in the first three years of production. In 2007, McGregor and Boorman took to the road again, this time taking R 1200 GS Adventures from Scotland to South Africa, covering more than 15,000 miles in three months on the road and in the process boosting the GS’s reputation as a true world traveler.
That same year, the R 1200 GS received a minor facelift and several functional improvements. Engine output rose slightly to 105 horsepower which, combined with the HP2 Sport’s close-ratio gearbox, made the bike more responsive. Light-alloy handlebars and new clamps offered more flexibility and greater comfort for a variety of riders. LED taillights and alloy covers on the fuel tank identify the updated models visually. Electronic suspension adjustment was added as well, allowing the rider to fine-tune shock absorber pre-load and rebound damping on the fly with a simple handlebar control.
The popularity of the GS wasn’t limited to the big boxers. The F650 GS was replaced in 2008 by the F 800 GS, which features a 798-cc parallel-twin Rotax engine with 85 horsepower and a top speed of 130 mph. Ironically, the F 650 GS returned later that year, but with a detuned 71-hp version of the F 800 GS engine. It did, however, feature a lower seat height, smaller wheels and a softer suspension, making it more approachable to smaller or less experienced riders.
The BMW GS range is as popular as ever in 2010. The addition of the HP2 Sport’s high-tech radial-array four-valve head for this model year takes power to 110 horses for the R 1200 GS and R 1200 GS Adventure models, pretty much guaranteeing their continued popularity. Even though BMW no longer owns exclusive membership in the sport enduro class — the likes of Ducati’s Multistrada 1200 and Triumph’s Tiger are knocking at the door — it remains the undisputed king of the category it created three decades ago.