On Wednesday morning I got up early and drove seven hours round-trip to pick up a new-to-me 1996 BMW R1100GS from a Craigslist ad for the princely sum of $3,900. Considering the bike’s rare color and legendary longevity, plus a few interesting aftermarket bits I saw in the ad, I figured it would be a great deal. When I showed up to check it out on Wednesday morning I could not have imagined just how great this bike would be for the money. It’s in exceptional condition, has most of the aftermarket bits I would fit to it anyway, and runs like a top. This is the start of a lovely relationship.
For the record, U-Haul motorcycle trailers still rule!
I’ve been debating what motorcycle I want to buy for at least the last two years. Considering I’m “the bike guy” around here, I should probably have my own motorcycle. Yeah, I pretty much constantly have press bikes, and yes I technically do still own my 1983 Honda MB5 two-stroke 50 city bike, but I wanted something I could really ride for a lot of different types of adventuring and form a relationship with.
I set a couple rules for myself a while back. I decided a long time ago that if I was going to buy a new motorcycle, it would be electric. And if I was going to buy a gas motorcycle, it had to be Radwood era. As one of the founders of Radwood, and the guy who really wants to see more bikes show up at our events, I had a responsibility to put up or shut up.
I was looking for a couple different types of motorcycle. For one thing I have recently learned an appreciation for adventure off road riding, so I wanted something that could tackle trails and some open desert bombing. I also wanted something comfortable and sure footed for long-distance rides. And thirdly, I wanted something that could serve as a track-day monster, as I would like to get into tracking bikes. This kills two birds with one stone. An electric modern ADV like the Zero DSR I loved riding earlier this year would only do one of those. That frees me up to get a fast and fun electric as my second bike for canyon carving and track work. Hmmm, I wonder what that could be?
From 1994 to 1999 BMW Motorrad built the R1100GS in Berlin. With 80 horsepower and 72 lb-ft of torque from a 1085cc flat twin, it’s not a screamer, but it’s quick enough and just purrs along at highway speeds. This was the first Gelande/Strasse from BMW to use an oil-cooled cylinder head rather than the iconic ‘airhead’ design used by BMW from 1923 to 1993, so it was pretty revolutionary. This bike also ditched the former 1000G/S carburetors for a new Motronic fuel injection system, which strangely still requires the use of a choke on cold start. This model also introduced a new front suspension setup for the GS, a new A-arm system BMW called “Telelever”.
There were two major options on the R1100GS; ABS and heated grips, both of which this bike has.
- Öhlins! While the factory stuff came with remote-adjustable preload and wrench-adjustable ride height, the Öhlins dampers just take everything to the next level. They were a pricey upgrade for the previous owner, like basically everything else on this list.
- “Jesse” hard cases. These will come in handy when I go tent camping out in the desert with some pals. They’re chunky and add to the bike’s dorky cool factor. I’m going to have to get some Aerostitch to match this level of ADV dork.
- Aftermarket comfort seat. SO COMFY!
- Aftermarket headlights and PIAA fogs. The shop that did this work did a wonderful job in-period, because the PIAA’s are wired into the bike’s high beam switch, which is a super nice touch.
- Touratech dirt pegs. These give a nice wide foot hold for standing up off road.
- Adjustable windscreen from MRA. This is clutch for those long highway hauls.
- A magnetic tank bag.
- Is that a radar detector? You bet your sweet ass it is.
- Not pictured: engine skid plate and crash bars to match the fitted cylinder head skid plates. Also a Clymer manual and five extra oil filters.
This example was sold to me by a little old guy who was just a joy to be around. He’s been riding longer than I’ve been alive, and probably has more miles on two wheels than most people put on their cars. He struck me as an honest straight-shooter, and judging by the level of notes and care he took with the bike, he took good care of it. Someone traded this bike to him for his older airhead GS plus cash a few years back, and his wife’s health complications had him staying much closer to home in the last two years. He figured he didn’t need two motorcycles, so the older one needed to go.
I immediately fell in love with the color. It’s just such a 1990s color, like a slice of lemon meringue. I spied the windscreen and the panniers in the ad, and knew it looked like the kind of bike I needed. Obviously motorcycle buying is an emotional experience, and this was more about impulse than anything else. I just saw it and knew that it had to join my stable. I’ll be strapping it to the front of my Ambulance and hauling it around the country in short order, no doubt.
For the time being I’ll probably ride the bike as-is to get a feel for how I’m going to use it.
In the short term I already know I’m going to need a little bit of a riser on the bars to make standing up off road slightly more comfortable. I’ll probably also swap out the mirrors for a ram-mount style ADV mirror, which is infinitely adjustable practically on the fly, and doesn’t break when you fall over.
Speaking of falling over, I’m definitely going to fit the crash bars and engine skid plate before I do any trail riding.
I think once these tires wear out, I’ll get a more aggressive set of off road tires. These are a decent compromise between dirt and street, but they don’t look capable of handling the deep sand that northern Nevada deserts tend to throw at you.
As it stands, this bike is pretty much exactly how I would modify it, you know, given an unlimited budget. There are thousands of dollars in upgrades here that work perfectly for what I want the bike to do. I bought a bunch of accessories and got a free BMW with them.
I’ve only got about 50 miles on the bike so far, and I’ll be sure to occasionally update you all with ownership stories and future projects, but for now my preliminary review is that this is a big comfy bike that fits me like a glove. It’s not too new that it’s too complicated to work on myself, and it’s not too old that I need to learn how to tune carburetors.
That’s what I love about the Rad era, it’s just Goldilocks perfect. It’s modern and reliable enough that you could ride it 800 miles every day for a year without too much issue, but it’s old and simple enough that the computers aren’t doing all of the work for you, and there’s not too much to go wrong.
Now to start the search for an electric trackday bike.