1995 BMW R1100R

Fifteen Rounds With A Contender

Sitting in a roadside cafe in Santa Monica the future was clear: At the curb, BMW's new R1100R standard. On the map, a route north. A day to do it. Gazing at the beemer, I tried to reconcile those great features -- torquey and smooth twin-cylinder boxer engine, antilock brakes, fuel injection, adjustable seat -- with its godawful ugly looks. No contest. When BMW designers put together the new boxer, it ended up looking like a boxer -- pug nose and cauliflower ears included -- but this bike is no slouch. That smooth motor packs a powerful punch and it was a great day for a fight with the weather on a stripped motorcycle.

Setting out from Los Angeles to ride to San Francisco with no rain gear is usually not a problem in May -- during spring in California's coastal region, the rain has stopped for the season. The calendar says so. So much for my smug reliance on traditional weather patterns. Turns out that (so far at least) 1995 is one of those years that winter never ends. But my ride was just beginning.

The clouds rolled out of the Pacific, covering the mountains north of Los Angeles with a thick white blanket. Broken clouds and rain were to dog my footsteps for the next 300 miles home, and the next three weeks afterward. On a naked bike, rain is as welcome as a cold wet crotch.

Over the next hill, the temperature dropped several degrees. And on this trip, that meant water falling from the sky. I hit the wet stuff near Santa Maria, about 200 miles out of LA, and things got dismal really quickly. Wet roads, wet face shield with water dripping in helmet, wet jeans and blinded four-wheeler drivers. I wished I'd saved some space in the capacious luggage bags for a rain suit. As I shuddered up 101 in the rain shadow of the mountains on either side I'd see dirty gray clouds coming down to the ground. But the road, somehow, would always aim between them. Those old road builders must have known their craft well, and their weather data was accurate. Certainly more accurate than the BMW's speedometer.

BMW's speedos are notorious for their optimism. Later I'd take the bike along to El Sobrante tuner Dale Lineaweaver's shop for a dyno run, just to check the accuracy of the speedo. Dale spun the bike up on the roller, and mapped indicated engine rpm against road speed (since the speedometer takes its reading off the front wheel, its needle remained stubbornly stuck at zero throughout the process). At an indicated 4,500rpm, the rear wheel is turning at 72mph. On the road, the needle is a couple of clicks below the eighty mark at this engine speed -- about 6mph optimistic, which is a very bad defense against a speeding ticket (Oh, officer, my speedo lies, I have to go too fast...).

Lineaweaver routinely uses an exhaust gas analyzer on every bike he tunes on his dyno, because the sniffer immediately shows the effects of the smallest jetting or engine changes. BMW's Motronic fuel injection system rated an big grin from Dale. The BMW was the cleanest bike he's ever run -- 10 times cleaner than the run of the mill machines. At idle, the Hydrocarbon (HC) count is less than 100 parts per million, and CO emissions just 0.2 percent. The reason, of course, is the catalytic converter stuck inside the muffler canister and the clean-running fuel injection. The injectors are simple cable-operated devices, with just one throttle-position sensor on the left injector to tell the Motronic brain what your throttle hand is up to. This single sensor, combined with separate throttle cables for each injector, can lead to some motor surging when the throttle cables stretch and the throttle bodies are no longer in synch with each other.

I had a tough time wrenching the bike out of Dale's grasp as he waxed lyrical about the tuning possibilities of changing the chip in the electronic control box, and how he'd just love to try those throttle body fuel injectors on his latest 70 hp Husaberg flat-tracker. Even if the speedometer lies, everything else is assembled with Teutonic thoroughness. The bike is designed for longevity and reliability -- check out the one million mile (seven digit) odometer, installed so if the bike turns over 100,000 miles (which it should, many times in its life) then the instrumentation will show it. Note that the odometer is more accurate than the speedometer, being only a couple of percent optimistic.

In San Luis Obispo, half way up the coast and not yet soaked, I stop for gas. The Beemer's tank is one of the rare ones that will hold a California-spec gas nozzle without messy and difficult fiddling with the double-hose that surrounds the delivery tube. You can walk away and leave the filler in the tank, and it fills up automatically. Magic. At 40 to 50 miles per gallon, depending on the angle of your right wrist, look for 150- 200 miles between fill-ups, if you can ignore the orange fuel warning light long enough. It, by contrast, seems rather pessimistic with regards to how much fuel is left in the tank. There's no reserve fuel tap, because running out of gas would discombobulate the fuel injection. A middle-aged fellow walked over during the refueling. After his first keen questions I asked "and which BMW do you ride? 

"Oh, I own an R75," he replied.

"Ah, a 750 twin from the Seventies?" I asked, ignorant of BMW lore.

"No," he said, "mine's a 750cc, 26hp R75 from 1943. Those were the pack mules, the jeeps of the German Army during WWII, designed especially for sidecar use, with a host of innovations, including two wheel drive (sidecar and rear wheel), and then-new telescopic forks."

The conversation soon turned to forks.

It's worth remembering BMW's suspension innovations back then, because in a way, the front wheel has now turned full circle. Before that war, BMW's competitors were using girder front forks, which used a rigid girder-like structure to connect the front wheel to the moving links and a spring behind the headlamp (like the new Harley-Davidson "springers"). Damping was by hand-adjusted friction dampers, and suspension was primitive. Influenced by its background in the airplane industry, BMW introduced the first hydraulically-damped telescopic front forks in 1938. Obviously, they caught on, because they're still in use more than 50 years later.

classic design theory and modern performance

Will BMW's new front suspension design still be around in 2045? I guess we'll have to wait and see. The wishbone-type front suspension is now in its third incarnation -- originally released on the R1100RS sport-tourer, it was refined for the R1100GS dual-sport and refined again for this R1100R model: Look for the system, or the next version of it, to be added to the four-cylinder K- bike range for the 1997 model year. It uses a single shock absorber that is spring mounted almost vertically in front of the engine, yet resembles nothing more than a set of upside-down forks to the casual observer. The lower legs run all the way to where the bottom triple clamp would normally live, and sweep a few inches of chrome-plated fork tubes at headlight level. There's nothing inside the tubes but air and a little lubricating oil, and their sole purpose is to keep the front wheel connected to the handlebars. Flexible mounts at the end of the tubes (where they mount to the top triple clamp) prevent the slight yawing motion of the tubes as the fork compresses from being transmitted to the rider. Compared to telescopic forks, the suspension lacks, ahem, elegance, but it works surprisingly well and allows the bike to be much shorter than it would be with telescopic forks allowing the same suspension travel.


 But don't get the impression this bike is a sport bike. That mantle belongs (perhaps) to its stable mate the R1100RS. The suspension is calibrated more for comfort than canyons, and the wide handlebars amplify every twitch of the rider's wrists at speed, so in fast corners both ends start to waggle in the breeze. Bridgestone Battlax tires are fitted, their famous stickiness a little wasted on this standard, and already way past their best with 4,000 miles under the saddle of this test bike.

Near Santa Margarita the train tracks parallel the highway. As the sun dipped into the pacific, sending a rare shaft between the clouds, it lit the silver sides of the two locomotives pulling a nine car train. The observation car's huge windows were black against the sun but I waved anyway as we both raced the sunbeams (the beemer won the speed contest, pulling away from Amtrak easily: around 5,500rpm the twin starts to pull hard, better than a train in this case). The clouds never cleared on that long ride, but luckily I never did get soaked out in the open on the naked bike. Maybe there'd be some good weather for a Sunday ride.

Sunday afternoon at Alice's Restaurant. Miles of winding forested roads beckoned -- but that morning the sun only appeared for a few minutes at a time between gathering thunder clouds. From the freeway, the hills around Alices were invisible, covered by a mantle of grey rain clouds. By the summit, the idea of a ride had evaporated. A thick, drenching torrent of rain was falling as a mournful group of riders gazed out over our coffee cups.

For me, the ride home from Alice's offers 15 miles of semi-familiar corners before the freeway section begins. In the rain, I was dreading that 15 miles. Sure enough, the water began to find its way through the seams of my gloves and dripped into my boots. But the rain had also washed the slippery leaves away from the apexes of the turns, the road was DOT approved (Devoid Of Traffic), and nobody else was around to see what an ugly bike I was riding. Traction from the Battlax tires was just fine, and those 15 miles turned into a memorable ride. As I splashed through the puddles, riding as smoothly as I could with the almost-certain knowledge that California's finest were holed up in the nearest donut shop, staring out over their coffee cups and not around the next corner sighting a radar gun. Sometimes, the prettiest way is not the best way, and a ride through stormy weather on an ugly bike can be the most fun of all.


1. Andy Saunders, Senior Editor  ***1/2

A naked bike should be a good all-around bike, capable of cruising from cafe to cafe across town, or blitzing up to Seattle tomorrow for that interview when Bill Gates returns your e-mail (finally). Aside from its weight (definitely on the heavy side), the R bike fits the bill nicely. The looks grow on you after a while, too, although I'm not sure about the plastic wings clumsily tacked on under the tank with sheet metal screws. Unfortunately, the price is on the heavy side too, so just for now, I think I'll pass on the pleasure of actually owning one.

2. Brent Plummer, Editor ****

The jokes about this BMW's styling got so mean around here that I'm almost afraid to say this: I think the R1100R looks really cool. Now before you haul off and pelt me with flames, hear me out: I have no ties to the classic BMWs of yesteryear and was never impressed with their "classic good looks" and certainly not with their terminal slowness. As a kid, I spent my time blasting around on a Kawasaki H1, blowing foul smoke at any BMW owner crazy enough to try and stay near. So all I saw was frustrated faces inhaling blue fumes. Anyway, after riding the R1100R -- with it's awesomely torquey street motor that is second to none for road use and decent handling -- I don't look at it and see an ugly duckling. In my mind's eye, I see a radically advanced bike replete with ABS and an earth-friendly catalytic converter that takes great pains to retain its heritage in long-lasting opposed twins. BMW, I think, has merged the best of both worlds -- classic design theory and modern performance. So here's a symbolic bow and a tip of the editorial hat to BMW: They have achieved greatness in this bike. Two problems that, when combined, keep this bike from getting our first five star rating: A huge sticker price and the front suspension isn't even adjustable for spring preload.   3. Mike Franklin, Road Test Editor ****

Is this bike a bold styling statement or a fashion faux-pas? I think it's really a GS in a tuxedo. Once you get past the looks, the 1100R's real beauty shines through. The word refined kept coming to mind as I racked up the miles during my stint on this bike. Everything about the bike says quality. The ABS brakes and the six-digit odometer both inspire confidence. Personal gripes are few: It should have front running lights for better conspicuity; the engine stops, and cannot be started, with the side stand down; and with the seat height adjusted so that both feet reach the ground the foot pegs felt too high for long distance running. The center stand is a lean-angle limiter, and if the pegs ever hit, they would soon be followed by the handlebars. Even so, the rave list is much longer. The removable bags are easy to use, and quite weather-proof, though just shy of being big enough to hold a full-face helmet. And the bike almost looks pretty without them. It's expensive at 11,490 dollars (with ABS, 9,990 without) but the laundry list of high-tech and environmentally friendly features that the price includes make it worth the money. My advice -- ride the beast, you'll see the beauty. I give Beemer's Boxer four stars.

Get Motorcycle.com in your Inbox