Memorable MC ’81 Paris-Dakar BMW

September 14, 2007
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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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.

Bernard Neimer  Hubert Auriol and Jean Claude Fenouil with the three BMW Dakar to Paris bikes  the only three of its kind.
Bernard Neimer, Hubert Auriol and Jean Claude Fenouil pose with the three original BMW works bikes entered in the Paris to Dakar race by BMW France.

When I rode the factory Paris-Dakar Desert racer I was very much on BMW’s Christmas card list, since very few journalists got to ride the works bikes. This was not surprising because there were only three built for the 1981 season. The bike I rode was well and truly trashed – as in terminally dead. It had been hammered round Africa for three weeks and when I got it the poor thing was on its last legs. Even so, I could tell that the bike must have been a formidable tool when it was fresh. It was also a great credit to the factory because the bike clearly had some bloodline linked to the GS80 road bikes, where many of the works entries in the Dakar had no connection whatsoever with the road bikes from which they were allegedly derived.

The record books show that the Munich flat twins were phenomenally successful in the hands of Hubert Auriol, Gaston Rahier and J.C. Morellet – better known as “Fenouil”. The factory had two pops at winning the Dakar in 1979 and 1980 before taking home the silverware in 1981 with Hubert Auriol in the saddle.

I’m not sure whether the bike I rode was Auriol’s machine, as the factory claimed, but it was certainly one of three works bikes entered by BMW France.

The BMW race team were nice people – keen, enthusiastic motorcyclists and a million miles away from the slick suits and watchful eyes which dominated the marketing and PR departments. I enjoyed riding the bike and look back on it with very fond memories and a sense of real privilege that I was able to have a day’s play with it.

Frank does his best Auriol impersonation.
Ah, those were the days. Our Memorable Motorcycle man Melling gets air time on a BMW works bike he heard was ridden by Auriol in the Paris to Dakar race.

Here are my memories from 26 years ago of what was a truly Memorable Motorcycle. Rather than trying to re-write history, and being smart after the event, I have left the story just as was originally written – warts and all. There’s just one point of historical interest which needs clarifying. Throughout the story I refer to the ISDT – the International Six Days Trial. At the time, it was still a big deal to actually finish the event and so it still harked back to its original reliability trial antecedents.

The second thing which might seem odd are the references to BMW’s wins in the 1979 and 1980 ISDT events. At the time, the ISDT was organized according to capacity bands and the 500cc plus was, de facto, restricted to big, heavy four-strokes. It was this segregation of the bikes which allowed BMW to do so well.

Finally, 26 years ago BMW Motorrad was a much, much smaller factory than it is today and had only a tiny range of motorcycles.

I hope that these footnotes help you to put the rest of the story into context.

Finally, I would like to add one personal comment. It is the first time I have looked at these pictures for many years and they remind me that any bike journalist who tells you that he has a hard or stressful job is being, at best, rather silly.

There I was – a fit young man who could ride a bit given a works bike, a rather mad factory mechanic, five gallons of fuel and a van full of beer and sausage sandwiches for the day. And got paid! Thank you God.

Paris Dakar Works BMW

BMW was aware early in the game that winning races sells bikes. It built the works bikes to boost the launch of its R80GS.
BMW was aware early in the game that winning races sells bikes. It built the works bikes and tested the motorcycle’s mettle at the European enduro championships to boost the launch of its R80GS.

The problem which faces BMW is one which must occur regularly in the boardrooms of the smaller motorcycle companies. In the simplest terms, the question is, “How do we go racing and yet still keep costs at a tolerable level?”

Racing has many advantages. To the marketing people, it can be a very effective aid to sales, whilst it provides a spur to the development staff which can only benefit the production machines. However, since most forms of racing require astronomical budgets, both these advantages are outweighed by the sheer costs involved, particularly when it is very easy to spend a lot of money and still not win anything. BMW’s answer to this conundrum has been to enter the world’s major off-road endurance races.

The factory has always had a semi-official interest in ISDT racing, but as a boost to the launch of the R80GS, a full works team was fielded that earned its keep by dominating the unlimited class of the 1979 ISDT and the European Enduro Championships. Even as it did so, the writing was on the wall for the big BMWs. As ISDT events become increasingly closer to motocross events, the BMWs stand at a disadvantage, particularly since the big-bore, two-stroke opposition is becoming more manageable and more competitive every year.

Accordingly, the factory has turned to races in which utter reliability is of paramount importance. If these events require bikes which are at least superficially similar to production machines, then so much the better.

Thus, January 1, 1981, saw three factory BMWs line up for the start of the 10,000 km race from Paris to Dakar. All three bikes were surprisingly near to the standard R80GS trail bikes because, above all else, the Paris-Dakar rally is a bike-breaker and no place for a lightweight ISDT machine.

The giant 9-gallon tank kept Auriol riding while other racers were searching for gas.
A monster-sized tank on the BMW works bike held nine gallons of fuel and helped push the weight of the desert racer to almost 400 lbs.

The difference in intent is reflected in the weights of the bikes. The 870cc ISDT machine weighed only 307 lbs ready to race, whilst the 800cc Paris-Dakar bike is 330 lbs dry. With the addition of tools, spare parts and 45 liters of petrol carried in a huge steel tank, winner Hubert Auriol was faced with a racing motorcycle weighing a little under 400 lbs – a formidable beast by any standards. 

Auriol was educated in Ethiopia and gained that intangible insight into African conditions which is essential to do well in this marathon event. His nickname in the BMW team was “The African.” It was his vast local knowledge that BMW incorporated in the very special R80GS, which I rode at BMWs Munich test track.

Beneath the huge 45-liter petrol tank is an almost standard R80GS frame. The swinging arm mounts are different, since the Paris-Dakar bike employs the twin swinging arm from the ISDT bikes. This is needed, since when the bikes were built BMW had still not solved the problem of mounting a 5-inch section tire in a single arm system.

Because the event is so arduous, the motor remains almost standard R80. The 870cc Six Days motor is noticeably more rapid and although this unit is bulletproof in six days of competition, the Paris-Dakar event is so tough that the big motor could not stand the pace.

The main modifications to the engine lay in the cylinder heads, which are borrowed from the R65 because of the quality of the smaller motor’s combustion chambers. The R65 valve stems are beefed up by 1mm, again to ensure bulletproof reliability.

Auriol s nickname  The African  was derived from his upbringing in Ethiopia.
Hubert Auriol had an inside line on the demands and perils of desert racing across the African landscape thanks to being educated in Ethiopia during his youth.

To reduce the amount of spare parts carried on the bike, the rocker box is split into two parts so that half of either box can be changed quickly in the event of damage or a crash.

The gearbox and clutch are basically standard but the internal ratios come from the ISDT bike, whilst the overall ratios are changed depending on the type of going during the event. The ignition system comes straight from the 1981 BMW range and has proved to be absolutely faultless.

Maico forks, complete with BMW R80 disc brakes, are employed at the front of the bike, whilst a Bilstein damper with external reservoir looks after the rear. This damper proved to be rather puny for African racing and Auriol bent a number during the course of the race.

There were also some very special touches that mark out the bike as a true endurance racer. The 45-liter tank (over 9 gallons) is the most obvious and the reason for this huge capacity is so that the riders could race all day without refueling. Hand pumped petrol was available at bowsers located throughout the desert, but less fortunate riders had to queue for supplies, whilst Auriol and his BMW teammate pressed on.

The saddle and suspension were solid! When I queried this firmness, it was explained that Auriol just simply never shut off once he was really motoring and if he came to a pot hole or a dried up river bed, he carried on regardless and crash landed on the other side. Hence the need for rock-solid suspension and a saddle which would not bottom out and send shock waves to the frame, no matter how hard the rider hits it.

Auriol was a punishing rider so BMW had to set the suspension as stiff as possible to accomodate his style.
The suspension on the bike barely budged for Melling. Auriol rode so hard, BMW had to equip it with rock-solid suspension and a saddle that wouldn’t bottom out when he went bombing through the desert.

When one considers all these diverse elements, it becomes clear as to why the BMWs are so well suited to this sort of racing. Their very low center of gravity makes the huge petrol tank at least manageable, if not comfortable, and the flat topped crankcase of the boxer engine even provides a large area on which the copious, and essential spares kit can be carried.

After riding the factory ISDT bike last year, I did not feel that the Paris-Dakar bike could hold any terrors for me. After all, it was slower and the extra 50 lbs could not make much difference. How wrong you can be!

The first problem was in getting on the bike. The saddle height was about 38 inches and with virtually no suspension sag. I was left with my toes waving in the air a couple of inches from terra firma. For the first time since I was ten, I had to have someone to hold a bike whilst I clambered aboard!

The saddle height posed great psychological problems. It was a truly unnerving experience to feel the great mass of the BMW fall into a corner knowing that if anything happened there was no way I could take a steadying prod. Everything felt very badly out of place purely because I lacked confidence in the bike.

After a couple of hours we were getting nowhere at all and I became so frustrated with the great lump that I began just bulldozing it along the fast gravel tracks which comprise BMW’s test area.

The transformation was miraculous. Treated with firmness and driven hard, the big BMW became as mild mannered and trustworthy as its ISDT brother. Obviously it was unwieldy at low speeds, but once on the fast tracks – the sort of going for which it was designed – it was as smooth and stable as a magic carpet.

Unlike most of the other motorcycles in the race  the BMW works bike resembled its bloodline  the R80GS road bikes.
Unlike most of the other motorcycles in the race, the BMW works bike resembled its bloodline, the R80GS road bikes, where many of the other entries in the Dakar race had no connection whatsoever with the factory motos from which they were allegedly derived.

The 800cc motor was noticeably tired, but even so, it pulled from zero revs right up to its peak at 7,000 rpm. All the time the power was creamy smooth and quite effortless. Just the sort of characteristics that would help a rider make light work of a 10,000 km race.

Because of the hardness of the springing, the Maico forks left something to be desired, but the disc brakes worked very well, as did the traditional rear sls drum. Overall, the handling – taking the weight of the massive tank into consideration – was excellent and a great vindication of the basic R80 frame geometry.

There is no doubt that the Paris-Dakar bike is an incredibly complete package and all the more remarkable because so much of the standard R80GS is used in it.

The motorcycle was a true warrior in its time.

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