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Will the R 18 help BMW kill motorcycle trade shows?

Thursday, May 28, 2020   (7 Comments)
Posted by: Wes Fleming #87301

In the space of just a few hours one day in early April, BMW Motorrad may have upended the motorcycle trade show. They did two things, seemingly unconnected by anything other than the calendar: launch the production R 18 to the world and cancel their 2020 appearance at EICMA, arguably the most important powersports trade show in Europe and possibly the world.

We who follow the industry know BMW has been drawing back from U.S. trade shows in recent years. At last year’s AIMExpo in Columbus, Ohio, BMW sent just four bikes, and three of them were GSes. The fourth was the R 18 Concept, and it was absolutely glorious, set off from the rest of the floor by a rustic yet dazzling booth complete with velvet ropes meant to keep grubby fingers off the beautiful metal-flake paint.

When it comes to the Progressive International Motorcycle Show series every winter, BMW has been steadily drawing down its presence, and while they might send a few bikes and some personnel to the Long Beach or New York shows, in the 2019-20 IMS season, they were no-shows everywhere else. A few local dealers bought booth space here and there, but BMW themselves did nothing organized.

Motorcycle fans were understandably upset about that development, but it’s hard to say BMW’s decision is wrong. The motorcycle industry continues to suffer from the 2008-09 sales plunge, and even though sales are gradually rising for many manufacturers (including BMW, though not in the USA), they have not recovered to the level of the heady days before the Great Recession. This means money continues to be tight as manufacturers have to do more with the same (or less) funding. With consumers constantly demanding more power, more technology and more models, motorcycle manufacturers face the unenviable decision of trying to trim any expenses they can.

Enter the BMW R 18. There are plenty of people wondering what BMW is doing with this bike, what market they’re going after and why, and maybe more importantly, why now? Harley-Davidson is bleeding sales like a gut-shot bank robber, and though Indian keeps posting solid numbers every year, they’re not getting double-digit sales increases over and over and over. Eventually Indian will reach their saturation point and stop taking additional sales from Harley.

Perhaps the most ironic and amusing thing about these three manufacturers coming up with new bikes is how they are emulating each other. BMW’s R 18 is an air-cooled heavy cruiser like nearly everything in the Harley and Indian lineups. Harley’s Pan America is a big-bore adventure bike aimed squarely at taking a chunk of R 1250 GS market share. Indian’s FTR 1200 is a bare-bones standard not unlike — outside of styling cues — the R 1250 R.

Normally, BMW would wait for the worldwide attention at EICMA to debut the production version of the R 18, relying on hype and the international motorcycle press to do the heavy lifting of promoting the bike for them. Instead, BMW chose to launch the bike seven months ahead of EICMA, then bow out of EICMA entirely.

It would be negligent not to mention the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in BMW’s decision. As of this [update to the original article], motorcycle manufacturers all over the world (even in India, where most of the world’s motorbikes are made) are just starting to emerge from being shut down. Some said the shutdowns would last two weeks, others refused to offer any sort of timeline on when they might reopen. Harley furloughed nearly its entire manufacturing staff, preserving their healthcare benefits, thankfully, and Polaris (Indian’s parent) shut down its U.S. plants nearly across the board. The virus is pounding Brazil; BMW’s plant there halted operations after the government closed the country to all land and air travel. BMW’s plants in Europe and India shut down for more than their predicted minimum of two weeks, and though nobody knew for sure, manufacturing remained shuttered for all of April and most, if not all of May as various regions attempted to control the spread of this deadly disease.

BMW could likely have been discussing pulling out of EICMA before the pandemic; these decisions are not made hastily nor capriciously. The best evidence of this is a YouTube series called “A Bavarian Soulstory.” BMW released the first of the nine Soulstory videos in September 2019, laying the groundwork for the production R 18’s eventual debut. The Soulstory series follows Tommy Kerns from a hotel in Munich to the launch in South Africa, building hype and revealing tiny details all along the way.

The thing is, Kerns isn’t a motorcycle industry guy. He’s a menswear consultant. His shop, Butterscotch, sells clothing and cool stuff for those we might refer to as hipsters. Their aesthetic clearly rolls along on two wheels, and Kerns certainly has deep knowledge of bikes, his love for motorcycles obvious throughout the videos. From skintight tapered-leg jeans to painfully retro helmets, there isn’t much on the website that isn't cooler and more hip than most of us have ever been in our lives.

Choosing Kerns for this video series was, in a word, brilliant. This above all other things is a clear indication BMW Motorrad is looking to move beyond their established market and start capturing new motorcycle buyers. Kerns has credibility among an entire generation of possible (or even probable) motorcycle owners who are not already jaded by or committed to any one brand, and BMW was smart to engage him to build hype for the R 18.

Starting the push away from motorcycle trade shows with the R 18 is equally brilliant. The Soulstory series of videos are incredibly well done; be sure to check out BMW Motorrad’s YouTube channel to see them all (one is embedded above). A video like each one of those in the series could cost upwards of $100,000, so it’s not beyond the realm of reason to think BMW dropped $1 million on producing those videos. Between paying for booth space, covering employee expenses for the better part of two weeks (salary, food and lodging for setup, the week of the show, breakdown and transportation to and from Milan) EICMA could well cost as much or more. Yet the EICMA experience is, by its very nature, limited to those fortunate enough to be able to attend the show. The Bavarian Soulstory videos will live on the internet forever, creating visibility for years and vastly improving BMW’s return on investment for the money spent creating them. Plus, they capture Kerns at his influencer height. He will always be that young, that good-looking, that cool, that excited about the R 18, and BMW captured the lightning in a bottle.

When it comes to the R 18 itself, BMW isn’t creating an all-new category of cruisers; they’re adding the R 18 to the Heritage lineup. Until now, all the Heritage bikes have been variations on the R nineT. The modularity of the 9T series speaks volumes to the bike’s adaptability. There used to be a time when a single BMW motorcycle could be all things to all riders. Take the R 75/5 or R 90/6, for example. Go to any gathering of BMW or vintage motorcycles and you can see examples of those two bikes especially decked out for any and every possible use—café racers, open road touring, off road thrashing, around town posing, coffee fetching—you name it, those bikes can do it. They were the German versions of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle so many of us loved in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In my mind, the primary functional difference between a 1978 Honda CB750 I used to own and a 1976 BMW R 90/6 I’d like to own is the number of carburetors I need to synch during routine maintenance.

The R nineT has a similar aesthetic and world of possibilities. BMW has simply done much of the work for riders interested in a plain bike, a race bike, a scrambler, a vintage-looking bike with all the modern accoutrements—you name it, there’s a 9T for you out there. The R 18 is coming out of the gate in a similar fashion, and BMW has already swung for the fences.

Go online and visit BMW’s Build Your Own motorcycle site and select the R 18. Note the starting price of $17,495 (any color you want as long as it’s black) and check out the Premium Package (+$1,450). That’s how you get hill start control, headlight upgrades, reverse assist. Add $225 to get an anti-theft alarm, lockable fuel filler cap and heated grips. Don’t forget the non-negotiable $695 delivery/processing/assembly cost they leave off the list price but mandate you pay for every new bike. Your list price then is $19,865, entirely reasonable for a bike like the R 18 and comparable to other basic heavy cruisers like the Indian Chief Dark Horse ($18,499) or a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy 114 ($20,599). Of course, the Japanese versions of these bikes cost thousands less, but they also carry less panache in the market.

More important than the packages you can get is the already extensive list of parts available to customize an individual R 18. Seats, mirrors, mufflers, clutch and brake reservoir covers, cylinder head covers, chrome parts, wheels, windshields and more. In other words, if you don’t want your R 18 to stay stock, there’s no reason for it to do so. If you want a bobber, BMW has you covered. If you want a chrome-blinged bike, you’re good. If you want every surface on the bike to match, BMW has made it easy for you to do so. I’m sure it won’t be long until substantial saddlebags are available; right now, all you can get is some cool-looking but small (16 liters each) squared-off panniers. There are rumors and accompanying spy

s showing BMW is working on a proper bagger/tourer version of the R 18; it could be out as early as next year, but that is a subject best saved for another time.

When it comes to power, it may appear at first blush BMW skimped in this area. BMW claims 91 horsepower at 4,750 rpm and 116 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm as the bike’s max ratings at the crank, so figure 10 percent less on each spec on the street. Compare this to the S 1000 RR (205 hp at 13,000 rpm) or the K 1600 GT (160 hp at 7,750 rpm) and the R 18 comes up woefully short. If these are the numbers dissuading you from R 18 ownership, you’re making the wrong comparisons.

Compare the R 18 not to BMW’s rocket ships, but to heavy cruisers made by Harley-Davidson and Indian, because these are the bikes the R 18 is competing with, not the inline four or six found elsewhere in the lineup. The engines the R 18 compares favorably to are Harley’s Fat Bob (82 hp at 4,660 rpm, 111 ft-lbs at 2,260 rpm) and Indian’s 111 cubic inch V-twin powering its heavy cruisers (84 hp, 110 ft-lbs). Note these HD and Indian numbers are where the tire meets the ground, not at an unloaded crank able to give unencumbered readings like with the R 18. The math of thousands of motorcycles of this style shows a consistent 10 percent loss between the crank and the street once a drivetrain, whether it is belt, chain or shaft, is introduced along with a wheel, a tire and all the other unsprung weight involved in keeping the back of a motorcycle up off the ground and moving you forward. Indian’s new (for 2020) 116 CI traditional V-twin will up their specs a little, but not enough to take their bikes into another class compared to the R 18 and Harley’s 114 Milwaukee Eight-equipped motorcycles.

I’ve mentioned in these pages in previous months the inevitable comparison of the R 18 to the R 1200 C and CL/CLC, which were similarly “underpowered” for their day yet compared favorably to contemporary cruisers, so I’m not going to beat that horse here. The thing many detractors neglect is the near cult-like loyalty to those cruisers shown by their owners and those who seek them out.

If nothing else is clear at this point, it’s that BMW Motorrad hasn’t given up on the cruiser market, so don’t make the mistake thinking the R 18 is yet another feeble attempt at gaining a foothold on the American motorcycle market. BMW is of course hoping to sell a lot of R 18s in the U.S., but the market they’re going after is younger riders eager for a bike they can easily customize to their taste and with growing amounts of disposable income and the desire to use it. Another market they no doubt hope to tap into is riders who love the Western aesthetic of the cruiser, but don’t want to actually buy an American bike, whether it be for economic reasons or their own senses of patriotism.

What is of no doubt is BMW’s warning shot across the bow of the massive cruise ship that is the power sports trade show. BMW has shown they can build hype and excitement without ever putting a production bike in a booth and what’s more, they can do it while fully controlling the schedule and the release of information and leveraging the power of the internet and social media in doing it. For all of those who are focused only on the retro looks of the R 18, they are missing the real point of this new motorcycle from BMW Motorrad, which is at least in part to prove BMW’s innovations aren’t only in the realm of the physical vehicles they build and continue to sell to an eager public.


Karen K. Mahaffey says...
Posted Monday, June 8, 2020
Could not read the whole article due to ads on the right side. When will the R-18 be available?
Rich Yerman says...
Posted Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Can not read article, left side of page is blocked out by ads or just plain missing😕
Robert D. Henig says...
Posted Monday, June 1, 2020
Wes, A great article, story and history of how we got here plus some strong images of the new R18. I especially enjoyed reading about the EICMA and IMS shows which I've attended; my observations and external comments back yours up - they've been losing traffic and interest/impact for a long time and were very costly; at Bob's BMW we fully agree with BMW's redirection of valuable marketing money and made a similar local decision two years ago. The R18 is going to bring in a lot of new customers as well as reignite the passion for riding in many riders hearts currently on other brands along with BMW owner's. We have a large number of pre-sale deposits and anticipate strong sales for some time to come to those who prefer to see, sit and ride one before committing their wallet. It will be a pleasure to assist and watch them personalize their rides and I'm confident this first gen R18 will gain loyalty like the R12C did which IMNSHO was cut from the BMW line-up far too early. Bob@Bob's
Stan Pruszynski says...
Posted Monday, June 1, 2020
Thanks but my 2004 R1200C cruiser is a much better looking bike
Don Flowers says...
Posted Monday, June 1, 2020
I wanted to read the article, but it appears non-optimized for my smartphone and tablet. Maybe need to go to my desktop screen???
Ben Lower says...
Posted Monday, June 1, 2020
Why are ads covering the right side of the article?
Bruce Herbert says...
Posted Monday, June 1, 2020
Article appears clipped down left side

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