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40 years on a GS

Tuesday, October 13, 2020   (2 Comments)
Posted by: John Rice 24267

This year is the 40th anniversary of BMW’s GS, the motorcycle that saved the marque.

I have owned eight GS motorcycles, one of each iteration of the boxer GS series from the R 80 to the R 1250, except the R 1150. I found the Wasser Boxer a reach too far for my technology-impervious brain, so two F 650 GS singles and now an 800cc water-cooled twin called an F 700 GS. I estimated I’ve ridden about 190,000 miles on the GS genre.

I acquired the first one, a 1984 R 80 GS, in 1988 or so, when we still lived in Lexington. It was a lighter version of the boxer twin, with the single-sided swing arm that was then an unusual innovation. Coming from an enduro/trials riding background, I loved the upright, dirt bike-like riding position and its flickable maneuverability.

One afternoon after work, I took it out for a short ride around Lexington. In a subdivision, I came around a corner leaned over a bit farther than I should have been when a car in front of me slammed on his brakes, apparently looking for an address. I braked, still heeled over, lost the front end and slid, coming off the bike on my left shoulder. I watched the R 80 bounce on its crash bar, stand back up like a horse that had just shook off its rider, and meander slowly off the road, where it laid down in a yard, undamaged but looking mildly offended, waiting for me to come over and get it.

I took my first track school, a Reg Pridmore session at Road Atlanta, on that bike. Brenda and I rode it down to Flowery Branch, Georgia, checked in at motel where I removed the bags but inexplicably left on the windshield, and went the next morning to the track. It was a revelatory experience, though I had been riding motorcycles for decades at that point, to take a few laps on the back of a K bike with Jason Pridmore, where I could learn what smooth really felt like. The R 80 GS acquitted itself admirably among the mostly sport bike crew populating the class, sort of like a Labrador retriever which wandered into a greyhound kennel, but is still having a great time.

While at the school, I took advantage of the opportunity to demo an R 100 GS, then a new model, for a few laps of the course. It was shod with the Metzeler Sahara 3 semi-knobby tires that came stock on them at that time and I learned what it felt like to have the front tire walk sideways a bit when leaned over hard in a turn at speed. One of those experiences that is scary at first, then draws you in to feel it again, perhaps like a first ride on a roller coaster as a kid. I left the course with a serious case of bike lust for one of the new bikes, though the R 80 was still perfectly serviceable for just about anything I cared to do. Within a few months I ordered a new R 100 GS/PD from Wilbur’s BMW in Linton, Indiana.

In my defense, there were some definite advantages, like the new tubeless “outside spoke” rims that eliminated the fear of flat tire changes on the side of the road, a larger seat platform for two-up riding, a bit more torque, and the 9.3-gallon fuel tank which, back then, I could exhaust before needing a stop for tree inspection. I must admit to enjoying the puzzled look on gas station clerks, in those days when we still had to go inside to pay, who saw a guy on a motorcycle getting eight or more gallons of fuel.

I liked the 1993 R 100 GS/PD so much I bought it twice. I put over 90,000 miles on it, with only a few glitches, and it is now in better hands with my nephew, Paul. In the beginning, I used it on and off road, even on some single track. I recall once ascending a long, steep, rutted hill and being amazed at how well the big bike handled the climb—before realizing I had to get it back down again.

In the fall of 1998, Brenda and I visited the new Ashland BMW dealership, which included a motorcycle café. While perusing the various attractions offered, I happened upon a black R 1100 GS. The dealership owner came over and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse for a trade in on my PD. I’m not proud of the fact I so easily gave up what had been one of my favorite motorcycles, but I was seduced by the promise of technological advantages like ABS and fuel injection.

The R 1100 GS was fast but vicious. It had the fuel injection glitch that kept it constantly hunting for an RPM to settle on at any steady throttle and frequently let it die at the just off idle position. This shattered my clavicle, the only broken bone I have sustained in a motorcycle crash, when it coughed and died as I was in a slow speed turnaround on a slope. When it wasn’t hunting for a mixture it liked, it was so good at speed and at turning and stopping that it constantly whispered in my ear, urging me to do stupid things my ego listened to and believed I was capable of making happen. I took it to a Pridmore school at Mid-Ohio and felt what it was like to not get passed by so many of the sport bikes on the back straight and to have my foot trapped against the frame by the foot peg folded up tightly in the curves.

After the broken bone incident, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized I had been happier with my steady partner, the PD. Like a penitent philanderer, I returned to the dealership and traded the 1100 in for my old PD, still there after a year of patiently waiting for me to come to my senses, and an R 100 R that needed to come into the deal to make it palatable to the dealer.

The PD became more of an everything bike; it took my wife and I on long trips around the US and Canada and served as a fine back road explorer on weekends. I took several more track schools on it, where it acquitted itself probably much better than its rider.

In late 2009, I got an email from Jeff Cooke, the BMW dealer in Louisville, about a close-out deal on an R 1200 GS, the last one of the old style remaining before the new camheads came in. I traded in the R 100 R and a 1969 Triumph Daytona and went home with the R 1200 GS. No way was the PD going anywhere this time! It has stayed in the family ever since.

The 2009 R 1200 GS was the one that got away. This bike was everything I could have dreamed of when I was a kid, noodling around on old used motorcycles that were always problematic in some fashion. This one handled superbly, had more power than I knew what to do with, started every time, stopped like running into a wall, and could carry anything my wife and I needed to go anywhere. It was so competent it didn’t need us! If it had a credit card, it could have traveled on its own. We used it on many trips, including my five-week solo retirement trip throughout the west and up into Canada. I sold it after that trip for reasons that now seem trivial, one of dozens of bikes that I wish I hadn’t parted with.

At the MOA rally in St. Paul, Minn., I saw an F 650 GS attached to a sidecar and fell hopelessly into bike lust again. Several months later, I made the deal with DMC Sidecars, flew out to Tacoma, Wash., and rode it home, learning how to drive the contraption on the way. The 650cc single was much stronger than I expected, apparently nearly indestructible and a world of fun to drive with its sidecar companion. This particular one was a “Bitsa”, having been put together from two salvage bikes by DMC as a tug for a new model sidecar at the show and I later replaced that F 650 with another, a year newer. The second one was just as impressive.

On trips to the mountains, with Brenda in the sidecar and all our stuff loaded into the trunk, the little rig always returned at least 50 MPG and, though requiring lower gears to make it up the steep hills, never really seemed too bothered. After decades of two-up adventures, Brenda loved the sidecar life and we decided it would become our permanent way of traveling together into our later years. For that duty, perhaps something more sophisticated was going to be required. I started looking at DMC’s website, saw the Expedition models mated to R 1200 GSes and the red mist descended over my eyes again. I bought a 2012 camhead Rallye Edition GS from a friend and shipped it across the country to DMC, flying out a month later to drive it home.

The 2012 R 1200 GS, now married with sidecar, was probably the best one yet, if I was still young enough to make use of what it has to offer. It was strong, but with still barely understandable technology I can live with. I can adjust the valves on the rare occasions they need adjusted. If only, in my 70s, I was still stout enough to feel confident with its weight and height, I would love to have one on two wheels. It was unencumbered by sidecar duty only for a few winter months before shipping it off for mating. In that time, I liked it a lot while realizing the window for me to make full use of its immense capabilities had closed some time ago. For nearly 30,000 miles as a sidecar rig it has pulled its load without strain or complaint, mountains or desert, rain, snow or whatever I can throw at it.

In 2014, I bought an F 700 GS on the road, at Gina’s BMW in Iowa City, hundreds of miles from my home on a bike trip, trading in an Airhead that had become frustratingly problematic. It was an impulse purchase that turned out extremely well. The F 700 was not as engaging, not the same kind of fit as my airheads (except for one) have been, but just too good a total combination to be replaced by anything I’m currently aware of. It is more like a good tool, but not really a partner with an emotional attachment. It is light, handles well, has all the accoutrements I need for extended travel and so far has been extremely reliable, almost to the point of inviting neglect. I suspect it will turn out to be the last new motorcycle of my life.

If I could have a perfect GS today, it would be an airhead R 80 with tubeless wheels, twin front discs, ABS and the suspension from my F 700. Yep, that would do it.


Joel Parks says...
Posted Friday, October 16, 2020
Great article. I’ve owned 6 GSs, R80, 1000, 1100, 1200, 1200GSW and the new Shiftcam. No F bikes but given my age (74) there may be one in my future. The airheads are more fun to potter around on and, yes, the new ones tempt you to write checks you probably can’t cash.
Nick Hughes says...
Posted Friday, October 16, 2020
Great article. Congrats on your long love affair with the GS' I'm on my 3rd (after a slew of other models including my beloved blue and yellow K1 which I got when I lived in the UK). Have promised myself I'll put 100,000 on my current beast before getting a 1250 but it's hard to wait.

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