Photos by Shahram Shiva and from BMW Archives
In 1983 BMW launched a groundbreaking new line of water-cooled, four-cylinder motorcycles called simply the “K.” Prior to that time, the only engine being offered by BMW was the venerable Boxer. There is much history around the K bikes. They were the new flagship BMW motorcycle range with powerful engines mated to modern styling. The K bikes soon became the new host machines for BMW’s most cutting-edge technology.
The first production antilock braking system (ABS) in the world was introduced on a K100RS in the 1988 model year. The Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA), which has become all the rage now, was first introduced on the K1200S in 2004. BMW released their first 100hp power plant with the wind-tunnel refined K1, and continuing with this tradition, they used the K line to launch their very first 130hp engine on the truly unique K1200RS in 1997. Also added to this list of firsts: BMW’s first electronic cruise control for motorcycles appeared on the K1200LT along with factory-heated seats. Inspired from their car division, two headlight innovations—adaptive headlights and Corona Lights—made their debut on the K1600 series in 2011. Today the K1300S has a very competitive 175hp I-4 power plant and the inline-6 engine powering the K1600 series has a range-topping 129 lb/ft of torque.
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The K series of motorcycles began in 1983 as a single model, a naked K100. This bike had no other designation attached to it, such as “RS” or “LT.” They came later. This new radical BMW looked ultra modern for its time, and it was powered by a new engine concept: a 987cc, flat four, longitudinal, laid out on its left side with the cylinder heads on the left and the crankshaft on the right. It was nicknamed the “Flying Brick” because of the look of the engine. This engine, in its most updated form (1170cc), was in use until 2009 as it powered the K1200LT touring motorcycles.
I remember the first time I saw a K100. As a rider and a young design student, I gravitated almost immediately toward this new line of bikes from BMW. The highly modern, clean and linear lines of this new K machine were a complete departure from almost every other motorcycle on the road at the time. Esthetically, certain models in the BMW K range have always been some of my favorite motorcycles, although for many purists, the early K bikes didn’t exactly rate as perfect riding machines.
In the past 14 years, I have put about 140,000 miles on K bikes alone. These high-spirited miles have been put on a variety of K models, starting with a very clean and pampered K1100RS that I picked up from a dealership in New York. After about a year, I swapped that K11 for a new K1200RS in November 1999. Little did I know that this particular K12RS would in essence not only alter my professional life but also teach me about what it means to love a machine. Exactly 10 years later, in November of 2009, I added a new K1300S—in the gorgeous Lava Orange Metallic—to my garage. In between I have reviewed many K press bikes for my online community.
Of course, BMW riders are no strangers to love affair with bikes. Ever since the very first Beemer (the R32) was launched in 1923, they have been coveted machines for those in the know.
Numerous types of K motorcycles offering four distinct power plants have appeared in the past 30 years. The K100 launched the eight-valve, four-cylinder version with telescopic front forks. Soon after that, the popular K100RS emerged with a very elegant and functional half fairing. Continuing with the expansion of the range, touring models were also offered in the form of K100RT and K100LT. However, the bike that proved especially popular was the smaller 740cc, three-cylinder K75 that was introduced in 1985. The still-in-demand K75 is especially noteworthy because of its continuing popularity, even though the last of the K75s left the BMW factory 18 years ago, in 1995. Added to the above bikes are the 1293cc inline four in the K1300S, the K1300R and the 1649cc inline six in the K1600GT and the K1600GTL.
The next big shift with the K motorcycles started with the 1988 model range as the first ABS was introduced on a K100RS. This was quickly followed by an updated and more powerful version of the K-bike power plant. For 1989, the new “Flying Brick” sported a 16-valve engine, now offered 100hp and appeared wrapped in racing plastics in an experimental, and very radical for its time, superbike called the K1.
The revolutionary but polarizing BMW K1 with its wind-cheating, aerodynamic bodywork, in many ways ushered in a new performance age for BMW. The 130hp K1200RS and the 175hp K1300S wouldn’t have been possible without the K1 DNA. Today, the K1 is one of the favorites among collectors of modern BMWs.
Although BMW introduced the anti-dive Telelever front suspension in 1994 on the R bikes, it wasn’t until 1997 that they were placed on K bikes. The first K that received the Telelever was the K1200RS. The popular, ultra smooth K1200RS (1997–2004) marked the first time BMW broke through the self-imposed 100 horsepower limit. The K1200RS with its sexy and curvy Italian inspired bodywork was a hit. As the first K bike to actually suspend the engine beneath a massive aluminum frame, instead of using it as a stressed member, the K12RS is glass smooth and is a reliable and comfortable long-distance runner. This successful engineering of a vibe-free, super smooth riding experience was one of the benchmarks of the K1200LT luxury tourer. The new six-cylinder engines in the K1600 series have since added several more “o-o-o-s” to a smooth ride.
In the summer of 1999 I took my only demo ride on the then new K1200RS, and I was hooked. I loved the power, the styling, the ergos and specially the new ABS II. A few months later I picked one up in black custom paint with all the available options at that time. I like black bikes, but the K12RS wasn’t available in my color, so I had the bike painted before I took delivery and nicknamed it “Nandi” for the mythical bull that the Hindu god Lord Shiva rides upon. A short few months later, in March 2000, I organized the first ever K1200RS-only rally in Connecticut, which made the cover of the June 2000 issue of this fine magazine.
K bikes have been bringing smiles to many hardcore, committed riders for decades. The K75, for example, with its smooth, highly reliable, counter-balanced engine has run quite successfully in the Iron Butt Rally and has also been the choice of global adventurers.
A historically important year for BMW is 2004. This was the year that BMW introduced a new product philosophy. BMW’s post-2004 engineering vision was not only to produce bikes that not only remain faithful to the brand’s time-honored qualities of reliability, advanced engineering, premium components and safety, but also to become highly competitive in the areas of performance and esthetics. With this new goal in mind, power-to-weight ratio became the new mantra at BMW. Their fine machines that used to be the heaviest in their respective categories are now the lightest. For example, the K1300S is the lightest in the hypersport class when compared to Suzuki Hayabusa and Kawasaki ZX14, and so is the K1600GTL when compared to the Honda Gold Wing.
With this new philosophy in mind, BMW changed their K-series lineup in 2004, by introducing the 1157cc, across the frame (transverse)-mounted, liquid-cooled inline four-cylinder power plant putting out an impressive 167hp and 96 lb-ft of torque at 8250rpm. This engine was mated to a new K1200S that was about 15 percent lighter and 30 percent more powerful than the generation it replaced. This new production of K bikes also launched an alternative front suspension, different from the trusted Telelever. BMW called this new system Duolever for a double wishbone, with an upright and steering linkage system that was originally designed by the inventor Norman Hossack.
The K1200S was followed by a lighter and slightly quicker K1200R naked bike and the 152hp K1200GT, an agile and comfortable grand touring machine. A half-faired K1200R Sport was also introduced in 2007.
This new renaissance at BMW Motorrad began in 2004. However, initially this new shift at BMW didn’t go quite so smoothly. The first series of the new K bikes proved somewhat troublesome, but by the 2007 model year the bikes became much more reliable, sporting upgraded transmission and clutch assembly.
For 2009 BMW upped the game on the K sport bikes by introducing a true 1293cc powerhouse with a massive 103 lb-ft of torque and a cool 175hp. In the same year, the K1300R (not in U.S.) and also the K1300GT were released. The current K1300S is a highly rated sophisticated beast (with 0-60 at 2.8 sec) that cannot only run with the most powerful bikes in the world but can easily out maneuver and out corner the likes of the venerable 'Busa and the ZX14.
The latest model to wear the K badge with honor is the K1600 series introduced in 2011. The new range of cutting-edge touring bikes has proved very popular, especially in the U.S., and has been rewarded with many best bike awards.
As for the future, there is no doubt that BMW will build on the success of the new K1600 series; but the future of the K-S line is uncertain, as the S1000RR, the most praised sport bike in memory, is currently the main focus for the sport segment at BMW. Therefore, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the future K bikes were based only on the new touring six-cylinder power plants.
K bikes have developed quite a diehard following in the past 30 years. I have thoroughly enjoyed riding them, starting from their midpoint into their evolution. With their planted, straight-line high stability, all-day comfortable and roomy ergonomics, smooth and always very powerful engines, ABS, shaft drive, great braking power, alternative front suspension and host of trick options, they’ll remain a favorite among serious two-wheel enthusiasts with a taste for power and refinement.
Happy birthday, K bikes.…
About the Author: Shahram Shiva is longtime BMW K bike rider and enthusiast. He is the founder of BMWSuperBikes.com, K12RS.com and BMW-K.com .