Dennis Noyes Tribute

Eighties motorbikes tests

BMW R 650 LS

It was as if it were the first time I had ever seen her!

After a long morning of curves and a fun photo shoot on the Jarama I left a bar in Bustarviejo to see this unusual red BMW already with soiled white wheels, supported on its "kick stand" and its aggressive “cockpit” front facing the snow of the peaks of the Guadarrama mountains.

For the first time in my life I felt a spark of passion for a BMW, and at the same time lost a little of that obligatory respect that had always been instilled in me by these three initials: BMW.

There, under the sun and mountain wind it seemed almost like just another Italian bike with bad ideas and the desire to start a fight. The daring, flamboyant and somewhat scandalous LS is the bad girl of an old family of aristocrats and great lords. It's as if instead of attending the University of Salamanca or Valladolid she had returned without a diploma from a progressive, foreign university.  She can still appear in public with her correct and older sisters, but she provokes whispered comments about her “modern” clothing.   Furthermore, according to gossip, she often arrives home just before dawn after mixing with those who for the majority of BMW high society are “undesirable elements”. It is even said that she has gone so far as to mingle with the "anti-social" Italians of the Morini, Laverda and Ducati families, and especially with the Guzzi clan.

What a scandal!

The lords of BMW, however, guarantee the impeccable character of the LS; but when I left that Bustarviejo bar to see it waiting for me there dressed that way and in a very suggestive position, I clearly saw that this friendly and daring BMW is the first one in the family to exteriorize the rebellious facet that has always hidden behind the most correct curtain of seriousness.

So, let’s not get mixed up with any more metaphors.  The LS is neither more nor less than a motorcycle of steel, iron, aluminum, and paint; and its spark is produced by the electronic ignition and not by a rebel soul.    Ultimately, however, this model does represent the beginning of a change of image of a brand that has so far avoided both bright colors and spectacular line.

The reactions and comments that I have been cataloguing during my test with the LS have been varied. The traditional BMW user has reacted in many cases with revulsion.  They say, as if it were not necessary to say anything more, “It doesn’t look like a BMW to me." and then add, as if it were a deadly insult, "It looks like an Italian bike".

The Ducati or the Laverda fanatic, always with a face like a werewolf and boots eaten away by so much dragging on the asphalt, often smiles ironically and says: "But what are they trying to do with that?"

The Spanish rider and the rider in general tend to be very conservative and often have very clear ideas about what a BMW is.

The same thing happened years ago with Velocette. When the old English factory released a series of green Venom 500 cc. bikes, Geoff Dodkin, an important agent in London, returned his shipment of three bikes saying that he had ordered three Velocettes and that “a green motorcycle couldn't be a Velocette”. I do not know if this anecdote is true, but even if it isn’t, it captures something of the truth about bikes and their images.

With the brand-new R 80 GS, BMW surprised a lot of people, but as it was an off road motorcycle (A marketing error of BMW because the R80 GS is their best road sports machine in terms of power).  It failed to raise as many comments as did the surprising LS.

It took me a whole week of coexistence with the LS to get to know it, and I think the key moment in which I finally saw it for what it is was when I left the bar and saw before me a light motorcycle.  These bikes with the same lightness in the steering and a moderately fast speed (more than 180 km/h (111.8 mph) in favorable conditions and despite the half Katana, half Latin inspiration behind their line are still a BMW, but a sport BMW, and it was about time!

Although the majority of BMW’s come into the hands of touring riders who give more importance to reliability and ability than to having a high cruising speed during long journeys.  There are also many BMW owners who spend the weekends punishing the gears, slamming on the brakes and pushing the red line in all gears. Even more cyclists including the more conservative "BMW Lord" have laughed with a pleasant surprise then with pride to see the excellent results of Melchor Lizarraga, when he dared to compete against the Italians and the Japanese of the Formula-1 Motorcycle Series.

With this change in the color line, plus the spectacular spoiler mounted directly on the steering, BMW finally made a giant step towards the eventual marketing of a super sport large engine bike. It is without a doubt the most Niche market model of the range, except for the GS, and in spite of its very good esthetics and its beautiful line, BMW has been exposed to direct comparisons with sporting character rivals.

It is inevitably the BMW 650 with its pushrod and rocker arm distribution that is quite obviously in direct comparison with an exemplary Italian like the Pantah 583 DC or a great Japanese bike like the XJ 650. There is currently no Pantah on sale in Spain and it would be very difficult for Ducati to offer them under 700,000 pesetas (4,200 Euros), although there is the possibility that could be done with Mototrans, which would mean considerable savings. The Yamaha XJ 650, 570,000 pesetas (3,425 Euros), has an advantage over the BMW of 154,000 pesetas (925 Euros) and 20 km/h (12.4 mph), but the factor that favors BMW as a sport bike is that in the mountains, where the "burned-out” Spaniard shows its teeth on Sunday morning.  Maximum power and horsepower become purely academic figures. With 50 horsepower, a weight of 183 kilograms (403 lbs.) and two powerful front discs, along with an effective rear drum, the LS could perhaps climb Montseny as fast as a 210 kilogram (462.9 lbs.) three cylinder bike with 15 HP more, and since what’s important in a street sport bike is not found in a stop watch, but in the flavor that brings us to taste it, the LS even with its maximum power handicap may represent an attractive alternative to the Asian three cylinder bikes..., provided that the rider accepts in advance that on the straight run any Japanese four cylinder is going to blow you away from stop to maximum speed.

Nor can we go too far in exaggerating the sporting qualities of the LS. With its ratio of 3.66 HP (virtually identical to a Ducati 500 Pantah, Laverda Montjuïc or Triumph Bonneville), LS is emerging as a light, medium sized engine super sports bike. However, partly because of their hard Metzeler tires, part by a tendency to wobble lightly at high speed and quick turns, the LS has soft suspensions and a long, 175 cm (68.8 inches) fork and 110 mm (4.3 inches) shock absorbers.


Now, upon entering fully the hot spot of medium displacement sports bikes, BMW is exposed for the first time to direct comparisons with the Italians, and despite having an engine with little joy, the LS defends itself moderately well, although you must leave it very clear that a Ducati Pantah or Laverda Montjuich, are both capable of revving up to 10,000 r.p.m. without problems.  They have a huge advantage in acceleration; and while the flexible Laverda has the lightness in the steering, the Ducati with more likelihood to wobble than the German is simply in another dimension when we reach comparisons of frame rigidity.

To say that the BMW is less rigid than the Pantah is not so much a criticism of the BMW as it is a eulogy for the Ducati. You can always check stiffness by taking the bikes to the limit on the circuit. At Jarama, for example, the BMW LS was moderately quick.  It exited the curve of the final stretch wiggling like custard and with both tires skidding slightly because of the hard composition of the rubber and the low temperature of the asphalt.  You can go quickly and put up with the wobble, but sometimes things get ugly.

However, you don't have to go to the Jarama to test the rigidity of your bike, nor do you have to expose yourself so much just to get an idea of the comparative stiffness of your machine.  All you need is just a straight and wide road without any traffic.

If you want to know what a really stiff bike is, you have to ride a Ducati 900 SS or a Pantah 500 and get down behind the fairing. When you see it reach 8200 r.p.m. with the 900 SS or 9000 r.p.m. with the Pantah, and if you are on a road of good asphalt and without traffic, you don’t have to do anything more than twist the handlebar forcefully.  Then you will see for yourself that nothing happens there. 

With a Laverda or a Sanglas 400 this "experiment" can produce unforgettable and violent movements. The majority of bikes, especially those that have a maximum speed of 180 km/h (111.8 mph) or more, you will notice lightness in the front axle and maybe a disconcerting wobble in the front.   The BMW R-65 has a lightness in the steering and that makes tire pressure and steering adjustment critical.  With the LS the spoiler puts more weight on the front axle and with the rear shocks with the hardest position and with me crouching over the big fuel tank putting even more weight on the front tire, I didn’t experience any of the alarming sensations that I usually do when I to do my “experiment”. I shifted the handlebar to the right to 180 km/h (111.8 mph) going down and the steering wavered a couple of times before going straight again. You never completely lose the sense of lightness in the steering at high speed with the LS, and an abrupt change of position like when put your feet on the passenger footrests to accommodate, may cause a slight shimmy. Claudio Boet commented on this problem during the presentation of the LS in Barcelona, noting that the only way to reduce this tendency to wobble in the front is by varying the position of the rider on the bike.   That’s right, and since the spoiler is not really fairing, it seems to me fundamental that the rider crouches down completely at speeds above 150 km/h (93.2 mph) to escape taking a beating from the wind. Adopting a racing position automatically loads weight on the front end. The same thing happens with the Suzuki 650, the Laverda Jota, the Guzzi V-50 and with almost all motorcycles today, although some, such as the Laverda 500 and the Sanglas 400-Y tend to shake your head at relatively low speeds.  However, if you do this experiment with a 900 SS or a Pantah after having done it with a “conventional” bike, you will be surprised when the front wheel immediately aligns itself to the rear wheel without any fleeting "shimmy".

No; the BMW LS is not a super-sport bike. Its frame seems quite stiff, but the tendency to rattle your head that we saw on the R-45 and R-65 is also present on the LS, although my impression is that the spoiler does work, loading more weight on the steering and making the LS a somewhat more rigid at high speed, but this is only a subtle improvement. The spoiler does more to give a sporting look to the bike than it does to improve its stability.

It’s ironic

It is ironic that BMW has had to listen to accusations of "plagiarism" and lack of originality, due to the so-called “Katana inspiration” of the LS, when in fact you could say that BMW has influenced the Katana. Plus the man who designed the exotic Katana is no “samurai”.  He is a former employee of BMW called Hans Muth. Herr Muth would have given BMW a totally original and sensational line, but there was conservatism and discretion at the higher levels of BMW, and Muth moved to Suzuki taking with him his designs and drawings. Suzuki was not slow in dressing their sporty and fast GSX 1100 with the daring and successful Muth body under the name of Katana, and BMW was (I guess) surprised that this avant-garde line jelled into the Katana that was praised in the international press as "an exceptional Japanese bike with the most successful line of recent years" (Cycle World) and the “line that captures the true nature of the Japanese sport bike.” (MCI).

Perhaps BMW did not dare to make a 1000 cc. with the Muth line, because that line requires brand-new features and more than 200 km/h (124.2 mph) minimum.  However if Guzzi, with its 850 cc engine and the beautiful Le Mans line can reach 205 km/h (127.3 mph), then BMW, with more cubic capacity, would also have to be able to market a super sports machine equivalent to its great Italian rival.  Although while BMW still hasn’t wanted to release a super high-powered sports bikes with an avant-garde line, they have already taken the definitive step towards the eventual presentation of one. The LS, with price problems, can be considered as an experiment in marketing and at the same time a preparation of the market for an aggressive boxer, or perhaps a 650 LS with turbo-compressor?

Without forgetting comfort

Perhaps, the most commendable thing about the LS is that BMW has been able with paint and a spoiler to give the R-65 a look so sporty, and so striking that many people have asked me if the bike was comfortable. With this line the LS makes us think of a Le Mans and to put us at ease with these Italians requires a long period of adaptation.  The speed freak upon climbing onto a Le Mans or a Pantah inevitably finds everything in its place, but the "normal" rider, who thinks more about maintaining a cruising speed of 120 km/h (74.5 mph) from Madrid to Javea than doing gymnastics on the foot rests while ripping through the Le Mans s-curves at the Jarama, often notes back pain even before climbing on!

But looks can be deceiving. The line is spectacular and sporty, but this change of character is achieved without compromising in any way the comfortable position that has always characterized the BMW.

Plus with so much talk about the mountains, performance and stability, we should not lose sight of the reality of the LS. It is a R-65 with a change of clothes, and continues to be a medium-sized bike as suitable for touring as any other current 650.

The final shout...

The LS is something more than an R-65 with a new line.  It has a loosened clutch that debuted with the 80 GS and is standard across the range.  Eliminating the inertia and mass of the clutch had brought about a change in the BMW that is like night and day.

It still has the feel of a gimbal bike, it doesn’t get close to the sweet precision of a Yamaha XJ 650, but it also doesn’t bring with it the trouble and noise of an old BMW or a Yamaha XS 110 S, for example.

The cylinders are made of Nikasil (nickel silicon carbide) now and according to BMW it takes more than 5,000 kilometers to break them in. It is true that a BMW with 30,000 miles almost always runs better than one with 3,000 kilometers, and during the test of 10,000 kilometers with the R-65, 45 HP, this bike ran considerably smoother at the end of the test than at the beginning.   I don’t think, however, that the timed performances in our shakedown test were significantly higher with 9,000 km/h. since in short tests for maximum speed the bike reached a roundtrip average of 176 km/h (103.9 mph) at 7300 r.p.m., 50 r.p.m. beyond the maximum, and with favorable winds, the LS surprised me by arriving at 7600 r.p.m. and 183 km/h. (113.7 mph) for real and 190 km/h (118 mph) on the speedometer.  For a 650 cc two cylinder with distribution by pushrod and rocker arm, this is going fast.

Another improvement in the LS, which we first saw in the 80 GS, is the new electronic ignition, which ensures that the bike keeps its settings without the need for constant attention to the points.

Detail by detail, the LS is the most modern of the BMW touring bikes, and although its differences from the R-65 are mostly esthetic, it is worth making a brief review of its details and impressions of handling, because it has been almost two years since we tested a BMW 650 cc.

The LS in gear

After removing a fine coating of snow and frost from the saddle after letting the LS sleep in a nice hotel in Miraflores, I had some doubts about whether it would start or not. There are times that you know almost by intuition that the bike is not going to start, and after pushing the little button your intuition becomes reality.  If this had been the case that first morning I don’t know how I would have started the LS, because to go from the garden to the street it would have had to climb a steep hill with a layer of snow on the ground.

However, with the air screw closed all the way and the gas only open a tad, the bike started after three seconds turning over.  With the cold of the mountain it flooded several times due to my impatience, and I had to let it heat up for a few minutes before getting up... with difficulty to the street.

Once on the road and with the air screw half closed, I could put feet on the footrests after a couple of scares on the snow.

For a bike with such an avant-garde line, the LS seems totally conventional from the controls. The dashboard includes a partial odometer that goes back to zero at the press of a button, warning lights, neutral, oil pressure gauge and high beam switch.   The red light on the Rev counter lit up at 8000 r.p.m. to warn the rider of the possibility of crossing valves had been removed.

It comes equipped with two rear-view mirrors that give a faithful image of the road that we leave behind, except at a low speed of 3000 to 3500 r.p.m..  The maximum torque doesn’t occur until 6500 r.p.m., so you can say that there isn’t any vibration problem, since the motor must be always spinning above a minimum of 4000 r.p.m.

The big difference between the feel of the 1000 cc BMW big bikes and 650 cc small bikes is that these BMW bikes of the new generation have short stroke cylinders (61.5 mm to 82 mm in diameter) (2.4 inches to 3.4 inches in diameter) and contrary to the image of the brand, they don’t perform well at low speeds. With 50 horsepower you can go quickly, but you need to make use of the gearbox to go faster than the 110 km/h (68.3 mph) because the bike is not “happy” at the 4500 r.p.m. that corresponds to the actual 110/h (68.3 mph). You also have to pull the clutch to get away quickly from the traffic light. Traditionally, the BMW bikes have been characterized by their low speeds and their response from low speed even directly, but 650 cc has no bright low speeds and to go quickly or accelerate with some anger from low speed you have to "row" with the gears.

We have already spoken about stability under exaggerated conditions (mountain and circuit), but in normal driving the BMW is a very easy and fun to ride, although the configuration of the engine with the protruding cylinders compels the crankshaft to be positioned "upstairs" thus raising the center of gravity.   However, with horizontal cylinders and the crankshaft adjusted to 180 degrees the center of gravity of the bike in general is not excessively high, and this bike goes into curves easily and proves itself to be very obedient in linked curves. When you're reaching the grip limits of the Metzeler, you will notice some warnings, but if you do not heed these sporadic grip losses, the next warning will come from the center stand that scrapes in left-wing curves a little before the foot rest.

The first sensation that you have of the LS is that of a bike with a high saddle and a short wheelbase.   The brakes during the initial break-in period are horrible, without feeling and inefficient.   With the test bike, delivered with "0" km, the brakes began to work properly with 350 kilometers, gradually improving to provide good braking and hard touch around 500 kilometer, exactly the mileage that the manufacturer considers as essential for the pads to adjust to the disks. Once the pads are broken in the bike inspires confidence and invites you to attack curves, but its mechanical silence (due to the new system air filter with replaceable plastic housing) is so nice that it also pleasant to ride it slowly while enjoying yourself at a cruising speed of 100 Km/h (62 mph). At this discrete speed and at about 4100 r.p.m., the only noise you will hear is the wind, although if you have to drop down a gear and speed up quickly the distribution noise is pronounced.

The details of the LS are at the BMW level of excellent quality.  The matte painting of exhausts seems capable of withstanding heat and rust, and only the most romantic will miss the beautiful teal color of the traditional chrome elbows and exhausts of the BMW.

The bulky indicators buzzer that embarrassed some R-65 riders by drawing so much attention to them while they waited at the traffic light has been replaced.

The instrument panel is of high quality and the controls and switches are easy to use.  This has a lot to do with the handling of a motorcycle, and BMW does not disappoint its users in this important aspect. The clutch lever has the feel of a hot knife cutting through butter, and the two depression Bing Carburetors require very little force to act. The switches are positive touch and always within reach of the thumb.

Traveling at night with the LS is a pleasure, because the powerful lighthouse H-4 160 mm (6.3 inches) headlight has a wide and perfectly defined lighting path.

Returning once again to the gears, I would say that if on the original R-45 and R-65 BMW was able to play down the annoying reactions of the transmission thanks to its new torsion damper on the cardan shaft. With the LS of the lightweight clutch, BMW is approaching for the first time the feel of Japanese gimbal motorcycles such as the CX-500 Honda and the Yamaha XJ-650, but still without reaching the precision and changing speed of the secondary transmission shaft of these Japanese bikes.

Price problems 

The BMW bikes are expensive, and with the LS-650 we find ourselves with a price of 724.007 pesetas (4,249.20 Euros), which really makes it difficult to recommend this bike, despite its undeniable appeal. By coldly analyzing the bike without attempting to evaluate the "BMW myth" factor, we inevitably came to the conclusion that the BMW has a nearly unbeatable rival in the Yamaha XJ-650 cc.  At 575,000 Pesetas (3,455.82 Euros), the Yamaha is proportionally more expensive in Spain as in other markets, but with four cylinders, cardan shaft, brilliant performances and a DOHC cylinder head engine, the Yamaha offers performance far superior for much less money.

Plus, if we confine ourselves only to the BMW range, we find that the LS has rivals within its own family that makes it difficult to justify the purchase of the LS with logical arguments. R-65, for example, sells for 666,443 pesetas (4,005.40 Euros), and this bike is virtually identical to the LS, except for the line and some other minor details. Do you want more power? Well, for 670,572 pesetas (4,030.22 Euros), you have access to the versatile (there has never been a better use of the word) R 80 GS, whose declared maximum power is the same as the LS, 50 HP, but whose maximum torque (5.8 kgm.) arrives at 5000 r.p.m., while the 5.3kgm. of the LS does not become evident until 6500 r.p.m..

The R 80 GS, presented as an off road motorcycle is jelling little by little as a road bike that offers as an extra option the possibility to keep going when the asphalt ends.  Esthetically, however, it is not comparable with the beautiful LS.

However, I think the most dangerous rival of the LS (within the BMW range itself) is the "bargain" in the BMW range. I am referring to the classical and black 972 cc R-100 with 67 hp, a maximum torque (7.2 km.)  at only 5500 r.p.m. and a top speed of 185 Km/h (114.9 mph), and all this for only 74.922 pesetas (450.29 Euros) more than the LS.

So, on paper, the LS is perhaps the least 'saleable' of the BMW bikes from the 650 cc to the 1000 cc, but BMW hasn’t manufactured many and BMW Spain has not brought out many either. It is an extension of the on a bike that is a hundred percent for a minority market that may even become a classic for collectors. 

 The best thing that can be said, however, of this beautiful and red LS (it also comes in grey and black) is that it is an daring and clean esthetic bike without superfluous embellishments and with a visual impact that has pleased the vast majority of those who have seen it rolling along the roads of Spain, although inevitably normal performances and super high prices have rained on the enthusiasm of those who admired it so much at first glance).

Plus, it is the beautiful and impetuous bad-girl of the BMW family continues to be an aristocrat despite her daring dress and even though it isn’t difficult to flirt with her in the street, marrying her could complicate your life and force you to take a second job to be able to pay for her whims.

But if in spite of so many sober tips it turns out that you're in love with her…I understand perfectly. Good luck!.