Dick and I put over 100,000 miles on our Harleys riding across the United States and Canada. Our riding days are behind us, but as devotees, we keep an eye on the world of motorcycles. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. It’s not about Harleys, but the BMW R 18 Transcontinental, which is likely as close to a Harley as will ever be built in Germany.
BMW’s First Full-Dresser Motorcycle
Stein explains why BMW felt the need to copy the Electra Glide:
THIS STEINWAY with a license plate is the 2022 BMW R 18 Transcontinental, the German company’s first American-style full-dresser motorcycle, powered by a 1.8-liter horizontally opposed engine and naked cultural appropriation.
You may wonder why? Or even, what the hell? Is the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide that good BMW felt it had to be copied? What forces have brought this dreadnought to our shores?
I can explain: BMW Group, including Motorrad, is based in Munich, capital of Bavaria, gateway to the Alps and one of the world’s most popular riding destinations. And when Motorrad executives themselves would go out to ride, what did they see? A lot of people in their key demographic—wealthy, independent, European—touring on big, slobbery Harley-Davidsons.
Visitors can even rent them, en masse, for group rides. Believe me, a peloton of Harley baggers dragging pipes around mountain hairpins is quite a sight. It makes sparks like Chinese New Year.
“Like Mounting a Bison”
Climbing aboard the Transcontinental felt to Stein like “mounting a bison.”
In many ways the Transcontinental quotes chapter-and-verse from the Book of Hog, especially where the Prophet Milwaukee sayeth, “Everything shall be shiny as hell and heavy as sin.” As kitted—including the side and top luggage cases, oversize front fairing, and optional Marshall Gold Series II audio system—this long-distance tourer rolled off the delivery truck weighing 942 pounds.
I was terrified. Throwing a leg over the Conti felt like mounting a bison. When I pulled the beast upright from its kickstand position I thought I was going to blow an O-ring. I uttered the ancient Midwesterner’s chant of strength—Uftah!
I was white-knuckling all that first day. It took a week before I felt fully in command of Die Königschwein. After two weeks I felt confident enough to take my 14-year-old daughter for a ride. I even felt a teensy bit of pride in mastering what I think is, or close to, the heaviest series-production motorcycle. Ever.
It’s not that bad, really. As it gains pace above walking speed, the Conti’s ponderousness quickly evaporates. In daily traffic it exhibits surprising centeredness and controllability, in parking decks, narrow streets and the like.
Stein gives the “Conti” high marks for lane discipline, reporting that it can ride straight very well.
The Transcontinental (a two-up “dresser”) and R 18 B (a “bagger”) use a modified version of standard R 18 frame that accentuates the naughty: more front rake, more front caster. Thus the Conti’s profound proclivity for going straight. Lane discipline is excellent. Indeed, 80 mph in sixth gear is a little bit of ecstasy, with the big boxer engine gently flatulating at 2,200 rpm, the rider enveloped in the breezeless low-pressure zone behind an extra-tall windshield and a fairing as wide as a pool table.
In its comfy riding posture (floorboards, rocker shifter), its chuffing power delivery, its glinting presence, the Conti is undeniably Milwaukee-adjacent. But there are intriguing differences. Harleys have V-twin engines, with the crankshaft oriented east-west. The BMW, hewing to company tradition, uses a horizontally opposed “boxer” engine, with its forged steel crankshaft oriented north-south (longitudinally), and with the big silver-metallic cylinder heads jutting out to the sides, like a boss.
The arrangement has one fairly startling dynamical effect. When sitting at a stop, if you rev the enormous engine hard from idle, the momentary gyroscopic precession of the crankshaft is sufficient to pitch the bike sideways along a force vector of surprising magnitude—like a 30-knot crosswind with your name on it. Whoooaaa, bike! Was die scheisse!
The Conti uses the same 1,802-cc boxer engine found in the R 18 line (air/oil cooled, four valves per cylinder, dual ignition, intake manifold injection). Uniquely, these engines are fitted with overhead valve cylinder heads—pushrods in exposed tubes, the whole lot. BMW claims this retro-engineering pays tribute to the company’s highly regarded OHV engines in icons like the R 5. I’ll allow it, counsel.
No Need for the Marshall Stack
Rock musicians use ubiquitous Marshall “stacks,” to power through their arena sets at high volume. Stein says the only problem with the Conti is that it gives riders just as much power with its Marshall speakers that can be heard from miles away. He concludes:
If the R 18 Transcontinental wanted to shed a few pounds, it could lose the Marshall audio system. Those things are so rude. Riders cannot hear the music at cruising speed, over the engine and through a helmet, even with the volume at 11. However, others can, for miles around, as your classic-rock playlist spreads across the landscape in Doppler-shifted rings of jackassery.
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