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R80GS - King of the Wild Frontier

2011-09-04 19:56


FIRST OF A KIND: BMW opened up a whole new motorcycle scene with their mud-plugging R80GS back in the early 1980's.

Goodness me, I must be slipping, I haven’t been to my local pub for a pint for about a fortnight now. No, I haven’t gone teetotal, it’s just that every time I go to get the bike out it won’t start and I’m too mean to replace the battery until the weather warms up.

September 1 came and went earlier this week and the records tell us it is the first day of spring - it was as good a reason as any to call in at  my local and celebrate! An old pal, Mike, was eager to talk to me.


“I’m looking for one of those early trail bikes that BMW brought out in the early 1980's; were they any good?” he asked. It just so happens that I’m rather keen on early BMW bikes and well remember the R80GS (Geländestrasse/country and street) machine, when it was launched in Europe in 1980.

Previously known for the manufacture of "conservative-looking" bikes, BMW found instant fame at the 1979 ISDT while French rider Hubert Auriol managed to tame the infamous Paris-Dakar event around that time on at least two occasions on one of the radical-looking, special, factory-built R80GS bikes.

To be honest, the standard machine wasn’t that great a performer on dirt - it was simply too darn heavy. Where it did win friends was by creating a whole new motorcycle sector and suited the weekend rider who wanted to explore the great outdoors - but in a very civilised way.

The R80GS offered an upright riding position, wider-than-normal bars for even better control, long-travel suspension to soak up corrugated gravel roads and a tractable, 797cc, four-stroke, horizontal-twin engine - air-cooled, of course.

Oh boy, was it radical for its time. It was the first Beemer to offer a single-sided swing arm - the rear wheel was a cinch to remove: just three nuts held it on. It stood out in a crowd, too, with its orange saddle and triple-coloured fuel tank.


I assured Mike that servicing would be straightforward and running costs wouldn’t break the bank even though the bike had quite large, twin Bing carbs.

“Rather put a set of mild knobblies on the bike when you find the bike of your dreams. I’ll wager that most of the time you’ll stay on the black stuff anyway because off-road, steep banks and mud do not sit well with that chunky motor!”

Any further advice I could offer centred on the after-market fitting of a larger-than-standard glass-fibre fuel tank: tough as nails one minute and for no apparent reason they’d fracture the next. If memory serves me righ, those ’glass tanks were banned in the UK but may well have made their way on to the South African market where our greater distances may well account for their popularity.


I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, even after 30 years of hitting the market, the R80GS could work really well in South African cities, given their oft-hectic traffic patterns.

“Any alternatives you can think of?" was Mike’s final comment. “Nope, most bikes of that ilk around that time would have been single-cylinder machines,” I replied. “Twin cylinders make the most sense.”

Strange, but I’ve a funny feeling that as soon as we got home that day we’d both be checking out the "used motorcycle" columns in the papers and in cyberspace for an R80GS- BMW bikes do that to you!

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