BMW R80 G/S 54
When BMW built their first Gelände/straße boxer, no one knew they were inventing an entire class of modern motorcycle. Yet the original adventure-sport machines are still going strong. Mick Webb’s airhead has taken him to the top of the world…
When BMW built their first Gelände / Straße boxer, no one knew they were inventing an entire class of modern motorcycle. Yet the original adventuresport machines are still going strong. Mick Webb’s airhead has taken him to the top of the world…
Why is it that when we think of classic bikes, invariably our thoughts produce visions of older machinery? Classics surely aren’t created by age alone. They are still being created in our lifetimes, just waiting to see if, further down the road they qualify for that magic title. Who knows if BMW’S R80 G/S model will ever qualify as a classic? After 21 years of living with one, I feel that it is a good example of a bike that just might one day qualify for that lofty designation.
It was the late 1970s and BMW’S motorcycle sales were floundering due to a weak dollar and a perception that BMWS were too conservative against the growing threat from Japan. With BMW’S new three and four cylinder K-series models still in the development stage, an answer was urgently needed to keep BMW afloat until the K’s arrival in the marketplace.
The R80 G/S model was that answer. It was introduced in 1979/80 to a motorcycle world that cynically questioned its marketing rationale as a heavy motorcycle intended to be ridden both on and off road. Regardless, it successfully evolved to create a whole new genre in motorcycling; Adventure or dual-purpose models, the popularity of which dictates that every manufacturer now has to have a least one example in its model range. With the introduction of the next model, the R100GS, the slash between G and S was dropped, and continued thus for all future models.
It was 21 years ago when I bought my G/S, a 1985 model. I flew from Vancouver, British Columbia to Edmonton, Alberta to collect it and, being Easter, snow was still plentiful as I rode it home across the Rockies. However, although cold, the roads were clear and dry and I really enjoyed the 12 hour trip, stopping only for fuel and food. As the bike is the Parisdakar (PD) limited edition version, it has a large, 32-litre fuel tank that can yield over 300 miles between fuel stops. With its solo seat and sensible rear luggage rack, it is a basic, no-frills motorcycle capable of taking the rider long distances over varied road surfaces without frequent fuel stops. Exactly what I wanted.
The G/S was produced from 1980 to 1987. It may be elderly in the Dual-sport world, but is still very popular among riders contemplating global journeys, and has assumed a virtual cult-like status. Its main appeal is inherent simplicity that enables easy repairs on a lonely roadside if so needed. The 800 (797.5cc) engine in the G/S is generally accepted by the BMW cognoscente as perhaps being the sweetest of the boxer twins, and I can personally attest to its smoothness and pleasant torquey character. Squeezed into the smaller R65 frame, it handles very nimbly too.
The single-sided Monolever swinging arm was introduced with this model and greatly simplifies rear wheel removal. Ironically, this earlier, more basic example has proved to be virtually bulletproof compared to the later, more sophisticated Paralever drive system.
However, not all is perfect with the G/S.
It is almost guaranteed that eventually an expensive aftermarket rear shock will be needed, as the stock one is generally accepted as being unserviceable. Likewise, I found the front brake sadly lacking in its performance, as were the front forks. These criticisms are commonly echoed by many other G/S owners. Also, rather strangely, I found that the PD tank created a slightly longer reach to the handlebars than expected. Perhaps this is because of the smaller R65 frame?
I rode the bike all that summer, making note of what needed attention, mechanically and cosmetically, and when winter arrived I took the bike to pieces. I dislike white motorcycles so the colour had to be changed. At that time I had a small shop specialising in motorcycle paintwork so it was easy for me to change to a colour scheme I preferred. Sacrilege to some perhaps, but it can easily be rectified. To retain the essence of the factory paint scheme, I colour-matched and painted the petrol tank’s original three-colour graphics, and had Paris-dakar decals made up in silver. It was
my intention to create a conservative ‘factory’ look, and I feel the Audi metallic grey and graphics achieves that.
The G/S in stock form is an excellent bike, yet that very excellence encouraged me to subtly tailor it to my own personal tastes. Thus, recklessly committing sacrilege, I replaced the plastic headlight nacelle. I considered the stock, 5.5” headlight rather small and felt that replacing the whole, unlovely cowling would be an improvement in both looks and function. To this end I fabricated a different headlight mounting system to hold a larger, 7” 1971 BSA headlight, the shallower profile of which enabled me to tuck it in closer to the steering head for a neater, more compact look.
A local machine shop turned the two instrument pods from simple aluminium tubing on a lathe, one to accept the speedometer, and the other for warning lights and ignition key, then welded them onto a sturdy aluminium bracket I had fabricated. They now sat at a better angle to read while riding. Blended into this fabricating process was a horizontal cross tube that carried the tachometer and clock on brackets, and smaller, neater turn signals by Touratech mounted on the tube ends
with internal wiring. Fully expecting to do a lot of riding on questionable road surfaces, I rubber mounted the whole assembly to resist vibration and it has been totally trouble-free.
In its stock position the front fender is mounted directly underneath the bottom fork yoke. I felt that this height was a bit visually excessive, and I lowered it to a more reasonable position that better protects the bike from road water yet still doesn’t get clogged with mud. This also frees me from the exaggerated moto-cross look that frankly I felt was overt and unnecessary for my riding purposes. Attending to that necessitated my fabricating a new fender mount that also functions as an efficient fork brace.
As was inevitably required, an aftermarket shock by Works Performance was fitted and has given good service although, if I had to do it again, I would have bought a more expensive, adjustable one. The longish reach to the handlebars required experimenting with various bar-backs, until arriving at the current, custom made ones that have proven the most comfortable.
A lot of research regarding G/S front ends confirmed that I was not alone in my criticism of the front brake and forks. There are options available to rectify the situation but most were beyond my financial means. I settled on a solution within my meagre budget, while still retaining the essence of BMW. I fitted a set of used front forks off a later, 1988 R100GS. These are 40mm Marzocchis and an improvement over the original, spindly 32mm BMW ones. These forks and their yokes were a virtual bolt-on fit, and importantly, with a miniscule amount milled off the brake caliper’s mounts, I was able to fit a fourpiston caliper off a later oilhead R1100 that mated perfectly with the Marzocchi’s brake rotor. Thus, with this relatively inexpensive conversion employing used parts, I resolved my front suspension and braking issues in one simple operation.
However, while it was necessary to retain the hub and rotor original to the Marzocchi forks, I didn’t want to use the accompanying wheel rim – one that employs a very different style of spoke lacing to that of my original G/S wheel. Wanting both wheel rims to match visually, I sent the new hub and my original rim to Buchanan’s in California for a specialised spoke lacing job. They did a great job, and both wheels now match. This front end conversion has rectified my earlier concerns, and is sufficiently indistinguishable from stock not to draw attention – the look I wanted.
I also wanted more long distance comfort than the stock seat offered, so had the seat completely reupholstered by Rich’s, a motorcycle-specific upholsterer in Seattle. Clever sculpting of the seat sides means I am able to place both feet flat on the ground at rest, with no compromise to riding comfort. I was concerned about a suitable weatherproof covering, but acting upon Rich’s advice (a very experienced long-distance rider) I chose genuine leather, and its flexibility provides a very comfortable perch that has seen many 1000 km days. I occasionally treat it with leather soap, paying particular attention to the stitching. In 16 years I’ve had no water problems at all, despite many consecutive days of riding in torrential rain. I also had a custom-fitted tank cover made for paint protection on gravel roads, and this has more than earned its cost.
In 21 years the G/S has only let me down twice, both times on the road and a long way from home, and both electrically related. On one such breakdown I had to get the bike home as it couldn’t be fixed at the roadside (at least, not by me). I struck a deal with a trucker, who took it the 750 miles needed
to get me close to home. With no space available in his semi’s fully-loaded trailer, we muscled the bike onto the truck’s exposed chassis between the back of the cab and the trailer, and roped it down. In typical trucker fashion, on the open-road it was a pedal-to-the-metal ride. No problem in the daylight, however it was attention-getting as we hurtled at breakneck speed through the Fraser Canyon at dead of night with the driver steering one-handed, while texting drug deals with the other. The canyon was pitch black, and the precipitous drop to the Fraser River hundreds of feet below didn’t seem to register with him as the huge truck swayed back and forth around the tight bends.
Upon finally getting home, and following relevant research, I changed the stock electronic ignition to an Endurolast system, and have been very satisfied – and problem free – ever since. Although I occasionally use aftermarket parts, I do try to use BMW parts whenever possible; although expensive they are of good quality. Oil filters are a prime example: I once fitted a good, name-brand aftermarket one. Upon removing it at the next oil change, it was crushed, as if stepped upon. Puzzled, I replaced it with another of the same brand that I had as a spare, but vowing to only run it for maybe 100 miles before checking. This was duly done, to reveal yet another crushed filter. Fitting a genuine BMW filter has since eliminated the problem.
There are many tyre choices available for the G/S, and I have tried several. I found Avon Gripsters to be the cheapest, and ironically the best for handling, grip, and longevity, demonstrating very good value in tyres.
To ride the G/S is a real pleasure. Regardless of conditions or temperatures, it immediately grunts into life every time, quickly settling into a steady idle. Once moving I am always surprised at how light it feels for a bike of this size. Its declared
weight varies with whatever report you are reading, but I feel an oft-quoted 420lb is a reasonable average. Cornering is steady and dependable, with it sticking to its chosen line, and yet easily corrected mid-corner if so needed. On a particular local highway known for its fast bends and corners, I could hustle the G/S along faster than I could the Laverda Jota I also had at one time, due entirely to its light, nimble handling. Indeed, given the chance it is exhilarating to ride the G/S on a fast, twisty road and yet equally it can easily poodle through heavy traffic all day long.
With a power output of 50bhp at 6500rpm, this is not a fast bike – but it’s fast enough – and to seek high speed from it is missing the point. What the G/S excels at, is reliable, effortless cruising at respectably rapid speeds, while the unobtrusive pulse of the boxer engine encourages the rider to relax and enjoy the scenery. There is an inbuilt pleasant reassurance that, if up ahead there awaits endless stretches of gravel / dirt roads it is not a problem to the G/S or the rider.
Case in point is the top north-west corner of North America. As if finally exhausted of roads, at a certain point there are only two roads left that venture further north across the inhospitable Arctic tundra. One is the Dempster Highway in Canada that I rode 737km to Inuvik (as far as you could go at that time), and the other is the Dalton Highway in Alaska, USA whose 666km took me to Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Both are hard-bitten, rough gravel and dirt roads that are challenging to both rider and bike.
Commencing the homeward leg from Prudhoe Bay I rode for 15 hours – with only one stop for fuel – to Fairbanks, Alaska. This was a distance of 865km, 666km of which was the punishing Dalton Highway. The total round trip from Vancouver was 9000km and was completed in 14 days. Regardless of some horrendously bad weather conditions that I encountered, the G/S performed flawlessly the whole journey. Upon arriving home covered in mud, it idled as calmly and unflustered as when we left.
And while the G/S is admittedly is not as old as the well-travelled Guzzi Eldorado of another ex-pat Brit – Nick Adams – it was nonetheless 24 years old at that time, and its odometer turned 100,000 km on the first day of the trip.
While this is only my opinion and others may differ, I feel the G/S is possibly the most perfect all-rounder motorcycle ever born; it’s hardly surprising that owners have elevated it to cult status. Could this be an interpretation of classic?