Memorable Motorcycles BMW R90S

November 10, 2006
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The R90S represented a bold new direction for BMW, as the German manufacturer utilized its steady Flat Twin powerplant inside a more colorful shell to appeal to a wider, gentler range of consumers.

Ask a rider in the late 1960s what he thought of BMWs – girls virtually never rode motorcycles, so I can use the pronoun “he” with some certainty – and the response would have been along the lines that they were solid, reliable workhorses ridden by hard men who thought that using a plastic bag to sleep on in a blizzard was a sign of effete, limp-wristed decadence.

BMWs of the period came in a wide range of colors. There was black, black, black and black. Customizing a BMW meant painting it white. White demonstrated a confused sexual orientation and was therefore very suspect.

Because BMW riders tended to like their bacon sandwiches still attached to the hind legs of a wild boar, which they could then bare-handedly fight to the death, and felt that consuming 10 gallons of Weise beer before a ride was the least any real man could do, BMWs were started manually courtesy of a tiny pedal attached to the rear of the gearbox. Mainstream humans failed miserably at this task, but the Uber Beings who rode BMWs could manage to fire up the Bavarian Flat Twins using no more than the end of their little finger or, in an emergency, perhaps the tip of their left ear lobe. In short, BMWs lacked mass-market appeal. All this was about to change.

As the 1960s departed and the new, flower-tied, flared-jeaned and pink-shirted 1970s were born, BMW hit the biking world with a whole range of truly outstanding motorcycles. And at the very top of this new, shiny tree was the R90S.

The R90S was one of the cleverest motorcycles ever to be produced and was proof positive that deep in southern Germany BMW’s marketing team really understood the problem they faced. In addressing the factory’s image of staid, dull reliability they managed to do that smartest of all three card tricks: retain their existing customers, bring on new ones – and do so cost-effectively.

The distinctive horizontally opposed, twin-cylinder Boxer powerplant is practically a BMW trademark. For the R90S, the Boxer delivered reliable power and allowed the Beemer to compete with its sportbike competition.

Technically, the R90S was light years behind the best of the Japanese and was nothing more than a modest technical step up from earlier Boxer Twins. Thus, the shaftdrive was retained, as was the two-valve, horizontally opposed, push-rod twin-cylinder engine. This was not state-of-the-art engineering by any stretch of the imagination. But what an engine the Germans produced! The new powerplant, with its five-speed gearbox, still looked, sounded and felt like previous BMWs, but this was a motor which had been to the gym for a serious work out.

The three aces the R90S had to play were usability, fitness for purpose and utter, totally, unburstable reliability. With at top speed of less than 120 mph, the R90S lost out to the true hyper sports bikes of the day and was, on paper, no faster than Triumph’s 750 Bonneville or the Honda CB750. The big difference was that the BMW’s 120-mph top speed equated to a solid 115-mph cruising performance.

This point needs stressing. Riding an R90S, it was comfortably, practically and realistically possible to cover 90 miles in an hour and 150 plus in two hours. Nothing else in the bike world, and very few cars of the time, could offer this supreme distance-devouring performance. Miles didn’t disappear beneath the BMW’s wheels – whole countries simply zipped past in a satisfying blur.

Critics of the motor complained, justifiably, that the gearbox was dreadful compared with the Kawasaki Z1 – which it was. BSA group Triple owners boasted that their bikes offered vastly better handling – and this too was true. And the supremely refined Honda CB750 was infinitely smoother. But when the BMW rider looked at his map and saw that there was 1500 miles of hard riding ahead, there was always going to be only one winner.

The chassis complemented the motor wonderfully. The R90S was never the hyper sports bike which BMW claimed but it was a supremely confident high-speed performer. With long-travel suspension, superb rider ergonomics and a large fuel tank, the bike allowed the rider to make use of the motor’s abilities. As pilots of modern sports bikes know all too well, there is no point in having limitless performance if the riding position causes agony after 50 miles.

The superb fit and finish on the R90S appealed to BMW’s loyal following and gained new adherents as a stylish two-wheeled option.

There was also a delightful attention to detail which inculcated a sense of pride in owning a BMW. As an example, the discs were drilled not only for lightness but also to enhance their performance in wet weather. So far, so good. What was really clever was that BMW first cadmium plated the disc so that the drilled holes wouldn’t rust and then surface ground the rotors. Knowledgeable observers stood back, looked at the BMW and nodded sagely at the outstanding fit and finish. The R90S was expensive but looked to be an out-and-out bargain when compared with its British and Japanese opposition.

And last but not least, there was the R90S’ appearance. In a deliberate attempt to put the black and dour images behind them, BMW produced their new flagship in a range of stunning air-brushed colors ranging from burnt orange to a magnificent air burst grey.

The impact of the styling was immediate and dramatic. Suddenly, for the wealthy, the R90S became the bike to have. Film stars, Chief Executives and Wall Street Bankers became BMW owners, and in doing so opened up a whole new market for the Bavarian bikes.

To snag a R90S in today’s vintage market, you can expect to pay about as much as you would for one of BMW’s brand new machines.

Yet the really clever thing was that hardcore BMW enthusiasts still stayed with the factory because of the bike’s mechanical prowess: truly, the hardest thing for any company to pull off.

Today, a R90S is one of the great aspirational motorcycles in the classic bike world – and the price reflects the bike’s status. Expect to pay anything up to $18,000 for a fine example.

Our thanks to Keith Campbell at Hourglass Racing for the loan of his personal R90S for this article. You can contact Keith at and he is always pleased to chat about his bikes.

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