Ready for Adventure: 1987 BMW R80G/S

After watching “Long Way Round” Jim Balestrieri bought himself a BMW R1200GS, which led to buying a 1987 BWM R80G/S Paris-Dakar.

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by Jeff Barger

1987 BMW R80G/S Paris-Dakar

Engine: 797.5cc air-cooled OHV opposed twin, 84.8mm x 70.6mm bore/stroke, 8.2:1 compression ratio, 50hp @ 6,500rpm
Carburetor: Dual 32mm Bing CV
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Electrics: 280-watt alternator, 12v 16ah battery, electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Twin-loop steel tube, 57.7in (1,465.5mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, single-sided Monolever rear
Brakes: 10.2in (259mm) disc front; 7.9in (200mm) drum rear
Tires: 3 x 21in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight: 437lb (199kg) w/half tank fue
Seat height: 33.6in (853mm)
Fuel capacity: 8.3gal (31.4ltr)
Price then/now: $4,800 (1981)/$15,000-$25,000

Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, this one is all on you.

When Matt Balestrieri first saw an episode of Long Way Round, he knew his dad, Jim, would love the 2004 adventure where Charley and Ewan essentially circumnavigate the globe from London to New York City aboard a pair of BMW R1150GS motorcycles. Matt bought his dad the series on DVD, and Jim binge-watched the episodes.

“You know, it was winter in Wisconsin,” Jim laughs, and adds, “so I watched them again. It was just great stuff.”

He followed this up by watching Charley Boorman’s attempt to race in the 2005 edition of the Dakar Rally and then took in the 2007 series Long Way Down — another Charley and Ewan adventure.

Jim later bought himself a 2010 BMW R1200GS at auction and says he was amazed by the riding experience. He became seriously intrigued by the motorcycles he saw Charley and Ewan punish in some rather grueling off-road conditions — but were stable and comfortable on long stretches of good pavement. He wanted to understand the background of these adventure bikes and dove deep into BMW history.

What he discovered was a lineage that traces back to 1980. That’s when BMW introduced its R80G/S (for Gelände Strasse, or loosely translated, off-road/on-road). In the early 1970s, on the automotive side of its manufacturing business, BMW made a statement with its 2002 series of cars that helped put the company on a path towards profitability.

By the end of the 1970s, though, the same could not be said for the motorcycle side of the business. While the company produced well-executed motorcycles with its R-series of flat twin, air-cooled machines, BMW Motorrad was bleeding money. By 1979, freshly appointed BMW Motorrad director Karl Heinz Gerlinger was told to turn the ship around, or else face the proposition of shuttering the factory.

Racing roots

In Ian Falloon’s tome The Complete Book of BMW Motorcycles, Falloon says BMW had been successful in the early-1970s racing modified flat-twin machines in off-road events. This included Herbert Schek taking the top spot in the over-500cc German off-road championship from 1970 to 1972; Schek was campaigning a modified R75/5.

“Schek also won gold medals in the 1971 and 1973 ISDT events, but generally the BMWs struggled against the lighter Maico two-strokes,” Falloon writes in his opening notes about the development of the R80G/S model.

He goes on to say that in 1978, a new over-750cc off-road race class prompted BMW to officially return to the dirt with a competition-only 872cc machine. Championships were won, and the team behind the model showed it to Karl Heinz Gerlinger, who, perhaps recognizing the potential for the large dual-purpose motorcycle, authorized development early in 1979.

Falloon writes, “With limited developmental time available, the enduro intentionally drew on existing designs. Rüdiger Gutsche headed the project, and as Gutsche was an ISDT veteran on his own special R75/5-based enduro, this undoubtedly sped the development. Only 21 months after the project got the go-ahead, the R80G/S was officially presented and sold more than 6,000 in its first year of production.”

The new BMW utilized a modified R80/7 engine, this model having taken over in 1978 from the R75/5. For the new G/S, the R80/7 engine was upgraded with a 9.9-pound lighter single-plate diaphragm clutch and flywheel, a lower compression ratio with nickel-lined aluminum cylinders and a Bosch electronic ignition system. Overall capacity was 797.5cc and the pushrod-operated engine with dual valve heads produced 50 horsepower at 6,500rpm and a good 56lb/ft of torque. Air flowed to dual Bing constant velocity carburetors through a filter mounted in a plastic airbox.

Dual exhaust pipes joined a collector under the back of the engine, where they merged and exited in a single pipe to a muffler mounted high on the left side of the bike. While the R80G/S came with a kickstarter, an electric starter was optional in overseas markets. In the U.S., the bike came with both.

In a March 1981 Road Rider magazine test, writer Clement Salvadori says, “The basic machine comes with a kick start, but all models brought into the United States will have the optional electric starter included. I like the ease of pushing a button, but I also like the idea of having a kick starter. Just in case.”

Frame and suspension

The twin-loop steel frame started life as one from an R65 model, but it was modified and there was a significant difference at the back end of the machine. Instead of dual shocks on each side of a swingarm, Gutsche constructed a stout single-sided swingarm called the Monolever that was suspended by a heavy-duty Boge shock mounted on the right side of the bike. Overall, the Monolever shaved some 4 pounds off a standard BMW setup. Also unique to the Monolever system was the newly designed rear hub, laced as it was into an 18-inch Akront alloy rim, which could be quickly and simply removed by undoing three lug nuts, automotive-style.

Up front, a 36mm fork had similar internals to that of the R65 but featured leading-axle lower legs that were set up to accommodate twin discs — although production R80G/Ss came equipped with a single 260mm front disc in a 21-inch wheel that again featured an Akront rim. Front suspension travel was 7.9 inches while the Monolever would move 6.7 inches.

Front and rear fenders are plastic, as are the side panels. Instrumentation, consisting of speedometer and warning lights for signals, oil pressure, neutral, charging and high beam and the keyed ignition switch, was unique to the model, and was simply housed in a plastic pod atop the headlight. Also unique to the dual-purpose BMW was the orange-colored saddle. On the first R80G/Ss, the white gas tank held 5.1 gallons of fuel, and it used just one petcock mounted on the left side — down turned the gas on, sideways shut it off, and up provided reserve.

On the road (and off it)

BMW showed the new R80G/S to motorcycle journalists late in 1980 in Southern France in Avingnon. There, the motoring press got to experience the machine that would be marketed as a 1981 model over a winding and twisting route that included asphalt and dirt in the hills of Le Baux.

“The G/S is a street bike that — incidentally — you can take down a fireroad for a pleasure cruise,” wrote the editors of Cycle magazine in a December 1980 test. “On our scale, the R80G/S posts about an eight in street performance and about a two in the dirt. It’s not primarily a dirt bike — so it doesn’t need to tip the scales at less than 300 pounds. Only secondarily a trail bike, the G/S can nip anyone accustomed to busting berms. If you try to power slide the G/S, you’re likely to bang your shin on one of the cylinder heads when you throw a leg out.

“If you take the 800 over a fair-sized jump, you’ll bottom its suspension ferociously. If you wheelie it, you’ll immediately note that it’s a gargantuan machine — both in size and weight — compared to any other bike you’d ride in the dirt.”

But that didn’t stop BMW from entering three machines in the 1981 Paris-Dakar competition, all of them specially prepped by Bavarian tuning outfit HPN Motorradtechnik. The bikes had a stronger chassis and larger gas tanks to increase range. Aboard such a race machine, rider Hubert Auriol won the 1981 Paris-Dakar, and he did it again in 1983. In 1984, motocross champion Gaston Rahier became a part of the team. He beat Auriol and took first place in the event.

In its second year of regular production, 1982, author Falloon notes there were minimal updates to the R80G/S, with the exception of a wider rear wheel rim, standard electric-start and a different available color scheme in blue with black saddle. In recognition of the Paris-Dakar victories, BMW launched the 1984 R80G/S Paris-Dakar model. Details remained much the same as standard, but the most noticeable difference was the 8.3-gallon gas tank that bore a decal with Gaston Rahier’s signature.

For 1985, BMW updated the R80G/S with improvements to the engine that had been made to the company’s R80-series — improvements that helped make the powerplant lighter and quieter — and featured a new final drive assembly.

By 1987, the R80G/S was in its last year of the first generation — to be followed in 1988 by an improved model that featured BMW’s new Paralever rear suspension that included a second U-joint to the drive shaft and a stabilizing strut that runs from the bottom of the transmission to the rear final drive. The machine lost the slash in the G/S designation and became simply the R80GS.

BMW also introduced a larger sibling in 1988 with the R100GS, complete with a larger 980cc boxer engine that made 60 horsepower. The R100GS was given the new Paralever rear suspension and featured 40mm Marzocchi forks. This model stole some of the limelight from the R80GS, and the last of the line for the 800cc adventure machine arrived in 1996.

The R80G/S had been the answer to BMW’s slow sales, and any idea of closing the Motorrad factory was well behind the manufacturer. BMW went on to introduce the R1100GS in 1994 and then the R1150GS in 1998. These machines were followed by the popular R1200GS in 2004 and the R1200GS Adventure of 2006.

BMW also offered a line of 650cc single-cylinder GS models, first introduced in 1993. Those machines remained in the lineup until 2008, when BMW began selling its F800GS and F650GS — both powered by parallel-twin engines. Production of those twin-cylinder motorcycles continues with the F850GS and F750GS. These use the same 853cc engine but the 750 is tuned differently to lower final output.

Jim’s R80G/S

With all of that research behind him, Jim set out determined to locate an as-original-as-possible first-generation R80G/S to add to his motorcycle collection that is on display at the Throttlestop museum in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

He found a 1987 R80G/S Paris-Dakar model for sale at Godin Sporting Cars & Motorcycles Ltd. in the U.K. According to Godin, records show the motorcycle was built in August 1986 as a 1987 model. It was registered as a 1988, but it clearly lacks the advanced Paralever suspension of that version of the machine.

Jim’s R80G/S Paris-Dakar is now a museum bike, but it’s also a survivor, with more than 50,000 miles on the clock.

“I didn’t want it to be in number 10 condition,” Jim says of some of the nicks and scars on the bike that shows just over 93,704 kilometers (58,224 miles) on its odometer.

“But I didn’t want it if it was a 5, either. This one was represented as a solid 7.5, and when I got it here in December 2017, it really was what I’d expected to see.

“It’s original, hasn’t been restored, and it cleaned up nicely. We didn’t touch it up or do anything else to it. It’s been pickled for display here at our motorcycle museum.”

Jim says he’s happy to have the BMW R80G/S Paris-Dakar in the display, as it is an important model in the evolution of the adventure touring motorcycle — a market that was given a tremendous boost when Charley and Ewan took their first ride around the globe. MC

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