1981 R65 image source: utahcaferacer.com
For my first motorcycle, I made the wise decision to search for an air-cooled boxer BMW. Having heard from experienced motorcyclists for years about the virtues of these conservative but high quality machines, I started to hunt for a good used example soon after taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) beginning rider course and adding a motorcycle qualification to my driver’s license at the age of 24. Luckily, I hit a home run in my first experience of motorcycle ownership; but then the odds of doing so are decidedly better than average when it comes to one of the classic BMW “Airheads”.
To give some background on the R65, the last generation of classic air-cooled BMWs endured from 1970 to 1995, and in its quarter century run it established BMW as a major player in the world motorcycle market. It all started in 1923 with BMW’s first motorcycle, the R32 (above), which introduced the horizontally-opposed twin engine, shaft drive layout that became BMW’s signature style. BMW boxer twins were among the most advanced motorcycles in the world in their first two decades, including a supercharged streamliner that set a motorcycle speed record of 173.51 miles per hour in 1937, and the R75 military sidecar machine with two wheel drive and hydraulic power brakes, both motorcycle firsts.
After World War II, BMW developed a reputation as a producer of well-made but quirky motorcycles that were primarily touring and sidecar machines, known for the smoothness and high quality of their horizontally opposed twin engines but also for their stodginess, with unusual features like Earles forks.
In 1970 a new generation of BMW motorcycles, the /5 series, introduced a completely revised engine that displaced up to 750cc with further expansion potential, a new frame inspired by the famous Norton Featherbed, telescopic forks, electric start, and other modern features.
The R75/5 (750cc), R60/5 (600cc), and R50/5 (500cc) were far more sporting than previous BMWs, with a frame designed more for handling than sidecar hauling. BMW also designed them for higher volume production with less skilled labor, necessary because BMW was moving motorcycle production from its existing factory with an experienced work force in Munich, whose capacity was needed for BMW’s rapidly expanding automobile business, to a new factory in Berlin with a less-skilled work force.
R90S image source: bmwbikes.co.uk
BMW rapidly made improvements to its new design, increased engine displacement, and introduced innovative new models. In 1974 the revised /6 series appeared, with a front disc brake and other improvements. The top model was now the 900cc R90/6, while the R50 was dropped at the low end. The R90S sports model added a dash of style never before seen on BMWs, with a small bikini fairing and special misted paintwork. It became a legend, as well as a turning point for BMW in offering overtly sporty models.
The 1977 /7 series increased engine displacements to 800cc in the R80 and 1000cc in the R100 and introduced the first aerodynamic full fairing on a non-race bike, the R100RS sport-tourer (shown). The full dress tourer R100RT followed in 1978, then the dual-sport on/off-road R80G/S in 1980. By the end of the 1970s, BMW had a very wide model range in the 1000cc and 800cc size classes covering everything from weekend canyon carving to long distance touring to off-road riding, all built on the same frame and engine, differing only in cylinder bore diameter.
While its main motorcycle line adopted larger engine displacements and moved upmarket, BMW introduced a second line with a smaller frame and engine, re-entering the smaller displacement classes. The R65 and R45 debuted in 1979 as simple, straightforward machines at a lower price point than the full size models. Perhaps to underscore their modest status, BMW offered them only in the dull colors Champagne (gold) and Bronco (brown), which are best described as color #1 and color #2.
1981 saw significant refinements to the engines of all BMW boxer twins, including electronic ignition, Nikasil cylinder liners, and a new airbox with a “pulse air” system designed to reduce emissions. The new black plastic airbox looked far less elegant than the neatly integrated aluminum air cleaner cover of the original design, but it made air filter changes much easier.
There were other changes as well, such as a lighter flywheel for easier shifting, Brembo front brake calipers replacing the former ATE units, and the choke control lever moved from the side of the engine under the rider’s left leg to the right handlebar, at the rider’s thumb. Happily, decent colors also became available, including red in 1981 and black in 1983.
A special variant of the R65 was the R65LS, restyled by Hans Muth, the influential motorcycle designer who developed the milestone R100RS fairing for BMW during the 1970s and styled the Katana sportbike for Suzuki in the 1980s. It had a wedge-shaped fairing, lower handlebars, new wheels, a new seat with grab handles, and black mufflers and exhaust pipes. Although the engine was not modified, it had upgraded brakes with twin discs in front instead of the R65’s single disc. 6,389 were produced from 1982 to 1984.
The final version of the R65 ran from 1985 to 1987. It was different from the previous R45/65s in that instead of having its own smaller frame, it now shared the same frame as the “full sized” R80 and R100. Its rear suspension system was the Monolever that BMW had introduced on the R80G/S dual-sport bike, with a single-sided rear swing arm and single hidden spring/shock. With BMW moving away from its traditional boxer twins and shifting to production of its new inline cylinder, fuel-injected K100 and K75 machines, it discontinued the R65 in 1987.
In 1994, my entry into the world of BMW motorcycles was through a now quaint, old-fashioned path, the newspaper classified ads. After a summer of research on the limited, then-embryonic motorcycle enthusiast pages available on the internet, I decided that this 1970s generation of BMWs was right for me and regularly checked the used motorcycle classified ads of the Washington Post, oddly located in the sports section along with classified ads for RVs and boats–internet car and motorcycle marketplaces did not yet exist 20 years ago. I looked at several local machines, of which I remember only an R75/5 with a stylish chrome “toaster” fuel tank but also alarming nosedive on braking.
1981 R65 image source: utahcaferacer.com
The right bike ended up being a 1983 R65, which I had read was especially good for beginners with its lighter weight and lower seat height. This particular example had only 18,000 miles, barely broken in for a BMW, and its first owner needed to sell it before buying a new Triumph sportbike in order to satisfy his wife’s demand not to have multiple motorcycles at the same time. Its black paint gleamed, and its red and white pinstripes were immaculate, clearly showing the brushstrokes from being painted by hand. His asking price of $2000 seemed high, but it was in excellent condition with low mileage, so I agreed to the deal a day before he would have had to accept the lowball trade-in offer from the Triumph dealer.
Several days later, I went to the first owner’s house with a certified check and my helmet to pick up the R65. Never having taken a motorcycle onto a highway, and probably never having exceeded 40 miles per hour on one before, I was a bit nervous about riding through the Beltway’s notoriously dense and careless traffic on an unfamiliar motorcycle. Within seconds, though, everything felt natural and the trip home passed completely uneventfully. It was the start of two great years with the R65 as my predominant means of transportation.
A 650cc machine weighing approximately 450 pounds wet is larger than many would recommend as a first motorcycle, but the R65 proved to be so easy to handle that I would not hesitate to recommend one to any beginner. The R65 was my first riding experience other than the Honda Nighthawk 250s used in the MSF course, and it was instantly a breeze to handle in any situation–city, suburban, highway. The horizontally opposed engine was the source of the machine’s virtues. The layout placed most of the bike’s mass very low, making it exceptionally easy to handle at low speeds. Tuned for low end torque and with a heavy flywheel, typical of air-cooled BMWs, the engine had a gradual and steady power delivery that was no problem for a beginner to handle and ideal for slogging through city traffic, yet capable of out-accelerating almost any car and maintaining any reasonable highway speed easily.
The R65 was so well balanced that I could perform a trick with it that I would not attempt on any other motorcycle that I have owned since: staying upright for extended periods while standing still, without putting my feet down. I found over time that when slowed gradually, using only the rear brake, the R65 was so stable that a long time would pass after coming to a dead stop before it started to lean over. Timing it with a watch, I found that staying upright for 12 seconds without putting either foot down could be done easily and consistently. Once a rider behind me in traffic clapped when he saw it, probably having seen me do it several times at stoplights. To this day, I laugh when I see riders of chrome-laden new motorcycles needing to duck-walk in low speed situations.
The other key feature of the R65 was its cargo capacity. The same saddlebag system used on full size BMWs also fit the R65, and buyers of new BMWs practically always ordered it. The hard-sided plastic cases were each large enough to hold a full face helmet with space to spare, and their bracket and latch system allowed them to be fitted or removed in seconds. Built-in handles allowed them to be carried conveniently like suitcases when off the bike. Commuting to the office with stacks of books and documents and a suit to change into, grocery shopping, and packing for a weekend trip were all easily accomplished. The R65 with its saddlebag system could handle the 90+% of trips that did not involve carrying other people or large boxes.
The R65’s ease of handling and load-carrying ability remind me in retrospect of the Honda Super Cub motorbikes that I saw in Vietnam. Like them, it could handle any traffic situation that it might encounter in its environment, was easy for beginners to use, and had an ability to carry things far exceeding what most people would expect of a motorcycle.
These attributes made this view one that I would not have minded having for a lifetime. Keeping an R65 or any other airhead BMW running well for a lifetime is easy with the machine’s well thought out service layout and standard toolkit, which included every tool necessary for any maintenance and repairs short of a bottom-end engine rebuild. With the cylinders sticking straight out and nothing blocked by a fairing or the frame, anything associated with regular maintenance was exposed and easy to reach, and even a cylinder barrel replacement can be done with little difficulty with the included tools. Not that one would likely be necessary, as these engines are known for covering enormous mileages before needing rebuilds.
Unfortunately, I kept the R65 for only two years. I had to move to Chicago for graduate school during the fall of 1996, and I expected that it would be several years before I would be riding regularly again, since the riding season in Chicago would be very short and where I would be living during summers was not certain. I sold the R65 to an architect who wanted to return to riding after a long layoff, for $500 more than I had paid for it, and both of us were happy with the deal.
I would not start riding again until 2003, and when I did, my search for a similar airhead BMW was unsuccessful. The last BMW using the basic design from 1970 was the R100R nostalgia bike of 1992-95. By 2003, fewer airheads were available for sale and prices had climbed significantly higher than during the mid-1990s, since they had now become collectibles instead of just old bikes. Not liking the oil-cooled, fuel-injected boxer twins that had taken their place, I ended up losing interest in BMWs and looked at the Harley-Davidson Sportster and Triumph Bonneville instead. I did own an R100RS for a while, but it was as an occasionally ridden garage queen rather than a regular rider.
Now the once unpopular and unfashionable R65 has become a popular platform for custom café racer builds, such as the one shown above. With more foresight, I would have kept and stored mine, and it would now be as stylish as this machine… but with the original BMW saddlebags retained and incorporated into the build, of course. Why give up all of a BMW’s inherent practicality?