So there I was, enjoying a nice glass of wine on what felt like the 587th day of 2020 when the alert popped up. An hour to go and a highest bid of £1500. ‘That’s way too low’ thinks I, still staying alert but failing to control my urge to buy yet another old motorcycle. Blame it on the Sauvignon Blanc, but I popped in a cheeky £1800 with the expectation that it would easily go north of £2k and I’d move wistfully onto my next fantasy purchase. Not this time though. Fifty eight minutes later and the ping on my phone tells me I’ve won the auction. Damn, I’m not sure I have enough space in the garage!
The summer of 2020 may have been a weird one, yet some things remain the same. Yep, once again I bought myself an old motorcycle, and once again that old motorcycle was a big ol’ BMW RT touring bike.
Call me soppy, but I love these big old things. My first dealing with them was back in 1996. The R1100RT had just been launched and I had a summer job in a dealership that sold, among many brands, BMWs. As a 20 year old, it really wasn’t my thing – it was an old fella’s bike, a fact backed up by the number of grey haired geezers who rode off on them. They sold surprisingly well though, and I suppose I did have a grudging admiration as I regularly shuttled them between our showroom and workshop, which was a couple of streets away. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever thought I would own one in later years.
Fast forward five years and I was now working as a junior journalist. An assignment made me the custodian of a brand new R1100RT for two weeks and, you know what, I quite liked it. Not that I admitted it, of course. I was still only 25 and in sports bike obsessed Britain the RT was as far away from cool as any motorcycle could be. It was a cop bike, and nothing more. I had an R6 the week after and tried to forget I had ever even ridden that sad old BMW.
It was to be another decade before I would really appreciate, nay fall in love, with the charms of the RT. Taking on a three month contract in Scotland, I needed a set of wheels that would eat up 300 miles early on a Monday morning, and do the return trip on the Friday night. During the week it needed to handle my commute in from the suburban digs I was staying in. Adventure bikes are just too tall for me, but guess what cropped up in my eBay search for some cheap old wheels? That’s right, a 1996 BMW R1100RT in Glacier Green – not the best on the market, but local and incredibly cheap.
Something of my previous encounters with the RT had stuck in my mind and just £1000 scored me a civilian spec example with over 80,000 miles on the clock. This green goddess’ best days might have been behind it, but it would give me sterling service for the next 10,000 miles of its life. Sure, the gearbox was a little bit crunchy, even by standards of an old BMW boxer, and the ABS didn’t work – a common feature on these early RTs. With heated grips, a massive electric windscreen, huge fuel tank and a top box and panniers it was the perfect bike to tackle those 4am starts. Admiration turned into love…
R1100RTs were the police bike of choice in its day, and that’s hardly surprising. They’re strong, comfy and handle surprisingly well. A new battery sorted the ABS out and added some security on those cold autumn mornings, while new rubber transformed the handling. The big beemer was faultless in our three-and-a-bit months together. When the contract was over I sold it, and even made an £800 profit. I missed it though, even the unique indicator controls that were ridiculed back in the day. BMW were right, you know. As I bore all my mates down the pub, it makes total sense to have a button on each switchgear cluster to operate the turn signals...
So when I fancied another bike a few years later I actively looked for another RT. This one was fresher, with just over 30,000 miles on the clock, and came resplendent in the gloriously titled Sinus Blue. £2000 this time, though no top box, which was a shame.
My second RT certainly felt less tired, especially on the gearbox front. The previous owner had put a brand new Metzeler Sportec on the front, a fine tyre but way too sporty for this big tourer. I’d learned that this 280kg machine was very sensitive to tyres and the Sportecs made it very nervous on fast sweeping corners. A switch to the same company’s Roadtec rubber completely transformed the handling and gave it the stability I remembered, proof that ‘better’ tyres are not always, erm, better.
So I kept the blue bike for over a year before life got in the way. A baby, house move, work… the usual things led to a revaluation in my life and the bike had to go. Sad, but another small profit softened the blow.
And here we are half a decade further on. My ‘new’ bike is a fully-loaded, 16-year-old, Polar Silver R1150RT with 45,000 miles on the clock. It’s a fairly new bike by my usual standards and already I am loving it.
I’ve spent some time with the 1150 through my journalistic work and it’s a more refined package than the older 1100s. Immediately it feels like the same old bus though, and that’s no bad thing. The seat has three height settings, brilliant for a shorty like me, and the main benefits of the 1150 are a sixth gear (which is a super tall overdrive) and a 17” (rather than 18”) rear wheel. The 1130cc engine is 45cc up on the old 1100 and also has two spark plugs per cylinder. It gives a claimed 5bhp more than the model it replaced, although it still only left Munich with a modest 95bhp, making for a sedate ride – especially when two-up. This one has the excellent three-box luggage system, a myriad of soft luggage add-ons and some other practical modifications, including a neat little section of alloy handlebar screwed on above the instruments. It’s used to mount accessories never thought of back in 2004, namely a tyre pressure monitor gauge and a mobile phone/sat-nav mount. The previous owner has also modified the standard Hella style power output on the dash for a more modern, dual 12v USB charger, and there are two other Hella sockets below the seat, to allow for heated clothing to be plugged in.
A previous owner has clearly lavished a lot of love on the RT and has documented all the work. Among the work carried out are upgraded speakers, for this RT’s also got a standard fit radio cassette where my previous bikes had their useful gloveboxes. I think that this would have been a great addition in 2004, but this is 2020 and it feels like a throwback to another era these days. Cassette tapes are but a distant memory and AM/FM radio, well that’s a novelty! I put it on and fittingly Smooth FM played me some Phil Collins. Every ride on my RT is Another Day In Paradise…
It feels like I’ve stolen this R1150RT at £1800, which is a good £700 below what I think it’s actually worth. The previous owner only had it for a couple of months and paid closer to the real market value. His short tenure as owner should perhaps have raised some alarm bells but I am happy with his story. He bought it to go touring on, but with coronavirus wrecking his plans he rode it for a bit and said he couldn’t really get on with it, as he prefers classic motorbikes. Having seen the old Triumphs in his garage, I thought his reasons for moving it on added up. Mind you, it was an alcohol-fuelled impulse buy and I should really have done some more research and gone to see it before bidding.
So I’m planning to use the RT on my daily commute for now, and maybe some bigger trips once the Covid restrictions ease some more. Once again, tyres will be my first point of call. The previous plus one owner fitted some new Maxxis around 6,000 miles ago and the rear is now squared off so badly I could probably swap it for a car tyre and not notice any difference. The French autoroute vignette from 2018 shows that it has done some motorway miles on these tyres, and the wear pattern suggests that it hasn’t bothered too many corners for a while. The bike has just sailed through its MoT, but the handling is terrible and extremely nervous. I make no comment on the Maxxis, for they are clearly past their best, but I am happy to bet a few quid that a change of rubber will sort it out in a heartbeat. For journalistic purposes, I should probably try something new, but I know that, in the end, I won’t. Buying the RT was about slipping into a comfortable pair of old jeans. In my experience, these heavy bikes are super sensitive to tyres and I’ll unashamedly wave the flag for Metzelers on the RT. Michelin Pilot Road 4 GTs get good reviews on the BMW forums, but my money’s most likely going on a new set of Roadtec 01s, which replace the old Z8 Interacts. These should transform the handling from scary to solid, and bring back that familiar feeling.
Talking of familiar feelings, the R1150RT reminds me of a reunion with a faithful old friend. From that wonderful rocking sensation of the cylinders at standstill to that masterful electrically operated screen, which creates a bubble so serene I can ride in an open faced helmet without earplugs (something I’d never normally recommend). That well padded saddle is comfortable all day long, yet low to the ground and easy to manage for short-legged riders like me. I recently rode the latest R1250RT for work purposes and really admired it, but the simple analogue nature of this classic tourer and its instruments is much more up my Straße.
I’ve made sure that I’ve got EU cover and breakdown recovery on my motorbike insurance policy because I’m in planning to rack up some miles with my new old friend. Europe awaits, but first Scotland and a reunion with the roads on which I first fell in love with this venerable touring motorcycle.
Anyone know how to make a mix tape these days?