Between their adventure-loving GS bikes and performance machines such as the S 1000 RR, BMW has repeatedly proven itself to be a top-tier brand in the motorcycling world. But after revealing the behemoth boxer-powered Concept R 18 earlier this year, followed recently by the near-production R 18 /2, the reception has been mixed. While other brands are focusing on smaller, more approachable bikes — in addition to the wave of electric motorcycles entering the market — the Bavarian Motor Works’ tangential path into the cruiser segment is a polarizing choice. The question remains: Why did BMW choose to go in such a vastly different direction than its competition? And who exactly is in the market for a German-built cruiser?
With a history of innovation, BMW shook up the motorcycle scene back in 1936 with their R 5 model. Designed by Rudolf Schleicher, the R 5 broke away from the earlier art deco cues of its predecessor, the more angular R 32. Featuring a teardrop-shaped tank and double cradle tubular steel frame, the R 5 made waves by being the first motorcycle with hydraulic telescopic fork legs and a foot shifter with a hand clutch. Considering all its contemporaries still offered hand shifters and a variety of less efficient front suspension components, the R 5 was ahead of its time.
Fast-forward to 2014, when BMW first released the R nineT, the brand that was otherwise dominating in the increasingly popular ADV segment suddenly had a player in the modern classic bike game. The positive response to the R nineT was the spark that ignited the passion project that became the R 5 Hommage bike, revealed in 2016. “Already back then our design strategy was clear and visible: condensing the BMW Motorrad DNA out of our rich history and interpreting it into a contemporary expression,” explains Edgar Heinrich, head of the BMW Motorrad Design Team. “The enormous positive feedback for the R 5 Hommage encouraged us to proceed in this direction.” With this, BMW began taking a more serious approach to developing a German-built cruiser.
The design team at BMW got started building a large displacement engine that could compete with the heavy hitters in the cruiser segment. At first, they discussed their options. “We had this idea, we thought about what engine should we use?” Roland Stocker, head of BMW’s Heritage Team, remembers. The Heritage Team discussed what makes BMW unique within the motorcycling world, and what would set it apart from other cruisers. Looking back on their historic models, Stocker explains, it was obvious: “First and foremost, it was the boxer engine. It was our first engine, so this is our heritage, which was important to us.” This boxer would be larger than any motorcycle engine they had built to date. “If we’re going to play in this game, we have to respect the rules,” Stocker says, noting other OEM’s engines displace up to 108 cubic inches — over 1700cc. “If you want to play in this game, size matters.”
The attention to detail the BMW design team put into building this new big boxer is evident in Heinrich’s description. “The engine is always the soul of a bike, and this boxer engine is a masterpiece of mechanical sculpture,” he explains, describing the boxer like a beloved piece of art. “The engine block and transmission are made of glass-bead-blasted aluminium, providing an ideal stage on which to present the hand-polished aluminium components as well as the belt guard and valve covers.” While Heinrich’s team continued to refine the big boxer and develop a concept motorcycle around it, they also wanted to see what persona their masterpiece would take on in the hands of other artists.
Handing over a prototype of the new R 18 engine to Yuichi Yoshizawa of Custom Works ZON was BMW’s first commissioned project. At the 2018 Hot Rod Custom show in Yokohama, Japan, Yoshizawa revealed Departed, a beautiful, minimalist custom bike built around the new 1800cc engine. With a low profile and brushed bodywork, ZON’s custom R 18 is reminiscent of the 1920s and '30s.
While BMW continued working on their own design back home, they handed another copy of the prototype engine to the design team at Revival Cycles in Austin, Texas. The Revival Birdcage concept, revealed at the Handbuilt Show in April 2019, focused all the attention on BMW’s new engine, cradled in the latticework of a titanium frame. There is a clear respect for independent motorcycle fabricators within BMW. “The ZON and the Revival Custom bikes, both fantastically staging the all-new big boxer engine, were exciting builds," says Heinrich. "Kind of a harbinger to our own Concept R 18 execution.”
As for their own Concept R 18, BMW Motorrad went through some trial and error before they committed to the boxer engine. Designing around such a large mill — especially with the unique layout of a boxer — posed its own set of design challenges. As most cruisers’ ergonomics place the rider’s feet forward, Heinrich, Stocker, and the entire design and heritage teams originally mulled over the idea of using a different engine design to accommodate the traditional cruiser riding position. They used an adjustable mock-up of the bike before they came to the decision to prioritize the boxer over a feet-forward riding position. “This is something you can’t draw,” Stocker explains. “You have to sit on the bike, you have to feel it. And then we figured out, hey, there’s no need for feet forward. This is BMW, we’ve never been feet forward, that’s somewhere else.”
In the end the boxer won out. Tim Diehl-Thiele, Head of Global Communication for BMW Motorrad, points out, “From day one, the boxer engines have been our DNA.” Aside from representing the company’s history, the large displacement engine takes on a persona of its own, adding a commanding presence to the aesthetic of the R 18. “When you sit on the bike, you see the massive cylinders, and they’re so beautiful!” Stocker opines. “It’s hard to look at the street because you’ll want to look at the engine.”
When it came time to build the rest of the bike around the newly designed mill, there were challenges that set the Concept R 18 apart from previous BMW models. “The biggest challenge in the design is to render everything visible. Every part has a functional purpose,” says Bart Janssen Groesbeek, designer of the concept bike. “It is very hard to achieve a ‘simple’ look in an un-faired bike, with all the harnesses, wires, cables, black boxes, noise and emission requirements.” Ultimately, the Concept R 18 came out looking very clean, a feature that looks like it will be carried over to the production model.
As for the R 18 /2, the bike that will be available for sale to the public, it has many similarities to the Concept R 18 — as well as a few differences. The Concept R 18 was modified to include Solex dual carburetors, while the R 18 /2 is fuel-injected. “They are essentially the same base,” Diehl-Thiele explains, “But it shows two bookends you can go to.” Otherwise, the two bikes share the same drivetrain, chassis, and swingarm, but feature different wheels and a slightly different steering angle. The Concept model also features clutch and brake levers that hinge from the bar-end, as opposed to the production model’s more conventional levers. The small fairing on the R 18 /2 adds a more modern touch to the otherwise clean, classic design.
Over the past decade, classic design has been winning the hearts of riders who have become less interested in the maximum performance of a brand’s sportiest motorcycle. The limits of some of these bikes are far beyond the riding capabilities of most riders; what might have been an engineer’s wet dream is intimidating to the average rider. Motorcyclists want to get back to simpler designs; they want bikes that exude a style that speaks to the heart more than the head. This, in part, is what makes the cruiser segment so strong.
“Motorcycles like the BMW Motorrad Concept R 18 are a response to a growing need among the motorcycling community,” Stocker says. “Instead of complexity, the focus here is on simplification, authenticity and transparency. I observe an almost romantic yearning for real physical mechanics.” The Concept R 18 was BMW’s artistic offering to this segment. The R 18 /2 will be the commercially viable version available to the public mid-2020. Heinrich explains, “Usually top-driven by innovation, performance, usability, and such rational things and latest gadgets, we had to focus on the emotional aspects.”
Does this mean BMW has lost sight of its engineering prowess, and the strength it holds in other segments like ADV and sport bikes? Not in the slightest. “We see the cruiser segment as an additional segment for BMW Motorrad,” clarifies Heinrich. “Cruisers are a relevant market share, but until now, we did not provide the right bikes for that segment.” That all changes with the R 18. While their new cruiser is still a BMW, with all the attention to detail and refined application of even minimal technology, the approach is slightly different than the design process for the company’s other motorcycles. “This is more of an emotional than a technical direction for the brand. In each segment, we’re offering appropriate different bikes to our customers — sometimes extremely technical, sometimes super sporty, sometimes highly emotional. And especially in the heritage segment, we need to offer very emotional bikes.”
The R 18 is no doubt a bike designed with passion, and will likely stir up passionate feelings in present and future customers. BMW has already bridged the gap between vintage bike lovers and contemporary bike enthusiasts with the R nineT. With the R 18, they just may be creating a similar connection between European motorcycle fans and cruiser fans, two segments that were previously mutually exclusive. Taking cues from their past, BMW is bringing a ground-shaking bike to the market that is firmly planted in the present, appealing to a whole new set of customers who, until now, would never have identified themselves as cruiser riders. Similarly, the R 18 may open the brand up to die-hard American cruiser riders who would never before have considered a BMW. If the response to past heritage bike projects is any indication, we can only expect more good things to come from BMW Motorrad.