Photos: BMW Motorrad
Success was anything but guaranteed when BMW launched its first mega-enduro, the R80G/S, to the global press in Avignon, France, on September 1, 1980. Assembled journalists greeted the ungainly machine with open skepticism. It was unlike anything they had ever seen before—essentially a touring bike perched on tall, off-road suspension—and its all-around aptitude wasn’t immediately evident. What was the point of this overgrown creature that looked too big to venture off-road and too compromised to work well on pavement?
Skepticism turned to admiration immediately after that first ride. Journalists soon discovered just what a great bike the G/S (for Gelände/Straße or “off-road/road”) was in either environment. That year Motorrad, Germany’s largest motorcycle magazine, paradoxically proclaimed the R80G/S “the best roadbike BMW has made yet,” and its off-road credentials were stamped the next year when Hubert Auriol used one to win the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally. Auriol and Gaston Rahier rode the R80G/S to victory in this event four times between 1981–’85, with two wins each.
But the ultimate endorsement came from buyers themselves, who immediately began spreading the G/S gospel to all ends of the earth. The most famous of these was Helge Pedersen, who left his home in Kristiansand, Norway, in 1982 aboard “Olga,” his 1982 R80G/S, and didn’t return until he had covered 250,000 miles through 77 countries. Adventure touring was officially born.
BMW sold 21,864 examples of the first-generation G/S before it was superseded by the 1,000cc, Paralever-equipped R100GS (the slash-mark was cut from the model designation at the same time) in 1987. The GS platform received its first comprehensive overhaul in 1994 when the R1100GS was released, with a more-modern Oilhead motor replacing the venerable Airhead boxer twin and the Telelever front suspension replacing the conventional telescopic fork. This was also the generation that introduced the prominent upper-fender “beak,” the floating rear fender, and exposed front and rear subframes that all looked so radical at the time but have since come to define the look of modern ADV bikes.
Apart from the Monolever rear suspension, the first R80G/S didn’t offer any technical breakthroughs. It was just a novel combination of existing components that created a completely new type of motorcycle.
The GS platform has continued to evolve up to the present, and the family has expanded to include a 650cc, single-cylinder GS launched in 1993 and an 800cc, parallel-twin iteration that appeared in 2007, along with more off road-oriented Adventure models of all of these models. Last year marked the introduction of the fifth-generation, now called the R1200GS, which was the first bike to carry the new liquid-cooled boxer-twin—the first in BMW Motorrad’s 90-year history. The GS remains the adventure bike of choice, and the bike that actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman chose for both their Long Way Round and Long Way Down documentary films.
What seemed like such a wild card when it first appeared, the nichiest of niche bikes, has now more than 30 years later become BMW’s best-selling motorcycle model—consistently moving more than 30,000 units per year—and a pillar of the German maker’s two-wheeled lineup. Not a bad run for what was basically an engineer’s whim—and this success shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.