The first BMW Cruiser
1997, the latest James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies is released and premiering in it was BMW’s first ever cruiser, the R1200C. Distinctive with a BMW kidney shaped oil cooler on the front and a highly stylized Telelever managing the suspension duties up front, while the monolever drive shaft brought the 61HP from the retuned 1200cc boxer engine to the rear wheel. Featured at the Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit, the design was distinctive. Unlike anything BMW had done before, and for that matter any manufacturer, the R1200C initially got some good press and interest. Unfortunately for BMW, the “small” capacity, wrong engine config and unusual looks limited the overall appeal to just 40,218 units before it was discontinued in 2004.
15 years till they try again
Reaching back into their history for inspiration from the 1936 R5
BMW brought a concept bike to the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in May of 2019 that featured an enormous 1802cc boxer engine, an exposed shaft drive, a hardtail look and a classic BMW teardrop tank complete with pin stripes.
The reaction was outstanding. It had a low seat like most cruisers, a large engine, a stretched rake on the fork and it looked like it could have been something BMW built in the 30s.
The production version was introduced in April of 2020 just as the worldwide pandemic was taking hold. Launched in September of 2020 the production version carried over most of the elements from the concept bike including fishtail exhausts, an exposed drive shaft and the huge boxer engine.
Considering a cruiser
I’d been a fan of the R1200C when it came out & even test rode one back in 1998, but being a young rider speed was my priority, so the cruiser years would have to wait. In 2014 when Polaris released the first new models in the acquired Indian brand, I loved the look of the Chief Vintage and rented one for a long weekend. As beautiful as it was, the thoughts of cleaning that much chrome gave me pause and the feet-forward layout had my butt hurting in 20 minutes of riding. I ended up going the other extreme & buying a BMW S1000R.
But the R18 concept got my mind thinking about cruisers again. Lots of internet window shopping I began the search. Triumph had released the Bobber within the previous year and then the new Rocket 3 with 2500cc of inline triple goodness and a ton of power & torque. Indian launched the new Chief line in 2021 and of course the R18 became available at the end of 2020.
I’ve got my short list:
- Harley Fat Boy
- Harley Fat Bob
- Indian Vintage
- Indian Springfield
- Indian Chief Bobber
- Triumph Rocket 3 R/GT
- Triumph Bobber
- BMW R18
- BMW R18 Classic
Test sits & rides began.
The 2 Harleys I considered were very different from one another, but also the least chrome Harleys at that point since the Fat Boy had a satin finish in 2020, while the Fat Bob was more blacked out. Both had the feet forward controls I’ve never been a fan of. While the Harley 45° V-twin rumble was nice, both bikes felt like the chassis was a wet noodle and felt scary to go thru corners at much more than parking lot speed.
I actually tried the base R18 after the Harleys, but the test rides were limited to a short 5 mile loop, so I didn’t get to really feel it, but I liked the quick test and you can’t help but laugh when you start it up and the whole bike twists to the left. The Classic wasn’t available to try then.
Since that original 2014 release, Indian moved away from the retro valence fenders and added many new models. In 2021 they launched a new Chief line that was a bit smaller and less chrome. The feet-forward experience from 2014 still in my mind, I spent several hours looking at and sitting on them all at the dealership; the Scout was the most cramped, the Chief was better. Springfield, Vintage & Challenger had the most room. Still not a fan of fairings (very hot in summer months), I test rode the Springfield. It handles much better than the Harleys did, but again in 10 minutes my butt was hurting, so Indian was out of the running.
I ran down the street to the Triumph dealer and sat on the Rocket 3, both the GT & R models. It fit well either way. Beast of a bike, but the looks, while not bad looking didn’t move my heart, plus the dealer had none available for a test ride. The Bobber was my favorite of the Triumphs from a looks perspective. I was surprised how comfortable it felt sitting on the showroom floor. I took it for an hour test ride. Triumph did a great job emulating the sound of a Harley V-Twin. Even though it is small, the mid pegs put me in a comfortable position and I felt fine after an hour’s ride. It loved to turn in and felt like it was egging me on to take it faster thru corners. I thought I’ll definitely own one of these someday… just will it be the next bike?
MAX BMW sends out a note that the R18 demo truck is coming at the end of June 2021. Now I’ll finally be able to get a longer ride and across a few models.
The Classic replaced the controversial fishtail exhausts with a more conventional straight round exhaust, along with the removable saddlebags, cruise control, quick release windshield and driving lights, floorboards and a heel/toe shifter. It also has a smaller front wheel, but a taller aspect ratio tire making overall diameter the same. The taller tire makes the bike slightly more compliant over bumps than the base R18. This is the one I’d leaned toward as it was more practical and I wasn’t a super fan of the base R18 exhaust. The demo truck is a group led ride of about 40 minutes. The heel/toe shifter takes a few minutes to get used to, but then it is fine. The floorboards offer a few places to move your feet especially since the boxer engine is right in front of them. The windshield does take some of the wind blast off, but at my height it is about 2-3 inches too short and I get some buffeting. Boxer motors have always had a bit of a kick to the left on start, but the super-sized R18 engine with 900cc on either side and pistons moving back & forth ~ 4 inches twists the bike strongly to the left when starting. BMW thoughtfully requires you to hold in the clutch lever to start (even in neutral), so you have a firm grip on the bars. I like this bike…. A lot!
I wrap up the ride and the organizer suggests I also try the R18B. As I mentioned with the Challenger, I’m not really a fan of fairings… my GS gets very hot in the summer, so I ride my more “naked” bikes when it is really hot. I try it as the rake is a bit different and it has some tech features like adaptive cruise control. It does feel a bit quicker steering, especially at parking lot speeds. I got to play with the Sirius XM playing thru the speakers in the faring and it wasn’t bad. If I didn’t always use a full face helmet and ear plugs it could make sense to use, but I’d probably just use a headset. The adaptive cruise control worked well keeping distance from the bike in front, though the narrow beam would seem to work better for a car. I finished the ride & while the R18B is nice, it felt like some of the classic simple heritage was lost with all the tech.
I’ve now strongly considered and sat on 9 bikes, test ridden 7 of them. The top two are the Triumph Bobber and the R18 Classic.
Triumph has owned the retro bike scene with their Bonneville and the other variants. They perform very well. But two things kept coming to my mind. The Bobber is a similar engine size to my other bikes and similar weight, while a big cruiser is such a different character. Triumph now builds all their bikes in Thailand. I know the arguments that the factory is the same quality level as the one in England, but they still charge a premium price even with the cheaper labor.
Berlin Built gets the better of me & by September I plan on buying a 2022 BMW R18 Classic, either in the red or black with white pinstripes the following spring as I’m not a big fan of all the cleaning chrome requires.
Why the Classic over the base? The windshield can be removed in a couple minutes without tools. I can remove the saddlebags in about 10 minutes with just 4 screws, stripping the bike down to be a base R18. The convertible nature is what initially drew me to the Indian Vintage & the Springfield. I can have the windshield in the cooler months and remove it for the hot season plus remove the bags for day trips.
When I got my R1200GSA from MAX BMW, I did training up at Hunter mountain with Max & his brother Ben. I did a few Color & the Catskills/GS Challenge events & several other dirt rides with the dealership, so had ridden with both Max & Ben several times.
Ben who leads the Albany MAX BMW location reaches out in mid November and asks if I’ve checked out the R18. I tell him I had and wanted to buy one in the spring and was looking forward to seeing the new colors in person. I love the bike with the pin stripes, but I’m less keen on the chrome. He says, why not think of getting one now as BMW had great offers on 2021 models. He puts some numbers together for me on a First Edition and the price would still be many thousands less than I was planning to spend in the spring on a non-chrome package. My wife agrees that its a no-brainer, so the bike is delivered December 7th.
So, I’ve now bought my 8th BMW since my first bike back in 1997 and the 4th one in my current fleet. It’s still cold weather, but fortunately no snow yet so I’m able to get thru the break-in and then some, riding 800 miles by December 26 the last day before snow/ice hit the northeast.
First 1000 mile review
While I loved the R18 on the road tests, now in March with 1000 miles on the bike and still waiting on the warm spring/summer months, the R18 already has me hooked. I’ve added a windshield extension to eliminate the buffeting the stock screen had at my 6’4″ height. This does a great job keeping the cold wind at bay in winter weather. I’ve ridden down to 30 comfortable with just a heated shirt and gloves, using the BMW DIN circuit right next to the shifter.
I replaced the stock seat with the Weekender seat and the backrest. This makes the bike an all-day bike and is a great add-on.
I’ve also added a luggage rack from Wunderlich as I took off the pillion seat. Perfect to carry my tent for camping trips this summer.
As Spring is around the corner, I’m planning longer day rides and overnight trips for the 2022 season and deciding which of my bikes to take for each. My 2012 R1200GSA has been my go-to for most overnight trips as it is such a great tourer, but it’s also great for day trips since it handles so well.
But, the rumble of the R18’s big boxer has me literally giggling out loud when I roll on the throttle… every time! The bike handles corners far faster than an 800lb bike has any right to be. Many dealers neglected to set the preload from the shipping position so many early reviews found it harsh and scraping early. I set the preload as soon as the bike was delivered and I’ve only been able to scrape once in a roundabout & I’ve been really trying…. 20-30MPH over the limit on twisty roads and it surprised many other riders when I passed them on a giant cruiser, but no sparks flying!
Cleaning the chrome is a chore, but the bike looks so good when you do. I find myself running down to the garage just to gawk at the bike…. never done that with any of my other bikes. Looking at my trip list, I’ve got the R18 on a lot of them. My GSA is on the dirt ones, but I feel like I should move some of the street trips to the GS so it doesn’t get jealous of the R18. 😉
BMW really learned the lessons from the R1200C. They have an engine with a ton of character, an amazing presence that speaks to the heritage of old BMWs. It’s not a Harley clone, the R18 is its own bike, but what a bike it is!