A Character with an Old Soul
A back-to-basics machine that oozes personality, and has Costa looking for some extra cash
Story by Costa Mouzouris
In 35 years of riding, I’ve bought and sold my fair share of bikes. I’ve owned about as many bikes as the years I’ve been riding, and I have tested way more than that. However, among them are but a few I’d consider favourites – bikes I wish I’d kept, would buy again, or would consider buying. This doesn’t mean I didn’t like the other bikes I’ve owned or tested, and it has nothing to do with performance; I love riding my current KLR650, it does everything I ask of it exceptionally well and has proven itself bulletproof. But as with other bikes I like, a connection just hasn’t formed with it. We haven’t bonded.
Bikes I have bonded with include the BMW R80G/S, the Harley-Davidson Sportster (with rigid engine mounting), the Honda FT500 Ascot (my first streetbike), and the air-cooled Ducati Super Sport, though there are others. Hopping aboard any of these bikes immediately takes me back to my early riding days, when motorcycles exhibited a certain mechanical simplicity, free of frills or gadgets. I used to be a motorcycle technician, after all, and a big part of what attracted me to motorcycles was their naked mechanicals, their exposed engines, and lots of steel and aluminum.
There’s a modern motorcycle I’ve recently added to my list of favourites: the BMW R nineT. When it was first announced late last year to commemorate 90 years of BMW motorcycle production, it didn’t strike me as particularly special. I initially wrote it off as just another factory retro: cute and probably quite efficient, but just another machine aiming to woo the hipster crowd, without pedigree or substance. One look at the bike in the metal, and my opinion began to swing; one ride, and I began contemplating growing a beard and rolling up my jean bottoms into cuffs.
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about the nineT that grabbed me by the soul. The frame is comprised of tubular steel and up front is a telescopic fork, a rarity among modern BMW boxers even if it is of the inverted variety. Aside from the gold-toned fork uppers, the styling is refreshingly understated. The bike is mostly black with a few silver highlights, and the only chrome you’ll find is on the header pipes, which lead to a stylish, bifurcated muffler made of titanium. The fuel tank is made from aluminum. And the high-performance HP2 Enduro notwithstanding, when was the last time you saw tubed tires on a BMW boxer?
The simplicity extends to the gauges, which feature no bells and whistles, no colour displays, just analog dials and a central LCD display. Some BMW purists will lament the absence of heated grips (they are optional), but I remember a time when lined gloves were a biker’s only defence against cold morning rides. There are no ride modes, no traction control, minimal suspension adjustability (none up front, rebound damping and preload in the rear), and the only modern technology you’ll find is the fuel-injection system and ABS, the one a necessity to meet emissions standards, the other standard on all BMW motorcycles.
In fact, I had other plans for the R nineT, which included scouring the BMW accessory catalogue and ordering up whatever I thought I’d need to personalize the bike (I was serious about that cash deposit, you know), all approved by BMW Canada’s Rob Dexter, of course.
The order form included a brushed aluminum passenger-seat cowl (the same finish as the sides of the aluminum fuel tank, sans the clear coat ($562), cowling pad ($110), mini LED turn signals ($244) and rubber fuel tank knee pads ($61). Also available is an accessory muffler and a separate connector pipe that relocates the muffler up high, but I prefer the low-mounted twin muffler, so those items were not added to my list.
There is one item that I would have added to the list, but it was back-ordered: a replacement muffler mount that allows removal of the passenger foot-peg subframe, cleaning up the rear end considerably. Since I installed the seat cowl and had no intention of taking on a passenger (my girlfriend rides her own), I devised my own solution, but more on that later. I avoided all the carbon-fibre bits and pieces that are also available because, well, that stuff just doesn’t belong on a retro streetbike.
BMW has gone to lengths to make the R nineT readily customizable, and this includes modifying the wiring harness to help ease replacing items like the headlight, taillight and turn signals. Threaded nubs on the single-sided final drive housing accommodate a taillight/licence-bracket assembly for adventurous bike builders who decide to remove the entire subframe assembly. I considered doing this until I saw pictures of a stripped R nineT and decided it looked rather incomplete.
The simple modifications I performed took no more than an hour start to finish, including replacing the four turn signals (the connectors are easily accessible), installing the rubber fuel tank pads (templates are included in the kit to positively locate them), and installing the passenger seat cowl. The last item adds a convenient storage compartment behind its removable pillow pad.
The final item on my modification list was to remove the passenger foot-peg subframe for the full solo effect. The back-ordered muffler bracket didn’t hamper my plan, and as any proper hipster would do, I fabricated my own from steel tubing sourced from a discarded folding lawn chair (a 120-volt MIG welder comes in handy). Now the R nineT was my nineT – at least figuratively. We were ready for our first ride.
Swinging a leg over the R nineT is reminiscent of some vintage bikes I’ve ridden; you’re perched atop the machine, and you lean forward slightly to grasp the wide, somewhat upswept handlebar. Seat height is 785 mm, and the seat is narrow at the front, so it’s easy to plant both your soles on the ground. Claimed wet weight is just 222 kg, making it feel quite light between your legs.
Fire up the air-cooled, 1170 cc boxer twin, and a deep, rich and surprisingly robust exhaust drone reaffirms the evocative visual cues you’ve received from the bike. The sound also reaffirmed my decision to leave the stock exhaust on – it sounds fantastic. The engine spins up quickly with a very alluring blat coming out the twin exhaust outlets, picking up revs more enthusiastically than I recall on other boxers in BMW’s line-up.
Clutch pull is light and the shift lever has a light, positive feel, a far cry from the BMW crunchboxes of yesteryear. And if its styling and sound isn’t enough to seduce you, roll on the throttle and you’ll become completely enthralled. The 110 hp engine has massive bottom-end torque and a prairie-wide powerband. It accelerates smoothly, yet forcefully, regardless of what gear you select. The bike feels light on its feet, a feeling enhanced by the light, non-Telelever front end. Are you a wheelie warrior? Just roll on a handful of throttle in second gear and hang on as the front wheel parts company with the pavement. Overall gearing is slightly shorter than on the R1200R, which contributes to the R nineT’s brisk acceleration, but also causes it to use slightly more fuel. I measured 6L/100 km, which is good for 300 km from its 18-litre fuel tank.
The wide handlebar provides ample leverage, and the bike changes direction on the mere thought. The nineT is nonetheless stable at speed, yet it’s also sportbike flickable on winding roads, transitioning effortlessly through esses and tightening up a turning line with ease. The suspension is firm, which contributes to the nineT’s ultra-nimble handling, though it also transmits larger bumps right into your backside.
If you do buy a nineT, you’ll have to sharpen your social skills, because people will approach you with questions, comments and compliments. “Sir, what year is your bike?” asked one of the cigarette-smoking grocery-store employees on break as I pulled into a parking spot.
“It’s a 2014,” I replied.
“See?” he told a co-worker, “I told you it was a new bike!”
Regardless of what initial impressions the R nineT makes on bystanders, many take notice. Park it and watch people gather like seagulls around a discarded bag of fries.
Alas, I was sad to part with the BMW R nineT, especially since…