BMW Motorrad Concept R 18: The beginning of a full frontal attack on the cruiser marketplace
"A picture is worth a thousand words" is a well-known adage reflecting the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with a single image, which more effectively conveys its essence than does a description.
That adage came immediately to mind when the new BMW Motorrad "Concept R 18" was shown at Concorso d'Elegenza Villa d'Este on the weekend.
Whilst it is indeed only a concept for the flying propellor brand, the "Concept R 18" is effectively the first shot in a war. It represents the first offensive on Harley-Davidson and Indian territory.
Harley still rules the cruiser marketplace globally, having sold 228,000 hogs last year, compared to BMW's worldwide sales of 165,000 motorcycles across myriad segments ... but the new BMW 1.8 liter boxer engine seems to fulfill all the criteria required to give both Harley and Indian a run for their money.
For starters, BMW has the credibility and longevity to match the American brands, but with the new engine, it has the cubic twin-cylinder grunt to more than match them in the cruiser category.
If 1.8 litres isn't enough, rumors already suggest a 2000cc version of the BMW horizontally-opposed twin will also be available, no doubt with Harley-Davidson's 1923cc and Indian's 1901cc V-twins in mind as its primary targets.
The most remarkable aspect of the Concept R 18 is that the new big bore BMW boxer motorcycle engine it contains has been shown previously. We've seen two custom motorcycles using the new big bore boxer engine over the last six months and the release of a new engine to custom builders prior to its showing in a factory-produced motorcycle is unprecedented.
That's the Custom Works Zon "Departed" which was shown last December (2018) at the fabled Mooneyes Show in Yokohama in Japan. In the 27 years the show has been running, it has become one of the most important on the world custom stage, and last year's show attracted 300 show cars and 650 show motorcycles. "Departed" won the prestigious Best of Show Motorcycle award, at the same time as creating a stir among BMW aficionados about the engine, which was publicly acknowledged by the BMW factory as a prototype for the first time.
Dubbed the R 18, which according to BMW's traditional nomenclature, indicates it has a capacity of around 1800cc, the geometry and elements present in the show bike were reminiscent of much older BMW Motorrad engines. The push rods running above the cylinders in chrome-plated protection ducts were used in BMW boxer engines in the 1960s, and if you check out "Departed" in the image gallery for this article, you'll see the valve gear covers were styled on pre-WW2 BMW engines, despite the equally obvious modern day air/oil cooling.
Six weeks ago (in April, 2019), a second custom bike using the BMW prototype engine appeared at the annual Handbuilt Show in Austin, Texas. Austin is also the home of renowned American custom craftsman Alan Stulberg's Revival Cycles, and the "Revival Birdcage" show bike was clearly inspired by Ernst Hennes' speed record BMW machinery from the late 1920s and early 1930s, which wore similar polished aluminum teardrop valve-gear covers.
Those two custom motorcycles somewhat disguised the sheer physical size of the prototype engine by dressing it in different contexts and with cylinder heads that evoked different eras of the company's signature boxer twin engine.
This time, although the R 18 Concept bike also relies heavily on historic cues in evoking the company's near 100 year heritage, the magnitude of the big bore engine is suddenly evident because we can see it in a relatively traditional BMW form factor.
Those protruding pots are HUGE, and after 98 years of producing horizontally-opposed motorcycle engines, BMW has suddenly raised the boxer engine's capacity by a whopping 50 percent, stepping it up from middleweight to heavyweight class ...
... and the intention is suddenly clear that it is going after Harley-Davidson's heavyweight crown in the cruiser class of motorcycles.
"Naturally we want to keep growing," said Timo Resch, Vice President Sales and Marketing BMW Motorrad at the unveiling of the "Revival Birdcage" show bike. In the context of what we have now seen at Villa d'Este, his words take on much more meaning: "One step we will take to do so, certainly in the US market, is to enter the Cruiser segment. BMW Motorrad is consistently pursuing its growth strategy with the clear aim of becoming the number one in the Premium Big Bike Segment."
I've owned and tested Harley-Davidson and BMW twins for almost 50 years, and I've always thought of the BMW twins as more like a Swiss watch and Harley V-twins as more like Big Ben, despite their similar engine capacities.
There's something about the exquisite primary balance of the BMW Motorrad horizontally-opposed engine that makes it feel more like a scalpel than a meat axe, but the emergence of this new big bore version of the age old design puts it firmly into Harley-Davidson territory.
With Indian also providing a credible alternative to the Harley-Davidson cruisers, the stage looks set for a battle royale.