Motorcycle Classics

A Bigger Berm Basher: 1980-1986 BMW R80 G/S

Comparing the BMW R80 G/S with newer alternatives, the BMW R100GS and BMW R1100GS.

Years produced: 1980-1986
Claimed power: 50hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 102mph
Engine type: 797.5cc (84.8mm x 70.6mm) air-cooled OHV flat twin
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Weight (w/half tank fuel)/MPG: 437lb/51mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $4,800 (1981)/$4,000-$8,000

“The real difficulty in changing the course of any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from old ones,” wrote economist John Maynard Keynes.

It was BMW that escaped from the “old” idea that dual-sport motorcycles should be dirt-bike based — which explains why many of today’s two-wheeled SUVs are really street bikes gone rogue rather than supersized scramblers in civvies. And the granddaddy of heavy-duty dual sports was BMW’s own R80 G/S.

BMW had no dirt bikes in its portfolio, so in creating a dual-sport motorcycle it was logical for them to start with a street machine. In doing so, they created the now vast market for adventure motorcycles and inspired imitators from almost every bike brand.

The starting point for the G/S was the engine and main chassis from the R80/7 of 1978. The 50 horsepower air-cooled flat twin was treated to a slimming program with new Nikasil-plated light-alloy cylinders, and almost 10 pounds trimmed from the flywheel. The rear subframe was new, with a single spring/shock controlling a single-sided swingarm (called Monolever), which also housed the final drive shaft. There was no rear axle; the spoked rear wheel was secured to the hub by three bolts, automotive style.

At the front, the G/S used the /7’s 28-degree steering angle, but with a longer fork giving 6 inches of travel hitched to a 21-inch spoked front wheel. Metzeler Enduro tires made especially for the G/S introduced the now-familiar “trail” tread pattern in 4 x 18-inch rear and 3 x 21-inch front. Brakes were a single-leading-shoe drum at the rear, and a single disc at the front.

Did it work? That depends who was asked. The “adventure” bike concept was so new that many reviewers missed the point. “I don’t know of anyone who’s looking for a 400-pound, $5,000 dual-purpose bike that’s only marginal in the dirt,” wrote Cycle Guide‘s tester. And while the G/S was no match for, say, a Honda XL500 for true offroad use, the needs of dual-purpose riders were changing.

Most reviewers agreed the G/S was no dirt bike. “It stretches the definition of ‘road’ for touring purposes,” Rider reported in 1981, “it can be taken places not normally considered accessible for a touring rider … it will carry an adventuresome rider into back country if he or she is willing to live within the bike’s limitations.” Those limitations included weight (maybe 100 pounds more than a “conventional” offroad bike); a bulky engine with vulnerable cylinders (especially the rocker covers) and an under-protected sump; an under-powered battery/starter combination (a kickstarter was fitted, but defeated most testers); limited passenger space; and the lack of a kickstand, requiring the rider to dismount and lift the bike onto the centerstand – something that required considerable effort. A kickstand — also tricky to deploy — was available, but only when attached to the factory-option engine protection bars.

Rider magazine’s Clement Salvadori took a G/S to Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the desert back roads of California: “The G/S does everything it is supposed to do extremely well. It is great in the curves. It won’t make you cry on the interstate. And it is downright enjoyable to tear along a dirt road or putter down a back-woods trail.” But, he noted, “It is not good in soft sand or mud, having too much weight on the front end for that.”

Regardless, an R80 G/S aced the Dakar rally in 1981, then with capacity boosted to 980cc, won three times more in 1983-1985. A Dakar-tribute version of the G/S arrived in 1983 with an 8.4-gallon gas tank and a single seat.

It’s hard to overstate the impact the G/S had on the market: The G/S spawned the now-massive adventure-touring segment and eventually morphed into the R1200GS — BMW’s best-selling bike ever. Keynes would have understood. MC


1987-1995 BMW R100GS

Years produced: 1987-1995
Claimed power: 58hp @ 6,500rpm/110mph
Engine type: 980cc air-cooled OHV flat twin
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Weight (w/half tank fuel)/MPG: 485lb (wet)/41mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $5,695 (1987)/$2,000-$6,000

By the mid-1980s, the G/S had competition from Cagiva, Moto Guzzi and Honda’s XLV750R. But rather than going home, BMW went big: a liter-size boxer with a 34-inch seat height weighing almost 500 pounds. The R100GS “Gelände Sport” (instead of G/S for Gelände/Strasse or Dirt/Street) still aspired to adventure riding, but was even more streetable.

The 94mm-bore boxer engine came from the R100RT/RS, but with smaller intake valves and 32mm Bings (down from 40mm) for low-down grunt. A new Marzocchi fork gave 8 inches of travel. Final drive featured the new Paralever anti-jacking combination shaft/single-sided swingarm. Tubeless tires could be used (spokes were attached to the rim outside the bead). A kickstand was stock. “What’s most amazing about the GS is that its versatility costs it nothing,” Cycle World wrote. “On a twisty road … the GS is the best handling sport bike BMW has yet built. You could make a case that the GS is the world’s most versatile motorcycle, that its capabilities and fuel range enable it to go places no other bike would dare venture. The GS overall is the best BMW we’ve ever tested.”

1994-2004 BMW R1100GS

Years produced: 1994-2004
Claimed power: 76hp @ 6,500rpm (at rear wheel)/123mph
Engine type: 1,085cc air/oil-cooled OHC 4-valve flat twin
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft final drive
Weight (w/half tank fuel)/MPG: 589lb (wet)/40mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $12,990 (1996)/$2,500-$5,500

For adventure riding, how big is too big? How complex is too complex? BMW pushed the boundaries with the R1100GS. Sharing little with its stone-ax-simple predecessors, the 1100 featured a new engine with 4-valve cammy heads, air/oil cooling, Bosch fuel injection, an anti-dive Paralever front suspension, and optional ABS (which could be disabled for off-road use). All of this added up to almost 600 pounds with fuel.

Overall, though, BMW seemed to have hit the sweet spot. Testers noted its superior handling on paved roads, potholed or not, yet while it performed capably on most unpaved surfaces, it was a handful on rutted trails and a liability in sand. Righting the beast after the inevitable tip-over proved challenging: “Bring a friend,” wrote Clement Salvadori in Rider magazine, which also chose the GS as its Bike of the Year for 1995.

The same magazine concluded, “The R1100GS isn’t merely a motorcycle. It’s an expedition kit with a three-year warranty. It also happens to have excellent, uncompromised street handling, performance and comfort in what many view as a class full of compromises.”

  • Published on Dec 11, 2018
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