At the time of the R 80 G/S launch in 1980, the idea of an all-terrain 800cc flat-twin was revolutionary, to say the least. Off-road motorcycles were rarely bigger than middleweight capacity and clearly defined in their specialised role. BMW’s radical new machine forced the birth of a versatile new genre – the R 80 G/S could tackle anything from urban and long-distance riding to off-road enduros. More than three decades later, the G/S has been much copied and together with its imitators, form part of motorcycling’s most popular classes. BMW Motorrad pays homage to the history of the iconic GS – the original and best adventure sport bike.
The BMW G/S model was conceived in 1978 during a period of declining sales, following nearly a decade of growth. One of the reasons for the decline was a weak dollar, which made it particularly difficult to sell motorcycles in the USA – BMW Motorrad’s major export market. But another reason was a conservative model policy.
On 1 January 1979, a new management team decided to put the BMW motorcycle business back on track. The first model presented to them by the development department, as the basis of a new production machine, was a large-capacity off-road prototype.
The model would be built mostly of components from the BMW R 80 street bike. However, these would be imaginatively combined with newly developed features to form an entirely new style of motorcycle. A lighter rear end and larger front wheel created the foundation for the bike’s off-road capabilities. But the outstanding technical innovation was a single swinging-arm on the rear wheel. This had been developed by BMW engineers earlier and put ‘on hold’. It proved to be the perfect configuration in the construction of a completely new, large-capacity, go-anywhere motorcycle.
The prototype was built without a formal development brief and was immediately used by the test department to accompany the works team in cross-country motorsport events. Cross-country racing had become familiar territory to BMW. In the Twenties and Thirties, the company had been successful in six-day events, and in the Fifties and Sixties BMW won a series of titles. From 1970 to 1972, Herbert Schek claimed three cross-country championships on a modified BMW R 75/5 road bike.
In 1978 the rules again allowed 4-stroke motorcycles to compete in championship events. Laszlo Peres from the BMW test department came second in the German Championship on a self-built 800cc machine that weighed only 142kg. Peres’ success created an appetite for more and in 1979 BMW established a works team to compete officially in cross-country competitions. The reward for this commitment was the German Championship – won by Richard Schalber in 1979 and Werner Schütz in 1980. In addition, Rolf Witthöft won the European Championship, also in 1980.
Building a successful sports model is one thing, developing an economically viable production machine presents a far-reaching challenge. The new model would not simply be a replica of the cross-country sports machine because these models could only have been sold, at a high price, to a few active sports riders or collectors. The new production bike had to be suitable for everyday use – and the selling price had to be competitive.
Japanese manufacturers had proved that because of agile handling, enduro models could also appeal to road riders. This had instigated an enduro trend, especially in the USA, so there was definitely a potential market. The single-cylinder motorcycles being produced in the Far East were not what BMW had in mind though. These bikes were minimally equipped and may have been adequate for brief trial riding excursions, but made travelling long distances something of an ordeal. Carrying a pillion passenger on extended tours was totally out of the question. A BMW all-terrain machine had to look, and be, different. Typical virtues such as comfort, long-distance capability, and longevity were vital.
A concept gradually emerged of a motorcycle with all-terrain capability, combined with high performance and on-road ride comfort. A careful market study of enduro riding revealed that a mere two per cent of kilometres ridden were across really difficult terrain; and 98 per cent were on normal roads, unsurfaced tracks or narrow paths. The idea of a comfortable, large-capacity endurance/street bike was born. Its concept was reflected in the G/S model designation – G for Gelände (terrain) and S for Strasse (road). It created a new market and a demand that has so far proved virtually inexhaustible.
BMW management gave the go-ahead for series production. Rüdiger Gutsche was a keen cross-country rider who often attracted attention in competition events by riding self-built BMW-based machines. The focus of development was on new single-arm rear wheel suspension. By strengthening the mounting of the crown wheel in the rear-wheel drive it was possible to screw the road wheel directly to the final drive. This meant that changing the wheel would be as easy as on a car. But the feature was new technical territory and the question was whether such a design would be able to withstand heavy stress.
Initial trials were promising and in January 1980 the G/S underwent a real test in the most extreme of conditions. BMW press spokesman Kalli Hufstadt and journalist Hans Peter Leicht set off on two pre-production machines for a 2,200 kilometre ride through Ecuador. The slogan was: ‘From primeval forest to eternal ice’. During the trip the motorcycles had to combat extreme weather and atrocious road conditions – from the heat and humidity of the Amazon basin to an altitude of more than 5,000 metres in the high Andean glaciers. Men and machines emerged from their trial of true endurance and strength with no more than a few slight injuries. The development work of the BMW engineers had paid off and the backroom staff were able to start fine-tuning the new, and now proven, G/S machine…
Watch out for the next instalment ‘BMW R 80 G/S – the press impressed’ - coming soon.