Forty years of the GS: Original BMW R80 G/S designer tells us the untold story

The first BMW G/S was cobbled together from existing bikes
The first BMW G/S was cobbled together from existing bikes

It’s exactly 40 years since the first ever BMW GS went on sale: the R80 G/S. No one knew it would go on to be the most popular bike in the company’s history and that it would help to change the course of motorcycling forever.

Over the years various tales have come out about the development of the machine and where the idea came from, but the truth of it – the very seed of the concept – all came about because one man didn’t like the weather.

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Rainy days

In 1969 Hans Muth was a designer at Ford, who were based in the Rhineland, and while he enjoyed the job the weather was rubbish. All of his friends told him he should move to Bavaria for the mountains and it helped that the local car company was on the up and up.

Before long Muth upped sticks to Munich and found himself as the Head of Interior Design for BMW’s car division. As a treat, he bought a cottage high up in the mountains and so he could get there, he bought one of those new-fangled 4×4 things (don’t worry – this will make sense later). Soon after though, his attention switched back to two wheels.

“I used to see these bikes they made and they were dreadful,” says Muth. “So I went to the head of motorcycling technical development to ask ‘who designs your bikes?’ and he said ‘we do’. I told him ‘yes I can tell’, so he said ‘well if you like motorcycles so much, you do it!’ and I did.

Muth’s first proper go at it was the R90S – a bikini fared masterpiece that was BMW’s first ever sportsbike and is widely considered the machine that saved the motorcycle business from bankruptcy. In fact it was so good, the R90S one-twoed the first AMA Superbike race at Daytona although with time to reflect Muth is rather disparaging of the machine describing it as an “older lady in an orange bikini with black stockings and high heels.”

The BMW R80 G/S prototype shows the way

Pressure point

In 1977 BMW Motorrad faced its own problems: saddled with an aging range of air-cooled boxers and perceived to produce only expensive tourers, their’s was an image in total contrast to its ‘performance driving machines’ car division.

Worse, the hoped-for solution, the all-new, high tech, liquid-cooled K-series, remained years away. By autumn 1978 BMW were looking around for ideas and did a major study on what bikes of the future young people might want to buy.

Something ‘pure, light and modular’ was the reply – the same things they want now, notes Muth. But what could they do that was new?

“I came out of a meeting with Hardy Müller [in charge of product planning] and we sat by my desk trying to think of new ideas,” says Muth. “When I looked out of my window and parked right there was this Range Rover I’d bought. It was well made, comfortable, could go off-road and also go long distances.

“I turned to Müller and said ‘let’s make a two-wheeled one of those’ and we did.

“We spent about 20 minutes sketching the idea out and the whole thing came together entirely by accident. There was no marketing request, no official project. We actually thought the management would hate it but we knew the testing department would love it because of their own experiments.”

Muth with his BMW GS800 prototype

Muddy future

At the same time, following the announcement of a new 750cc+ category in the German enduro championship, BMW stepped up its interest. First, BMW’s technical director, Hans-Gunter von der Marwitz asked Laverda to create a prototype enduro racer based around a R60 boxer engine.

At the same time, separately, another dirt-racing BMW employee, head test rider Laszlo Peres, built his own ‘home-brewed’ boxer enduro, a bike he rode to second in the German championship the following year.

“We knew the testing department had been messing with their bikes,” says Muth. “But in truth it just wasn’t a big story for the company at the time. They had even had the monoshock system ready for two years but the management couldn’t give it the go ahead.

“At the time BMW didn’t have much money for development, so we borrowed their bits (as well as parts off existing machines) to create the very first concept.”

The R80G/S saved BMW from doom

Big changes

Then a senior management change arrived at just the right time. Karl-Heinz Gerlinger joined in early 1979 and was tasked with either saving the whole BMW Motorrad division – or closing it. By this point Muth had taken his idea to Ekkart Rapelius, chief of the test department and Rüdiger Gutsche, Manager of Development.

“BMW now have this story that involves them finding this prototype in the testing department and declaring ‘this is the future’,” says Muth. “Sadly it’s simply not true. Politics has shaped the whole story. Everything there was a little accident – zigzags and the rest. There was no single direction to anything we designed.”

Contrary to popular belief, G/S also originally stood for Gentleman’s Scrambler but Muth left before the project was completed. In a bid to retain BMW’s traditional virtues the concept was softened to something more road focused, with a broader appeal. It also led to the new bike’s designation – G for Gelande (or ‘terrain’) and S for Strasse (street).

The 1980 BMW R80 G/S created a whole new biking genre

Finished product

And the result, all wrapped up in brash BMW Motorsport white, red and blue, and unusually launched to the press first in Avignon, France, on September 1, 1980 before being publicly unveiled at the Cologne Show two weeks later, caused a sensation – sort of.

In truth, the world didn’t quite know how to react. Remember, ‘adventure bikes’ didn’t exist in 1980. But with the press surprised by its off-road ability and reassured by its road handling and comfort, respect quickly grew.

The public was more impressed. By the end of its first year, 6631 G/Ss had been sold, more than twice the number originally hoped for.

And what came of Muth after this? Did he fade away into obscurity? Not quite. Shortly afterwards he founded Target Design and not long after that he got a phone call from Japan.

“Design us something special,” they said and so he did: the Suzuki Katana. So that’s two of the most iconic motorcycles of all time then. Not a bad record, eh?

The ‘Red Devil’

Riding the BMW R80 G/S off-road in Wales

As you might expect the original G/S was just a bitsa – made from parts of existing bikes and things that lay around the testing workshop. The frame, subframe and swingarm came from a BMW R65, which was a smaller touring bike BMW made at the time. The R65 mainframe was the same size as all the others, enabling them to fit an R80/7 engine into it but the subframe and swingarm were shorter.

The small petrol tank off the R65 was also used, as well as a single seat that was fitted to Police spec R100RTs.

The forks were the standard ‘ATE’ units from an R100/7 that had been extended by a member of the test team who liked to take his machine off-road. The wheels were also off an R100/7 although the front wheel was replaced with a 21in rim off Herbert Scheck’s ISDT bike. A few other bits were cobbled together so it could be tested properly, including the trademark high exhaust, and the rest is simply history.

‘The new GS is too big and heavy’

There are two camps with the current incarnation of R1250GS – those who say it’s a natural progression of the original machine and those who say the only thing it shares is the name. Muth is somewhere in the middle.

“It can’t be the same idea because the base idea is having a motorcycle that you can travel with off-road,” says Muth. “We developed what I call a mountain goat – it was slim and light. It’s too big now and too heavy with too much plastic. Now it’s a travel machine but it followed the trend of the consumers, so I understand why it has changed.

“Things are very different for designers now. I respect what they achieve with all the pressure from upstairs but it’s not a job I would like to do myself.”

Dakar days: a demon in the dust

Auriol and Rahier celebrate Dakar glory

There were BMWs in the Paris-Dakar right from the beginning, including a privateer entry in 1979 on a stock R65! BMW’s first proper entry to the Paris-Dakar rally came in 1980, when BMW France entered two bikes. The star rider for the team was motocross hot shot Hubert Auriol, but he was forced to leave the race halfway through due to a gearbox failure. Cyril Neveu won for the second year in a row on his Yamaha XT500.

In 1981 BMW stepped things up, handing over three machines to tuning specialists HPN. They rebuilt the bikes from the ground up adding lengthened twin shock swingarms, braced frames and huge 42l tanks that incorporated the airbox.

The BMW G/S ruled the Dakar during the early 1980s

In the process they gave it five extra horses, 70mm more suspension travel either end and managed to lop 17kg off the dry weight. Auriol flew and beat the closest XT500 to Dakar by three hours.

The following year was a disaster with the entire team out by the rest day with gearbox faults, but the BMW operation put it behind them and went on to win the next three Dakars on the bounce, cementing the GS into the off-road history books in the process.