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BMW's R65LS looks ready to slice the wind, but its performance doesn't quite measure up.


Years produced: 1983-1985
Total production: 6,389
Claimed power: 50hp
Top speed: 108mph
Engine type: Horizontally-opposed twin
Weight (dry): 189kg (417lb)
Price then: $3995
Price now: $2,500-$5,500
MPG: 45-60

In 1983, George Lucas released “Return of the Jedi,” the third movie in his epic space fantasy, Star Wars. And no motorcyclist who’s seen it can forget the mach-speed hover bike duel through the redwood landscape on the forest planet of Endor. 

That same year saw the release of the BMW R65LS — a sleek, sporty version of the standard R65. With its out-of-this-world design, you have to wonder if LS designer Hans Muth and Lucas weren’t drinking from the same punch bowl. BMW hired Muth, who had already put his stamp on the original Suzuki Katana, to create an edgy, affordable sport/touring bike for a market that was increasingly being won over by an innovative Japan. With its sharp angles and sporting disposition, Muth’s creation sparked a definitive “love it” or “hate it” reaction — and it still does today. 

At 649.6ccs and with a compression ratio of 8.2:1, the LS houses the same engine as the standard R65 –a short-stroke version of BMW’s legendary air-cooled, four-stroke opposed twin. With a bore of 82mm and a stroke of only 61.5mm (versus 70.6mm in other boxers), the result is a narrower engine with a relatively larger bore allowing bigger valves. 

The LS also shares the standard 65’s frame, suspension and shaft drive. In fact, the only functional difference between the LS and the standard R65 are dual disc brakes with Brembo calipers on the front wheel, as opposed to a single disc on the standard, which blesses the LS with excellent braking power. In fact, what puts the LS at arms length from the standard R65 and other motorcycles in its category are exclusive stylistic features. 

Among color options was a brilliant, gleaming henna red set off by white cast-alloy mag-type wheels and black powder-coated pipes. Like biting on a gold nugget for authenticity, it’s hard not to want to flick the wheels to make certain they are truly alloy. The eye doesn’t linger long on the color scheme, though, before floating to the odd, angular nosecone. The wedge enveloping the headlight provides a perfect, tangible insight to the form-over-function thought process behind the LS’s design. 

While BMW maintained the fairing reduced wind force and front-end lift, those who have ridden it (and most who haven’t) chuckle over the claim. Truth is, the only use it might have is catching the eye of some strawberry blonde strolling by in her leg warmers and oversized sweater. The black cylindrical centerpiece of the fairing wraps from the headlight over the top to form a smooth instrument panel. The LS also sports a counter wedge on the back of the bike with molded-in handgrips. If a passenger is willing to put his or her faith in bolted-down plastic, the grips are handy and feel ergonomically correct. The one dilemma to the LS’s unique, jazzy style is the inability to modify it for comfort. No larger fairing or seat and storage alternatives were offered by BMW, and the standard R65 options are incompatible. If you have one with like-new original paint like the bike we sampled, strapping on a tank bag and risking mangling the smooth, bright surface becomes a major concern. That, unfortunately, makes the LS a bit of a bummer for long journeys. Owners must either endure head-on wind and limited cargo space as a consequence to its one-of-a-kindness or bungle it up with jimmied extras, in which case you might as well get the standard R65. The under-seat storage contains a respectable tool kit and still leaves ample room for a few extra supplies. 

With no long distance enhancements and a push-up stance requirement from the narrow, angled handlebars at the far end of the long gas tank, the LS is really more “sport” than “tour.” The foot pegs, however, allow your feet to rest at a comfortable 7 o’clock position behind those big cylinders, making all-day rides a bit more bearable. Long trips may not be the crème de la crème, but the LS’s great handling, glassy ride at speed in the 60s and 70s, and big 5.5gal gas tank make long, Sunday morning breakfast runs on a rural twisty road a great pick-me-up from a doggish work week. Half a day in the bends is solid fun, but we wouldn’t suggest calling your old rice burner buddies for a little amateur racing. Cycle Guide called the LS a “flashbike” in its April 1982 test article, aptly pointing out that “the only motorcycles you can really compare it to are other BMWs.” Although Muth and Lucas may have shared design inspiration, the Galactic Empire would probably have never established its rule of the universe with the LS’s power.

Whether it was the underperformance in the category or the close-but-no-cigar price tag, BMW pulled the LS in 1985. But hey, it’s 21 years later, and if you’re not looking for an easy jump to light speed but fancy a unique, fun little carver with an engine that defines low maintenance, perhaps the LS is kind of a modern-day Millennium Falcon. Like the curvy bullet-ships in the latest round of Star Wars movies, technology has brought sport bikes a long way. Although slick for its time, by today’s standards the LS has more angles than a storm trooper uniform. But with less than 6,500 sold in the world, it’s a good bet you won’t pass another one as you’re meandering through the redwoods of Northern California. Just make sure there’s nobody with laser guns behind you, because you’ll probably be toast.

Sharp-shooting rivals to BMW’s R65L

Yamaha SECA XJ650RJ

– 71hp, 123mph
– 653cc
– Air/cooled
– Five-speed
– Dual discs front, drum rear

In the early Eighties, Yamaha tamed its sport/touring business with the sporty, powerful and comfortable Maxim, using Americans as guinea pigs to perfect its in-line four-cylinder XJ 650 engine. Then it rewarded our fast, fanatical friends across the Atlantic by dropping the engine in a café-style body to carve up their squiggly roads. 

The November 1980 test article in Cycle Guide nailed it when they wrote “the Euro-650 fulfills its GT role with telltale accouterments sure to warm the hearts of those of you yearning for a Japanese hi-tech BMW.”  Short jaunts around the square or in the immediate countryside on the Euro-650 proved it was as much a blast to ride as its European counterparts. And in an effort to offer a cake you could eat, too, Yamaha masterfully combined sporty and fun with capacity and comfort for longer excursions.

The next year, Yamaha got the hint from disgruntled, deprived American customers and abated them with the Yamaha Seca XJ650RJ. The only difference, aside from compatibility and regulatory issues, was the removal of the Euro-spec oil cooler for U.S.-bound bikes.

Kawasaki GPz550

– 57hp, 119mph
– 553cc
– Air-cooled
– Six-speed
– Dual-discs front, single disc rear

Classic bike lovers will remember the GPz 550 from a variety of sources, including our homage, “Retro Rocket,” which appeared in the November/December 2005 issue. Kawasaki introduced the model in 1981, laying the first stones of the foundation for its legendary sportbike hall of fame. A nine-year reign of the GPz 550 only gave way for bigger and better (and faster) things.

With an in-line four-cylinder engine kicking out 57hp at 9,500rpm, the 553cc engine was plenty for the 469lb (wet) bike. And with an early-’80s American market not quite ready to embrace short-run race bikes, Kawasaki gave the bike a comfy ride and good fuel economy for all-day excursions.

Kawasaki’s success with the GPz more or less shoved its homeland competitors, not to mention the world, into a knock-down race for the sportbike crown. Consequently, while purchasing a GPz 550 may be a very good choice, you won’t win a medal for originality. Unfortunately for would-be owners, in this case “kick butt bike” is synonymous with “really darn popular.” The good news is they are out there in various states of existence, as exemplified by former editor Ric Anderson, who purchased one for less than a “G” soon after we published his story. Our advice? Be patient.

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
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