BMW G/S. The making of a legend.

BMW R80 G/S Dakar (an unabridged version of an article written in 2012 for a popular UK motorcycle magazine)

During the past few years much of the success of the BMW GS has been attributed to The Long Way Round – a TV documentary about two motorcycling chums embarking on an intercontinental glamping adventure aboard a pair of grossly overloaded GSs. The intrepid duo abandoned their comfortable lifestyles to get away from it all, taking with them just a few essentials such as a film crew, a ride-along mechanic, assorted local fixers, a doctor, two 4×4 pickups, half a ton of spares, major corporate sponsorship and a couple of satphones. The pair head out into the wide blue yonder, record their trip for posterity and in doing so a legend was born. The success of the series generated a BMW GS sales bonanza known as the Ewan and Charlie effect. And what an effect it’s been; in 2011 BMW sold 26,000 units of their über trail bike with worldwide sales in excess of 260 million quid. Not a bad return for a judicious bit of product placement.

At its launch in 1980 the G/S created a new motorcycling genre; the supersized trail bike. The ‘G/S’ stood for ‘gelände / straϐe’ meaning off road/on road. Other manufacturers followed suit and soon a plethora of large capacity, road-orientated dirt bikes hit the market sporting wide handlebars, lofty seats, pseudo knobbly tyres and an attitude suggesting a typical riding weekend might be a quick raid to Marrakesh or a jaunt across the Picos De Europa. ‘Adventure bike’ became a new addition to the motorcycling lexicon. Regardless of the rough-rider image, big trail irons make great road bikes and within this burgeoning market sector the BMW reigns supreme. But now here’s the thing, BMW’s adventure bike concept wasn’t conceived by a marketing think-tank deep within the bowels of the Bavarian Motor Works. No, the story of BMW’s flagship model began at Moto Laverda in Breganze, Northern Italy…

Piero Laverda explains; “For a long time Moto Laverda enjoyed very good relations with BMW’s motorcycle division ̶ my brother Massimo rode a BMW in the 60s and was also a personal friend of BMW’s technical manager. Later, when we produced large capacity bikes we had informal meetings with BMW to provide feedback on our respective model ranges. Our bikes didn’t conflict in the marketplace and it was a valuable way for both companies to obtain constructive criticism.

In the latter part of the 1970s we [Moto Laverda] were competing successfully in the Italian Regolarità Championship. We also had a history of successful entries in the ISDTs. Around this time BMW were looking to develop a more competitive bike to enter high profile European events and they contacted us in spring 1977 to commision the development of two prototype enduro bikes fitted with R60 engines . BMW tested and raced these bikes during 1977-1978 and they became the foundation of their enduro bikes.

In hindsight I think our two prototypes can be considered the grandfathers of the BMW GS models”

The success of the Laverda-developed prototypes was followed a year later by the launch of the Paris Dakar Rally. The timing couldn’t have been better. This was an event favouring big capacity off-roaders where agility and nimbleness could be sacrificed for flat out speed and reliability. For the 1979 event BMW were represented by a private French team but the following year, coinciding with the official launch of the G/S, BMW France entered two works bikes prepared by the legendary tuning firm HPN. Bearing only a passing resemblance to the production model, the drum-braked bikes were the start of a dynasty of HPN-prepared bikes which came to dominate the rally during the 1980s.

The following year Frenchman Hubert Auriol brought BMW their first Paris Dakar victory, repeating the performance in ’83. But it wasn’t until the following season when Auriol teamed up with the diminutive Belgian rider Gaston Rahier that BMW and the Dakar rally became synonymous . Rahier was so short in the leg he mounted the bike by getting it rolling whilst running alongside before using the left hand pot as step up into the saddle. When it came to getting off he simply used a convenient wall or a support truck to lean on. HPN’s radically modified bike weighed in at 145kg dry, made 75bhp and carried 39 litres in the tank plus an additional 9 litres under the seat. With a towering 300mm of suspension travel it was little wonder Rahier struggled to touch the ground. Rahier and Auriol came first and second respectively with Rahier repeating his winning performance in 1985 prompting BMW to announce a Dakar version of the standard bike. As the old motor industry saying goes: “what wins on Sunday sells on Monday”.

At that time the basic R80G/S [not to be confused with the R80GS Basic, which was a later model] was built around a revised R80/7 motor fitted to an R65 frame equipped with the mono arm rear suspension and a 21″ front wheel.

The upgraded Dakar model had only a superficial resemblance to the works bikes – which had reputedly costing £500,000 apiece in their final Marlboro ELF incarnation ̶ but the improved tank range and handling which came with the Dakar option are worthwhile and can be easily fitted retrospectively to a standard G/S. The Dakar specification comprised of the distinctive 35 litre tank, a white rear mudguard, a single seat with a modified rack arrangement plus fork brace and a chrome exhaust with a black heatshield. The Dakars were only offered between ’85 and ’87 . It’s rumoured only ten genuine Dakar models reached these shores although quite a few have subsequently been imported from Europe and plenty of standard bikes were retro fitted with the Dakar options.

Rahier’s final podium finish on the rally came with a third place in 1987 by which time the G/S had become the ‘GS’. On the second generation GS the word ‘Dakar’ was dropped from the name at the behest of the Rally organisers and abbreviated simply to ‘PD’. The R80 G/S remains the purists choice, lighter than its successor and purer in concept.

The Dakar which Gary Burton kindly loaned for this feature started out life as standard R80 G/S, acquiring it’s Dakar clothes later in life. It’s an impressive looking device dominated by the gigantic tank. Gary once managed 345 miles on a single fill up which means you could actually get from Paris to Dakar on about ten tankfuls. Imagine the Nectar points on that lot. According to legend, each tank was signed by Gaston Rahier himself although Gary’s tank has Rahier’s signature faithfully reproduced on a vinyl graphic. Set against the late autumn backdrop of some Derbyshire woodland the orange white and blue BMW Motorsport livery of the Dakar looks stunning.

It’s over twenty years since I rode a G/S 80 and the immediate impression of Gary’s immaculately presented bike is that it’s a fair bit quicker than I remember. A gentle shudder at low revs provides a clue to the extra oomph. Gary has fitted the G/S with a Siebenrock 1000cc kit and the big pistons slugging up and down make themself felt at tickover, it’s no hardship and brings a tangible boost to midrange power.

Out of respect to the squeaky clean condition of Gary’s bike I kept the off road part of the test as brief as possible. My initial foray onto a green lane reminded me how intimidating a G/S can be off road. It’s a big, heavy bike demanding a lot of respect. BMW G/Ss are good at the straβe bit , but not so hot on the gelände . Apologies to G/S enthusiasts but it’s true. On a flat out blast along a Moroccan wadi I’ve no doubt it’s a formidable piece of kit but back here in Blighty the weight and sheer width of the bike can be a liability. I’ve owned one so I speak with some experience in these matters. Harking back to The Long Way Round the point is demonstrated when the photographer’s GS breaks down and the team buy a Russian-made 350cc Izh Planeta 5 from a Mongolian street market [you couldn’t make this stuff up] to tide them over until the GS can be repaired. The heavily laden Planeta romped off into the distance along muddy tracks leaving the big BMWs floundering and struggling for grip.

None of which should deter anyone from buying a G/S . If you’re concerned about the G/S’s off road capabilities you’re probably shopping for the wrong bike. There were plenty of very capable off-roaders around when the G/S was announced but few, if any could be considered long distance road bikes. What the BMW offered was a bike with off-road capability, albeit limited, but which would excel at long distance road riding. And on the road the G/S really does excel. Loping along perched high on the thickly padded seat the G/S offers a unique riding experience. Prodigous torque and excellent handling make an ideal combination for covering ground quickly, safely and comfortably.

Combined sales of the original 800cc Monolever version and the subsequent 1000cc Paralever amounted to over 67,000 units and these figures demonstrate BMW pitched the balance of the Gelände and the Straβe perfectly for its intended market.

Footnote: When I wrote this article just over ten years ago I struggled to find a good original PD model for the photo shoot until Gary Burton offered to loan the bike in the main pic. I’m delighted to report that Gary is still in business selling top quality BMW adventure bikes, his website is www.bamw.co.uk and if you’re looking for advice on buying a top quality G/S I would suggest you give Gary a call, he’s an acknowledged expert on the GS range and also a very decent guy.

Gary Burton from Bavarian Adventure Motorcyle World

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