Writing about bikes for 20 years. Published in dozens of titles on five continents. Mildly obsessed with discovering how things work.
BMW isn’t making any secret of the fact it is heading back into the cruiser market for the first time since R1200C was dropped from the range in 2004, and this is the best look yet at the engine that will be the mainstay of an entire new R1800 range.The Concept R18 was unveiled at the Villa d’Este concours event in Italy, and clearly shows the new engine in near-production form. We’ve seen the motor twice before, first in December’s ‘Departed’ special from Japanese firm Custom Works Zon, and again in March when Revival Cycles ‘Birdcage’ was allowed to use a prototype version. But where those were external projects, using the new engine as a basic building block, the new Concept R18 is an official BMW concept, styled in-house and therefore far more representative of a future finished model.
At the moment, the engine is the main focus. This 1800cc boxer features retro technology including pushrod-operated valves and air cooling. That might seem an anachronism these days, but in the cruiser market low-rev torque counts for more than out-and-out power, and for that there’s no replacement for displacement. That’s where air cooling and pushrod valve gear comes to the fore, allowing engines in a low state of tune to be lighter and smaller than a water-cooled, overhead-cam equivalent could be.
The smaller cylinder heads afforded by the pushrod design are particularly important here. Overhead-cam heads, bolted to the same huge 900cc cylinders, would stick out further, reducing cornering clearance and making for an unwieldy overall width.
The engine’s main castings and cylinder heads, including the rocker covers, perfectly match those of a prototype for BMW’s real R1800 cruiser that was spotted on the road in Germany earlier this year. That bike also had the same exposed drive shaft to the rear wheel, but that’s where the similarity comes to an end.
The Concept R18 is a pure retro machine, sharing a very similar aesthetic to the R5 Hommage that was shown at Villa d’Este back in 2016. Like that bike it has a faux hardtail frame, with a hidden rear shock, and a style that evokes a custom bobber made from a pre-war bike. While BMW may well eventually build a bobber, the real prototypes seen so far have been full-dress touring bikes, with Harley-style fairings and armchair seating.Similarly, the Concept R18 opts for real retro engineering in places. There are two Solex carburettors where the production model will have fuel injection, and the electronics – which will be the full suite of tourer-spec goodness on the production bike, with kit like Bluetooth and a stereo – are limited to nothing more than a starter motor and the bare essentials of lighting.
It’s clear that BMW’s main purpose here is to show us the engine. A completely new boxer isn’t something we see every day, and since it’s going to form the basis of an entirely new range of bikes for years to come, it’s a significant moment for BMW.
Bart Janssen Groesbeek, the Concept R18’s designer, said: “The biggest challenge in the design is to render everything visible. Every part has a functional purpose. There are not many who would dare to take such an absolutely honest approach.”
Edgar Heinrich, head of BMW Motorrad Design, adds: “With its clear aesthetics openly on display, the Concept R18 embodies for me what motorcycling, at its core, is really about. It is all about feeling instead of thinking, and not using technology for self-staging, instead giving space for imagination. This concept bike appeals to something deep down – you just want to just get on it and ride off. But when you get off it again, you don’t just put it in the garage and walk away – you turn around again and give it a final parting glance.
“For me, motorcycles like the BMW Motorrad Concept R18 are a response to a growing need among the motorcycling community: instead of technology, the focus here is on simplification, authenticity and transparency. I observe an almost romantic yearning for real mechanical engineering. Our aim with this concept bike is to address this need and turn it into an analogue statement in a digital age. We have a rich history of iconic motorcycles, and they all bear the same design characteristics. We believe that this can still work well together today with the current technology.”Given that BMW’s target is to take on the likes of Harley-Davidson in the cruiser market, we will eventually see a whole range of different styles of bike built around the same engine. That means that while the only model we can guarantee at this stage is the planned full-dress tourer, there must be a chance we’ll one day be offered a machine that looks a lot like the Concept R18. That can’t be a bad thing.