Historic Motorcycle Brands
BMW’s motorcycle history began in 1921, when the company began manufacturing engines for other companies. BMW’s own motorcycle production, under the BMW Motorrad brand, started in 1923, with the BMW R32, powered by a flat-twin ‘boxer’ engine.
Flugmotor BMW IIIa – Arjun Sarup
In 1910, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG, an aircraft engine manufacturer, was formed and renamed six years later to Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW.
BMW’s first product was a straight-six aircraft engine named the BMW Illa and it, plus other developments, were employed during World War I.
BMW M2B15 engine
At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles forced BMW out of aircraft engine production, so to remain in business, the company began producing small industrial engines, farm equipment, household items and railway brakes.
1920 Helios with BMW engine
In 1920, the BMW M2B15 flat-twin petrol engine was released. Despite being designed as a portable industrial engine, the M2B15 was also used by several motorcycle manufacturers, powering 1920–1923 Victoria KR1 and 1920–1922 Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFw) Helios motorcycles.
BMW R32 – Stahlkocher
The production of the company’s first motorcycle, the 500cc BMW R32, designed by Max Friz, was in 1923.
The flat-twin petrol engine was longitudinally-mounted to eliminate the cooling problems of the transversely mounted engine in the Helios. This engine’s 8.5bhp gave a top speed of 95 to 100 km/h.
At a time when many motorcycle manufacturers used total-loss oiling systems, the BMW engine featured a recirculating wet sump oiling system, with drip-feed roller bearings. This design feature lasted until 1969. The R32 also employed a shaft drive design that was used on all BMW motorcycles until 1994.
To gain publicity for BMW, Rudolf Schleicher, a motorcycle racer and BMW engineer, designed a steel cylinder, with an alloy OHV cylinder head for the 1925 R37, nearly doubling power to 16bhp. The R37 was the first sporting BMW.
The R37 development was the basis for BMW’s racing machines that dominated all German Championships in the 500cc category from 1924 to 1929.
1925 BMW R39 – Rasevic
The first single-cylinder BMW motorcycle was the 1925 BMW R 39, powered by a 250cc that proved unsuccessful and was discontinued in 1927. It was followed by the 1931 BMW R2 that had a 200cc engine and could be ridden in Germany without a motorcycle licence.
Single-cylinder models continued with the 400cc BMW R4 in 1932 and the 300cc BMW R3 in 1936.
1931 BMW R2 – J H Janssen
The 1935 BMW R12 and BMW R17 were the first production motorcycles with hydraulically damped telescopic forks.
In 1937, Ernst Henne recorded a top speed of 279.5km/h on a BMW 500 Kompressor racing motorcycle, setting a world record that stood for 14 years.
The 1939 BMW R71 746cc was expensive to build and well engineered, but only 2638 motorcycles were built before production was disrupted by the War. Soviet Union copies were the Dnepr M-72 that was produced from 1942 until 1960 and IMZ-Ural motorbikes.
BMW R12 – Aka
During World War II, the BMW R75 was a success in North Africa, partly due to the protruding cylinders of the flat-twin engine providing more effective cooling than other configurations. Shaft drives also performed better than chain-drives that were damaged by desert grit. The R75 inspired a similar model from US manufacturer Harley-Davidson with the XA.
In Soviet-controlled East Germany, BMW’s motorcycle plant in Eisenach recommenced production of R35 and R75 motorcycles soon after the War, as part of the agreed reparations. However, the head office of BMW, based in Munich, had no control over the operations in East Germany.
In 1952, after the Soviets ceded control of the plant to the East German Government and following a trademark lawsuit, the East German company was renamed Eisenacher Motorenwerk (EMW). Instead of BMW’s blue-and-white roundel, EMW used a very similar red-and-white roundel as its logo.
In West Germany, many of BMWs facilities had been badly damaged during the War, including the Munich factory that was in ruins. Initially, the terms of Germany’s surrender forbade BMW from manufacturing motorcycles.
1948 BMW R24 production
In 1947, when BMW received permission to restart motorcycle production from US authorities in Bavaria, BMW had to start from scratch, because the plans, blueprints and schematic drawings were in Eisenach.
The first post-War BMW motorcycle from Western Germany was the 1948 BMW R24. The R 24 was reverse-engineered from the pre-War R23 motorcycle, with several improvements and was powered by a 247cc, single-cylinder engine. It was the only post-War West German model without rear suspension. In 1949, BMW produced 9200 units and by 1950 production surpassed 17,000 units.
1951 R51 – Jeff Dean
Production of flat-twin models resumed in 1950 with the 500cc R 51/2 model, followed by the R51/3 and R67 twins in 1951, both with ‘bell-bottom’ front fenders and front stands. The sporting 35hp R 68 came in 1952.
Motorcycle sales in Europe plummeted as the 1950s progressed. In 1954, BMW produced 30,000 motorcycles, but by 1957, that number was less than 5500.
1959 BMW R50 with Earles forks – Craig Howell
In 1955, BMW began introducing a new range of motorcycles with Earles forks and enclosed drive shafts. These models were the 26hp R50, the 30hp R60 and the 35hp sporting R69.
By the late 1950s, BMW was in financial trouble and only narrowly avoided a merger with Daimler-Benz, thanks to financing from brothers Herbert and Harald Quandt and Harald Quandt, along with increasing car sales and the sale of its aircraft engine division.
BMW R27 – Badseed
Changes in the motorcycle market saw BMW’s last shaft-driven, single-cylinder model, the R27, end production in 1967.
Most of BMW’s offerings were still designed to be used with sidecars, but by the late 1960s, sidecars were no longer a consideration of most riders: people were interested in sportier motorcycles instead.
The R50/2, R60/2, and R69S were the last sidecar-capable BMWs, with the latter being the most powerful and desirable model.
1967 BMW R60/2 – Jeff Dean
In the USA, sales of motorcycles remained strong, giving impetus to specific ‘US’ models that were sold in the late 1960s: the R50 US, R60 US and the R69 US. These models were sold with telescopic forks, in contrast to other BMW models which were sold with Earles forks and without sidecar lugs.
The model range was entirely revamped in 1969 with the introduction of the BMW ‘/5’ range, consisting of the 500cc R50/5, 600cc R60/5 and 750cc R75/5 models.
1966 BMW R69S – Lothar Spurzem
The ‘/5’ engines were a complete redesign, with the crankshaft bearings changed from roller bearings to shell-type journal bearings. The camshaft was chain-driven and located underneath the crankshaft instead of at the top of the engine, in order to lower the centre of gravity.
An electric starter was available for the first time, although the traditional, gearbox-mounted kick-starter was also retained.
BMW R75/5 – Stahlkocher
The styling of the first models included chrome-plated side panels and a restyled tank.
In 1973, the rear swing arm was lengthened, which improved the handling and allowed a larger battery to be installed.
The introduction of the ‘/5’ models coincided with production relocating from Munich to a new factory in Spandau, West Berlin.
BMW R75/6 – Priwo
The BMW ‘/6’ range replaced the ‘/5’ models in 1974, at which time the 500cc engine was discontinued and a 900cc engine introduced. The ‘/6’ model range consisted of the 600 cc R60/6, the 750cc R75/6, the 900cc R90/6 and the sporting 900cc R90 S. Other upgrades included a five-speed gearbox and improved brakes and electrical system. In 1975, the kick starter was finally eliminated.
In 1976, the BMW ‘/7’ range replaced the ‘/6’ models. The 800cc R80/7 model was introduced and the 900cc R90/6 and R90S models were replaced by the 1000cc R100/7, R100S and R100RS models. The latter 68hp model had a full fairing and a top speed of 200km/h.
Later variants of the 1000cc models were the R100T ‘Touring’ R100RT and R100CS ‘Classic Sport’.
The 1978 R45 and R65 were entry-level 450cc and 650cc models that replaced the R60/7. Later variants of the R65 were the 1982 R65LS, the sporting R65S and the 1987 dual-sport R65GS.
1984 BMW K100RS – Thomas Hundt
The K100, introduced in 1983, marked a departure from BMW’s tradition of air-cooled, flat-twin engines. It was powered by a water-cooled, in-line, four engine with a displacement of 987cc and was BMW’s first fuel-injected motorcycle engine. The frame was tubular steel and the rear suspension was a single-sided swingarm.
In 1985, the K75 was added as an entry-level model. The K75 was powered by a three-cylinder, in-line, 750cc engine, which was BMW’s first engine to use a counter-balance-shaft.
In 1988, the K100 became the first motorcycle to have anti-lock brakes (ABS) and in 1989 the K100RS 4V model became the first BMW motorcycle to use an engine with four valves per cylinder.
BMW K1 – Stahlkocher
The 1988 K1 sports tourer was BMW’s first full-fairing sport bike. It had an aerodynamic body which was designed to minimise drag at high speeds.
Production of flat-twin touring models continued, with the R100 and R80 model ranges.
Beginning with the 1993 R1100RS sports tourer, BMW began to transition from engines with air-cooled cylinder heads to oil-cooled cylinder heads.
BMW Telelever – Piero
The R100 RS also used ’Telelever’ front suspension and a stressed engine as part of the frame structure.
Also introduced in 1993 were the single-cylinder F650 models, based on the Aprilia Pegaso 650. The related F650CS began production in 2001. (Allan Whiting had an F650 for years and loved its simplicity.)
BMW F650 – Leuderalbert
The R80GS and R100GS models remained in production until 1997, before being replaced by the newer ‘oil-head’ R850 series, the 1994–1999 R1100R, the 1994–1999 R1100GS dual-sport, the 1996–2001 R1100RT tourer, the 1998–2005 R1100S sport and the 1999–2004 R1150GS dual-sport.
BMW K1200RS – Scheidegger
Later K Series models, powered by the water-cooled inline-four engine, were the 1996–2004 K1200RS sports tourer, the 1998–2009 K1200 LT luxury tourer and the 2002–2005 K1200GT sports tourer.
BMW R1200C – Alberto Grazzi
The R1200 C, produced from 1997 to 2004, was BMW’s initial entry into the cruiser market. At the other end of the model lineup, the 2000–2002 C1 was BMW’s first enclosed scooter model.
The story continues…