bmw motorcycle
Julia LaPalme

The Genesis of the BMW R80 G/S

Exploring the origins of the ADV movement and the history of the original 1980 R80 G/S.

Imagine for a moment, it's early 1979, and your name is Karl Heinz Gerlinger. You've just been handed the reins of BMW's motorcycle division after the previous management group was pushed out due to slow sales, and BMW's big boss has tasked you with this: Make the motorcycle division profitable again or shutter the works.

Shutter the works.

The thought is viscerally disturbing. This is BMW Motorrad, after all, a legendary company. How can one do that?

“One can’t,” you say quietly to yourself.

But what to do? How do you revive a once-great manufacturer in 18 months? The odds are stacked heavily against you. Your lineup is old and stodgy and can’t compete with the technological wizardry of Japan, Inc., which has over the past decade flooded the market with light, fast, durable, affordable, and exciting motorcycles that nearly everyone seems to love.

You ask, “What do we have?” Not much. The liquid-cooled, multi-cylinder K-bikes are on the drawing board but are years from production and no help for the division’s immediate financial predicament. The rest of your streetbike line is staid, old-tech, and uninspiring. You ponder all of this, brainstorming with colleagues, looking for something, anything, that might work. You need a new bike that can be produced quickly, in BMW’s modular way, but something that folks will find exciting and different.

Karl Gerlinger
BMW boss Karl Gerlinger approved both the K100 (shown) and R80 G/S projects in 1979. The former would lead eventually to the S1000, while the latter would help save the company and create the adventure-bike phenomenon.Julia LaPalme

And then you receive an invitation by a group of engineers to come visit the R&D department. “We have something in the basement!” they say conspiratorially. Once there, you spy something interesting: an enduro-ized R80 prototype with a rust-colored fuel tank, knobby tires, monoshock suspension, lights, and a solo seat. The comely prototype had been developed by BMW engineer Laszlo Peres, an off-road enthusiast who’d been riding, racing, and developing off-road BMWs for years. BMW’s “off-road” project had been vetoed by upper management in the early 1970s due to already strong sales of streetbikes, as well as the idea that there was no need to spend precious R&D deutsche marks venturing into uncharted territory. But Peres’ team persevered, and the rust-colored prototype, dubbed Red Devil, was the latest iteration of that work.

“Hmmm,” you think, as you take in Red Devil and listen to Peres once again make his production pitch. “It’s unique. It’s different. It’s a new market for us. It’s a bike that can go just about anywhere. And it would be easy to build quickly…” Within days, you—Karl Gerlinger—green-light a pair of for-production projects you hope will counter BMW’s failing finances. One is the K-bike, which won’t debut until ’82 but will hopefully help blunt the technological edge of the Japanese. The other is the Peres enduro-with-lights concept, which you think—you hope—will be ready to sell in a year.

In that moment, the legendary R80 G/S is born, and with the decision a host of significant future happenings are set in motion: One, the G/S will sell well and spawn an entire family of GS models over the next three and a half decades, more than 600,000 of which will have been built and sold by 2017. Two, the G/S will sow the seeds of the street-based Adventure category, which will eventually become motorcycling’s hottest class. And finally, and maybe most importantly, the G/S will singlehandedly save BMW’s motorcycle division from extinction by selling briskly right out of the gate and far above expectations.

The 1981 R80 G/S (gelande means off-road/terrain in German; strasse means on-road, or street) debuted in the fall of 1980 at that year’s Cologne motorcycle show and caused an immediate stir. Much of the reaction was enthusiastic. An off-road-capable BMW was truly unique in production motorcycling, especially one based on a street machine and not a smaller, lighter, single-cylinder machine, a formula the Japanese had developed during the 1970s with the multitude of (mostly) lightweight dual-purpose machines they’d built and sold to an adoring public.

BMW's 1981 R80 G/SJulia LaPalme

But a good measure of the buzz was consternation, too, as a lot of folks, including some in the media, were unsure what BMW was up to with the G/S. Conventional wisdom said it was too heavy and cumbersome to be dynamically proficient on the dirt, and, as a streetbike, it seemed to be an in-betweener, a bike without a category—not a sporty bike, not a tourer, and, with its Swiss army knife styling, sort of suspect as an everyday standard bike. Who’d want to be seen on something that funky?

In truth, BMW wasn’t quite sure what it had in the G/S, either, despite Gerlinger’s early optimism. “[The G/S] was launched in a somewhat sheepish fashion, with little fanfare,” writes British moto-journalist Phil West in his book BMW GS. “It was initially dismissed by many as a curiosity with minimal appeal, as is often the way with game-changing machines.”

While many looked upon the idea of an off-road-capable BMW as a strange concept, and maybe even a flailing shot in the dark by a company on the brink of insolvency, BMW did have decades of ISDT and German/European off-road championship success from which to pull. Naturally, the idea of a streetable version continued to percolate, and Red Devil was the result.

"An off-road-capable BMW was truly unique in production motorcycling, especially one based on a street machine and not a smaller, lighter, single-cylinder machine, a formula the Japanese had developed during the 1970s with the multitude of (mostly) lightweight dual-purpose machines they’d built and sold to an adoring public."Julia LaPalme

Question was, would anyone care?

Once Gerlinger green-lighted the G/S project, work began in earnest, BMW management tapping suspension engineer Rudiger Gutsche to lead the development team. Like Peres, Gutsche was a committed enthusiast and enduro rider and also a prime choice for the project, as he’d been modifying production BMWs for years. That experience fit the G/S brief well, as BMW wanted and needed its new on-/off-road machine to be developed quickly, be affordable, do many things well, and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. That meant using existing engine and chassis platforms and not building something completely new, which would be both expensive and time-consuming.

Gutsche’s team experimented briefly with an over-bored R65 engine but moved to the standard R80 powerplant when the modified engine proved excessively vibratory during testing. Fortunately, the R80 engine was at the time undergoing a serious upgrade, which included Nikasil cylinders (replacing steel liners for a 10-pound weight reduction), an all-new clutch/flywheel assembly that cut an additional 10 pounds and offered easier operation, improved lubrication, a larger air filter, electronic ignition, and, specific to the G/S, a 2-into-1 exhaust with a high-mount muffler, and shorter gearing than the standard, five-speed R80 streetbikes, which would help off-road. Power was rated at 50 bhp at 6,500 rpm, with just over 40 pound-feet of torque arriving at 5,000 revs.

The G/S’s chassis would be parts bin-esque, as well, with the R65’s twin-loop steel frame acting as foundation. The R100 donated its 8-inch-travel fork, which held some new parts: a 21-inch wire-spoked wheel, a Brembo caliper, and a developed-for-the-G/S Metzeler Sahara tire. The 19.5-liter/4-gallon fuel tank was special to the G/S, too, as were the weight-saving plastic fenders, side panels, instrument/headlight nacelle (speedo only, no tach), and seat base. Although the G/S would be the heaviest dual-purpose machine ever, it would still be lighter than the standard R80 by nearly 70 pounds.

The most exciting bit of non-parts-bin technology was the G/S’s revolutionary Monolever system, which integrated two functions—swingarm/suspension and final drive—into one very neat arrangement. While G/S prototypes had used conventional swingarms, the production bike would get technology BMW had developed as a way to reduce weight, increase rigidity, and make rear-wheel removal and installation a three-bolt snap. Although difficult to engineer, the axle-less Monolever system proved functional, durable, and gave the G/S an exotic flair.

After an amazingly rapid development process of just under a year, two pre-production G/Ss were ridden nearly 2,000 miles through South America as a true test of the bike’s capabilities and durability. They performed superbly in the treacherous conditions, and BMW knew then and there that it had an amazing new type of motorcycle on its hands.

Red Devil Prototype
Developed during the middle and late 1970s by Laszlo Peres’ engineering team (many of whom raced off-road BMWs themselves), the aesthetically challenged Red Devil prototype set the stage for the production G/S’s development.Julia LaPalme

The company was ready to toss its radically new concept into the public arena. But was the rest of the world ready?

At the worldwide press introduction in Avignon, France, just two weeks before the Cologne show unveiling on September 19, 1980, journalists from all over the world got to learn about and sample the new bike. And that’s when the initial wave of doubt and consternation rolled in, even after Gerlinger introduced the G/S and explained that it was a totally new type of motorcycle and not a direct competitor to the many lightweight, single-cylinder dual-purpose machines currently on the market. The media just couldn’t see what BMW was beginning to see, that an off-road-capable streetbike—which had never been done before in a large-capacity format—could be a desirable, do-it-motorcycle, especially if done right.

“More than a few just did not get it,” writes West about the intro, which he attended, “wondering aloud how an 800cc machine with a shaft drive and weighing 440 pounds could be even vaguely suitable for off-road riding.”

Fortunately, BMW had 25 G/Ss on hand for the press to ride the following day, and when editors climbed aboard and actually rode the bikes, many of their doubts washed away. The bikes worked wonderfully on the twisty country and dirt roads along the route and were an absolute blast to ride all day long.

Reviews in the coming months were mostly positive, even from journalists who’d expressed doubts early on. Das Motorrad, Germany’s leading moto publication, was both positive and blunt, writing that the G/S was “the best road motorcycle BMW has ever built.”

Cycle wrote this: “Look at the G/S and define yourself by what you see. Too much bulk? One cylinder too many? Then you’re a dirt rider—admit it. But if you see a street bike that’s been trimmed of all fat to handle rough, potted country roads, then you’re G/S material. Enjoy.”

Naturally, there was grumbling about the G/S’s off-road abilities. When ridden aggressively it pushed the front, wouldn’t hook up, felt cumbersome at speed, and had cylinders that would bite your shins if you put your foot out to slide around a little. Still, most editorial types understood that the G/S was not designed for true off-road riding.

Motorcyclist nailed the concept in its December 1980 issue. “The G/S,” editors wrote, “gives every impression it can burn up the pavement as quickly as its bigger brothers… And there is no question the G/S [can] rack up the miles at a blistering pace. BMW has built not your run-of-the-mill dual-purpose machine, but rather a full-fledged street machine [that] can occasionally dabble in the off-road world. The G/S offers unique and exciting opportunities in a whole new field of riding, a field which it contests with virtually no rivals.”

Exactly right. And that’s what BMW was after.

People often overuse the “game changer” descriptor, but that first G/S’s monumental impact to BMW and the motorcycling world simply cannot be overemphasized.Julia LaPalme

Order taking at the Cologne show was brisk, European dealers asking for many more units than BMW expected. US dealer orders were decent, too, despite a lingering recession and slumping US motorcycle sales. Retail sales during the 1981 season would end up being surprisingly good, customers apparently looking for something a bit different from the German marque. And while worldwide numbers weren’t huge during 1981 (approximately 6,650 were built and sold, nearly 2,000 more than what BMW had planned to build), there was energetic enthusiasm for the adventure concept and the G/S itself, which boded well for the future of this motorcycle and the new genre.

Of course, the G/S was just the beginning. In ’87, BMW replaced it with the R100GS (the slash was dropped), which offered a revised Monolever system (called Paralever) that incorporated a torque arm to minimize chassis jacking. Sales boomed. Seven years later came the R1100GS (thousands more were sold), then the R1150GS (more thousands), and after that the R1200GS, which continues to this day, along with single- and twin-cylinder smaller-displacement (600cc and 800cc) GS variants. Today, one-third of BMW’s worldwide motorcycle sales are R1200GS models. How’s that for impact?

And that’s just BMW. From other companies came a whole slew of competitors, from Tigers to Caponords to V-Stroms to Adventures to Africa Twins, in open-class and smaller displacements. Suddenly, the Adventure category was on fire and helping generate millions of miles worth of experiences and adventures for its adherents, many of whom were baby boomers, a demographic that began turning 35 the year the GS was introduced.

While younger riders have been discovering Adventure bikes over the last decade or so, it’s been those boomers—those born between ’45 and ’65—who have primarily fueled the genre’s explosion over the years. And that makes sense. An adventure bike, with its focus on all-around function and a look that says “two-wheel Swiss army knife” a lot more than racer replica or chromed custom, is in many ways a more mature motorcycle, a bike many boomers ended up going to after they’d had their sportbike or cruiser fix. Riding an adventure bike is also a way for boomers to return to their dirt-bike roots and youth, when wide handlebars and the thrill of getting away from Mom and Dad for a few hours on the trails behind your house or in the desert was the best thing that could happen after school or on a crisp fall weekend.

Helge Pedersen, who bought a first-year G/S in ’81 and proceeded to tour the world over the next decade on it, knows the pull of a grand adventure better than most. “I bought my first R80 G/S in ’81,” Pedersen writes in his amazing book 10 Years on 2 Wheels, “and decided to take a two-wheel journey to Africa…and around the world over a 10-year period. In 1993, my first G/S was retired at the BMW museum in Germany, as I was given a brand-new BMW R1100GS in exchange.”

BMW feels good about its G/S—and GS—achievements, and it should. “BMW is obviously very proud of that first G/S of 1981,” Heiner Faust, VP of sales and marketing for BMW Motorrad, told me. “The entire GS line has not only been a sales and R&D success for the company, but it has grown the motorcycling market by introducing hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts to the adventure side of the sport.”

At its root, motorcycling is indeed all about adventure.

At a 30-year reunion for the G/S back in 2011, Gerlinger said this: “When I was asked to take over [the division, our big boss said], ‘Decide whether you make it or close it.’ But when you’re a young guy, how can you think of [closing] BMW Motorrad? I couldn’t do it, nor could my colleagues.”

With the R80 G/S, Gerlinger and BMW were prescient. The company could not have known it at the time, but that first G/S was a masterstroke—not just for short-term sales, which kept the company alive, but for the enduring power of the GS line and the thriving category that so many millions of riders would thrill to over the coming decades.

In 1979, Karl Heinz Gerlinger was asked to make BMW’s motorcycle division profitable again. The R80 G/S did just that…and so much more.