When the BMW R 1100 GS made its first appearance in Australia way back in 1994, it was met with a pretty universal frown, based almost entirely on its weird looks.
While we have become used to bikes with radical bodywork and futuristic stances, back then there was little that broke the mold quite like the ‘ugly duckling’ GS. Pretty it wasn’t.
It also had to invent a category for itself. Or so we thought here in Oz. At a time when ‘adventure touring’ was in its infancy, here was a bike that laid claim to being as capable off road as it was on road.
For a market that was used to the division between dirt bikes and road going hardware being clearly defined, the idea was a little far-fetched. In fact, it was considered almost impossible.
With these sorts of buyer-perception barriers with which to contend, it’s a wonder the 1100 GS garnered much more than curiosity.
It was pretty damned hard on the eye, was aimed at a market that only just existed and did it all with a wet weight of 243kg. Off roader? You have to be kidding.
In fact, BMW had got its timing absolutely correct. In the usual methodical BMW manner, the whole idea of a bike reflecting dualsport capability was highly researched and planned.
It might have seemed like the GS was answering a question that no-one was asking, but that was far from the truth. The time was indeed right for the GS.
BMW suggests that the concept was to create a bike with all-terrain capability, combined with high performance and on-road ride comfort. It studied markets that had shown an interest in long-haul motorcycling that took in off-road running.
This revealed that two per cent of kilometres ridden were across really difficult terrain; and 98 per cent were on normal roads, unsurfaced tracks or narrow paths.
The idea of a comfortable, large-capacity dualsport was born. Its concept was reflected in the GS model designation – G for Gelände (terrain) and S for Strasse (road) and by the end of 1994, the production line at BMW’s Spandau plant had despatched 9500 units.
By the time the bike was replaced by the R 1150 GS in 1999, 39,842 R 1100 GS units had trundled off the line. The success story had begun.
The 1100 GS got the all-new 1085cc fuel injected four-valve Boxer ‘oilhead’ powerplant, which was good for 58.4kW at 6750rpm and 97.00Nm at 5250rpm.
The bike also featured the all-new paralever/telelever suspension arrangement, offering a wishbone and spring arrangement up front, and a centrally-slung, preload adjustable shock and single-sided swingarm/shaft drive set-up.
The telelever eliminated fork-dive under hard braking and it won instant accolades for its performance.
The gearbox offered five-speeds, the seat height was 840mm (adjustable to 860mm), tank capacity a handy 25 litres and the frame was a steel trellis arrangement.
Neat spoked wheels that could use tubeless tyres were a clever feature, but the spokes need to be checked regularly if the bike is used on rough terrain. They have been known to loosen, putting pressure on the corresponding spoke.
It all added up to a lot of bike, but the 1100 version had its problems over its six year model life. For starters, the gearbox was like a bag of spanners. Clunky, slow to change and pretty annoying. If you’d got off a Japanese bike and on to a GS, well you’d reckon there was something wrong.
The ABS system was switchable and there is an audible clunk on takeoff as this self-tests. If the battery is low on charge, this can be enough to stop the ABS being able to perform the self-test, which renders the bike without ABS.
Into the bargain, the lights that deal with the ABS testing procedure are downright confusing and many owners bemoaned the whole deal. It wasn’t that the ABS wasn’t any good, more that the rider was left unsure of ABS status.
A big problem that beset some hard-used early 1100s was broken tranny cases. The bottom of the rear subframe is bolted to the transmission case on the left and right sides.
There’s a threaded hole that receives a bolt through the subframe tube, and the load is carried only on one side of the frame tube. This applies torque to the mounting point, and under heavy load or repeated stress, the mounting point cracks and has been known to break the transmission case.
Also, the 1994 version was recalled for loose suspension pivots and bolts.
The R 1150 GS came along in 1999, with most of the aforementioned niggles addressed. Capacity was increased to 1130cc, power was 62kW at 6750rpm and torque 98Nm at 5750rpm.
There was a new hydraulic clutch, and, importantly, reinforced frame mounts and a stronger transmission housing around the six-speed box (sixth was overdrive). Wet weight was 249kg.
Asymmetrical headlights changed the look of the bike as did the adjustable windscreen and nifty upper and lower guards. The dash was all new as well.
Tank capacity was lowered to 22 litres, which many saw as a retrograde step. Standard was a centrestand, hard luggage racks, heated grips and 12 volt outlet.
Issues included the fact that the fuel filler cap could allow rain to enter the tank and the O-ring inside the oil filler cap could break causing oil leakage from the seal.
The 2003 model was recalled for a new rear brake hose after it was discovered that it could be prone to rupture.
In 2002 BMW released the R 1150 GS Adventure. Biased towards the off road market segment, the bike gained 20mm of suspension travel (210mm at the front and 220mm at the rear). A Showa preload adjustable shock graced the rear and the EVO brakes were fitted at the front. Optional was integral ABS.
The windscreen and front mudguard were lengthened and widened, bark busters were offered standard and customers could opt for a 30-litre tank.
Stowage space was provided by a set of aluminium cases specially designed for the Adventure – the two side cases and a top box provided 105 litres of space.
There was a ‘cylinder protection bracket’, protective grille for the headlight, and a fog lamp also fitted with a protective grille.
Both the 1100 and the 1150 can be had at pretty reasonable prices. Many owners report racking up big mileages, but look for a good service history.
BMW servicing is best done by a franchised operator (lots of specialist tools and diagnostic equipment is required). If there is no supporting documentation on a high-mileage example, we’d advise against it.
Finish is generally good, as you’d expect for a BMW and there is a wide range of factory add-ons, including classy hard luggage, heated grips and satellite navigation.
In 2000, Cycle World Magazine awarded the R1150GS “Best Sport Touring Bike”. In 2005, the R1150GS Adventure was awarded “Best Traillie” by British publication RiDE Magazine, while the standard model came third. That’s enough to let you know the sort of esteem that the 1150 is held in on a global basis.
The GS does what it says on the tin. Both versions can be hussled along on sealed surfaces at a pretty good clip and they will handle some rough stuff as well.
Don’t think you are buying a big traillie however. If you are looking to head into the rough stuff, we’d recommend a TransAlp or Tenere way before a GS. It comes down to likely useage.
That the GS range has gone on to be one of motorcycling’s most accomplished model designations, with heady worldwide sales figures that consistently see it the leading seller in the BMW range – pretty much due those claims of versatility being mostly true – is remarkable.
The pick is the 1150, simply based around the transmission cracking issue and the fact that they 1100 is getting a little long in the tooth. Get it right and you are in for a whole bunch of useable motorcycle. Lower kays, good service records are the key to as wise purchase here.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 29 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.