Icons & Innovators: BMW: Relentless Evolution

<< Back to Robb Report, January 2007
  • Daniel Pund

If BMW motorcycles were cars, they would be Porsche 911s. Both are high-end, high-priced forms of transportation that are made in Germany and powered by horizontally opposed engines, but the comparison alludes more directly to the stubbornness of their respective makers.

These days, no engineer setting out to create a great sports car would begin with a design that planted the engine and its weight behind the rear axle. Such an arrangement causes too many handling challenges. And yet, as the new 997 proves, this flawed configuration works brilliantly.

Likewise, unless you live near a BMW dealership, you do not encounter many shaft-drive, horizontally opposed, air-cooled, twin-cylinder motorcycles. Porsche has been noodling with rear-engine design for four decades or so, which seems like a long time until you consider that BMW’s first bike—the R32, which appeared in 1923—used a shaft drive and a horizontally opposed, air-cooled, twin-cylinder motor. And BMW’s newest two-wheeler, the R1200 R, sends its horizontally opposed, air-cooled power to the rear through a shaft.

BMW has, over the years, devised novel suspension concepts to counteract the shaft drive’s tendency to produce torque-induced poor handling. The company continually has modified the engines to reduce emissions and noise and to increase power. And it has raised the engine so its cam covers do not drag in turns.

Just as Porsche has experimented with front- and mid-engine arrangements, BMW has (and still does) build a variety of other engine types, including the inline-four that powers the K Series of sports and touring machines. Still, the heart of the brand has remained the same for more than 80 years. It has built sport bikes, touring bikes, adventure enduro bikes, and even cruisers using its original configuration. And all of those bikes have displayed styling that is both bizarre and instantly recognizable as BMW’s.

BMW Motorcycles, http://www.bmwmotorcycles.com/

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