The Vintagent Road Tests come straight from the saddle of the world’s rarest motorcycles.  Catch the Road Test series here.

BMW’s R18 has arrived with a splash. In mid-September the German company conducted a press rollout of its highly-designed new cruiser with the motorcycle industry’s first elaborate COVID-period ride event – swank hotel headquarters, full staff greeting media, full fleet of bikes, ride leaders and brand photographers and videographers — unwilling to wait any longer to introduce its dramatic new machine to the waiting world.

The new BMW R18: a design influenced by the best of BMW’s heritage, enlarged for the cruiser market, with a very long wheelbase and low saddle height. [Kevin Wing]
Is the world waiting? I’m not sure. I told two friends, both of them BMW owners, that I was off to meet the big black beast. One said, dismissively, “The answer to a question no one asked.” The other said, “The R18? Frankenstein with Botox.”

Long in the planning, the R18 owes its stylistic inspiration to the R5, a street model the company produced from 1936 to 1937. This provided the essentials: The boxer engine, double-loop tubular steel frame, exposed nickel-plated drive shaft, teardrop gas tank, fishtail exhaust pipes and signature black paint with double white pin stripes.

A physical comparison of the elder and its great-grand-progeny. The light and lithe 1935 R5 model was beloved for its lively performance, excellent handling, and worlds-first hydraulic telescopic fork. The R5 had a 500cc pushrod motor giving 24hp and an 87mph top speed (very good for the day), and weighed 363lbs. The R18 has 90hp and weighs twice the R5 at over 700lbs, not that growth is a linear thing. [BMW Motorrad]
Powered by an all-new air- and oil-cooled 1802cc engine, the R18 drew on the R5 and other BMW heritage models for its wire spoked wheels, steel fenders and fork tubes and analog-style speedometer. The result is sleek and shiny, crouched low to the ground, weighing 761 pounds, with a claimed 91 horsepower and 116 pound-feet of torque.

The bike draws its economic inspiration from elsewhere, and is the answer to a question many people have asked – many executives, anyway, if not many consumers. Like many companies, BMW has been wondering why Harley-Davidson dominates the cruiser market with what one BMW executive derided as a second-rate product – and trying to figure out how to take away some H-D market share. (And, of course, as its own fortunes have waned, H-D is trying to figure out how to take away some of BMW’s market share, by introducing its PanAmerica adventure bike into a segment dominated by GMW’s GS line.)

Design heritage: BMW looked into its own past for inspiration on a new model design, riding the ‘heritage&denim’ wave begun in the 2010s, taking a leaf from Harley-Davidson’s playbook. This is something BMW did – sorta – with the rNineT, but is far more explicit with the R18. [BMW Motorrad]
After conducting in-depth market research, largely in the form of motorcycle owner polls and potential buyer queries [and asking people like me directly – “what is the most iconic BMW model that we can build today?” – ed.], BMW brass identified the custom or premium cruiser segment as an opportune target area and a 40-something male, middle-income, and “liberal-minded” enough to select something not built by The Motor Company as its target customer.

“Harley-Davidson runs this segment, but that’s changing,” BMW Motorrad US product manager Vincent Kung said during a live-streamed R18 presentation. “A new generation is coming in, a generation that’s thinking differently. They’re experiencing what I call ‘Harley fatigue.’”

The cruiser market was invented by Harley-Davidson in 1971 with the FX Super Glide, to capitalize on the chopper craze: there had never been production motorcycles with raked-out front forks and a laid-back riding position before. Yamaha followed quickly afterwards, then the deluge. So, it’s understandable Harley-Davidson is the first image one has of a cruiser, and whose market share is the target for other manufacturers. [Kevin Wing]
Polling and research indicated that the top sellers in the cruiser market are custom sellers. Further research told company planners that the target was Harley’s Softail Slim. Priced to compete with this bike, the R18’s builders say it is longer, handles better and offers more HP and torque.

They also acknowledge that 75% of the hoped-for buyers will be “conquest” customers – buyers who will need to abandon another brand, many of them forgoing their wish to buy American, as first-time BMW owners.

The first hint of a new model coming: the BMW R5 Hommage custom presented at the Concorso Villa d’Este in 2016, and built by the BMW design team with help from talented outside fabricators. The R5 motor had a modern supercharger attached, and made quite a glorious noise! Our publisher Paul d’Orleans, a judge at the Concorso di Moto at Villa d’Este, was present at the launch and got a moment of saddle time. the stretched-out vintage chassis was a suggestion of things to come. [Susan McLaughlin]
The push into the cruiser segment is new for BMW. But the company has attempted to push into other new territory in recent years, with mixed results. The cruiser-like R1200C, introduced in the late 1990s, died a quiet death. The big-boned K 1600 B bagger, introduced in 2016, did not become a fixture on U.S. roads and has not stolen significant market share from Harley-Davidson. But its retro rNineT – a 2014 effort to combine analog looks and feels with modern tech – has proved popular. Though BMW declines to report unit sales for specific models, executives at the R18 launch said several times it was the global reception of the rNineT that encouraged them forward with the R18.

Edgar Heinrich, the Head of Design for BMW Motorrad, after riding the R5 Hommage onto the gravel terrace during BMW’s annual prototype reveal ceremony at Villa d’Este, in 2016.  Much like the later R18, the R5 Hommage had a ‘softail’ frame that appeared to be a rigid, but a close look reveals a modern shock absorber behind the gearbox. [Paul d’Orleans]
“People said, ‘I don’t want a rolling computer,’” said BMW Motorrad head of design Edgar Heinrich. “With rNineT we found out we can combine a motorcycle which works perfectly that has heart and soul and character.”

So, has it?

The bike is beautifully built – “Berlin made,” advertising material say, and it even says so on the speedometer – and beautiful to look at. The black is rich and deep. The chromed parts – the introductory model, known as the R18 First Edition, is laden with nearly $4,000 in upgraded bits and bobs – gleams. The look and feel of real metal abounds. There are no chromed plastic parts, anywhere on the bike. The fit and finish are BMW standard – superb. The overall look is trim and clean. There are practically no visible wires or cables.

Quality built, heavy, and with such a wide and low stance, an easy one to ground in corners. [Kevin Wing]
The R18 wears its weight low, and comes off the kickstand easily. The 27.2-inch seat height will allow almost any rider to sit comfortably with both feet flat on the ground. The bicycle-style single seat is, at first meeting, as well suited to function as it is pleasing to the eye.

The engine rumbles to life, roughly, with a push of the electric start, and then settles into a gentle purr. A flick of the throttle produces the signature boxer roll. Clutch in, transmission engaged – with a reassuringly industrial “clunk” – and away.

Because it was clear from the start to the designers that their R18 must be powered by the company’s iconic horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder engine, it was also clear that the R18 could not feature the “foot forward” seating position favored by other cruisers. Instead, the R18’s builders placed its footpegs in a position they call “mid-mounted,” almost directly below the seat.

Rider ergonomics are defined by the flat-twin’s cylinders and saddle location/height: in this case the footpegs are behind the knees, which test rider Charles Fleming found uncomfortable after an hour. [Kevin Wing]
I was pleased by this. Something about the muscle memory of years of riding and racing dirt bikes, plus the architecture of my spine (damaged by the aforementioned years of dirt) has always made traditional cruisers a little taxing. So, pulling away from the curb on the BMW, I thought: I like this better. It feels like my GS. My feet are just where I like them to be. I was to change my mind about that.

The massive R18 engine’s power is delivered via a six-speed transmission and through three ride modes. BMW, seeking to be clever, has named them Rock, Roll and Rain, with Rock being the most aggressive. Horsepower and torque remain the same with all three. Only the delivery of power is altered.

The prototype R18 at its launch in May 2019 at Villa d’Este: the tank and engine remain the same as the production version, but the prototype has a much lighter look from slimmer components (and no legally required giant airbox and mufflers). [Paul d’Orleans]
Scrolling through the ride modes, on a 75-mile circuit from Los Angeles’ Marina Del Rey to Venice to the Malibu mountains and back, I found the motor tractable and the power easy to manage. Roll-on acceleration felt smooth and steady. Clutch and shift feel were excellent. Braking, via Brembo products – dual disc on the 19” front wheel, single disc on the 16” rear — was firm. The suspension –telescoping forks fitted with Showa internals up front, a single coil ZF shock behind – took most of the wrinkle out of the road.

But it’s a big bike. Slow-speed maneuvering required some concentration. Stopping at red lights and stop signs became tedious. The mid-central footpegs required my foot to come up, out and back before they hit the ground, as the big boxer cylinders prevented any forward movement.

Parking was less of a challenge, because the R18 is fitted with a rudimentary reverse gear. Put the bike in neutral, pull a switch near the left-side footpeg, and use the starter button to engage an electric motor that rolls the machine backward.

Abhi Eswarappa of giving a spectacular demonstration of the R18’s minimal ground clearance. [Nathan May]
Keeping the seat height low keeps the footpeg height low, too. That meant my legs felt cramped after the first hour of riding. It also meant that cornering with any lean angle whatever meant considerable contact and scraping. (My ride mate for the day, Bike-Urious’ Abhi Eswarrapa, took the R18 back out for a night ride and captured some amazing imagery of the resulting spark showers.)

The oil- and air-cooling system limited engine heat. For Southern Californians, anyway, this is an issue. Many of the big twins, from most Harleys to most Indians and beyond, contribute so much ambient heat that riding them on hot days can be a challenge.

The longer I rode the R18 the more impressed I was by its craftsmanship, elegance and curb appeal. (I experienced more spectator attention — “Cool bike man!” — than on anything I’d ridden since the last quirky-looking Ural I piloted.) But I was happy to stop riding every time I stopped, and eager to dismount. By the end of the four-hour ride, I was ready to quit, which is exactly the opposite of how I feel at the end of most rides.

From Lake Como to Venice, the intended hunting grounds of the R18. BMW has tried the cruiser market in the past, but the R18 is a far more pleasing design than previous efforts, at least to your editor’s eye. [Kevin Wing]
The R18 is priced sensibly at $17,495 for the base model and $19,870 for the First Edition – $21,150 for the model I rode — going after the midrange Harley-Davidson buyer, not the top. Reverse motor and hill start control are among the many available ups and extras – those two as part of a $1,450 “Premium Package” — including cruise control, heated grips, windscreen, a “cross country” seat, saddlebags and aftermarket parts from suppliers Roland Sands, Mustang and Vance and Hines. There is also a substantial line of branded apparel.

BMW has high hopes for the R18. The company’s CEO Markus Schramm said BMW Motorrad’s ambition is to “become number one in the premium cruiser segment worldwide.” Schramm said sales are strong, with a backlog of orders globally and the factory working at full speed to fill them.

It will be an interesting experiment. Though BMW posted record sales numbers for the month of June of this year, the six months before that saw a sharp decline, with numbers down from the comparable 2019 period by nearly 18%, according to company reports.

There was probably more reason for optimism, in June, that further prosperity was just around the corner. Now, with the coming of fall, the approaching of winter, the continuing financial uncertainty and the pending end of state and federal support for struggling businesses and unemployed workers, the R18 may have arrived just in time to sneak into 2020 before the year closes.

Charles Fleming on the road to Malibu. With great styling and solid handling, will the R18’s better qualities win enough fans to make a sales hit like the rNineT? [Kevin Wing]



Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.” Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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