BMW Motorcycle History

The legendary German marque that is so well known for its automobiles actually has its roots in motorcycles. BMW’s first motorcycle, the R32, debuted in 1923, and its Flat-Twin engine layout is still used in its current lineup. The BMW name is known for premium motorcycles that can go long distances, although its current offerings are also geared toward younger and faster riders.
  • 1913 Bayerische Motoren Werke is incorporated. The company produces aircraft engines.
     
  • 1918 The Prussian army orders 2,000 BMW model IIIa aircraft engines

     
  • 1919 A plane powered by an updated model IV engine sets an altitude record at over 32,000 feet.

    Just a few weeks later, the Treaty of Versailles is signed and Germany is forbidden to manufacture airplanes. BMW turns its focus to motorcycles.

     
  • 1920 The 2-stroke 148cc Kurier motor is developed.
     
  • 1921 The M2 B15 is developed. It’s BMW’s first flat-Twin – aka ‘Boxer’ – motorcycle. The motor is based on an earlier aircraft design.

     
  • 1922 The first light-alloy cylinder head is developed.
     
  • 1923 Legendary BMW designer Max Friz sequesters himself in his house and draws the plans for an all-new motorcycle. The 486cc R 32 is shown at the Paris “Salon.” It is a big improvement over the M2 B15 and reaches a top speed of about 60 mph.
     
  • 1925 A racing version of the R 32 – the R 37 – is introduced. Also, the R 39 debuts and front brakes are added to the R 32.
     
  • 1927 BMW develops the R 47, which would go on to replace the R 32, R 37 and R 39.
     
  • 1928 BMW releases its biggest motorcycle to date – the 750cc R 62, with a top speed of 71 mph.
     
  • 1929 Paul Köppen wins the 500cc class at the famed Targa Florio road race in Sicily. BMW will win the next two years’ races, as well.

    Ernst Henne uses a supercharged, 750cc “kompressor” (supercharged) on a closed stretch of Autobahn to set a new land-speed record of over 134 mph.

     
  • 1930 An economic downturn in Germany leads BMW to produce a smaller bike, the 198cc R 2. This commuter bike was the first to use a one-piece ‘tunnel’ crankcase. Smaller motorcycles (under 200cc) did not require licenses in Germany, and the R 2 went on to sell more than 15,000 units.
     
  • 1932 The R 4, with a 398cc single-cylinder overhead-valve engine, is released.
     
  • 1933 The German army commissions BMW to produce R 4s, helping the company to stay in business despite the Great Depression.
     
  • 1935 The 745cc R 12 is introduced. It is the first production model with hydraulically dampened front forks.
     
  • 1936 The R 5 is introduced, which is BMW’s first bike with rear-plunger suspension. Also, the 500cc R 7 is released, which can reach 87 mph.

    Otto Ley wins the Swedish 500cc Grand Prix on another “kompressor.” The supercharged BMWs will be the dominant force in Grand Prix racing until WWII. (After the war, the FIM bans forced-induction motors. Some people interpret the rule as punishing the Axis, since the most successful supercharged racing motorcycles were German and Italian. The single-cylinder bikes favored by British manufacturers were conventionally aspirated.)

     
  • 1937 A Bavarian motorcycle cop and off-road racer, Georg Meier, tries a BMW road racer and pulls off after a few laps, saying he’s afraid to go fast.
     
  • 1938 Beginning with the R 61, BMW has introduced rear suspension on all production models. Six new models are introduced this year, including the R 23, R 51, R 66 and R 71. The R 71 is the last BMW bike to feature a side-valve engine.
     
  • 1939 Georg Meier wins the Isle of Man Senior TT on a BMW.

    With the start of World War II, BMW turns its attention back to airplane production.

     
  • 1941 BMW introduces the R 75, which was designed for war use. Weighing a whopping 925 pounds, the R 75 featured 750 cc engine, large gas tank, two seats and a sidecar. It could also be fitted with a machine gun.

    The U.S. Army is impressed with the R 75 and similar Zundapp models. Captured German bikes are sent back for Harley-Davidson and Indian to copy. Up to 1,000 prototypes are built, but those motorcycles never see action.

     
  • 1946 With the war over, BMW is forbidden to manufacturer motorcycles and turns its attention to making bicycles. To add insult to injury, German patents are taken in war reparation, and the French company CMR (later known as Ratier) begins making a BMW clone.
     
  • 1948 BMW begins motorcycle manufacturing again with the R 24. The company’s first post-war bike, the R 24 is powered by a 250cc engine, the maximum allowed at the time.
     
  • 1949 BMW introduces the R 50/2 and R 51/2. Both are seen as inferior as the main rear bearing had been moved into the crankcase and needed to be replaced every 10,000 miles.
     
  • 1950 The R 25 with plunging rear suspension is introduced.
     
  • 1952 BMW produces the 600cc R 67, outfitted with a sidecar.
     
  • 1953 BMW begins production of the RS Series, which features a swinging arm rear suspension and Earles forks. Also, the R 25 is redesigned and released as the R 25/3.

    The RS54 Rennsport production racer is unveiled.

     
  • 1954 The team of Wilhelm Noll and Fritz Kron win the sidecar World Championship. Their victory marks the start of an incredible run; BMWs will win 19 of the next 21 world titles!
     
  • 1955 The R 50, which also features a rear swingarm and leading-link front fork, replaces the R 51/3.

     
  • 1956 Walter Zeller finished second in the 500cc World Championship, behind John Surtees; it is BMW’s best “solo” result in the modern era.
     
  • 1957 Motorcycle production falls from 23,531 in 1955 to just 5,429 in 1959 due to an economic decline.
     
  • 1960 The classic R 69 S is introduced. It is the fastest Boxer available at the time, reaching a top speed of 109 mph. Also, the R 27 is released, which features a rubber-mounted engine to cut down on vibration.

     
  • 1967 Special United States export versions of the R 60 and R 69 are built, but no new models are released from 1961 through 1968.

     
  • 1969 The /5 Series is launched and features electric starters. The R 50/5, R 60/5 and R 75/5 are all released with telescoping front forks.
     
  • 1973 BMW celebrates its 50th anniversary and the 500,000th BMW motorcycle rolls off the line. The R 90 S is released, featuring a 900cc engine. The /6 Series is also introduced, with 600, 700 and 900cc variations.

     
  • 1974 For the first time, BMW offers five-speed gearboxes on production motorcycles.
     
  • 1976 BMW introduces the /7 1000cc R 100/7. The R 100 RS is also released, featuring the same 1000cc engine and a top speed of 125 mph. It is the first production bike to feature a full fairing.

    Helmut Dähne wins the Isle of Man Production (1000cc) TT.

    Reg Pridmore becomes the first-ever winner of the AMA “Production Superbike” championship, on an Udo Geitl-tuned R90S entered by Butler & Smith, the U.S. BMW importer.

     
  • 1977 The R80/7 is introduced and becomes a favorite of police forces.
     
  • 1978 The luxury-touring R100RT is introduced and features a full-touring fairing. The 473cc R 45 is also introduced.

     
  • 1980 The 800cc R80G/S is introduced, which features a single-sided swingarm. The initials stand for Gelände/Strasse, which is “offroad and street” in German.

     
  • 1981 Hubert Auriol wins the third edition of the Paris-Dakar race on an R80G/S prepared by HPN, a German specialist tuner that is still in the business of equipping BMWs for rough country.

     
  • 1982 BMW introduces a road version of the R80G/S – the R80RT.
     
  • 1983 The K100 is introduced – the first of the water-cooled K series. It is the first production bike with electronic ignition and fuel injection and has a top speed of 132 mph. A racing version called the K100RS is also introduced.
     
  • 1985 BMW designs its first three-cylinder motorcycle – the K75. This bike shares much in common with the K100 but consumes less fuel and is has more nimble handling.
     
  • 1986 BMW re-launches the R100RS with Monolever rear suspension and a 60 hp engine.
     
  • 1987 The R100RT is re-launched with Monolever rear suspension and a smaller engine. BMW also debuts its double-jointed single-sided swingarm Paralever system this year. The 1000cc K100LT luxury cruiser is also introduced.
     
  • 1988 The R100G/S goes into production and is known as the ‘largest dirt bike in the world’ thanks to its 463-pound weight.
     
  • 1989 The K1 goes into production. At the time, BMW was obeying a voluntary 100-hp limit on engine power. In order to maximize performance without exceeding that limit, the designers create a striking, all-encompassing aerodynamic body that allows the 600+ pound machine to reach 140+ mph. It features the first ever digital engine electronics system on a production bike. It’s far too strange for BMW’s (then) conservative riders, and as a result it will be was discontinued after a few years of underwhelming sales.

     
  • 1990 A four-valve version of the K100RS is introduced. ABS is now standard on all K series bikes.
     
  • 1991 The 1,000,000th BMW motorcycle is produced – a three-cylinder K75RT. BMW begins outfitting its motorcycles with three-way catalytic converters. BMW also re-releases its R100R.
     
  • 1993 The R1100RS sports tourer is introduced. The bike is powered by a fuel-injected, eight valve, twin-cylinder engine.
     
  • 1994 BMW’s first single is released in 30 years, the F650 Funduro, plus the first four-valve GS, the R1100GS.
     
  • 1995 This is the last year that the two-valve traditional Boxer is produced.
     
  • 1996 The powerful four-cylinder, liquid-cooled K1200RS is introduced.
     
  • 1997 BMW introduces its first chopper/cruiser – the R1200C. It’s the choice of James Bond, but that’s not enough to make it very popular. It will be discontinued a few years later.
     
  • 1999 Richard Sainct wins the Paris-Dakar on a race-tuned 650cc single-cylinder “Funduro.” Officially, the bike’s designated the F650RR. The only stock part on the entire machine is the taillight!
     
  • 2000 BMW releases its R1150GS, as well as a new luxury-tourer, the K1200LT.
     
  • 2004 An all-new, lighter and more powerful Boxer Twin motor equips the R1200GS.

    The K1200S is a radical new machine for the venerable manufacturer. It features an across-the-frame four-cylinder motor making a claimed 167 horsepower. It is the first time in years that BMW has shown a willingness to compete head-to-head in the marketplace with the world’s biggest motorcycle companies.

     
  • 2007 The company leaks news of the S1000RR, a four-cylinder literbike that it plans to race in the 2009 World Superbike Championship.

     
  • 2009 Taking the Japanese head on, the S1000RR sportbike represents a major shift for the company. Many aspects of the bike, including the engine and suspension, are kept conventional, though BMW used its electronics expertise in developing its advanced traction control system.
     
  • 2011 Not ready to rest on its laurels, the K1600GT and K1600GTL are introduced. Billed as the ideal machine to destroy miles and curvy roads — preferably at the same time — the K1600 series is the first BMW motorcycle powered by a six-cylinder engine.
     
Prepared with historical input by Mark Gardiner and other sources.
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