Today, some of the most popular bikes in a motorcycle company’s lineup are the retro-style ones. That’s something BMW knows very well. And not just because of the reception its own RnineT café racer and upcoming R18 cruiser enjoy. Classic BMW motorcycles have also become a trend in their own right.
Classic BMW motorcycle history
Although BMW got its start making airplanes, motorcycles would follow fairly shortly, The Bike Show explains. After WWI, no one wanted planes, so BMW went into bikes. Its first production motorcycle, the 1923 R32, introduced several features that the company still uses. Namely, shaft drive and a transverse two-cylinder engine. The bike’s design was so successful, Hemmings reports, BMW used it until the 1970 /5 Series debuted.
During that time, BMW also released the 1932 R12, the first production motorcycle with hydraulic forks. A rear suspension followed in 1937. And in 1939, the supercharged RS 255 Kompressor became the first non-British bike to win the Isle of Man TT, MoneyInc reports.
The 1970 /5 Series was the first classic BMW ‘Airhead’ motorcycle, BMWMotorcycleTech explains. It featured a frame inspired by Norton’s famous Featherbed frame, Union Garage reports, and a modern-style pressurized oil system. This frame was so well-received, its basic design lasted until 1995. Both the suspension and engine were updated as well. And the latter was available in 3 different capacities: 500cc (R50/5), 600cc (R60/5), and 750cc (R75/5).
The subsequent 1974 /6 Series added a few more features, like a front disc brake and larger engines. And it was also when the BMW R90S, the first true sports-touring bike, Cycle World reports, was released. It had a modified, more powerful version of the R90/6’s 900cc engine, Motorcycle Classics reports, a protective fairing, and dual front discs.
After the R90s came more classic BMW motorcycles. The 1976 R100RS (/7 Series) was one of the first bikes to feature an extended full-body fairing, RideApart reports. Then in 1980, BMW released the R80 G/S, the first adventure bike.
But arguably the most popular, especially for builders, remain the Airhead bikes—the /5, /6, and /7 Series, Petrolicious reports.
What makes classic BMW motorcycles appealing?
Aesthetics certainly play a part, Petrolicious explains. Naturally, as with cars, not every motorcycle will appeal to every person. But there’s a reason why the R18 cruiser’s style echoes that of the Airheads.
But arguably just as attractive as the styling is how ridable a classic BMW motorcycle still is. Even without a windscreen, Petrolicious reports, you can comfortably cruise even on a pre-Airhead model.
The R90S, Cycle World reports, may have a slightly notchy gearbox, but it’s stable at speed and starts more reliably than a contemporary Norton. In many ways, Motorcycle Classics reports, it feels like a modern touring bike. The brake pads and suspension, though, do benefit from modern upgrades.
In addition, the /6 Series and later bikes are fairly reliable, Vintage BMW and ADVRider forum users report. True, with carburetors, they’re not as fuel-efficient or fast. But the air-cooled flat-twin engine is very easy to work on, especially since it doesn’t need a radiator. And it’s very easy to find parts, Hagerty reports. It’s why, even now, Ural uses a version of the BMW air-cooled two-cylinder.
Also, although the cylinder head position may look awkward, and affects the possible lean angle, it does make for effective cooling. Plus, shaft drive requires less day-to-day maintenance than a chain drive.
Pricing and availability
As with many other older bikes, vintage and classic BMW motorcycles have risen over the years. Especially pre-war models, like the R32, Hagerty reports. They can go for over $100,000 at auction.
Even more-recent pre-Airhead models have started appreciating, Hagerty reports. A few years ago, a pristine 1960 BMW R60 would’ve cost about $12,000. Today, that’s roughly the price of admission for a ‘good’ condition bike, according to Bring a Trailer.
But /5, /6, and other Airhead-era (1970-1995) models are more reasonably priced. It’s possible to find an R90S for less than $10k, BaT reports. Other /6 Series go for closer to $5000.
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