BMW is one of the most significant names in the motorcycle world today, but for much of their history, they've also been the "odd one out", always marching to the beat of their own drum. BMW's story is as unique and interesting as their motorcycles - read on to see why!
Over 90 years of history building motorcycles...and BMW is now going stronger than ever!
When most people think about BMW, they think about the brand’s luxury cars – the “ultimate driving machines.” Many people aren’t even aware that BMW makes motorcycles at all. But for those of us in the riding community, BMW is actually one of the most significant names in the motorcycle world.
Having been around for over 90 years, the brand continues to grow at a healthy pace; in 2014 they sold over 120,000 motorcycles worldwide, marking the fourth year of record-breaking sales in a row. From it’s luxurious RT touring machines, to the adventurous GS, to the sport bike perfection of the S1000RR, there’s just no denying it - BMW manages to be at the forefront in every market they compete in.
But for much of their history, they’ve also been a bit of an odd duck. They’ve stuck with their own unusual way of doing things for nearly a century, and have managed to carve out a reputation that is an unusual mix of both quirky and conservative. While the brand has had both epic successes and big failures over the years, it has always marched to the beat of it’s own drum - and that’s exactly what BMW riders like so much about their motorcycles!
Like it’s motorcycles, the story of BMW is a unique and interesting one, and no matter what kind of bike you ride, you’ll enjoy learning about the brand, and appreciate the innovations BMW has brought to the world motorcycling!
The Humble Beginnings of BMW Motorrad
BMW stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works.) The company started in 1916, and specialized in building highly advanced aircraft engines. 1916, of course, was smack dab in the middle of World War I, and as an aircraft engine manufacturer, BMW’s primary customer was the German Air Force. But after losing the war, the treaty of Versailles banned Germany from manufacturing any aircraft at all. Immediately, all of BMWs engineering talent was redirected toward making engines for other industrial uses.
The father of the iconic BMW "boxer" engine and BMW's motorcycle program, Max Friz.
One of the most brilliant aircraft engine designers in Germany at the time was a young man named Max Friz. In 1921, at 33 years old, he was the first to develop a 500cc flat-twin engine, which he created as a portable industrial motor. Right away, small German motorcycle builders began to snap up this motor to power their machines. Immediately Friz saw why it made such a good motorcycle engine – by having both cylinders mounted across the direction of travel, sticking out into the wind, the problem of even cylinder cooling that plagued other engine designs had been solved!
The engine that started it all, the 500cc BMW flat-twin. This engine design was torqey, perfectly balanced, and solved the problem of uneven cooling of cylinder heads on a motorcycle.
The following year, BMW happened to acquire one of those motorcycle manufacturers, and Friz now had the tools he needed for BMW to build its own motorcycle, completely in-house. Seeing it’s potential, he worked day and night to design one with his own engine at its heart, and in 1923 the first-ever complete BMW vehicle was introduced (that’s right, BMW’s first vehicle ever made was actually a motorcycle!)
The R32 had a 486cc flat-twin, put out 8.5HP, and had a top speed of around 60MPH. It was technologically advanced – the engine and gearbox were bolted together as a single unit, it had an efficient shaft drive, and featured a wet-sump oiling system at a time when total-loss oiling systems were the industry standard.
BMW's first ever vehicle was this motorcycle, the R32, introduced in 1923.
Fun Fact: the flat-twin engine and shaft drive adopted in 1923 would end up becoming the most recognizable part of the brand’s identity, still being used in the majority of BMW models over 90 years later!
After the R32, BMW had a number of other successes in the motorcycle market. In 1931, the single-cylinder, 200cc R2 was introduced, which was huge hit in Germany because it could be operated without a motorcycle license. Then in 1935, a major technological innovation was introduced by BMW – telescoping forks with hydraulic damping. Those revolutionary forks would go on to become the industry standard on motorcycles to this day.
BMW factory workers, hard at work assembling R32s.
By the end of the 1930s, BMW had gained enough experience to take its racing game to the world stage. They were able to field a fully faired, supercharged 500cc motorcycle to attempt to beat the land speed record in 1937. It did so, reaching an astounding 173 MPH - a record that held for 14 years! BMW also dominated in road racing; in 1939, a BMW ridden by German Georg Meier wins the legendary Isle of Man TT race – the first ever non-Briton to do so on a German bike!
It may look unusual, but it worked incredibly well (which is kind of BMWs philosophy) - this bike set a land speed record that held for an incredible 14 years!
Fun Fact: After WWII, the FIM banned forced induction motors in racing, which punished the Germans (and their Axis allies, the Italians), who fielded many successful supercharged engines in racing before the war! This was thought to benefit the British, who preferred naturally aspirated engines...and, of course, won the war.
BMW's Role in WWII
As with nearly every major manufacturing company in Europe, World War II changed everything for BMW.
While the company focused heavily on aircraft engines to supply the huge demands of the Nazi war machine, there was also a great demand for its motorcycles. Of all the motorcycles fielded by the Wehrmacht, the BMW R75 was a standout, especially in the desert battlefields of North Africa, where it’s shaft drive and telescoping forks protected critical parts from sand and grit.
A mounted German soldier takes a break for chow on his BMW military motorcycle.
U.S. Army commanders were so impressed with the R75, they sent captured ones home asking for a similar machine to be developed for their troops. Harley-Davidson’s response was “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” and they simply reverse engineered it, building a Harley-Davidson badged virtual R75 clone called the XA. Over 1000 were built for the Army - but ironically, they were never even sent the field! )Today, both BMW R75s and the H-D XAs are prized collectors items.)
The technologically advanced BMW R75, with 2WD, shaft drive, and telescoping forks. Like much of the Wehrmacht's equipment, the Allies were impressed with the engineering the Germans were fielding against them, and they used it to improve their own.
BMW in the Post-War Period
Much like every other manufacturer serving the German war effort, BMW was in ruins after the war. Allied bombing had reduced BMWs production facilities to rubble. The U.S./Soviet split of Germany cut BMW in half, with its headquarters in Berlin under U.S. control, but it’s production facility in Eisenach controlled by the Soviets. In addition, most of BMWs top engineers were sent to either the U.S. or the Soviet Union to continue work on jet engines they began during the war.
But worst of all, Germany’s terms of surrender to the U.S. forbade any manufacture of motorcycles in the country at all. However, in 1947, the U.S. revoked that rule, allowing BMW to start building motorcycles again; trouble was, all the designs and schematics had been either captured or destroyed during the war. BMWs designers had to start from scratch, but they did it in the smartest way possible – by reverse engineering their own pre-war motorcycles!
With a little German resolve and ingenuity, BMW was able to restart motorcycle production by the following year, starting with the single-cylinder, 250cc R24. For a country still reeling from the destruction of the war, this cheap, reliable form of transportation was essential, and the R24 saw huge demand. BMW Motorrad was back in business.
BMW plant workers inspecting their first postwar motorcycle, the R24
BMW's infrastructure was virtually destroyed in WWII, but their spirit wasn't - with the R24, BMW got back on their feet and provided much-needed mobility for a continent recovering from a devastating war.
Fun Fact: In East Germany, the Soviets took control of the Eisenach factory, where they ordered motorcycles to be produced and delivered to the Red Army as reparations. So in 1948, when the U.S. permitted motorcycle production in West Germany, there were actually two separate BMW motorcycle companies, operating completely independently of each other. This continued until 1952, when a lawsuit settled the dispute; from then on, the East German BMW was renamed EMW, and they adopted a logo identical to BMWs, but with red in place of the trademark blue.
1950s and 1960s
Inexpensive, efficient motorcycles like the R24 helped the German economy to get back on it’s feet, and helped BMW as a manufacturing company recover from near total destruction. BMW was posting growing sales year after year, reaching a peak of over 30,000 units by 1954. However, by the late 1950s, the booming economies in the U.S. and Western Europe started to have a change in taste; most people could afford big, luxurious cars by that time, and the demand for motorcycles as cheap mobility had fallen off.
The early 1960s were tough times for BMW, and the motorcycle division was nearly shut down; however, a healthy automotive division allowed it to weather the storm. By the late 1960s, BMW had learned that motorcycles were a luxury good in the west, and they recovered by stepping up their motorcycle game to meet the demands of its now more affluent customers.
BMW had to change it's game in the Sixties to meet the demands of changing markets in the West. Here is a 1966 BMW R60, interestingly being ridden by none other than Steve Jobs!
By the Seventies, BMW was back in the saddle. They kicked off the decade with a whole new lineup, the /5 series of motorcycles, with all-new engines using advancements borrowed from their automotive division. In addition, BMW had moved its production to an all-new factory in Spandau, West Berlin. In 1973, the healthy company reached two huge milestones: 50 years in business, and 500,000 motorcycles built!
Throughout the rest of the 1970s, BMW would continue to innovate. They began to introduce larger, full fairings for rider comfort; the R100RS was the first-ever fully faired motorcycle, and essentially created the sport-touring category. In 1976, the R90S, a sporty 900cc, 67HP machine, was introduced (a now-legendary model that was recently memorialized by builder Roland Sands, with a beautiful tribute motorcycle built from a new RnineT.)
One of the most famous BMW motorcycles of all time, the sporty R90S.
The R100RS, the first ever fully-faired motorcycle (and part of the origin of the sport-touring category of motorcycles.)
But probably the most exciting innovations of the 1970s came right at the end of the decade, as BMW began to venture heavily into the world of long-distance off-road racing. BMW’s engineers were building heavily modified prototypes to compete in races like the Paris Dakar Rally. BMW liked its racers so much, it decided to put them into production just in time to kick off the 1980s – and ended up creating a whole new category of motorcycle in the process!
The most significant event of the 1980s for BMW came in the first year of the decade, when BMW released a production version of its “travel enduro” racer, dubbed the R80 G/S. This would be the first of the now legendary GS line-up: powerful, robust, on/off-road motorcycles built for long-distance travel over any type of terrain (this also marked the birth of the now booming ADV motorcycle segment.)
The birth of a revolution - the R80 G/S was the first of the now legendary BMW GS series, and the beginning of the now booming ADV motorcycle segment.
Fun Fact: G/S initially stood for “Gelande/Strasse,” which translates to “off-road/road.” However, the moniker was changed in 1987, when the “S” was changed to stand for “Sport.”
BMW would continue to innovate throughout the Eighties. In 1983, the water-cooled K-series is introduced; touring bikes with longitudinally mounted four-cylinder engines and electronic fuel injection (the first time ever used on a motorcycle.) In 1988, an even bigger development took place at BMW, as they became the first manufacturer ever to use ABS on motorcycles.
The following year, BMW became the first manufacturer to offer a digital electronics system on a motorcycle with its K1 (but this was a bit too far ahead of its time, and the K1 was discontinued only a few years later!)
1990s to Today
By the 1990s, BMW was a very healthy motorcycle manufacturer, whose motorcycles were known about and desired all over the world. It was a good decade for BMW; they demonstrated environmental awareness by becoming the first manufacturer to fit all their models with catalytic converters, and finally broke the self-imposed 100HP barrier with the top-of-the-line sport tourer, the 130HP K1200RS. BMW closed the millennium with a bang, delivering over 65,000 machines in 1999.
In the 2000s, they stepped their game up even more. In 2005, BMW introduced its HP2 line, hand-built limited production motorcycles featuring exclusive materials and cutting-edge technology, starting with the HP2 Enduro, and followed by the HP2 Sport. That was only the beginning of BMW’s competitive streak; in 2007, BMW made huge news when it leaked that, for the first time ever, it had plans to release a true 4-cylinder superbike to compete in WSBK.
The HP2 line was BMWs first foray into ultra-premium, hand-built limited production motorcycles. The HP2 Sport, shown here, was a prized model, and paved the way for BMWs first entry into the inline-4 supersport market dominated by the Japanese.
That came to fruition in 2009, when the S1000RR was introduced, and with that bike BMW accomplished an astonishing feat – the S1000RR dominated on the streets and the race track, being considered the finest sport bike on the market in its very first year in production. When BMW does something...they do it right! Another revolution came in 2011 when, for the first time in the company’s history, they used a 6-cylinder engine in a motorcycle, featured in the ultimate sport tourer, the K1600.
The spectacular BMW S1000RR. Building the finest supersport bike on the market is a challenge for any manufacturer; doing it with the first one your company ever built, however, is simply legendary.
BMW, Riding Onward into the Future
The BMW story is rich with history, and is ultimately one of a brand that has weathered many storms in a way many successful German companies have – by constantly seeking advancement in engineering and technology, while still remaining very true to their heritage. Today, the BMW brand continues to enjoy an intense brand loyalty rivaled probably only by Harley-Davidson, but still wins over more new riders every year with awesome new machines and persistent innovation. Love them, hate them, or just don’t quite “get” them, there’s no denying that BMW has contributed a lot to making motorcycles what they are today, and they continue to be a force to be reckoned with!
Over 90 years of fun (and counting) on BMW motorcycles...BMW is going stronger than ever into the future!
Do you have a cool story about a historic BMW motorcycle in your life? Share it in the comments below!