CC’s Best of 2021: BMW goes after Harley; Harley goes after BMW

Two of the biggest new motorcycle releases of the past twelve months have been BMW’s new cruiser, the R18, and Harley’s new adventure bike, the Pan America. Although I know we focus mostly on cars here, and older ones at that, I thought it would be of interest to share a bit of the technology and history behind these new offerings.

I’ll start with the BMW. BMW’s motorcycle division has often gone in a different direction than the cars. With a few exceptions, until well into the 21st century BMW did not offer a true high performance two-wheeler. And in the sixties, when first the Neue Klasse and then the 1602/2002 set new standards for compact performance, BMW’s flat twins were conservative large touring bikes (in those days 500-600cc was considered big, except for Harley) with adequate but not exciting performance, and little changed for decades. Above is pictured a typical mid-sixties 500 cc BMW R50, or as they were dubbed in some English-speaking countries, “Black mit White”. More a two-wheeled Mercedes 300SE (or maybe even a German Buick) than a BMW 2002. Until the /5 series was introduced in 1970, most BMW models used leading link, rather than telescopic, forks. And while Honda was the first major manufacturer to offer a front disc brake on their new 750 in 1969, and the British and other Japanese manufacturers followed soon after, BMW didn’t offer a front disc on the standard models until the /6 in 1974. It wasn’t until the 2014 launch of the S1000R superbike that Munich offered a true high performance motorcycle like the M-series cars. Nevertheless, most BMW bikes took a strongly European approach to their design and engineering, with a compromise of features and specs to provide balanced usability.

That’s hardly the case with the new R18 cruiser, whose engine is shown above. It is once again a pushrod flat twin, with some understated old-school design details. But it has little else in common with either the other flat twins in BMW’s current lineup, or that old R50. But before we get into that, a few words about Harley Davidson. Despite having a little diversity on the outer edges of the company, including some quite sporting Italian-built machinery through the late seventies, and until recently, a dominant flat track racing V Twin in the form of the XR750, Harley has focused on large touring and cruising bikes. In the traditional American style, they are large displacement with low specific output, heavy, and designed more for straight roads than twisty canyons. For many owners, the bike as delivered is just the starting point for major modifications, to increase power and add style.

Especially recently, the “bagger” style, with saddle bags and a small fairing, has become very popular; a hot rod touring bike if you will. Kind of a cross between a muscle car, and a brougham or personal luxury coupe. Nevertheless, after a longish period of poor quality and 1960’s vintage technology, a modern Harley is fairly refined under that muscle brougham exterior. A contemporary automotive analogy might be the Cadillac Escalade, if Cadillac offered factory-optional speed equipment and even more chrome.

Harley sales go up and down with the economy, but there is no question that it is the dominant American cruiser brand, where cruiser is the industry term for street bikes that emphasize style and perhaps some straight line performance, over handling or smooth silent freeway manners. And BMW wanted a piece of that action. They had tried before with modified versions of their air-oil cooled 1200cc flat twin, but it wasn’t a success. So they decided to out-Harley Harley, from scratch. Only the flat twin architecture and shaft drive would remain. And, at least for this first year, the “Black mit White” colorway.

What they came up with is a huge, low, heavy bike. While other BMW flat twins max out at 1250 cc, the R18, as its name suggests, is a massive 1802 cc, 901 cc per cylinder. Four valves per cylinder, yes – but pushrod actuated. Rider-selectable drive modes, yes – but they’re called Rock, Roll, and Rain. No Sport or Eco modes here, not to mention no electronic suspension settings as are offered on many other BMW’s. The power peak, 91 BHP, is reached at a mere 4750 rpm, 1000 rpm below redline. The torque peaks at 3750 rpm, with 95% of peak torque available as low as 2000 rpm. But despite these old-school numbers, the engineering details of this large displacement pushrod twin are quite sophisticated to give the broad torque range and compliance with strict Euro5 emissions regulations. Four valves per cylinder and large bores (the engine is oversquare) help breathing and clean combustion. Sophisticated intake port design improves swirl and helps prevent detonation at the low rpm, large throttle openings that the powerband encourages. Despite the classic finned cylinder appearance, a large oil cooler and oil passages throughout the cylinders, heads and crankcase keep engine temperatures controlled.

It wouldn’t be a BMW flat twin without shaft drive. But what a shaft! Exposed, chrome plated. Look at that U-joint. In summary, a huge torquey motor, a low slung chassis, and lots of bling. But has BMW gone too far?  In one recent comparison test against an equivalent Harley, the American bike was deemed to be a generally better, more functional motorcycle. Faster, more comfortable, and better handling.

As I mentioned earlier, BMW’s car and motorcycle divisions often went in quite different directions. After a brief period in the mid-seventies, when hopped-up BMW 900cc flat twins had some success in superbike roadracing, before the Japanese four cylinder bikes and Ducati V Twins took over, BMW looked for other market segments where their less powerful flat twins could be successful. In 1980 they launched the R80 G/S seen above, later versions suffixed as GS, for Gelände/Straße (German for off-road/road) or Gelände Sport (off-road sport) respectively; true BMW-philes are very careful about the proper punctuation. This was a new category of bike, best explained as the motorcycle equivalent of a Range Rover. Extremely capable off road, though not necessarily tight and rugged trails, and very comfortable on road. Not to mention stylish in the urban environment. These bikes were hugely successful for BMW, becoming their best selling range, and spawning competition from all the Japanese and other European manufacturers. In addition, between factory accessories and a huge global aftermarket industry, the GS bikes can be outfitted as comfortable highway tourers or round the world off-pavement explorers.

Above is an example of the current R1250GS, in Motorsport trim. Although these bikes are large and heavy, in the hands of a good rider they can handle extremely rough terrain at high speed, not something that I think could be said of a four-wheeled BMW X5.

And apparently the same is true of Harley’s new 1250 Pan America. Is it a coincidence that it’s also a 1250 like the newest GS? And comes within pounds or millimeters of the GS’s other specs?

The new Harley is the antithesis of the BMW R18 in more ways than just its mission. Here’s the BMW’s instrumentation, a lone speedometer with a small digital display. Note that it’s shown in “Rock” mode.

And here is the Harley Pan America’s instrument display.

Modern electronics, rider modes (Sport, Road, Rain, Off-Road, and Off-Road Plus – no Rock’n’Roll here), even an optional suspension lowering function which reduces seat height so shorter riders can touch the ground as the bikes slows to a stop. Now that’s a feature some high end SUV’s have, but not BMW’s GS. At least not this year.

Initial reviews have been extremely favorable. This seems to be a Harley that can go fast off road, and on pavement too. Its 1250 cc overhead cam V Twin puts out far more power than the BMW 1800, 150 bhp at 9000 rpm. It’s valvetrain isn’t quite as accessible as the BMW with its heads poking out, but who needs to get in there? The Harley has the traditional Milwaukee hydraulic lifters.

The Harley is fitted with Brembo brakes, which have become a necessary piece of performance bling. The BMW? It has polished aluminum calipers with the letters BMW prominently displayed.

The big question is whether this bike will appeal to the die-hard Harley guys. I think so. I’m sure a lot of “traditional” Harley owners have Ford Raptors or Dodge Power Wagons, or offroad UTV’s. And even those who don’t venture off pavement should find the upright riding position and tremendous power appealing. And the non-Harley “adventure” guys? If the bike works, and dealers are easier to find than BMW or KTM, that will be an advantage. Harley’s initial pricing is very competitive. As for the BMW R18? I think it will only find a niche market. Ridden to Starbucks on Saturday morning, then washed and polished all afternoon. But I could be wrong.

Note: Although I have been riding motorcycles for almost 50 years, and currently own two, I have never ridden a Harley. I have owned one BMW. If I was 20 years younger I would seriously consider the Pan America. But before buying one, I would head over to the BMW dealership, where I would admire the R18 for a minute in the showroom, and then ask about a 1250GS test ride.