Knut Gerken lives in Rethwisch near Bad Oldesloe on a half-timbered farm. Operates the workshop there "Ostrich& Gerken". Rethwisch is one of those northern German villages where Detlev Buck could film Flens commercials or a sequel to "Wir können auch anders …" (We can do things differently, too). In front of Gerken's workshop is a bench on which three silent men could pop their beer bottles. Gerken could star in this home movie himself. He also talks rather little. Greets all visitors with "Min Jung".
The man has many visitors, because he is the expert in northern Germany for old BMW motorcycles. At Gerken nothing is popping, it's boxing. When dealerships get stuck with vintage cars, they send desperate customers to Gerken. "Have a cup of coffee first, min Jung," says Gerken in greeting. After two cups, it's time to get down to business: behind his workshop stretches an adventure land for friends of the BMW GS.
Gerken must have stashed away a dozen of the machines that BMW Motorrad has been using to make a living since 1980. So exactly he doesn't know, in which condition which GS or early G/S is in. Anyway, Gerken put a red number on one of his treasures. An R 80 G/S, built in 1984, Dakar version should be it: "Watch out, min Jung. Drives differently than the machines of today."
Historic pig drive
Rethwisch is located on the flat land. This has advantages. You don't need good brakes like downhill in the Alps. But this also has disadvantages. At the end of the forest path comes most a tight, right-angled bend. There you have to brake. Downshift. This should be done with caution on the original G/S if you are used to modern brake systems: The spirited grip on the lever handle for the lone front disc as well as the kick that operates the rear drum are reminiscent of Sunday cake baking – slow, sluggish stirring in thick batter.
Shifting is not much better. BMW launched the R 80 G/S in 1980 with a technical sensation: the Monolever single-sided swingarm with internal cardan drive. The first vintages like my Dakar did not have a cardan joint yet. With disastrous consequences: Every gear change leverages the entire vehicle – a hasty shift with numb throttle to the two huge Bing carburetors feels like riding a spitting, rattling boar up a spiral staircase.
My God, what were the engineers thinking with this fighting pig back then?? BMW was in a hurry with the G/S, which was launched in 1980. Because in 1976, the Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha had landed a surprising coup: the XT 500 – the ideal motorcycle for the spirit of the time. An end to heavy touring. Into the terrain, off to freedom! Who drove XT at that time, was considered a hard dog and was ultracool.
BMW was not cool at that time. The brand suffered from the boxer stink of that time: old-fashioned, outdated, for the bikers in the old age, little innovative. Sales declined steadily. In this situation BMW developed and presented the motorcycle that saved the brand's skin and changed the market from the ground up, not only in Germany: the BMW R 80 G/S. It was the first Enduro with a multi-cylinder engine. The mother of a worldwide completely new market segment – the big touring enduro. The G/S should go from alpine gravel over muddy trails. From African sand to the low German country road all terrains mastered. Customers were enthusiastic and gladly overlooked the machine's shortcomings – or didn't know any better.
Brave sports marketing
But all customers knew the Paris-Dakar rally. The toughest off-road challenge was the stage on which the G/S – as an abbreviation for terrain/road – was to prove itself. In 1980 a private team finished fifth, in 1981 the Frenchman Hubert Auriol crossed the finish line first by a wide margin. The proof that the heavy boxers could really fly paid off. At the end of 1981 there were 6.631 machines – more than double the target – were delivered at the BMW plant in Spandau – so that in 1981 every fifth BMW sold was a G/S.
"Yes, the machine you just rode, that's the 84 version of the G/S. Special version Dakar. Large 32-liter fuel tank, single seat with luggage rack behind it. I still find this one of the most beautiful of the whole series." That's all Knut Gerken can say about it.
He now rides an R 1150 GS. Just like the current R 1200 GS, R 1200 GS Adventure and the water-cooled F 800 GS, it has the original – or rather the new – design. Its driving behavior – nothing more common. After 30 years of incessant lifting, branching in the trunk structure and around 550.000 units sold, the motorcycle that saved BMW from bankruptcy is so technically mature that it can hardly be improved upon.
Its drivers and riders love it because it is the perfect driving machine – the two-wheeled beetle for the well-heeled. BMW celebrates its savior next weekend, from 2. To 4. July 2010, at the Tenth BMW Motorrad Days in Garmisch, Germany. Hubert Auriol, the first Dakar winner on a GS will come.
Knut Gerken does not want to go to Garmisch. It stays in Rethwisch. There's always someone who has a problem with an old BMW. Recently, the Scandinavians also come to him.