Julian Challis takes a step back in time to ride the genre-defining adventure bike that proved a game-changer for the motorcycle industry
In 2020, the BMW GS celebrates its 40th anniversary. For any motorcycle, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. But in 1980, the designers of the humble R80 Gelande Strasse, an unremarkable addition to the company’s existing range, could hardly have predicted that the model would still be in production 20 years into the next decade, let alone that it would become a genre-defining icon within motorcycling history. But if there is one model within that forty-year back catalogue that can be identified as the one that took the GS from a niche model to a global success, it’s the R 1150 GS Adventure.
For this issue of Adventure Bike Rider, we’re putting aside all the new metal from EICMA, parking the latest and greatest that will be appearing in your showrooms for 2020, and instead of going back to the bike that put adventure motorcycling into the mainstream. The bike that, thanks to a television programme, altered the path of the entire motorcycling industry. The bike that changed the world.
Back in 2002, the world was a very different place. In the UK, New Labour was still riding a wave of popularity that had seen them propelled into power some five years earlier. As if echoing their campaign song from back in 1997, things, it seemed, could only get better, and the coming celebrations of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee served to add a touch of patriotic fervour into the mix.
Technology was improving life too, and if you were one of the lucky ones, you probably had just upgraded your Nokia 3310 to the far sleeker and more futuristic 3610. This amazing bit of kit could now allow you to not only call people, but also send texts, purchase, or even compose, your own ringtones and, if that were not enough, play Snake 2, the new although arguably identical upgrade to Snake. And in pop music, Christina Aguilera gave the world her video for ‘Dirrty’, a gift for schoolboys and grown men to enjoy.
But in terms of motorcycles, adventure bikes were largely unimportant to the dealers. The bikes that were flying out of the showrooms all across the UK, and indeed the world, were the sports bikes. From the exquisite R1 that had gone fuel-injected for 2002, to the Honda Fireblade that had crept up to 954cc to keep pace with the Yamaha, the buyers wanted road-going versions of Grand Prix bikes, and the Japanese manufacturers were all too happy to oblige.
According to MCIA statistics for the year, over 30,000 sports bikes were sold, with a further 15,500 buyers opting for sports tourers. Adventure bikes such as there were (the Africa Twin, Ténéré, BMW and a few others) accounted for just 5,000 units, a figure far lower than the 8,000 that had bought trail bikes or the 8,500 that had opted for cruisers.
So, against the backdrop of these figures and the enthusiasm of the motorcycling public at the time, BMW’s decision to bring out a far more off-road and adventure-focused version of their existing R 1150 GS seemed, at best, questionable. Adventure travel was largely the reserve of wisened and weather-beaten enthusiasts, their panniers adorned with stickers from far-flung locations, their riding kit caked in layers of mud and dust from transglobal expeditions, and the occupants smelling somewhere between a wet flannel and a long-dead badger.
With satellite navigation and internet technology still in its relative infancy, adventure travel required months of pouring over maps, waiting for visas and then breaking down in hostile environments. Compared to hooning round on a race replica, the experience came way down on the list for mainstream buyers. And, who in their right mind was going to choose a tall, heavy and slow lump like the BMW?
Although it wasn’t the original 2002 model that propelled Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman and the GSA to global notoriety (the went in 2004), it was the R 1150 GSA that successfully took the two actors the 20,000 miles around the world, coping with everything from flat-out tarmac to endless and punishing dirt roads across remote landscapes.
It was the 1150 that made the trip possible and, thanks to the resultant Sky and then BBC series, bought adventure motorcycling to the world. And ultimately, it was the influence of the 1150 that has persuaded buyers across the world to stop buying those GP-inspired missiles and start buying adventure bikes. If there was any bike that we needed to revisit, it was this.
Locating our test bike for our BMW retrospective was surprisingly simple. A brief scour through the eBay listings revealed that there are still plenty of 1150s out there, even if the Adventure versions are a tad less common thanks to the lower production numbers and indeed sales of the GSA compared to the standard GS.
Prices are quite variable too with lower-spec 1150s starting out at around £2,500 and topping out at an incredible £8,495 for a pristine 2005 GSA with just 11,300 miles on the clock. But, wanting to taste the original 2002 vintage of this particular motorcycling claret, we located a suitable option on sale for a far more pocket-friendly £3,695 at Top bikes of Coventry.
A swift call to company owner Simon Burgess revealed the bike to be an ideal candidate for our test, with just over 38,000 miles covered, great original condition with a smattering of sensible aftermarket additions, luggage and upgrades. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, the bike was located a mere 21 miles from the ABR offices on the outskirts of the city, and Simon was only too pleased to help us out with a test ride.
With my long-term 690 Enduro R returned to KTM and the workhorse Yamaha TDM 850 in dry dock with an electrical issue, I made the cold trip up to collect the bike on my Fireblade. While the performance and handling are undoubtedly somewhat different to anything I’ve tested recently for ABR, the lack of comforts and, more importantly, heated grips on the CBR did leave me yearning for the cossetting features of a modern adventure bike.
However, on the plus side, it also gave me a particularly accurate indication of exactly what type of bike the 1150 was competing against when it was released, and in retrospect, how far the market has moved in the 17 years since this bike rolled off the Bavarian production line. Adventure bikes now account for more than 17% of total bike sales in the UK compared to just 4% in 2002, whereas sales of sports bikes like the Fireblade are on a continuous downward spiral.
The first thing that strikes you about the 1150 is the sheer scale of the bike. While we’ve all got used to the imposing and ever-increasing dimensions of adventure bikes, the stripped back and almost minimal design of the first GSA serves to bring it into stark focus. The optional larger fuel tank holds an impressive 30l compared to the stock 22, the enormous dimensions giving almost Rubenesque curves of the vast flanks. Jeez it looks cool!
The bars are typically GS, with a lazy sweep and wide dimensions, the levers protected with generous handguards that thankfully show little evidence of unintentional get-offs in the bike’s former life, which, given the bike’s 880mm seat height, suggest a history of either very tall or very careful owners.
Moving around to the front of the bike, the characteristic beak looks so big as to be almost comical, a massive flat platform jutting out of the front of the bike some eighteen inches ahead of the bars. In 2002, this feature must have appeared revolutionary – even if Suzuki had used similar on the DR 800 five years before – but it’s a design that almost all of the pretenders to BMW’s current throne have since adopted.
Old vs New
Our test bike is in great condition and shows little of the 38,000 miles showing on the analogue dials. There’s an almost unhealthy suspicion among current buyers about bikes with even modest mileage of a few thousand miles, but with machines like the 1150, the motor is barely run in. And at seventeen years old, the GSA is still within the realms of light use, with just over 2,000 miles a year since its first registration.
Taking the 1150 off the stand and sitting on it for the first time, it’s evident that the GSA’s somewhat minimal design didn’t really manage to keep the weight at bay, the stock bike tipping the scales at 227 kg dry, pretty much the same as the current 1250. But like it’s modern counterpart, the bike wears its weight well, and once sat on the bike it’s not anything like as intimidating as it might at first appear.
I run through a quick check of the controls to see where everything is – worthwhile as this was the era that BMW put indicators on either bar – and a quick push of the starter sees the eight-valve 1130cc oil-cooled boxer motor spring into life with the characteristic and comforting lurch.
The engine sounds as sweet as it might have back in 2002, helped a certain amount by the aftermarket catalytic converter-free Y connector that allows the twin cylinders to burble away freely through the big end can.
Pulling away onto the suburban roads of Coventry, what is immediately noticeable on the 1150 is just how incredibly light the steering is on this bike. With such a large tank and a wide front end, you might expect a certain heaviness and reluctance to turn, but the telelever front suspension makes the bike feel as light and manoeuvrable as a 125.
Cutting through the midday traffic is unexpectedly simple, and even though the bike has some quite substantial engine bars in place, filtering through the lines of cars is a swift and easy process. The bike may be the off-road variant of the GS, but the GSA still runs the 19/17 wheel combination which undoubtedly contributes to the bike’s good road manners.
After a few moments in the congestion, I pick up the A45 which then leads into the A46 heading south and it’s a chance to open the taps a bit. Compared to the 2019 incarnation, the 1150 is considerably down on power at a mere 85 bhp, but you have to remember that, when this bike was bought out, the target market was a select group of riders that wanted an ultra-reliable bike that could genuinely ride round the world loaded to the gunwales with luggage.
The modern GSA still needs to be able to do this, but it’s more likely to be storming along autobahns and ripping through the twisties at the weekend than crossing continents, which was the sole intention of the 1150. And, once you reset your mind to this reality, the bike is just a hoot to ride. With most of the power and torque in the mid-range, it pays to short-shift through the six-speed box and just enjoy the intoxicating surge from that big boxer motor below you. The Warwickshire countryside rushes past in a wonderful blur of russet tones, and I’m already falling in love with this lump of Teutonic technology.
The road begins to tighten up a bit, but it’s no hassle for the 1150. The relationship between the wide-set bars, the well-placed footpegs and super-comfortable one-piece saddle allows you to sweep the bike through the curves with the minimum of effort, the low centre of gravity and well-set-up suspension allowing the bike to drop in and out of the corners with an unexpected agility. And if you do need to haul it all up, the ABS-assisted twin 304mm discs at the front and single 276 mm single disc at the rear will scrub speed with equally unexpected efficiency for such a physically large machine.
Because this is effectively the specced up version of the standard bike, it comes with a smattering of upgrades, none of which were more appreciated than the heated grips taking the edge off the cold November air.
Winter riding has its drawbacks, but many of them can be overlooked if you have warm hands. Although removed for our test, the BMW panniers that were available as options back in 2002 were still with the bike, and teamed up with the top box, would allow an impressive luggage capacity to satisfy the most serial over-packer like myself. This is a bike made for travel.
Continuing south through the autumnal landscape away from Stratford, the road opens up again, and it’s time to check the old-fashioned round mirrors and stretch the bike’s legs once more. Although the standard screen was quite substantial, our test bike has an adjustable MRA aftermarket version fitted, and the wind protection is good, with little buffeting.
The cockpit is well organised and, for something designed nearly 20 years ago, the clocks are surprisingly contemporary, with a clear, speedo, fuel gauge and temperature gauge. When modern machines are bombarding the rider with ever more information each year, it’s a refreshing change to have things reduced to the real essentials.
And it’s the same with the frame and bodywork. The 1150 GSA runs a three-section tubular steel frame, but with the big motor acting as a structural component, there is little of it on show save for the subframe below the saddle on both sides of the bike. The frame finish puts modern bikes to shame, as does the gloriously deep silver paint and GS logo on the cavernous tank. This is a quality machine.
Having got the measure of the bike on the blacktop, it’s time to take the GSA from the strasse and onto the gelande – that’s from the road to the off-road for the less multilingual. With the standard dual sport tyres long since ditched in favour of road-going options, I couldn’t exactly head for snotty and mud-filled lanes, but I could pick up some lovely little gravel tracks and trails to the north of Evesham. And yet again the GSA shows its impeccable heritage, taking on the transition without a murmur.
As with the road, the telelever front suspension and sensible steering geometry make the bike incredibly simple and precise to control off-road, and for a big bike, the GSA has a really small turning circle making surprisingly tight and slow turns possible. The front shock gives the bike a full 210mm of travel, whereas the single rear shock gives a tad more at 220mm and has a remote adjuster for the preload.
Teamed up with the faultless shaft drive and the Paralever single-sided swingarm and impeccable balance, the GSA can be ridden at almost trials speeds with little effort, and if you want to turn up the wick, will destroy the trails with a spray of stones firing from the rear wheel.
Gear changes are precise, and the hydraulic clutch as good as anything on a modern BMW or indeed any other brand. It might be a heavy option to take off-road, but if you are man or indeed woman enough, the GSA will match you every mile of the way.
Calling in at the ABR offices for photos after my brief off-road foray, there’s a universal approval of the bike from the whole team. We still have a 2019 R 1250 GS Exclusive as a long-termer and, parked alongside the cool black contours of the new bike, the 2002 version looks both very different and very similar at the same time.
It’s a mark of how good BMW’s original design for the first GSA was that some 17 years down the line, the spirit of the GS is still running through the new bikes like a seam of gold through rock. Yet the 2002 bike is still so much more special. Without the 1150 and what it achieved for BMW, the 2019 bike may never have existed.
With the winter sun slipping below the distant Malvern hills, it’s time to take the BMW back home. And I’m genuinely sorry to be returning it. For a bike that is nearly two decades old, it is every bit as enjoyable as the all-new R 1250 GSA that I tested in Almeria this time last year. Yes, the motor is not as powerful, yes, the technology is almost non-existent, and yes it looks dated, but all of that simply does not matter.
In fact, I’d argue that all of those shouldn’t be seen as disadvantages, but positive advantages that make the bike all the more attractive. I like the fact it’s just a cracking engine in a good frame with no frills. I like the fact that it’s a massive lump of German engineering, its workings proudly exposed like some motorcycling version of the Pompidou Centre. And most of all, I like the fact that it’s still so good to ride.
Would I have this bike in my garage? In a heartbeat.
As a commuter
So, as with the modern GSA, it’s a big bike to fight through the traffic each morning, but if that’s what you need to do, the 1150 will complete the task with the quiet efficiency of an assassin. Just a very big assassin.
As a weekend tourer
We’re moving slowly towards the BMW’s sweet spot here, as the 1150 GSA would make a fantastic bike for blasting round the twisties at the weekend, one or even two up. Choose the right rubber and the BMW will keep up you smiling all day long, and when you stop at a biker café, everyone will love it. On the soundtrack, while we’re tempted by a bit of Rammstein, we’re going for a bit of Cool Cymru with the Manic Street Preachers. A design for life – that’s the GS.
As an off-roader
The 1150 GSA was designed for getting down and dirty and it would it be almost a crime to keep it clean. To get the best of this bike on the dirt then you are going to need to invest in some big block hoops and maybe stay away from Salisbury Plain in the winter. Find yourself some flowing gravel roads and get your drift on. This bike is a beast.
As a continental road tourer
Now we’re talking. Taking an 1150 on a big trip would be one of the best ways you could spend your time, and with that big lazy engine, smooth power and super-comfortable seat, the bike will take you as far as you want to go. Load up the luggage and head for Dover.
As an RTW overlander
Umm – so does anyone actually need confirmation that this bike can go around the world? The R 1150 GSA is without question the most famous bike to ever circumnavigate our planet, even if its progress through the tougher parts of the Road of Bones was at best, somewhat laboured. But Hell – take it round the world and we’ll run your story whatever happens.
As a pillion carrier
Again the 1150 will knock this one out of the park, and the generous dimensions of the GSA are ideal for taking your nearest and dearest out on the road. OK, so it might not be as enjoyable once away from the tarmac, but if you take a passenger off-road they know they’ll be in for a bumpy ride whatever bike you’re on.