KING OF THE HILL
When BMW introduced the R 1100 GS way back in 1994, it was met with a pretty universal frown, based almost entirely on its weird looks. While we’ve become used to bikes with radical bodywork and futuristic styling, back then there was little that broke the mould quite like the GS. Pretty it wasn’t.
It also had to invent a category for itself. Or so we thought Down Under. At a time when ‘adventure touring’ was in its infancy, here was a bike that laid claim to being as capable off-road as it was on-road. For a market that was used to the division between dirt bikes and road-going hardware being clearly defined, the claim seemed a little far fetched.
In fact, the combination was considered almost impossible.
With these sorts of buyer-perception barriers to overcome, it’s a wonder the R 1100 GS garnered much more than curiosity. It was pretty damned hard on the eye, aimed at a market that only just existed and did it all with a wet weight of 243 kilograms. Off roader? You’ve got to be kidding.
In fact, BMW got its timing absolutely correct. In the usual methodical Germanic manner, the idea of a bike reflecting dual-sport capability was highly researched and planned. It might have seemed like the GS was answering a question nobody had asked, but that was far from the truth. The time was indeed right.
METHOD BEHIND MADNESS
BMW suggests the concept was to create a bike with all-terrain capability, combined with high performance and on-road comfort. It studied markets that had shown an interest in long-haul motorcycling that took in off-road running. This revealed that just 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 dual-sport was born.
Its concept was reflected in the GS model designation – ‘G’ for ‘Gelände’ (terrain) and ‘S’ for ‘Strasse’ (road) and by the end of 1994, the production line at BMW’s Spandau plant had despatched 9500 units. By the time the bike was replaced by the R 1150 GS in 1999, 39,842 R 1100 GS units had trundled off the line. The success story had begun.
The R 1100 GS was powered by an all-new 1085cc fuel-injected four-valve Boxer ‘oilhead’ powerplant, which was good for 58kW at 6750rpm and 97Nm at 5250rpm.
The bike also featured the all-new Paralever/Telelever suspension arrangement, offering a wishbone and spring-damper unit up front, and a centrally mounted, preload-adjustable shock and single-sided swingarm/shaft drive set-up. The Telelever eliminated fork dive under hard braking and it won instant accolades for its performance.
The gearbox offered five speeds, the seat height was 840mm (adjustable to 860mm), tank capacity a handy 25 litres and the frame was a steel-trellis arrangement.
Neat spoked wheels that could use tubeless tyres were a clever feature, but the spokes need to be checked regularly if the bike is used on rough terrain. They have been known to loosen, putting pressure on the corresponding spoke.
It all added up to a lot of bike, but the 1100 version had its problems over its six-year model life. For starters, the gearbox was like a bag of spanners. Clunky, slow to change and pretty annoying.
If you’d got off a Japanese bike and on to a GS, well you’d reckon there was something wrong.
The ABS system was switchable and there is an audible clunk on take-off as this self tests. If the battery is low on charge, this can be enough to stop the ABS being able to perform the self test, which renders the bike without ABS.
Into the bargain, the lights that deal with the ABS testing procedure are downright confusing and many owners bemoaned the whole deal. It wasn’t that the ABS wasn’t any good, more that the rider was left unsure of ABS status.
A big problem that beset some hard-used early 1100s was broken transmission cases. The bottom of the rear subframe is bolted to the transmission on the left and right sides. There’s a threaded hole that receives a bolt through the subframe tube, and the load is carried only on one side of the frame tube. This applies torque to the mounting point, and under heavy load or repeated stress, the mounting point cracks and has been known to break the transmission case. Also, the 1994 version was recalled for loose suspension pivots and bolts.
IMPROVING THE BREED
When the R 1150 GS came along most of the aforementioned niggles had been addressed. Capacity was increased to 1130cc, power was 62kW at 6750rpm and torque 98Nm at 5750rpm. There was a new hydraulic clutch, and, importantly, reinforced frame mounts and a stronger transmission housing around the six-speed box (sixth was overdrive). Wet weight was 249kg.
Asymmetrical headlights changed the look of the bike as did the adjustable windscreen and nifty upper and lower front guards. The dash was all new as well. Tank capacity was reduced to 22 litres, which many saw as a retrograde step. Standard was a centrestand, hard luggage mounts, heated grips and 12-volt outlet.
Issues included the fact that the fuel cap could allow rain to enter the tank and the O-ring inside the oil filler cap could break causing oil leakage from the seal. The 2003 model was recalled for a new rear brake hose after it was discovered that the original could be prone to rupture.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
In 2002 BMW released the more rugged R 1150 GS Adventure, which was distinguished by its 20mm longer-travel suspension (210mm at the front and 220mm at the rear). A Showa preload-adjustable shock graced the rear and the EVO brakes were fitted at the front. Optional was integral ABS.
The windscreen and front guard were lengthened and widened, handguards were standard and customers could opt for a 30-litre tank. Stowage space was provided by a set of aluminium cases specially designed for the Adventure – the two-side cases and a top box provided 105 litres of space. There was a ‘cylinder protection bracket’, protective grille for the headlight and a fog lamp, also fitted with a protective grille.
WORTH A LOOK?
The R 1100 and the 1150 GS models can be bought for pretty reasonable prices. Many owners report racking up big mileages, but look for a good service history.
BMW servicing is best done by a franchised operator as lots of specialist tools and diagnostic equipment are required. If there is no supporting documentation on a high-mileage example, we’d advise against buying it.
Finish is generally good, as you’d expect for a BMW and there is a wide range of factory add-ons, including classy hard luggage, heated grips and satellite navigation. In 2000, Cycle World named the R 1150 GS “Best Sport Touring Bike”. In 2005, the R 1150 GS Adventure was named “Best Traillie” by British mag Ride, while the standard model came third.
That’s enough to let you know the sort of esteem that the R 1150 is held in on a global basis.
The GS does what it says on the tin. Both versions can be hussled along on sealed surfaces at a pretty good clip and they will handle some rough stuff as well. Don’t think that you’re buying a big traillie, however. If you are looking to head into the rough stuff, we’d recommend substantially lighter. It comes down to likely useage.
That the GS range has gone on to be one of motorcycling’s most accomplished model designations, with heady worldwide sales figures that consistently see it the leading seller in the BMW range – pretty much due to those claims of versatility being mostly true – is remarkable.
The pick is the 1150, simply based on the 1100’s transmission cracking issue and the fact that it is getting long in the tooth.
Get it right and you’re in for a whole bunch of useable motorcycle. Lower kays, good service records are the key to a wise purchase here.
BMW R 1100 GS
BMW R 1150 GS
Figures from Glass’s Guide – Motorcycles, 1990-2014. Prices are a guide only, and will be affected by a bike’s mileage, condition and accessories. Private sales will have lower values than retail sales.