Most people are familiar with the iconic blue and white checker logo of BMW, or Bavarian Motor Works, at least when it comes to four-wheeled iterations. After all, it was founded exactly a century ago and remains one of the world’s best-selling luxury automobiles. On two-wheels, BMW aficionados see no distinction, and BMW Motorrad is one of the world’s best-known luxury motorcycle manufacturers, producing some of the most high-tech motorcycles in the world.
Each BMW motorcycle is so well-adapted to its task, whether it be touring, cruising, or adventuring, that one would think that it was born for it. Indeed, such results are only possible because of the spirit of innovation that has driven BMW Motorrad since the beginning, some 90 years ago. BMW was already in the automobile business, simply adapting its engineering experience from building aviation and boat engines.
A 90-Degree Turn
1917 – New BMW engineer Max Friz was designing the company’s first motorcycle, which was unlike anything else at the time: the longitudinally-mounted boxer engine – a 90-degree turn from the standard of the day. Instead of being driven by a chain from the gearbox, the boxer engine would include a gearbox and driveshaft arrangement. By 1920, the first flat-twin boxer engine had been built, and it was eventually installed in the BMW R 32, which became the foundation for all BMW motorcycles. Interestingly, BMW Motorrad’s first chain-drive model would not appear for nearly 80 years, with the release of the 1994 BMW F650.
1935 – For more comfort and control, BMW developed hydraulically-damped telescoping forks for the front suspension. The BMW R 12 and BMW R 17 were the first motorcycles in production to feature the new suspension.
After World War II, much of Germany was in shambles, thanks to Allied bombing runs destroying much of BMW manufacturing facilities. New rulings forbade BMW from producing motorcycles, which were intrinsically linked with Axis war efforts during WWII. Eventually, BMW was given permission to start building motorcycles again, but they had to start all over – no drawings, no blueprints, no machinery – by copying some of the surviving pre-WWII motorcycles.
1948 – Reverse-engineered from a pre-WWII BMW R 23, the BMW R 24 was eventually produced – specifications and blueprints were inaccessible in West Germany at the time. In spite of it having no rear suspension, the R 24 was exceptionally popular, selling nearly 20,000 units by 1950. In East Germany, under Soviet control at the time, “BMW” continued production at the Eisenach facility, but not under authority from West German BMW. Following a trademark lawsuit, the Eisenach facility changed its name to EMW and eventually faded into obscurity.
1955 – BMW itself nearly suffered the same fate when the motorcycle market dropped out in the 1950s. BMW responded by introducing a new range of motorcycles featuring a new Earles front fork, which handled a bit differently – no brake “dive” – but were much stronger.
Moving Ever Onward
BMW Motorrad’s history now stretches 90 years, decades full of motorcycle innovation. Today, BMW produces some of the most high-tech motorcycles in the world, the most reliable and capable ever built, and it’s all thanks to a 90-degree turn in 1917.