#293 R1200GS: In the Company of Adventurers

The R1200GS has taken firm control of the reins. The big BMW is now the top seller in a market gone ADV-mad. But what is the magic of its success, and from where does it come?

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, my old Gran used to say. And she was usually right. Against the backdrop of a global economic downturn that may eventually rival the 1930s in scope and longevity, BMW Motorrad keeps reporting record revenues. And leading the charge with almost one-third of motorcycle sales is the R1200GS. It’s already the most successful bike the company has ever built, with more than 170,000 units sold worldwide.
How did Paul Bunyan’s dirt bike become the Model T of motorcycles?
By the late 1970s, BMW had accumulated numerous ISDT and enduro trophies with special, lightweight, off-road bikes based around the R80/7 engine—including two built for BMW by Laverda in Italy. But these were expensive one-offs. Charged with the task of creating a consumer version, ISDT veteran Rüdiger Gutsche tried slotting a R80/7 engine into a R65 chassis, creating a new class of motorcycle: a large capacity, dualsport bike that was comfortable on trail or tarmac. The R80G/S (for Gelände/Strasse, meaning ground/street), proved especially adept at long-distance endurance events like the Paris-Dakar race, which it won (albeit heavily modified) in 1981 and 1983-85. Off-road chops? Check.
BMW sold nearly 22,000 G/S bikes, replacing it with the Paralever swing-arm equipped R80GS and R100GS in 1998. Considerably beefed up, the GS series weighed roughly 30 kg more than the 186-kg G/S, while the “big tank” Paris-Dakar versions added a further 20 kg for over 230 kg. These were now seriously big, heavy bikes, but BMW sold 48,000 of them.
With the passing of BMW’s air-cooled motor, the oil-cooled, 243-kg R1100GS took over in 1995, replaced in 2001 by the six-speed 253-kg R1150GS. In its Adventure form, with a full load of BMW “special equipment,” this behemoth tipped the scales at 267 kg, or over 600 lbs. Some dirt bike! But it would carry a heavy payload and absorb a lot of punishment. A two-wheeled Humvee? Check.
Model year 2004 saw KTM famously back out of supplying bikes for McGregor & Boorman’s Long Way Round: BMW stepped in with the new and unproven R1200GS instead.
Much more than R1150GSA goes to Jenny Craig, the R12 used a completely new frame and front suspension system, shedding almost 30 kg while adding 15-plus hp. With up-to-date CAN bus electronics, this was finally the Swiss Army knife bike you didn’t need a gym membership to own: Ewan and Charley rode it into folklore. Street cred? Check.
But none of the above fully explains the GS’s runaway success. It’s also benefited from a perfect storm of outside factors. The post-WWII baby boom created a population bulge in the 50-60 age bracket, with its associated disposable income. And these are the mid-life-crisis years, when former minivan-man needs to reaffirm his machismo.
Then there’s the BMW car connection. At a BMW press intro, I once asked a BMW auto marketing guy how they differentiated their product from Mercedes. “Ah, “he said. “We build motorcycles: they build trucks.” So while the motorcycle division adds a frisson of freedom and adventure to the premium-priced, sports-oriented car brand, the auto marque lends its heavily advertised exclusivity and prestige to Beemer bikes.
Neither does the R1200GS always score highest in comparison tests: typically, the KTM Adventure get top marks for off-road handling, the Triumph Tiger Explorer wins on the street, and the Super Tenere takes the all-rounder award. I’ve ridden a fair number of dualsport bikes, both on and off road, and the GS always feels a bit like a two-wheeled truck to me—stable and solid, but (in my hands anyway) heavy, a little clumsy, and reluctant to change direction. But it’s superb on the street: deceptively rapid, especially on crusty tarmac, and with true long-distance comfort.
Nor is the big Beemer without issues. I know owners who have been plagued with oil leaks, flaky electronics and ABS malfunctions. That said, the GS’s practicality is unbeatable. It’s easily the most accessorizable bike on the market, with both the factory and Touratech offering every gizmo and farkle you could ever want. That makes it a practical town bike, too. Perhaps it’s best to think of the GS as a two-wheeled SUV. If it had four wheels, it would pick the kids up after school, take them to hockey practise, and stop at the mall on way home to buy groceries—but do it with lots of attitude.
So is it the 90-odd years of building what were unquestionably some of the stoutest motorcycles ever? Does that really carry enough weight to make the GS the bike you have to justify not buying? I think there may be one other factor: though it’s not cheap, the GS is stonking value for money, mostly because it will retain more value than its competitors and has proven long-term durability—even though by the time you’ve loaded it with options, it’ll top 20 large. Why is its pricing so (relatively) competitive?
If Germany was still on the D-mark, I don’t doubt that BMWs (and Audis, and Volkswagens, and Mercedes, and Minis) would have to be priced well out of most people’s reach. But because it now shares its currency with the “sick men of Europe” (the Euro has fallen 30 per cent against the US greenback in the last five years), Deutschlanders benefit from being able to keep their prices lower in most other world currencies.
Like my Gran used to say, “It’s an ill wind …”

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