22 BMW GS At 40
The evolution of this iconic motorcycle as it turns 40
The Gs boxer’s ProGress from the simPle, 37-hp r80G/s of 1980 to today’s sophisticated, 136-hp r 1250 Gs has been relentless. the statistics — not least the production total of over three quarters of a million in that time — are astonishing. and the way the big Gs has led the migration to adventure bikes from race replicas, sports-tourers, and even cruisers has transformed the motorcycling scene. Yet, as the Gs boxer celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, looking in better health than ever, the most remarkable part of the story is right back at the beginning. because without the unexpected success of that r80G/s début model, bmW would probably have abandoned flat twins decades ago and might even have quit motorcycle production completely.
if that sounds melodramatic, there is no doubt that in the late 1970s, bmW came close to closing their two-wheeled division. the firm’s bike sales were falling; hit particularly by a weak dollar in the us, where over a third of production was sold. the familiar boxer engine layout seemed outdated alongside more powerful Japanese fours. and although bmW had begun developing their own four-cylinder unit, production was years away. (the K100 would not be launched until 1984.)
in 1979, bmW Group boss eberhard von Kuenheim replaced the motorcycle operation’s management with a new team, including sales director Karl Gerlinger. ‘When he asked us to take over, he said, “decide whether you make it or you close it — whether you sell off the stuff and it’s the end of the story”,’ Gerlinger recalled in 2010, when reminiscing at bmW’s annual festival at Garmisch in austria.
although Gerlinger was reluctant to end a motorcycle story that already stretched back over 50 years to the r32 of 1923, even he could not see a long-term future for the boxer. ‘We thought we needed a new, modern generation machine, moving away from the flat twin,’ he said. ‘but that takes four years at least and, in the meantime, you go bankrupt if you have nothing to sell. so, we needed something that we could develop quickly.’
as with many successful ideas, there is a debate about who came up with the plan for a dual-purpose boxer. legendary designer hans müth, who had already created the stylish, bikini-faired r90s for bmW (and would go on to shape suzuki’s Katana) claims that in 1978 when, while brainstorming concepts with the firm’s head of product planning, he had noticed his range rover parked outside and suggested a two-wheeled version.
around the same time, laszlo Peres, a bmW test department engineer, had ridden a self-built, 800-cc boxer to second place in the German enduro championship. Peres saw the opportunity of a production model and teamed up with some fellow engineers to build a prototype for testing.
Gerlinger was initially sceptical. ‘laszlo first came into my office and tried to convince me we needed to do motor sport,’ he recalled. ‘i said no, first we need a bike to sell. but he insisted and later the engineers said: “We have something in the basement — come down and look at what we have to show you.” When i tested it, i said: “Jesus christ, this thing