Saturday, 12 December 2009

Airheads, engineering and "Character"

From out of the blue, an unexpected post!

Due to a combination of circumstances starting with a friend unexpectedly purchasing two new bikes, fed by my curiosity and ultimately allowed by an unexpected and hugely appreciated financial windfall, I have upgraded from my old 1994 Yamaha XJ600S Seca II, a wonderful little cheap bike and a perfect first bike, to a 1985 BMW K100RS, a cross-continent style high-speed tourer.

A key component in this decision was BMW's standard of engineering - seeing the condition that 25-year-old Ks are in, compared to my 15-year-old XJ, helped explain how the extra purchase price for a new Beemer gets justified.

And that helped lead to this current train of thought.

Wherever humans are bought together by machines, they will start to anthropomorphise, and words like "character" and "personality" will start to crop up. In the world of motorcycling, there are standards to go by: Italian bikes have character, Japanese bikes don't have much, and Hondas don't have any .

BMWs are not known for their "character". Yet Hermann, the K100RS, has several aspects that I regard as forming a personality - the quirkiness of the design, with the engine laid horizontal, for a start.

Then there is the vibration in the middle of the rev range, and the way that he is so eager to dive into corners despite his substantial ~250kg bulk, and then stay leaned over, stable and with only the lightest of touches needed to make adjustments, through as long as the sweeper lasts.

Then there is the way that the tank gets really hot, and on a stinking hot day will start to affect the performance of the fuel pump. Or the way that extra heat comes up between the edge of the tank and the edge of the seat.

Which brings me to my next point: "Character" is too often synonymous with "poor engineering".

Hermann is the best-designed vehicle I have ever owned. There are touches of brilliance that I'm still finding. As a safety feature, the clutch can not be pulled in while the side-stand is down, but if there is no weight on the side-stand, the clutch lever will retract it. The indicator switches, infamously unique to BMW, are actually easier to operate in really thick gloves than the all-in-one single switch on every other bike. Everything that needs regular or emergency access is incredibly easy to get to. The fairing is even more effective than it looks, and it looks effective. The mirrors are positioned so that your hands are in the slip-stream.

I could go on.

The point, however, is that there are very few instances where they got it wrong. You can argue with their choices, and say that they didn't make it sporty enough, or attractive enough (the answer to which is "Well, don't buy one then"), but most of the issues I have are only an issue in unpleasantly hot climates like a Queensland winter and do, in fact, make it an unbelievably good bike for cold climates such as, to take one at completely non-random, Bavaria in the middle of winter.

As a result of all this excellently well done engineering, BMWs are accused of being characterless, or having no passion about them.

This is what one friend of ours, who owns old Jaguars and a six-cylinder Kawasaki Z1300 in fantastic condition, said:

"I bought one of those when they came out, but sold it and kept the Z. They've just got no character."

Okay, so why not? He continued, without prompting:

"They just do everything well. It doesn't take any skill to ride one fast. The Z you have to work at. The brakes are woeful, for example."

Okay, so poor brakes give "character" and competence is "boring"? Does anybody else see a problem with that?

Now, I am quite familiar with the idea that a vehicle can be competent to the point of boredom, but I have issues with equating actual flaws with "character".

To me, Italian bikes have character because their styling is inspired or entertainingly quirky, their handling is praised by all who ride them, and they know things about exhaust notes which the Japanese are slowly learning. The fact that Italian bikes are traditionally built with variable quality, unreliable electrics and temperamental great engines is also part of their reputation, but I have issues with people saying "character" in an approving manner when they mean "flawed".

Which brings me to airhead BMWs. For the uninitiated, that means the R-series of horizontally opposed twins, cooled by air alone, that they built from the R32 in 1923, their first motorbike, until a new design of R-series twin with oil cooling was introduced in 1993.

Here's the thing: They look old. They not only look as though the engine dates from 1923, but as though the styling does as well. And that engine, which has a huge ships-prow crankcase housing, dominates.

But I can't stop looking at them and wondering what they'd be like to ride. They're quirky, which is a word I usually try and avoid using. And despite the fact that it can take a keen and experienced eye to tell them apart, there was very real progress made, with the R75 reputedly one of the fastest bikes in the world when it was new, and the R90S just plain magnificent.

I think they're one of the most interesting bike designs of the era, up there with the similarly weird cylinders-out-the-side Motto Guzzis, and I can see myself, in some so far unlikely cash-flush future, getting an R75 or even an R90S to enjoy on the odd weekend, or to tinker with.

Not only do they have character, but if they're looked after they will always work properly, and that's not something you can say about many bikes.

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