Friday, 3 March 2017
Why a BMW? Why not a Jap four or a big Guzzi? As an ex-Norton Commando owner and a long time British bike lover, my friends viewed the move to a BMW as either a sign of increasing senility or further evidence of a schizophrenic personality. I'd never owned anything other than British bikes and had managed by dint of deft spanner wielding and/or sympathetic mechanical ears to clock up fairly high mileages commuting to various jobs or pursuing my love life around Great Britain.
I couldn't understand why my decision caused such uproar after all, I needed a reliable, long distance bike for a tour of France, Spain and Portugal. BMWs were supposed to be the quality bike (guess who's been reading MCS?). None of my friends or acquaintances had ever owned a BMW, so it was a somewhat starry eyed and innocent punter that scoured the classifieds for a used R80/7.
The R80/7 was reputed to have the smoothness of the smaller models yet retain some kind of decent performance. Especially true of '78 to '80 models that had the 55hp motors, later bikes being detuned to comply with German insurance categories, the 50hp R80 losing almost 10mph off the top speed of the /7.
The older bike, more importantly, was within my price range. Unfortunately, I was in the unenviable position of having to buy a bike within two weeks to meet the holiday deadline. In retrospect it was more by luck than judgement that I stumbled across a very clean 1979 R80/7 with just 14000 miles on the clock for only £900. It was fitted with the useful extras of twin front discs and electronic ignition.
Anyway, with very little time to get used to the bike, and with some trepidation, my girlfriend and I set off for two months in the sun. We disembarked in Le Havre, loaded with a hangover and enough luggage to fill a small hatchback, we sedately headed south.
The first panic stop revealed the first, and in my opinion the worst, of the BMW's limitations - handling. Braking hard over a rain grooved section of French road set the BMW into a dreadful low speed tank slapper. I made the classic mistake of resisting the bar's movements with all my strength (you're supposed to relax your grip on the bars, but Ron Haslam broke his shoulder making the same error, so I'm in good company). We stayed on - just - but I managed to strain a muscle in my shoulder (which took three months to heal properly).
We stopped at the next village and after a couple of recuperative brandies I set about redistributing some of the luggage. With the sleeping mats and tent over the front wheel, the wobbles were decreased and I tried to avoid braking over the rain grooves.
It was an unusually hot year in France with temperatures in excess of 90 most of the time. Even cruising at a steady ninety meant it was too hot to wear leathers. It was good preparation for Spain and Portugal.
The handling was interesting up to 90mph. I quickly got the hang of driving the bike forcefully into the corners and trying to avoid changing lines half way around. Treated in such a manner, the BMW was fairly predictable - the rest of the ride across France and Spain proved just how comfortable the BMW was as a long distance cruiser. However, Portugal threw up a whole series of different tests for the bike and rider.
Portugese drivers and roads preclude any notion of choosing your line and sticking to it - halfway round you'll either be confronted with a lunatic driver coming straight at you or a huge pothole resembling the San Andreas Fault.
My girlfriend, however, was supremely happy with thy pillion seat, singing away to herself, taking the occasional off-road excursion as just part of the normal riding technique in Portugal. In fact, she was more comfortable with the BMW than myself at this stage (which says volumes for the ergonomics of the pillion seat). The other problem I found with the BMW was with its ability as a trail bike — but perhaps, that should be taken as the rider's problem in attempting green-laning fully laden and two up. Over the first 5000 miles - often under pretty harsh treatment - the BMW managed to return around 40mpg. It burned less than 2 pints of oil and only needed slight valve adjustment at the 2500 mile service.
Tyre wear was also good with Contis on both wheels, (although they felt a bit vague) with the back tyre just reaching the end of its life, while the front had probably been on since new (19000 miles) although the rubber was beginning to look dodgy.
Back in Britain, a mixture of long distance commuting to work and my girlfriend meant I had to ride the BM through a typical British winter. Riding a bike thousands of miles a month through the; moist, damp, foggy, wet, snowy, icy weather that lasts from November to April is interesting on any bike - it usually exposes the faults the designers in their nice warm offices never think of. So it was with the BMW. The brakes that worked fine in the dry were bloody lethal in the wet. A combination of poorly designed calipers and; stainless discs meant there was a three to four second delay before anything happened. The handling was also proving less predictable when pushed to the limits.
Most of my riding through the winter was solo, so it was naturally more spirited. Thrown into a fast sweeping curve, the BM would ground down very easily; first the centrestand (which I removed) and then the rocker boxes (a very expensive habit). If the road surface was at all bumpy the soft suspension would suddenly compress allowing the bike to dig in. In fact, any bumps in the road surface cause a characteristic shimmy — I can now understand why the Germans call them Rubber Cows! Another problem was fuel economy. Ridden fast on one early morning thrash it came down to an average of 32mpg over a 200 mile trip. Still, I suppose that's better than many modern technoburners - so maybe it's churlish of me to complain.
Against all these minor complaints, over the 13000 miles I covered in eight months, nothing broke, fell off or needed replacing apart from the regular service items. I changed the oil every 1000 miles (although it probably didn't need it) and changed the shaft drive oils equally regularly (and they definitely did). I used to become really frustrated by the fact that I'd be forever checking the tappets and suchlike, only to find that they rarely needed adjustment — years of British bike ownership encouraged over maintenance. The engine was extremely reliable.
In addition the alternator was powerful enough to supply a 100 watt bulb in the excellent Bosch headlamp, making the BMW one of the safest bikes I've ever ridden at night. In my opinion one of the most overlooked and potentially dangerous areas of bike riding.
After the Portuguese trip I changed to Metzeler tyres, trying one of the new Lazers on the front and a sticky Sport on the rear (there might be a joke in there somewhere... Ed). The difference in feel was astounding, with far more predictable adhesion - the frame now limited exploration of the tyre's limits on anything other than clear, smooth 'A' roads when I was in a particularly heady mood. But the penalty of improved grip was a rear tyre that lasted only 4000 miles, although the front will probably go for about ten grand.
Pads last around twelve grand, but later model BMW's with Brembo brakes are rumoured to be far heavier on pads. Regular service items such as air and oil filters are slightly cheaper than Jap bike components, although horrendously expensive when compared with British prices.
Servicing is well within the capabilities of most home mechanics, making the bike quite cheap to run if you forget about the fuel. However, if you have an accident you are virtually compelled to buy new spares because very few people sell secondhand spares. Does this mean that the typical BMW owner is very safe or that they very rarely ride their bikes - I leave you to make your own conclusions.
So after 13000 miles the BMW and I parted company. I asked a speculative price (more than I paid for it) and was inundated with calls. The first person to view it stuffed crisp ten and fifty pound notes into my hands, withour even bothering to haggle. Mechanically it was in fine shape, although I think the clutch was beginning to wear - it had done nearly thirty thousand miles, which is about the life expectancy of the larger series 7 clutch.
Why did I sell it? I'd gotten used to its faults and quirks and was impressed by its reliability, but - you know how it is - I just felt I was getting old and wanted something a little more exciting.
I felt no emotion when I sold it, it was a competent motorcycle but one that tended to dictate the pace at which you travelled. You couldn't really scratch with it and I think, in all honesty, I just became bored!