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BMW Concept 101 : The American Six

Hindsight 20/20 : When this article was published the R18 was still far in the future. Ironically, as viewed from the perspective of this article about the BMW Concept 101, the R18 is about as traditionally designed a cruiser as one could find.

BMW revisits the cruiser market with the unexpected Concept 101. Will it work for them this time?

There is no doubt regarding the allure of the cruiser, but the heyday of the custom chopper is gone. The era of the massive displacement production cruiser has passed. The “power cruisers”, the ones still available, are long in the tooth. Many manufacturers have even reduced their offerings of traditional cruisers. It is looking grim. 

But the cruiser—predominantly a North American phenomenon— forever has a place in the hearts of riders as they define American riding tradition. They are what have kept Harley-Davidson at the forefront of the North American market and one of the most recognizable brands in the world. 

Cruisers are what have allowed Polaris to launch not one but two motorcycle brands over the past 15 years. First Victory—which found its niche in becoming a non-traditionally styled American cruiser—and then came the rebirth of Indian Motorcycle, which is the pre-packaged embodiment of a traditional ideal. 

The Japanese manufacturers went hard into the cruiser market from the mid 1980s to the segment’s peak in the mid 2000s. Vulcans, Boulevards, Stratoliners and VTXs. Chrome, leather saddlebags, big throbbing V-Twins, thousand-mile comfort: the defining characteristics of the genre.

For almost all the manufacturers, the temptation to bring a cruiser to market was hard to resist especially when offerings in the segment were selling like the proverbial hotcakes. There seemed to be a perception of, “How hard could it be?” 

As much as Ducati may argue, there is a little cruiser in the Diavel, although there is more of something that isn’t a cruiser, but undeniably the DNA is there. The Diavel (“don’t call it a cruiser”) is certainly more successful than the Indiana—one of Ducati’s previous attempts at the genre. 

Moto Guzzi embraced the cruiser years ago but hit its zenith with the excellent California model, featuring a design that meanders across Italian and American styling traditions but touches both with the help of a fantastic engine. Triumph redefined what a cruiser could be with the singular Rocket III. It stands on its own. The company went even further toward traditional American styling with the Bonneville America and then the Thunderbird with its massive parallel twin engine.

In 1997 BMW hit the ground running with the R1200C—with a little help from James Bond. The R1200C was a decidedly unique offering as it was a challenge to design a cruiser around an air- and oil-cooled boxer engine with cylinder heads poking out where your feet should be in terms of classic cruiser ergonomics. 

The R1200C was followed by the R1200CL, which added bags and a large fairing to the mix. It, more than the base C, was a direct shot across the bow of the traditional American bagger. But with four headlights and large fairing, the R1200CL had an unusual appearance and the additional weight of its accessory suite further diminished the capability of the 61-hp engine. 

The reception from many BMW owners was chilly—the bike was too far outside the traditional mold of the Motorrad division. They weren’t sure they wanted a cruiser and the bike was too unusual to sway cruiser riders from other bands. 

BMW Concept 101 beauty shot rear view

The C and CL did not prove successful and disappeared from the market after the 2004 model year. But over time the bike did grow in appeal for some.  In the January/February 2013 issue we included the R1200C in the feature “The Other Collectibles” because of its iconoclastic styling that combined the German Boxer tradition with the American cruiser fascination. The styling exercise was correct even if the reception was not.

As years passed, the idea of the “new” cruiser came into being. It was the next step in cruisers as some argued the cruiser breed could not go on being forever in a “traditional” mold. Harley-Davidson acknowledged this train of thought early on with the introduction of the V-Rod and its liquid-cooled motor housed in a hydro-formed frame. It seemed to indicate a seismic shift in thinking. Well, more than 10 years later and the V-Rod soldiers on but the anticipated wholesale change never happened. Traditional cruisers still held sway over riders hearts, though the new cruiser idea didn’t die.

So, it’s a little surprising to see BMW flirting with cruisers again. The company’s recently unveiled Concept 101 was brought to life with the cooperation of Roland Sands. Both a design celebrity and a man who seems to be in multiple places at once—he has now designed concept bikes for BMW, custom Scout versions for Indian, and is currently working on race machines for Victory’s upcoming challenge of Pike’s Peak, and all the while building his own line of accessories. 

Credit must be given to Sands for the earlier Concept Ninety BMW which paved the way for the production RnineT. Certainly a success but that roadster is easier to define than the 101. 

The BMW Concept 101 takes a sport-touring platform and morphs it into a bagger styled custom. The change is dramatic and yet the platform K1600GT is still clearly present in the creation of this post-modern bagger with its transverse, liquid-cooled six-cylinder engine. 

The name 101 is derived from its displacement—approximately 101 cubic inches, a decidedly American spec. The name also riffs on US Highway 101, which runs up the Pacific Coast past both Sands’s shop and the BMW Group’s California-based Designworks studio that together with BMW Motorrad and RSD collaborated on the unusual bagger.

BMW Concept 101 cation riding shot front quarter profile

The BMW Concept 101 is an interesting though controversial take on a platform embodied by the K1600GTL, a machine that is technically exceptional and precise but somehow lacks spirit. The Concept 101 makes spirit the first priority. That spirit will not necessarily be accepted by the BMW faithful who appreciate the precision of the GT but what Sands has done to the bike should not dramatically affect the machine’s performance. Rest assured, the BMW engineering is still present even though the skin is different.

The aggressively forward canted engine stands as it should in a cruiser—in view and in stark juxtaposition to the long tapering body of the bike as though the power of the big six surges forward while the wind flows back across its multi-faceted bodywork. Very artsy. And with almost 160 horsepower the wind should be flowing.

BMW Concept 101 riding along a beach road , side profile.

The muted yet diverse grouping of metallic paint, carbon fibre, brushed aluminum and wood (yes, wood), combine to break up what could be a slab sided body into a form that flows from the big front wheel through the bike to the unique take on the exhaust. The cruiser feel is helped by the rider’s position, low and deep inside, but unlike the stablemate K1600GT the BMW Concept 101 continues tapering down beyond the rider’s seat.

Would the 101 work as a production model? The wood might have to go but beyond that there is nothing outlandish about the bike. Nothing so striking as to say that it couldn’t come to market. The combination of materials is unique but the lines of the bike are familiar. 

BMW Concept 101 riding in the hills, front profile

There are hints of the Honda F6B in the flowing body of the BMW Concept 101, and remnants of the Victory Vision in the rear end treatment, with a nod toward the slammed big-wheeled bagger that is currently such a hot cruiser trend. 

It joins other machines like Honda’s F6B and CTX1300 and, dare we say it, the Diavel in redefining an alternative cruiser. While Harley-Davidson tackles electric motorcycles with the LiveWire concept it somehow seems fitting that BMW is revisiting the cruiser concept with the 101. It’s unusual but it works. It is the allure of the cruiser.  

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #313


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