The history of BMW motorcycles dates back to the year 1921 when the firm started making engines for other firms. BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) launched its first motorcycle namely the R32, in 1923. Currently, the firm’s motorcycle manufacturing is under the brand name BMW Motorrad.
In the year 1916, two firms, Flugzenmaschinenfabrik (an Airplane Factory) belonging to Gustav Otto, and Flugwerke Deutschland belonging to Karl Rapp, joined to form the company Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. Initially, it made airplane engines and was later renamed Bayerische Motoren Werke or Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), by Max Friz and Karl Rapp in the year 1917. Their logo comprising a roundel, portraying an airplane propeller in a blue sky, has remained popular and is also seen on BMW cars today.
The German air force funded BMW to manufacture the Fokker DV II, which was among the best aircraft of the day. However, at the end of the First World War, in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and Germany was forbidden from making airplanes. Reluctantly, the company’s head designer Max Friz turned to make automobile and motorcycle engines, to keep the company afloat. Most importantly, he designed the horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine, which is better known as the “boxer” engine today. The M2B15, its first boxer engine, used the British Douglas design, which gave BMW moderate success. A more successful version emerged shortly afterward, using a light alloy cylinder head.
In 1923, the R32, the earliest BMW motorcycle was manufactured. With cylinder heads made of aluminum alloy, the engine had a re-circulating wet-sump oiling system, a very advanced feature for the time. This system was used by BMW until 1969, and the R32 became the basis for future boxer-powered motorcycles. It also had a shaft drive, which was retained till the F650 was introduced in 1994 – only the F650 series does not have shaft drive.
In the year 1935, BMW launched the first motorcycle using telescopic forks. In 1937, Ernst Hene set a world record, which stood for fourteen years, riding a supercharged 500cc OHC BMW at 173.88MPH. Ernst sadly passed away in 2005, at the age of a hundred.
BMW was in ruins by the close of the Second World War. Germany’s surrender forbade the company from making further motorcycles, and its top engineers were taken to Russia and the US for continuing their work in making jet engines that were produced by BMW, during the war. After the ban was lifted, it had to begin from scratch, and engineers used pre-war motorcycles as the basis of their designs. In 1948, the first post-war motorcycle was made by BMW, and production exceeded 17,000 units by 1950.
The R68, BMW’s first sporting motorcycle was launched in 1951, and by 1954 it was making 30,000 motorcycles. In 1957, it lessened to 5,500 or less, and it exported eighty-five percent of its twin-powered boxer motorcycles towards the late 1950s, to United States. From 1960 to 1984, BMW was in financial trouble, though it periodically launched single-cylinder models, offering the last of the series namely, R27 in 1960. During this period, however, a range of high-capacity boxer twins was produced including a model that many consider being one of the great modern classics — the R90S.
In 1983, BMW launched a 1000cc, water-cooled, four-cylinder engine, the K100 in Europe, which was introduced to the United States in the following year. However, demand for its boxer never waned, and hence it continued making boxer models. In 1985, it introduced a three-cylinder 750cc version of the four-cylindered one, which was smoother. In 1987, R100RT, the boxer-powered sportbike was launched again, with mono-lever rear suspension. In 1989, the K1, a sportbike based on K100 was introduced. ABS was introduced in 1988 and became the standard on all K models of BMW motorcycles. The F650 was introduced in 1994.