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Hans Muth: BMW Motorrad icon

Sunday, December 1, 2019   (5 Comments)
Posted by: Wes Fleming #87301

At the moment Hans Muth agreed to design the now legendary R 90 S motorcycle, his day job was designing interiors for BMW automobiles. His biggest concern at the time was color, because as we all know, in the early 1970s, you could get a BMW motorcycle in any color you wanted as long as that color was black.

Thus was born Daytona Orange. It was how Muth rebelled against the status quo and one of the reasons his designs are so iconic. There is nothing subtle about the motorcycles he designed, not one of them, and they were all designed with passion and purpose.

Hans Muth with an R 65 LS. Note the white snowflake wheels - not silver - that Muth specified in the original design.

It is easy to heap credit on Muth for preventing BMW Motorrad from becoming just another failed experiment on two wheels, albeit a 40-plus-year one, but it is difficult to imagine the success of BMW motorcycles in the ‘70s and ‘80s without his participation. In addition to the R 90 S, Muth also designed the first GS and positioned BMW at the front of the adventure motorcycle craze, a genre that has perhaps done more to keep motorcycling alive in this century than any other specific style of bike.

In addition to the R 90 S and the first R 80 GS, Muth also designed a number of other motorcycles for BMW, including the R 65 LS, and the first Katana for Suzuki, a motorcycle largely credited for triggering the Japanese sportbike craze, the repercussions of which we still see in bikes like the FZ, GSX-R, CBR and even the S 1000 RR.

Hans Muth on Chasing the Horizon, Part 1

I met Hans Muth at a gathering in Pennsylvania hosted by Todd Trumbore to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the R 80 GS and R 65 LS. The weekend was filled with conversation and knowledge, as a number of experts spoke at length under a large covered pavilion next to Trumbore’s private collection of amazing motorcycles. It was a gathering not unlike the anniversary celebration of the R 90 S the same group held not long ago. Airhead riders are among the most dedicated BMW fans around, and their enthusiasm for this generation of BMW motorcycles is legendary, almost to the point of caricature. It’s easy to pick on them sometimes, but they probably know more about their motorcycles than any of the rest of us who ride modern, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, road-gobbling monsters.

Hans Muth on Chasing the Horizon, Part 2

“You can sit in a car,” Muth said. “But the motorcycle, you are part of it. It’s physical.” This idea is part of his man-machine philosophy; the more stable the motorcycle is, the less the rider has to fight the bike, the more fun he has. It’s part and parcel of why his motorcycles have fairings on them.

A "post design" prototype built by fans of Muth's designs shows off his original concept for the "Gentleman's Scrambler," complete with red engine.

He wanted to make bold statements with the motorcycles he designs, whether that comes from putting a big fairing on it or coming up with a new color. “A designer has to take responsibility and fulfill demands, not only for aesthetics, but also for [production], safety and modularity, which is where we came up with the RT.”

It was 1975 when Muth joined BMW Motorrad officially, leaving his productive career designing four-wheeled vehicles behind him for a time. During his five years there, he continued fighting for modularity, because it helped drive production costs down, meaning younger people who wanted to ride could afford to get into the sport. The key to that was using the same engine across models, and that extended onward up to the iconic K1, which had BMW’s 1,000cc water-cooled flat engine.

The genesis of the adventure bike started, of course, with the R 80 GS. Muth got the idea while driving a Range Rover, and his head told him, “We need a motorcycle like a Range Rover.” The idea became reality in the monoshock-supported GS, or “Gentleman’s Scrambler” as he refers to it. He wanted a bike that weighed less and was easy to work with, and convincing his Motorrad compatriots to develop it was as easy as pointing out the same benefits in BMW’s cars. It took him 20 minutes to sketch the basics on a piece of paper, and the bike went into 3D modeling, what they called a “design reference model.” “They saw it, they liked it, they raised a thumb, and that was it,” he said.

Detail of the red engine on the GS800.

Neither Muth nor anybody else at BMW had any idea the GS would become the future of BMW, the best-selling bike in the company’s history and the progenitor of an entire genre of motorcycles. Perhaps if they had, they’d have made it just a little prettier.

Stripping away everything from the motorcycle left behind the engine—that “beating boxer heart” as he calls it—the GS prototype’s engine was red. That didn’t make it to the production model, but it was the beginning of the LS, a smaller, lighter bike based on the same design concepts. It is on the R 65 LS where it is perhaps the easiest to see Muth’s attention to detail and how his mind works. First, the red. Red attracts the eye. Red is sexy. Red inflames the passions. When everything is red, though, it’s a bit much, plus BMW was not going to make a red frame, it was just not convenient for production in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.

A row of R 65 LS motorcycles.

Look closely at the R 65 LS, and you’ll notice the tank has a black stripe on the bottom of it. That little bit of black paint on either side of the tank creates the smooth, graceful line defining the purpose of the LS—sport touring. It’s an easy bike to zoom around the countryside on, not a care in the world but carving the next curve.

“We are losing our sensitivity,” Muth said, and explained why he still to this day designs initially on paper. The purity of the sketch is paramount: the hand shapes, the eye judges, the passion develops. The process grows from there, passing through the full-size clay model and culminating in the production machine rolling off the factory line.

Silver snowflake wheels.

When it comes to modern motorcycles, Muth feels they are spoiling riders. It’s the consumption culture, he complained, that has turned us into people who are only ever interested in the next thing. With so many choices, he laments, comparing the current crop of available bikes to an unstructured restaurant with a massive menu, the rider has no choice but to always wonder what he might be missing. “The automotive industry—125 years of professional car manufacturing—what they have done is tell us what we want,” he said. What he wants riders to do is the equivalent of going into a small, local Italian restaurant. You know what will be on the menu, and you know you’ll like it. You won’t feel compelled to continue looking at the next page of the menu and can then concentrate on enjoying the motorcycle you’re riding rather than wondering about what you might be missing.

While cognizant of his role in the success of BMW Motorrad, Muth is not at all arrogant about it. Any conversation with him shows both his pride and his humility, an odd combination in anybody. What drives Muth is a concept he calls “PUT IT HERE.” As a result, and as important to BMW’s motorcycle history as Muth is, it is his philosophy that truly paints his picture.

A row of early GS motorcycles with Todd Trumbore's pavilion in the background.

“It is not playing around with shapes. It is working with convincing solutions—moderate, attractive, functional and modular—to keep the basics in place. Solutions don’t come from the top, neither from companies nor government. They come down from the folks who are on the ground. They have the sensitivity. The have the demanding and the doing.”

Hans Muth has written a book reviewing his 60 years of design work. It’s already out, but only available in German. It will be available in English some time in 2020 and covers not only his motorcycles, but his industrial, car and even helicopter designs as well. It contains his artwork and photos of many of the machines he designed, as well as his commentary on many of the designs.

Muth regales the gathered mass with the story of the R 65 LS.


Wayne S says...
Posted Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Great stuff - Hans is a design genius, so far ahead of his time. Did the white wheels pictured above qualify as "snowflakes"? I had an R65 and thought the pic in the link below were the only snowflake variety. Closer symmetry and geometry.
Lester W. Vermiere says...
Posted Sunday, December 15, 2019
Re: the comment at the start of the article "His biggest concern at the time was color, because as we all know, in the early 1970s, you could get a BMW motorcycle in any color you wanted as long as that color was black. Thus was born Daytona Orange" If memory serves I think that there were some white 69s and 69US mid 1969. My friend bought a new 1973 75/5 December 1972. It was blue. April 1973 I ordered a black large tank 75/5. I received a large curry tank instead. Still have the bike. As well, I have a 1971 50/5 parts bike. It is green. There were other colours than black early 70's. I also think the 90s came out late in 1973 only in grey and the orange came later, possibly late 1974. Great article by the way. Lvermiere #36473 -
Michael Fodor says...
Posted Monday, December 2, 2019
Wes, the podcast with Mr Muth was a homerun. It provided a unique look into the creative mind of a legendary designer. Even with the vacuum noise, I listened to it twice. Keep up the good work.
John W. Browning says...
Posted Sunday, December 1, 2019
I bought an R65LS a few years ago. It was and is not in the best of shape appearance-wise. It is missing the battery covers and the Muth fairing was gone and an Emgo Café fairing was in its place. I'm still trying to hunt down a pair of battery covers. But I scored what many would consider a unicorn when I found a complete fairing with instruments. It's silver instead of red but that can be remedied. Imperfect as it is it gets a lot of interest and comments. I have an oilhead RT but I will always have an airhead.
Stephen F. Bogert says...
Posted Sunday, December 1, 2019
We need Muth again! modern BMW bikes need a major styling makeover. BTW, the well known original Suzuki Katana he designed was first made for MV Augusta , a bike was built and shown based on the previous 750 America. MV stopped building motorcycles and so Suzuki picked up the radical design to invigorate their image.

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