BMW R1200C Motorcycle: Boxer Rebellion

You CAN dance to it, but is it rock n' roll? (Our first ride on BMW then-radical R1200 Cruiser, from the October 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser)

It was the first close-up look the press had of BMW's initial entry into cruiserdom. The folks from BMW were trying to explain to an American audience about the origins of their new cruiser. The concept, they said, was "born in America." To illustrate how such a staid company could create a bike intended to flaunt a different sort of attitude--and more of it--than any BMW in the company's 75-year history, BMW used the analogy of a typical American TV family of the 1950s. The screen flashed with a black-and-white image of a Donna Reed type of household---middle-class Anglo-Saxon man and wife with son and daughter. The father always wore a tie, they pointed out. His spouse and daughter always wore dresses. The daughter dated a nice young man that her parents hoped she might marry. He too, always wore a tie. "But," said the BMW spokesman, "the daughter was dreaming about someone else." Two new and different black-and-white images appeared on the screen. "Like James Dean or Marlon Brando."

"Or Elvis," shouted a member of the audience.

Which neatly frames the major question about BMW's first foray in the cruiser market: Can a flat twin engineered and designed in Germany, albeit by an American designer, rock n' roll in America?

The answer is intensely personal. BMW's new R1200C is apparently the kind of motorcycle you either love or loathe. Its approach to the genre is so singular that some question whether it should really be considered a cruiser. Using a flat twin sets it outside the cruiser mainstream, but BMW has never been a company to succumb to convention. And, if you think of cruisers as traditionally styled machines, then there could be no other choice for a BMW cruiser than the boxer engine. As one BMW exec phrased it, "We are a boxer company." The smooth horizontally opposed twins have powered BMW forever or close enough to it for our purposes. Triples and fours are a relatively recent flirtation. The boxer engine brings the heart and soul of BMW to the party.

And why would BMW build a cruiser? After all, BMWs have always been deliberate, rational motorcycles---or at least as rational as a motorcycle can be. Comfort, reliability, quiet, safety and quality are BMW hallmarks. It seems out of character for the Germans to join the fray in a category where bad-ass attitude, appearance and exhaust note make or break a motorcycle.

BMW answers on several levels. From a marketing standpoint, they couldn't ignore the popularity of cruisers worldwide. One in every three motorcycles sold is a cruiser, and BMW, which has enjoyed steady sales growth during the past decade, would like to compete in the most popular market segment. BMW also recognizes that cruisers make increasing sense in an ever-more-crowded world with denser traffic, where high speeds are less an issue than comfort, and that cruisers appeal to a certain segment of the affluent customer base that the marque has always catered to. Finally, the 1200C reflects a changing attitude at BMW. "We wanted to build a more emotional motorcycle." In other words, the company no longer wants to be regarded as the guy wearing the tie.

Obviously, the German motorcycle maker took its own approach when building what the lead designer called "the BMW of cruisers." "We didn't want to build a me-too product," explained another spokesman. No danger of that. From its Telelever front suspension to its anti-lock rear brake, the 1200C is unique among cruisers. BMW saw six defining requirements for a cruiser: V powerplant, low saddle height, feet-forward ergonomics, high-rise handlebar, a minimum of bodywork obscuring the structure and mechanics of the machine and ease of customizing. Obviously, the R1200C didn't hit all these targets, unless you consider the boxer engine a 180-degree V-twin. And while its 29.1-inch saddle height is low by BMW standards, it's on the high end of the range for cruisers. Much the same is true of the riding position. Though the handlebar is fairly high, the cylinders make it impossible to put the footpegs as far forward as most cruisers.

No question that BMW minimized the bodywork, however. More of the frame's structure is on display than with any other BMW. Though the engine is actually the primary chassis structural member, you see more of the rest of the bike's skeleton than you do on most other cruisers, a fact which some found pleasing but some mainstream cruiser fans regarded as ugly. Combined with the single-arm Monolever swingarm rear suspension and the fully exposed Telelever front suspension with its separate spring/damper unit, this gives the bike a stark, elemental look unlike any other machine on the road. But not everyone likes the looks and lines of the suspension components.

The unique suspension does much more than set the visual style of the 1200C. Well controlled and reasonably compliant, the suspension gives the BMW a better ride than most cruisers (though not as good as that of some other Beemers). A day spent riding the bike in southern Arizona revealed responsive, predictable handling and low-effort steering with better cornering clearance than most other cruisers, despite the jutting cylinders.

Braking should also be a revelation to dedicated cruiser riders. Not only is there excellent power, but you can get the anti-lock feature included on the 1200C we rode. By releasing pressure for an instant as the wheel decelerates toward lock-up, the ABS can keep you from crashing in a panic stop. In an emergency, providing the bike is generally upright, you can simply slam on the brakes with all the force you can find. The problem may simply be holding on in the face of all that braking force.

With the high, wide, pullback handlebar, a smallish saddle and a slight vibration, we were ready for a break after an hour in the 100-degree temperatures baking the Tucson area on the day of our ride. A larger saddle is available, and we'd think about fitting it for long trips, even though that would mean giving up one of the bike's cool little touches. The passenger seat pad hinges up to act as an adjustable backrest for the rider. Though it's a bit small for a seat, it's a great backrest, and it reduces the effort you need to hold yourself against the wind, which is considerable with the standard handlebar.

BMW increased bore and stroke, but knocked back valve sizes in the opposed twin to make the 1200C engine. The result is more bottom end, but a third less peak power than the 1100. The engine is plenty torquey and we can't say we ever felt like it should have a lot more power anywhere. Fuel injection provides seamless throttle response too.

Just the curbside conversations make BMW's cruiser interesting. Everyone wants to talk about it and offer their thoughts. Completely original, it will annoy the narrow-minded and expand the definition of a cruiser.

Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Photography by Dean Groover.
Among the styling points that cruiser traditionalists will have trouble coming to grips with is the absence of any rear-suspension components on the left side. The design permits more flexibility in geometry than a conventional two-shock system and gives the rear of the bike a very open appearance.
BMW has come up with a number of clever style details for the 1200C, like a large metal head on the key (which recalls BMW keys of yore) and an accessory watch with a face styled like the speedometer. The odometer and tripmeter were kind of hard to read, but you won't mistake the instrument panel for anything else.
No, it's not a Harley clone, a fact sure to distress some traditionalists and inspire those looking for something fresh to rush to their BMW dealer. The pivot arms for the front suspension are among the most controversial pieces from an aesthetic standpoint, but they are an essential component of the most effective front suspension on any cruiser.