For years, many motorcycle manufacturers have attempted to replicate the success enjoyed by the likes of Harley-Davidson. Cruisers have been immensely popular in America for decades, so it makes sense for brands not typically associated with the style to try their hands at making a cruiser. Back in the late 1990s, BMW rolled the R 1200 C out onto the market. Dubbed “the BMW of cruisers,” it was BMW Motorrad’s first production cruiser, and it sure was a weird one. The boxer-powered cruiser had enough character for James Bond, but perhaps not enough for the Americans it targeted. Here’s the story about an obscure point in BMW Motorrad history.
As I’ve mentioned in another piece, I’m shopping for a motorcycle to replace the 1999 Triumph Tiger I recently sold. When I search for vehicles to buy for myself, I enter in somewhat vague search terms to cast a wide net. Who knows, maybe I might find something I didn’t know existed. Through these searches, I was reminded about the Honda Gold Wing’s origins. When I searched “BMW R,” I got plenty of vintage German iron, but also a couple of examples of BMW’s weird effort to sway buyers from the cruiser establishment to BMW. This is the R 1200 C, and it looks like nothing else on the road.
Cruisers Reign Supreme
America has been obsessed with the cruiser for decades. As the Los Angeles Times writes, in the era before the 1960s, American riders enjoyed swinging a leg over chunky motorcycles with equally thick engines. Lots of people chose Harley-Davidson and those who didn’t may have gone with a European marque like Triumph, Norton, or BMW. Then, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers hit the scene with affordable small displacement machines, starting a revolution.
As Motorcycle Cruiser writes, the late 1960s further changed the market for the motorcycle enthusiast. In 1968, England was the largest producer of big motorcycles while affordable imports eroded the market shares of established marques in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, as Motorcycle Cruiser notes, the cruiser as we see them today wasn’t as popular. Instead, the bikes that look a bit like today’s cruisers were often considered customs or choppers.
At the time, the market for motorcycles like those was reportedly small. Then, Easy Rider hit the silver screen in 1969, leading to a surge of interest in choppers and custom motorcycles that departed from the design norms of the era.
Suddenly, people began hacking apart their bikes, tacking on different pieces and bolting on ape hangers and sissy bars.
As Motorcycle Cruiser writes, this was a prime opportunity for then AMF-owned Harley-Davidson. The Motor Company was struggling and if it couldn’t get its act together, AMF was willing to pull the plug. William G. Davidson, head of Harley’s design and styling, capitalized on this new custom motorcycle popularity by combining the frame, suspension, and other bits of a FLH Electra Glide with the front end of the XL Sportster. The end result was the 1970 FX 1200 Super Glide, a custom right from the factory.
Eventually, other motorcycle manufacturers started cranking out their own factory customs and even Japan got in on it. As the Los Angeles Times reports, for most of the 1980s, cruisers made up under 20 percent of the motorcycle market. Time marched forward and with it, the factory custom and eventually the cruiser took its hold on America.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1996, by 1990, cruisers made up a full third of the motorcycle market. By 1995, cruisers owned a controlling interest with 51 percent of the American motorcycle market. If you’re a brand that didn’t have a cruiser, clearly you were leaving some money on the table.
BMW’s Take On The American Cruiser
Now, BMW could have done like the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers and built something that resembled an American cruiser. But this is one of those occasions where BMW pulls a Honda and gets a bit weird with it. I found a press release from 1997 where BMW explains how the R 1200 C came to be, and you won’t see what’s coming:
Like 1993, the year in which BMW’s new generation of Boxer machines made its first appearance, 1997 will again go down in history as a milestone in the motorcycle world and with BMW in particular. For in autumn of this year BMW will be launching its first-ever cruiser, the new R 1200 C.
Easy Rider or genuine freedom on two wheels
The origins of the cruiser date back to the early days of the “American Way of Bike” in the ’50s and the birth of the original chopper. The cruiser story then continued in the US cult film Easy Rider in 1969, which brought the dream of freedom on two wheels over to Europe, where the motorcycle, already dismissed by many as obsolete, subsequently made a great come-back as a hobby and leisure-time occupation.
The styling message of the BMW R 1200 C underlines the smooth style of relaxed cruising free of any kind of aggression by emphasizing the typical design features of the “American Way of Bike”. Examples are the wheel fork arranged at a very flat angle, the high-rise handlebars, long wheelbase, and low seat measuring only 740 mm or 29.1″ in height, in this case in traditional saddle design. And then all this is rounded off by an upright seating position with your legs stretched out comfortably to the front.
In that press release, BMW notes that cruisers made up 33 percent of global motorcycle sales in 1996. So, it seems as if someone at BMW watched Easy Rider and then realized that there’s some money to be made selling to the large swath of riders around the world who love cruisers. BMW admits in its press release that with the R 1200 C, it didn’t focus so much on sporting characteristics as it did on the experience of relaxed cruising with plenty of reserve power on tap.
As noted by Motorcycle.com, BMW head designer, an American named David Robb, was responsible for the R 1200 C, and the goal behind the motorcycle was to make a machine that was both a laid-back cruiser while also showing off BMW’s technical prowess. Robb reportedly said that the R 1200 C was “the BMW of cruisers.”
According to Motorcycle Cruiser, BMW had design targets for the R 1200 C, and not all of them were met. BMW reportedly wanted a “V powerplant, low saddle height, feet-forward ergonomics, high-rise handlebar, a minimum of bodywork obscuring the structure and mechanics of the machine and ease of customizing.”
The end result is a motorcycle that looked like nothing before or since. At the heart of the R 1200 C is its 1,170cc boxer twin, derived from the R 1100 RS.
Of course, BMW wasn’t about to give up on its fabled boxer to go with a V-twin like everyone else. In this guise, the twin is making 61 HP and 72 lb-ft of torque delivered to the rear wheel through a shaft drive. It sacrifices top-end power to make much of that torque down low to get the 584-pound machine moving.
Having the horizontally-opposed engine goes against one design goal on its own, but also impacts another. The engine layout meant that the footpegs couldn’t be as far forward as you’d find with other cruisers. Cruisers enjoy low seat heights but the R 1200 C sat on the high end with its 29.1-inch saddle. That’s pretty darn close to the height of a standard! Also notable is the bike’s high ground clearance relative to other cruisers, another thing that makes the BMW a bit different. So BMW, missed the marks on about half of its own goals. That said, the R 1200 C clearly has little bodywork to speak of. Ease of customization could be argued to vary between riders.
The lack of bodywork is certainly something else. The R 1200 C isn’t afraid to show off its frame, miles of chrome, and BMW’s suspension systems. Up front is BMW’s Telever suspension, and I’ll let the brand explain:
Like with the telescopic fork, the wheel is still aligned by the actual fork, which consists of two struts with slider and fixed fork tubes. It is a design with the greatest possible coverage, thereby ensuring a high level of stability. A semi-trailing arm joined to the frame at the front supports the fork and front wheel. Suspension and damping tasks are performed by a central spring strut. Unlike a conventional telescopic fork, the fork on the Telelever system only needs to be able to absorb low bending moments during braking and when driving over uneven surfaces meaning the slider and fixed fork tubes cannot jam each other.
Bringing up the rear is BMW’s Monolever system, which is a single-sided swingarm with a monoshock. The bike’s design was almost skeletal, more so than many cruisers get.
Aside from the weird looks and un-cruiser-like powertrain, the R 1200 C did have a few technology tricks up its sleeve. ABS was an option and the passenger seat, if equipped, folded up to become a backrest for the rider. Other neat goodies included adjustable levers and self-canceling turn signals. And while it wasn’t meant to be a sporty machine, the BMW still had two disc brakes up front and another disc bringing up the rear.
Part of this motorcycle’s fame comes from the fact that it was James Bond’s motorcycle from the film Tomorrow Never Dies:
A Cruiser Unlike Others
With all of this in mind, a good question is how did this thing ride? Well, reviews suggest that it handles great for a cruiser from Motorcycle Cruiser:
The unique suspension does much more than set the visual style of the 1200C. Well controlled and reasonably compliant, the suspension gives the BMW a better ride than most cruisers (though not as good as that of some other Beemers). A day spent riding the bike in southern Arizona revealed responsive, predictable handling and low-effort steering with better cornering clearance than most other cruisers, despite the jutting cylinders.
Braking should also be a revelation to dedicated cruiser riders. Not only is there excellent power, but you can get the anti-lock feature included on the 1200C we rode. By releasing pressure for an instant as the wheel decelerates toward lock-up, the ABS can keep you from crashing in a panic stop. In an emergency, providing the bike is generally upright, you can simply slam on the brakes with all the force you can find. The problem may simply be holding on in the face of all that braking force.
Multiple reviews note that there isn’t a ton of power, but the engine works for cruising. Here’s Visordown‘s take:
On the open road, the low-stressed, low-revving engine gives the impression that it is unbreakable. Cruising has never been as easy. The power unit is so independent of high engine speeds that a revs counter is not necessary.
James Bond had some cool cars, but an unusual choice when it came to bikes. Despite what you see in the movies, this bike can’t wheelie, jump buildings or evade a helicopter. It’s also unlikely to help you pull. When it comes to cruisers, BMW should really stay clear of that section, although having said that the Classic isn’t that bad. It handles ok, looks alright-ish and the engine is typical Boxer. But for the money, the Montauk is a better buy.
BMW sold the R 1200 C in a bunch of different versions. The one you’ve seen for most of this article is the R 1200 C, or the original version of the motorcycle. There was also the Avantgarde, which showed up in 2000, and it was the R 1200 C with less chrome.
Joining the rest of the line was the 2003 R 1200 CL, a full dresser model, the 2000 R 1200 C Phoenix, which deleted the passenger seat, swapped the wire wheels for alloys, added a flyscreen, and other small changes, and the 2003 Montauk, which resembled a muscle bike. There was even a smaller R 850 C.
The Montauk, which is named after a popular vacation spot in New York, got a wider handlebar, a wider front tire, an extended rake, the dashboard from the R 1200 CL dresser, a narrower seat, a five-speed transmission (other models got six speeds), and other small changes. As you read above, some reviewers felt the Montauk to be the best of the R 1200 C series.
Not The Right Bike For America
Despite reviewers giving the motorcycle high marks for handling, its looks seemed to divide riders. Ultimately, sales performance is probably what BMW cared most about, and it seems BMW couldn’t sell enough to justify the R 1200 C’s existence. Production halted after 2004, with BMW Motorrad president Dr. Herbert Diess reportedly saying that the motorcycle’s engine wasn’t a good fit for the market at that time. In the end, BMW built around 40,218 units between 1997 and 2004. That doesn’t sound like a bad run, until you realize those are the units BMW built in total for the whole world.
It’s unclear if BMW itself considers the R 1200 C a success or a failure. What we do know is that BMW didn’t give up on its desire to build an American-style cruiser with BMW flair. A couple of years ago, I got to ride the BMW R 18 B bagger and the R 18 Transcontinental full dresser. Both of those bikes ditched the weirdness of the R 1200 C, instead going for the classic cruiser style with a dash of BMW DNA. I thought both of those were excellent machines and so beautiful that I found myself staring at them for long periods of time.
If you do want one of these, I have great news. You can easily find one for sale for well under $10,000. If you don’t mind seeing a few miles on the odometer, you can find one for under $5,000, too. Some searches of our comments reveal that at least one of you owns one of these, so it would seem that the R 1200 C is Autopian reader-approved!
We’ve been focusing on the weird exploits of Honda a lot, and that’s because Honda isn’t afraid to do things a bit offbeat. However, if the R 1200 C shows anything, it’s that BMW is also not afraid to get a bit weird. And that’s good, the motorcycle world needs a few weirdos here and there.
(Images: Manufacturer, unless otherwise noted.)
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