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R18 – BMW’s Cruiser and Custom Platform

BMW surprised the motorcycle world with the R18. It seemed an unusual segment for the German company to enter as the heavy-weight cruiser segment had been shrinking for years. The Japanese manufacturers had mostly pulled out of the ring, Harley-Davidson, undoubtably the king of the genre, was doing battle with Indian Motorcycles for the domestic market with both aiming for the same audience. For many it seemed like too much effort for questionable returns.

Add to that, the R18 was different from every other bike that BMW built. You could argue that the big air cooled boxer held in common some of the characteristics of the other heritage models from BMW like the RnineT but that was a bit of a stretch as the new bike was bigger, much much bigger – and very different.

BMW realized early on that the key to the success of the big cruiser rested on several factors. One of which was getting the bike into the consciousness of the market, into the minds of the guys who go out and buy big cruisers, the best way of achieving that was to give the bike to customizers. Which is what they did – and in doing so created many very eye-catching rides.

So here we go – a recap of the R18 customs as it stands so far as we have covered it in Canadian Biker.

Which came first the chicken or the egg or in this case, the motor or the bike?

2019 – The Proto-Motor I (Classic Style, Proto-Motor – Canadian Biker #342)

zon bmw r18 custom side angle shot in front of shop

The new 1250 twin-cylinder ShiftCam boxer proves that BMW has no intention of slacking off in the production and innovation of their most iconic engine format and credit is due to the engineers who continue to squeeze more and more power from the design. 

There are hints that that even higher numbers are possible for the new boxer: something north of 150 hp. What might be more interesting than the expected evolution of the liquid cooled boxer is the mysterious development of a new protoytpe that is larger in displacement and more retro in appearance than the air/oil cooled version now housed in the RnineT. 

zon bmw r18 custom from aboveThis is unusual for several reasons, as the prototype seems a step backward for a company that likes to push technology to the forefront. With seemingly endless increases in emission standards regulations, eventually Europe, and most of the rest of the world, environs will not be friendly for air-cooled engines. Most compliant engines will be hotter, cleaner and more efficient liquid-cooled designs.

BMW unveiled a prototype of this new engine in a custom motorcycle and to find a builder (in another interesting move) the company went to Japan. Custom Works ZON has been building bikes since 2003 and focuses on creations that might fit well at the hippest of hip events, “The HandBuilt Motorcycle Show” in Austin, Texas, which takes place on the same mid-April weekend of the US round of the MotoGP at the Circuit of the Americas. ZON’s build is an intriguing balance of historical and modern elements to reflect the heritage style of the prototype engine—resplendently large and featuring external pushrods and chrome plating.

 Zon’s long low machine hearkens back to flat track racers with a basic trellis frame from which delicately hangs the huge engine. A long narrow tank, skinny rubber on a 21-inch front wheel along with a 26-inch rear complete the feel.

BMW is aiming for the 1960s in the appearance of the new motor and they have hit the mark even though the company didn’t go back to 1960s appropriate air cooling but instead opted for the more modern air/oil cooling. After all, there is old and then there is really old!

zon bmw r18 custom engine shotBMW will need to update or replace the engine in the existing RnineT family. It would be nice to think that the motor, the peak of air/oil design, could soldier on indefinitely but that isn’t how the world works—especially for a 21st century manufacturer of motorcycles. 

The RnineT simply would not work with the new 1250 boxer … well it would and do so faster, but it would lose the clean simplicity of an air/oil cooled mill uncluttered by hoses, shrouds and radiator—all of which, no matter how carefully disguised or hidden, just aren’t pretty.

BMW is not providing further information regarding the new motor other than to say more details will be released at a later time. In some ways the motor does not make sense but the retro trend that now dominates the motorcycle market practically requires BMW to continue researching and developing more advanced and marketable retro products. Some have suggested a cruiser may be in the works but that isn’t something we would bet on.

2019 – Proto Motor II (Fly Away, Canadian Biker #343)

The Birdcage, a stunning and transparent tribute to record setting bikes of yore, is the latest creation featuring BMW’s new boxer.

bmw r18 birdcage custom side angle

The second creation in the reveal of BMW’s new, large displacement air-oiled cooled boxer is the Birdcage custom from Revival Cycles in Austin, Texas. The Birdcage is an elemental reduction of the motorcycle to its essential parts. Motor, frame, suspension wheels. The spare and whisper thin trellis fame, from which the bike takes it name, is built from titanium and incorporates over 130 individually welded pieces of 9mm rod.

While minimalist, the ephemeral look wouldn’t be possible without the new motor serving as a stressed component of the machine – although Revival streamlined the new mill with covers. But stressed by what?  Two wheels and suspension. There is little doubt that the classic boxer layout lends itself to the design theme with its clean, uncluttered appearance. Revival didn’t stop with the fabrication of the frame as very few components were not hand fabricated inhouse.

The choice pieces  include the teardrop covers for the cylinders, the hand shifter, drop down handlebars and a tiny fuel tank tucked behind the engine. Revival even brought to the bike their interpretation of BMW’s telelever front suspension. Revival spent six  months building the bike to have the stunning work ready for the Handbuilt Show and the crowds attending the US round of the MotoGP in April. 

In a racing tie-in, the inspiration for the lines of the Birdcage come from Ernest Hennes’ record bikes in the 1920s and ’30s.

The Birdcage isn’t Revival’s first BMW custom. The company has an eclectic showcase of machines including the Henne Landspeeder and a RnineT offering. Other marques embraced by the creative shop include Ducati, Douglas, Zero and Moto Guzzi.

2019 – The R18 Concept – Where We See What BMW Has In Mind (Ain’t Dead Yet – Canadian Biker #344)

The BMW factory proves there is still momentum in the old school approach. We say add a couple of lights and a gauges and send the bike to market the way it is. 

r18 concept in a gravel lot side shot

They got it right the first time and to add anything else would be superfluous.

It is ironic with Harley-Davidson scoring a run for the “future” with the LiveWire elsewhere in this issue that BMW has hit a home-run to the opposite side of the field with the factory-built Concept R18. There have been two concepts commissioned by BMW to showcase the motor but this machine comes direct from Germany and is the first traditional cruiser to feature the company’s huge new boxer motor. It is also the most “American” of cruisers to come out of the European market in many years. The old R1200C while a cruiser was most definitely European inspired.

r18 concept rearThe Concept R18 stands proud in a heritage salute to motorcycling. The motor gets a nudge to modernity with the combination of air/oil cooling and the braking is aided by modern discs but the rest of the bike seems to exist in the unadorned simplicity found in the middle of the last century. We groove to the exposed drive shaft, cantilevered solo seat and the dual Solex carburetors feeding a healthy dose of premium into the gaping maw of1800cc’s.  We acknowledge that all these wonderful things will most likely not make the journey to the eventual production version. We also realize that in today’s world electronics limited to a couple of lights and a starter aren’t going to find a home in a litigious society.

But there is hope and it comes down from the top. Markus Schramm, the chief of BMW Motorrad says, “With this dream bike, BMW Motorrad presents its own version of an emotional and authentic offer for the large cruiser segment.” 

r18 concept engine close upSo yes BMW, there is the option of adding doodads and wires and modernity to the Concept R18 to create a production version. But refrain from the impulse to add to the bike. Believe that you got it right the first time and ABS, traction control and fuel infection is all you have to add. We don’t even want a seat for a passenger cluttering up those lines. Don’t compromise and do only what you have to do. That’s the dream. But concepts are often only dreams. 

Make this one a reality.


2020 – The One They Sold (R18 First Edition – Canadian Biker #347

Rather than reinvent the wheel, BMW has opted for tradition and plain elegance with its new cruiser.

Like many aspects of life, the official press introduction of BMW’s R18 cruiser has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but this hiatus will be short-lived with units available apparently by late summer. With the looming sales campaign, BMW has at last revealed what the model will look like as it arrives on showroom floors. Keeners can reserve theirs by placing a deposit. 

While the R18 sit sits firmly in the classic cruiser class, some features come as a surprise including the stripped to the basics styling. But the aesthetics are understandable in the context of the target market and the additional products the company will offer. 

The cruiser market still accounts for 40 per cent of motorcycle sales in North America despite the recent withdrawal of most Japanese models from the segment. For those looking at the premium offerings, their choices have been further reduced, and it is now a leap of faith to interject a new and premium model into the mix. 

North American is obviously a key destination for the R18 and BMW has followed the safer path of heritage styling. Very few cruisers without that requisite traditional styling ever make much of an impression on the market. Ducati may argue that point with their Diavel, but no one has yet clearly defined what “modern” styling could or should look like—on the other hand most people understand “heritage.” 

BMW says 91 horsepower will be transmitted from the enormous 1802cc boxer through a six-speed transmission and exposed shaft drive to the rear wheel. Of the maximum 117 foot-pounds torque, over 110 will be available between 2,000 and 4,000 rpm. Bigger cruisers live on a diet of torque so this number represents a very healthy feature indeed. 

Fuel range is a factory-spec 290 kilometres from the 16-litre tank. The bike weighs 345 kilograms fueled and ready to roll. Seat height is a shade over 685mm. MSRP starts at $20,895. The initial production run will be called the R18 First Edition and arrive in black with white pinstripe livery and feature model-specific badging and chrome treatments.

Aware that parts and accessories are an opportunity for self-expression and an excellent opportunity for further sales, BMW has engineered the R18 to be easily customizable with bolt-on parts and the line will launch with many options. The bike is reportedly easy to deconstruct including its removable painted parts and rear subframe and simple-to-swap out brake and clutch lines. The cylinder head covers and the massive front engine cover are not integral to the oil chamber and can be replaced by simply unbolting. 

Want the fork shrouds gone? The seat? No problem. BMW has collaborated with Roland Sands for two separate collections of related parts, as well as Vance & Hines for exhaust and Mustang for seat options.

In comparison to many new premium motorcycles including those in its own stable, BMW has dispensed with most electronic features although there are three riding modes: Rain, Roll and Rock. Also standard is stability control, engine drag torque control and, of course, ABS. 

Among the electronic options are hill assist, reverse assist and adaptive cornering lighting. Refreshingly there isn’t a TFT screen to be found as all communication with the rider is done through a small digital screen within the single speedometer housing. 

Is the R18 with its air-oiled cooled enormous boxer twin, the cruiser of the future? Probably not. Is it the cruiser for right now? 

Probably yes.



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