Inside BMW: From skunk works to Motorrad Days

From top-secret R&D center to the world's biggest Beemer party


We touched down in Munich on a blistering, humid day that signaled summer was in full swing. I’d come as one of a select few journalists to see BMW’s official rollout of its new 6-cylinder K1600 GT and GTL we profiled here.

The original article was appreciatively weighted in favor of the technology on parade in the new 6-cylinder machine, which sounded sensational. However, in addition to seeing the new bike, what wasn’t mentioned was the fantastic overload of stuff we got to see on a quick turnaround that took us from Munich to Garmisch for a working journalist’s holiday, BMW style.

BMW Motorrad’s New Home

BMW’s withdrawal from Formula 1 – although a potential sore and sad subject for many racing fans – does have a silver lining for motorcyclists. The relatively new F1 team facility in Munich will become the domain of BMW Motorrad, the motorcycle division. This is where future designs and engineering for all things two-wheeled under the BMW logo will be dreamt up, nurtured, and given life.

Buchanan is one of the few to have heard BMW’s new 6-cylinder engine in person: “It is the internal combustion engine in all its glory; a clockwork orange of advanced technology and polished internals that culminates in a raw, animalistic and visceral exhaust note.”

Evidently, when we attended the K1600 briefing, we became the first “outsiders” to have ever seen the inside of the facility. When you pass through the doors under tight security there is definitely an air of entering into a metallurgical equivalent of a Frankenstein laboratory. How apropos that the new 6-cylinder bike was the first motorcycle to have touched tires to the inner corridors of the top-secret enclave and will continue to be developed in this haven of high performance.

The only officially cleared photo of BMW’s new Motorrad Division (formerly the F1 team headquarters). X-ray screening ensures no private cameras make their way into the facility.

Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed inside. Journalists were asked to go through a metal detector to prevent a camera being smuggled in. This kind of polite security measure is now accepted in our modern era, like passing through the X-ray at an airport with that, “Not that we don’t trust you” kind of smile from the TSA workers. Of course BMW brass had good reason to be concerned, what with some of the attending Euro pubs being known for sneaking spy shots and breaking embargo dates. As a result a pat down was required here and there, but that was strictly between friends.

Hendrik von Kuenheim, the CEO of BMW (and man behind some of the biggest changes at the legendary German marque) speaks.

Our tour began in a main reception room where BMW CEO Henrik von Kuenheim (in a rare appearance in suit and tie) welcomed us. (Click here to read our interview with him.) From there we followed colored routes painted on the floor to get us to our appointed demonstration rooms. A crew of navy blue jacketed security men discretely guarded any curious wandering to other parts of the facility.

The new Motorrad home is pretty much what you would expect of an F1 engineering center; lots of tall, austere corridors ending in swinging double doors requiring a bar-coded badge to gain access. Immaculate, un-scuffed floors, freshly painted walls, perfectly color-coordinated electrical conduit running along the ceiling, all in a cool, atmosphere controlled environment. Many of the corridors and rooms had framed pictures of BMW liveried F1 cars on the walls – remnants of the former tenants. In time these will certainly be replaced by images of Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus.

We were ushered through to specific engineering and design rooms that were lined with chalkboards and tables where various pieces of the new 6-cylinder machine were on display. What’s great about the facility is that everything is so clean it almost seems incongruous with the development of internal parts for a combustion engine. I’m accustomed to wading through a lot of grease and burnt oil when I handle engine parts. Not here. Everything is as clean as an elementary school cafeteria (well, depending on where you grew up).

Here’s a sketch of the K1600GT Buchanan saw run on BMW’s dyno.

The dyno room is as high-tech as anything I saw on a recent visit (also under tight security) to Edwards Air Force Base. The dyno area, like every other room, has relatively little time on it. Every nut and bolt, every cable and fastener is virtually brand new. The impressive bank of color monitors and computer software for tracking all aspects of motor run-up are state of the art and, when you think about it, superior to what landed man on the moon. 

One of the unexpectedly impressive aspects of the facility was the elevator that took us to the underground rooms to see the headlight leveling demonstration of the K1600. The elevator is spacious – designed to fit an F1 car – with polished aluminum and steel walls. Unlike the service elevators in a hotel or office building with their inherent worn clank and grind, their disconcerting rattles, the elevators at the F1/Motorrad complex glide up and down in perfect, smooth, quiet transition, reflecting the same attention to design and operation that goes into all BMW products.

BMW Motorrad’s move into the facility, with its air of performance, its history of coaxing power from engines, bodes well for BMW’s continued reinvention of its motorcycle division. The facility promises to imbue a deeper, more refined design ethic to an already famously well-engineered brand. To have the scent of F1 in the facility’s ether can only help inspire continued tinkering.

The iconic, mind blowing “4-cylinder” BMW building; a beacon of performance.

It’s virtually impossible not to be wowed by BMW World in downtown Munich. BMW World is a complex of buildings that includes the all-new BMW Museum, the impressive “four-cylinder” skyscraper, and the ambitious Delivery and Visitor Center, whose design flow looks like an architect’s inspired interpretation of the flow of gas into the combustion process of an engine. There is also an available tour of the nearby BMW plant where visitors can see the fabrication of auto body parts, engine construction, and final assembly. 

The exterior of BMW’s Welcome Center is compelling.

The interior of the visitor center is straight out of an old James Bond film. This is a set waiting for the return of SPECTRE. Examples of new-model cars, as well as pristine examples of years past, are on display in regal fashion. The entire ground floor is dedicated to various technology exhibits related to BMW’s engineering.

BMW’s Visitor and Welcome Center in Munich. It doesn’t get much more James Bond than this.

Motorcycles, reflective of their market share in relation to the BMW marque, occupies a relatively small portion of the overall floor plan of the building – about 2-3% – with examples of the company’s current two-wheel offerings on display as well as several beautifully restored and extremely rare BMW motorcycles under glass.

The BMW Museum. It goes on and on like this. A colorful chronicle of a legendary brand.

Across the street in the multi-story museum visitors can trace the evolution of BMW cars over the years; some odd, some familiar, some alien, but all sexy. Allow plenty of time to browse this wonderland. Even the most devout motorcycle fan will find plenty of four-wheel stuff to keep them entertained. 

Surfing Downtown!

This anomaly of the Eisbach river hitting broken cement has spawned a hot (well, the only) surf spot in land-locked Munich.

Photographer and surfer Jon Beck had read about a pseudo-underground (as in illegal) surf spot in downtown Munich. Yes, a surf spot in downtown Munich. We had to see this.

The English Gardens is the world’s largest city park, and the Eisbach river courses the park’s southern end as it passes under the Himmelreich Bridge. Water comes rushing out the other side with force, where it then hits broken up concrete beneath the surface. This creates enough turbulence to form a stationary swell.

Local surfers, in a theme of “mother of invention,” took to the swell in dynamic fashion, cutting back and forth on the face of the eternal Munich city center wave while cleverly evading citation and arrest for years. When we saw it, the locals had been enjoying three weeks of lawful surfing following the lifting of the ban.

Munich to Garmisch

The back roads from Munich to Garmisch; beautiful light, sweet smells, great pavement, light traffic, and people who actually seem to know how to drive.

After our tour of BMW World, we headed over to the press fleet center to pick up bikes for the ride down to Garmisch to attend Motorrad Days, now in its tenth year. I was astonished by the fleet center facility. As opposed to being a part of a service garage with a mechanic leaving greasy fingerprints on a release form, the high-tech BMW press center operates 24/7, with a dedicated crew that does nothing but take care of incoming and outgoing vehicles. There is even a changing room for motorcycle riders. This place extended the James Bond air, right down to the automatic doors and security camera lined corridors.

After all the high-tech wonder on display that we’d taken in thus far, it was somewhat ironic that we ended up sitting in stop and go, bumper-to-bumper Friday afternoon traffic as we skirted Munich’s perimeter roads to reach the freeway.

Things finally opened up when we found the freeway that took us south toward Garmisch (technically Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but who’s counting?). As soon as possible we detoured onto two-lane side roads that ambled and twisted us through the beautiful countryside toward the ski resort of Garmisch. The strong smells of the country, of livestock and tall grass, accompanied our ride.

BMW Motorrad Days

An hour outside of Garmisch we began to encounter a steady stream of motorcycles – predominantly BMWs – converging, crossing, doubling back on the two-lane road. Attendees of Motorrad Days were out in force having some fun on the local roads that wind through the mountains. We were in the mountainous region of Germany, bordering Austria and Switzerland, famous for dramatic vistas and steep inclines, with an interlacing maze of motorcycle-friendly pavement.

BMW Motorrad Days. Heaven for the devout BMW enthusiast comes once a year in the German ski resort of Garmisch.

Arriving at BMW Motorrad Days I immediately realized that the Germans (BMW anyway) has it over us in terms of motorcycle event presentation. Sprawling out over the grassy base of the ski slopes of Garmisch, under hot summer skies, was a massive, polished, organized party dedicated to the owners of BMW motorcycles. (Read our editor’s report from the 2007 rally here.)

Of all the freestyle stunt shows, the one I will actually go out of my way to see is Chris Pfeiffer’s.

Rows of immaculately spaced white tents housed every kind of BMW-themed item imaginable, from the main exhibition of new BMW models, to vintage machines, to endless aftermarket and apparel offerings. There was main stunt area where World Champion freestyle stunter Chris Pfeiffer dazzled the crowds. There was a motocross short course for people to try out BMW and Husqvarna off-road machines. There was a test course for GS bikes on the ski slope to give eager and willing attendees a taste of Adventure riding.

Garmisch was special this year. BMW was celebrating 10 years of Motorrad Days as well as the 30-year anniversary of the GS. There was an impressive array of historical Paris-Dakar race GS machines on display. As a result of the GS anniversary, a majority of the estimated 35,000 BMW aficionados attending this year (a new record) were aboard GS machines. I’ve never seen that many GS bikes in one place.

But perhaps the most impressive structure was the main tent, the food and beverage center for the event with a capacity of 4,000. When I say beverage, I actually mean beer. And the Germans really know how to dole it out. The mugs they serve you with carry the equivalent of about two and a half glasses of a typical America serving. It’s not difficult to appreciate and adopt the German’s taste for beer and pretzels, a kind of national trust. The twisted breaded treats are ubiquitous, set down on tables the same way tortilla chips are at a Mexican restaurant.

As the day wears on and evening starts to settle over Garmisch, the crowd heads under the main tent, filling it to capacity, for a night of live music. A number of bands take part, each performing a mix of rock ’n’ roll (acid rock and heavy metal to top 40), old feel-good German folk songs, and a slew of corny vintage American pop songs. This crowd of motorcycle enthusiasts pretty much turns into one big happy family, boisterously belting out English lyrics with a German accent in a feel good ‘sing-along-with Mitch’ session into the wee hours. 

Inside the main tent at Motorrad Days; 4,000 people, beer, rock ’n’ roll.

Through it all I couldn’t imagine getting this many people together in America, under a large tent with cross-dressing bands and this much alcohol, without expecting some ugly displays of attitude, incidents of drunkenness or, worse, some form of fisticuffs. But I didn’t see one teetering soul, not one act of aggression – testament to the German’s ability to hold their booze and their love of a good time.

Under the big tent in the evenings at Motorrad Days everyone lets their hair down. (Jon Beck- second from left. Charlie Boorman – third from left. Jeff Buchanan – right).

BMW Motorrad Days is the kind of gathering that when you’re there, looking out over what constitutes a small city of riders enjoying themselves, surrounded by the breathtaking mountains, you tell yourself that you’re coming back next year. 

Riding through the quant village of Garmisch is like riding through a Bavarian postcard.

Related Reading
BMW Motorrad Days
BMW Unveils New 6-Cylinder K1600GT and GTL
Riding with BMW's Boss in Morocco
Interviews with BMW executives about the S1000RR 
Motorcycle.com Best of 2010 Awards

Get Motorcycle.com in your Inbox