Do the new retro bikes rekindle that truly retro ride and feeling, or are they all just about looks? FMM Curator and self-confessed motorcycle enthusiast Wayne Harley has set out to try and ride as many of the different retro-styled bikes as he can, not to directly compare them with each other, but to see if his smile is going to be as big as when he rides FMM’s classic machines. Will he feel like Marlon Brando in the ‘Wild One’? To get the wheels rolling, first he tries out BMW’s R nineT. Pure and simple…
I suppose the correct thing to do when testing a new model bike is to see just how safe, powerful and well made it is. But I’ve been wondering if all these retro-styled bikes, aimed at the lifestyle rider, are able to provide a riding experience that would feel remotely the same as something from the ’60s, ’70s or even the ’80s. First of the manufacturer representatives to respond was BMW Motorrad, who made two bikes available to me, the GS R nineT Urban and the R nineT Pure. I chose the latter as the name said it all: pure. I did not want anything too extravagant.
I collected it from the Cape Town showroom and if first impressions are anything to go by, the R nineT does catch the eye. It has a classic café racer look, simple and uncluttered but with BMW’s high-quality finishes. The R nineT represents 90 years of BMW motorcycle heritage, hence the name (albeit stylised), and goes back as far at the first 1923 R32 (the first motorcycle to be badged as a BMW). While the R nineT may look retro, it is very much a state-of-the-art machine focusing on BMW excellence and subtle design elements such as bead-blasted aluminum detailing, the aluminium headlight surround, the BMW logo in the headlamp, wire-spoke wheels and black rims.
What impressed me was that it only took two minutes to be briefed on the bike. There is a single instrument cluster, and the standard controls on the handlebars are cleanly laid out. What I really found amusing was the salesman saying “the controls are very Japanese-like”… As I started to connect with the basics of the bike I couldn’t help but notice the quality and detail that has been put into this machine. Getting on the bike to set mirrors and suchlike, I immediately became aware of its rather small proportions; it actually feels like 350 or even 500, even with its rather large and protruding motor. Turning the key, I was greeted by the buzz of an electric fuel pump – no fuel cock to turn on here – and the small, round instrument gauge lights up. The setting might look retro but it has a complex display of info with everything you need to know. Then I pushed the starter and what a pleasure the boxer twin engine offers, still with that typical Beemer torque twist on firing up and a faint vibration when running.
My first ride was in 5pm traffic out of town, which is not the best way to start a test weekend – or maybe it was. I soon noticed how good the brakes are; Brembo 320 mm discs with 4-pot calipers up front, and 264 mm/2-pot at the back. The gearbox is sweet with smooth and precise changes. The motor is so torquey you could almost potter around in third and fourth only. The only thing I found difficult was not being sure of the bike’s width when there was gap in traffic, where I would normally slip through on an old British or Jap single-pot.
But once clear of the traffic I really started to enjoy the R nineT, the 1 170 cm3 air-cooled motor producing 81 kW at 7 550 r/min having no trouble in pushing this 223 kg bike along with a nice, beefy exhaust note gurgling from the tailpipe. Not quite an open megaphone from a classic café racer, but enough to keep the sound real and still pass Euro 4 standards. The seating position reminds me a lot of the Arial Square 4 we featured in September 2018 as well as some similar bikes of the early-’60s; the rider leans slightly forward with his butt ever so slightly back, knees are bent and feet are tucked up rather high. It’s a comfortable position, with great balance and also keeps the rider in touch with what the bike is doing. However, after about 150 km in the saddle I did find it becoming less pleasant, just like in the old days.
A Sunday brunch run to the Gydo Pass with my daughter to keep me company showed that with two up the R nineT is still a very capable bike. Cruising at the legal speed limit is effortless for the 1200 BMW, but being on a ‘naked’ bike you are exposed so the experience is a bit ‘flies in the teeth’ stuff and you can get buffeted by the wind. I did open her up on a quiet patch of road and found the hanging-on became difficult way before the bike had even reached its limit in sixth gear. In the Pass, the R nineT with all its torque, 46 mm upside-down telescopic front forks, BMW’s proven single-sided swing-arm rear suspension and those stunning brakes, the R nineT is just so much fun and easy to ride. This is no superbike; it’s a retro-styled cruiser but still very capable, even with two up.
For this, my first ‘retro road test’, it was a pleasant experience from start to finish. With the focus on safety, quality and reliability, I can’t really expect a retro bike to capture the true classic biking sensation. However, the R nineT does provide certain old-school characteristics like wind in your face, riding position, engine note and good old BMW torque-twisting engine performance to keep it Pure…