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25 Years of BMW: An Airhead Retrospective

25 Years of BMW: An Airhead Retrospective

One fall day in Brooklyn we assembled a collection of air-cooled BMW's to celebrate these bikes in all their factory-correct originality. For one day only, we had an array of original-spec models in the exhibition tracing the marquee's progression from 1970-1995.

BMW never claimed these bikes to be the fastest or lightest or most powerful. Yet, we love the goofy old girls.

With so many great custom motorcycle shows happening around the
country, spawning a builder-culture that is fast chopping and bobbing
these old bikes out of existence, the spirit of the original designs
sometimes get lost.

To celebrate these old BMW’s in all their factory-correct originality we assembled a representative sampling of bone-stock specimens. From the outlier models like the R65LS, to the iconic G/S early adventure bikes, to primordial sport-touring machines like the R90S, we had every major model from this 25-year span.

We hosted the bikes at a gathering next door at Moto Borogotaro, where attendees could walk down the line and take in a quarter century of progression first hand. And because it was a German themed event in October, we had sausage, pretzels and beer. See here for event photos. 

And for anyone who couldn’t make it, we spun the bikes around on a lazy Susan and photographed them for posterity, and have displayed them here in an interactive click-and-drag, 360-degree feature.

There were certainly some notable achievements from BMW’s first 50 years: a world land-speed record (134mph in 1929) with a supercharged “Kompresor” 750; the first hydraulically damped telescopic fork on the 1935 R17; and (fast-forwarding past that whole World War II thing) a cross-country record with AMA hall-of-famer John Penton, who spurred a 700cc R69 from NYC to LA in 53 hours and 11 minutes. Over this early arc BMW established a clear MO of creating basic, reliable, usually sidecar-compatible and nearly always black motorcycles, often one model at a time.

But between 1970 and 1995 the company’s family tree would morph into of a relative kaleidoscope of models, colors and freshly defined sub-categories—adventure bikes shod with knobby tires, fully faired station-wagon touring bikes, bikini-fairing-clad early sport bikes, refined classics and a few quirky outliers in between. What we love about these “modern era” BMW Airheads is that they are so thoroughly roadworthy. Case in point, all the bikes in this show arrived under their own power, with current registrations.

BMW never claimed these bikes to be the fastest or lightest or most powerful. And sure, they lack ABS, traction control, fuel injection, or even a fuel gauge. In the exchange, however, the Germans managed to create truly enduring designs—simple, sturdy,  and smooth machines. And even by today’s standards these bikes remain perfectly rideable.

Contemporary competitive bikes from Japan were cheaper, and often faster. The exotic Italian steeds of the era were certainly sexier, and also faster. Brit bikes competing for those 1970’s and 80's dollars were probably faster than BMW’s too, and better handling, but they were plagued by English electrics and tended to leak oil as fast as their parent companies leaked solvency.

BMW survived by keeping its head down and banking on sensible engineering, manufacturing execution, and reliability. And as a testament to its Bavarian build quality, every single bike that we assembled for this airhead retrospective is on the road to this day—registered, insured and still piling on miles.

Click on the bike photos below to jump to a full model description as well as high-resolution, interactive viewer that lets the bikes speak for themselves. The /5 Series description is by far the longest and most comprehensive—which is appropriate as it established a design template that would endure mostly intact through the 1990’s.

1970—1973: The /5 Series

The Slash Five bikes ushered in a bold new era for BMW. After more than six years on the drawing board this new platform would establish the direction of the marque’s motorcycle division for the next quarter century.


1974—1976: The /6 Series

As time marched on and the market matured, BMW went big – bumping its three stock offerings up to 600, 750 and 900cc, respectively.


1974—1976: The R90S

This is perhaps the most iconic and collectible airhead ever made. It was among the first production motorcycles to come with a sporty bikini fairing from the factory; one of the first bikes to utilize twin front disc brakes; and in 1976, a bright orange R90S won the inaugural Superbike championship.


1977—1984: The BMW R100RS

This particular model marked the advent of what is now commonplace in motorsports advertising: bragging about being designed in a wind tunnel. In this case a West German wind tunnel.


1978—1995: The R80RT and R100RT

The RT is the station wagon of motorcycles, and it remained popular for the long-distance touring set for an incredible 17-year run.


1979—1987: The Mighty R65

This bike is the spunky runt of the BMW Airhead litter. It has a short-stroke 650cc motor and came with dual 18-inch wheels. It was among the lightest, most nimble Airheads BMW ever produced.


1983—1985: The R65LS

Following a long production run of the R65 as standard model, with high handlebars and no fairing, in 1983 BMW unveiled its “Flash Bike.”


1980—1986: The R80 G/S

Meet the original Adventure Bike. There were plenty of contemporary bikes that handled better either on the street, or fared better in purely off-road conditions—but when it came to pulling dual duty, this bike beat them all.


1982-1984: The R80ST

This coveted sport-touring, do-everything bike is the street version of the original R80G/S, and it’s one of the oddest, most limited, and therefore most desirable Airheads ever made.


1987-1995: The R100GS

The successor to the supremely successful R80 G/S, and the predecessor to the even more successful modern R1200GS oil-head boxer, this classic long-legged adventure bike version lasted in BMW’s lineup for more than a decade—and for very good reason.


1992-1995: The R100R

The absolute last gasp for road-going, naked, standard Airheads, with the full culmination of 25 years or incremental technological advances, the R100R represents the full evolution from the slash 5 series, 25 years earlier.


* A huge thanks to everyone who brought their bike down on a rainy October day for the show: Dan Greenbaum, Angus Dykman, Stuart Heys, Kat Connell, Dean Sharenow, Steve Horton, Steve Bauer, Billy Joel, James Dalton, Andrew Watson, Brendan O'Neill, Darius Kadagian, Howard Krieger, Ken Aldin, Dean Macabee, Darren Lew and Manuel Mainardi. Also thanks to everyone who came to the show despite the weather, to Sixpoint for sponsoring the Oktoberfest event with delicious craft ale, to David Genat for shooting and editing all these damn BMW's for us; and to Dan Rose for figuring out how to make the 360-view work.