Celebrating the Iconic BMW GS Series’ 40th Anniversary

Pinnacle of the air-cooled BMW GS procession, the 1994 R 100 GS with factory Paris–Dakar components will take you where you want to go, and then some.

 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s 2021 Gear Issue.

 

Project Vehicle: 1994 BMW R 100 GS Paris–Dakar

Okay, class: G as in Gelände and S as in Strasse. Any questions? Forty years ago, BMW introduced the R 80 G/S to the world. BMW’s decision to launch a new concept bike targeting the then vague enduro sector, into an untried large displacement motorcycle class, was nothing short of intrepid. There were no masses begging for pre-launch details, no press hypothesizing about the bike’s performance, no aftermarket waiting in the wings. The lead up to launch wasn’t so rosy.

Toward the late 1970s, BMW motorcycles sales were experiencing a downturn from a weak dollar (the US was BMW’s primary market). Furthermore, Japanese makers had boldly staked claims in the burgeoning enduro arena. Affordable bikes like Yamaha’s XT500, Honda’s XL250, Kawasaki’s KL250, and Suzuki’s SP370, highway-legal with motocross-esque looks, had established a following with their versatile frame geometry and suspension for variable terrain and street riding.

Factory-built BMW airhead twins, with their two opposing air-cooled cylinders, had been successfully raced off-road in Europe. The company also had decades of competing in and winning six-day trial events. Oddly though, they didn’t have a production off-road boxer (the opposing pistons move as two punching boxers). Handbuilt factory race bikes or muddied one-offs raced by privateers don’t always translate into reasonable production rides. BMW needed something unique in theunadventurous line. 

Initially without official approval from upper management, a handful of enthusiastic technicians in BMW’s motorcycle division had been tinkering with an R 80 (797cc) street bike for cross-country applications. The team lightened and redesigned the rear sub-frame, mounted a larger front rim, installed an electronic ignition, and attached a high front fender. A front disk brake became an industry first on enduros. The revolutionary leap forward was the single-sided swingarm, the Monolever, which housed the driveshaft and provided the rear suspension’s lower perch. 

Prototypes went through off-pavement paces and proved capable. On tarmac, the bike’s low center of gravity enabled nimble flicking through the sweepers, and its weight and displacement made for comfortable long-distance touring. The division’s newly installed brass conducted research and determined that enduro bike owners mostly stick to blacktop, with occasional rides on rough single track or trail. Arguably, this holds true today. Corporate took note of the Gelände (terrain) and Strasse (street/road) prototype, and immediately approved production. In September 1980, at the official launch in Avignon, France, the motorcycle press largely swooned over the R 80 G/S. In less than two years, an indistinct Gelände/Strasse concept had become a reality. With that, BMW changed adventure motorcycling forever.

 

Racing Paris–Dakar and the Fruits of Labor

In 1981, BMW officially campaigned three G/S bikes prepared by specialty race fabricators HPN (after founders Alfred Halbfeld, Klaus Pepperl, and Michael Neher) in the newly conceived Paris–Dakar Rally (privateers had raced BMWs to limited success in 1979 and 1980). With a grueling 9,500-kilometer course, most of it off-highway, this would be the ultimate G/S proving ground. Hubert Auriol, disqualified in 1980 while still in the lead, set the record straight in 1981. Proving he wasn’t riding a one-trick pony, Auriol won again aboard an HPN G/S bike in 1983. Belgian rider Gaston Rahier, atop airheads tricked out by HPN, was victorious in 1984 and 1985. 

BMW didn’t dither promoting their G/S. The aftermarket picked up, as HPN and other fabricators built bikes and sold parts to discerning riders. BMW also saw where this could go with more intrepid customers, and in 1984, they built a special edition called the R 80 G/S Paris–Dakar. With an 8.45-gallon (32-liter) steel tank, a small cargo rack behind a solo seat, and no passenger footpegs, the bike oozed long-range desert and adventure touring. This early distillation of the G/S Paris–Dakar concept put the bike into its own class. 

In 1987, BMW introduced the Paralever, which combined the suspension/shaft drive unit, but mitigated the elevator effect or rising motion prevalent on the Monolever rear end when under acceleration (and consequent sinking when off the throttle). BMW continued the R 80 GS and introduced a larger-displacement 980cc motor bolted into the R 100 GS. Marzocchi telescoping forks provided longer travel up front, and a larger front disk and Brembo twin-piston calipers were installed. Other modifications included reinforcements to the frame/subframe, a 6.8-gallon (26-liter) steel fuel tank, rims with spokes lacing through the outside edge (for tubeless tires), a low windshield, along with minor dash and styling changes. At this juncture, BMW dropped the ‘/’ between the G and S, to become GS, which became synonymous with Geländesport (off-road sport) instead of Gelände/Strasse.

In 1988, privateer Eddy Hau raced an HPN-built R 100 GS to Paris–Dakar winner’s podium. BMW seized the moment and released the R100 GS-PD (PD for Paris–Dakar). This model came with a solo seat, large horizontal cargo rack, and plastic engine fairing. BMW added an external tubular structure, which bolted to the bike’s frame, partially protecting the fuel tank, upper fairing, and headlight assembly. An adjustable Plexiglas windshield was added to keep wind and bugs from pummeling the rider. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature is its massive 9.24-gallon (35-liter) plastic fuel tank. 

To many, the 1990-1996 R 100 GS-PD is the pinnacle of the airhead GS boxers. The aesthetic, especially with the substantial fuel tank, has flowing contours reminiscent of Honda’s XR. It’s the epitome of analog adventure bikes: air-cooled engine simplicity, easy to access dual carburetors, unsophisticated yet effective rear drum brake, reserve fuel capabilities with the tank’s dual petcocks, storage under the seat, field repairable, and an adequate factory-supplied tool kit. You can hammer it full-throttle on the Autobahn for hours, panniers stuffed to the brim and cargo rack loaded to the gills, then nimbly thread your way in first gear on a dirt road less traveled to your favorite secluded campsite. The last of the Geländesport PD airheads came with a soul thirsty for exploration.

 

40th Anniversary Gelände/Strasse Project Bike

I recently purchased a low-mileage 1994 R 100 GS with all PD trappings fit for a G/S 40th anniversary project. Worry not purists; it isn’t a factory-configured R 100 GS-PD. A previous owner’s paperwork and a color code sticker indicate this is just a wayward GS. When still in production, the R 100 GS converted easily to Paris–Dakar configuration. I did this in 1993, through a shop in Hamburg, Germany, for another GS. The parts weren’t in a giant box labeled PD Umbauteile/Conversion parts; one just bought individual components off the shelf.

This project bike goal is to prepare a long-distance, world-tour-ready bike that upholds the traditional reliability of the R 100 GS platform, with key component upgrades where appropriate. Within these parameters, aims are to cut weight, maximize efficiency, and increase durability, while keeping the motorcycle repairable by the rider to the greatest extent. The point isn’t to build a race replica requiring dedicated tools and specialized mechanics. Some parts derive from racing but were chosen to improve reliability or simplicity, rather than high performance. 

When rehabilitating old bikes, people have differing views. Most vintage expedition and overland transports have room for improvement, especially after three decades afield. The history of this 26-year-old bike was uncertain, and many aspects clearly required attention, including multiple oil weeps. A relatively vague maintenance record passed through various hands didn’t help, so naturally, I changed oils, filters, spark plugs, corroded nuts and bolts, crush rings, cable ties, and fuel lines as the baseline. Detailed inspections were essential, and certain aftermarket upgrades and modifications just as crucial.

Because R bike parts are highly interchangeable, it’s common to encounter mix-and-match GS and PD configurations that meet individual preferences. Many R 100 GS-PD owners opt for the standard GS two-person seat, with only a small aft cargo area. The lower GS front fender is great for spirited riding, but some find the high motocross-type fender adequate at speed, and requisite in dirt.

 

Phased Build: Adapt and Overcome

COVID-19 introduced significant issues and delays. Working on a vintage bike didn’t make things easy. Even without a pandemic, finding a fairly local and experienced airhead mechanic who could tackle issues well beyond the owner’s manual proved problematic. I decided to have a phased build, with the first segment largely addressing handling characteristics and general optimization. The next installment will focus on engine components, navigation equipment, performance characteristics, tools/spares, paint, and tidying the final product.

For the first phase, I contacted Trevor Dunne, a respected Santa Barbara motorcycle shop owner, racer, and experienced fabricator. As it turns out, South African-born Dunne is also a factory-trained BMW motorcycle mechanic (see sidebar). I wasn’t through the second sentence describing the concept, when he had already envisioned the build and how we could adjust and prevail. 

The most quintessential and recognizable desert airhead: the HPN-built BMW boxer Eddy Hau raced in the 1986 Paris Dakar Rally (photo credit: BMW Motorrad USA).

 

We also had colleagues in Germany tracking down items. Finding the most ubiquitous of late-model airhead parts, like the OEM shaft drive rear boot, was difficult. When aftermarket parts appeared available, we discovered some were either out-of-stock or made of pure unobtanium. In certain instances, Dunne laboriously fabricated from scratch. 

 

Phase 1 Build: Nuts and Bolts

Listed here are different aspects addressed during phase 1, followed by the chosen solutions or accessories. 

Outdated and inadequate front brake caliper and disk Install larger Spiegler 305mm full-floating disk with lightweight aluminum disk carrier and Brembo Gold Line 4-piston brake caliper with billet fork-mounted adapter.

Rear brake arm susceptible to damage from objects jutting from groundReconfigure rear brake arm to point up, install heavy-duty cable made by TerryCable, fabricate billet mount to support cable and brake arm.

Stock exhaust and emissions collector heavy, restrictive to engine performance Replace with stainless 2-into-1 pipe and custom exhaust.

Front and rear blinkers stick out and are susceptible to damage Replace front with low profile units; relocate mount for stock rear units.

US market, right-side, handlebar-mounted light switch unit has no capability to shut off headlights Install stock BMW European market switching unit.

No auxiliary fog/off-road lights Install dimmable Clearwater Darla lights for better visibility and illumination.

Stock oil cooler on right cylinder crash bar susceptible to damage by objects or crash Replace stock oil cooler with larger unit for better cooling and increased volume, relocate new oil cooler to frame mount behind front fender, install longer braided stainless lines. 

Oil flow to oil cooler not temperature restricted Install Silent Hektik thermostat between oil cooler lines and lower engine case; restricts flow out to oil cooler until engine oil temperature has reached 90°C. 

Front fork springs fatigued Race Tech rebuilds forks with heavy-duty progressive springs, Gold Valve Cartridge Emulator, new seals.

Rear Öhlins shock fatigued and weeping Race Tech rebuilds shock on Öhlins carcass: new spring, new valve, new nitrogen, new preload adjuster.

Upper rear shock mount rubs Öhlins shock Modify and reinforce frame to mitigate.

Stock headlight has limited beam width and performance Install dual headlight conversion with H4 low/high/parking bulb and H7 high bulb; integrate into BMW European market handlebar-mounted switch.

Left handlebar-mounted choke lever and dual choke cables leading to twin carburetors susceptible to damage in crash, difficult to assess wear, problematic to adjust in some circumstances Install individual short choke pulls directly to back of carburetors for better reliability, ease of repair, simplicity.

Tires old Replace with Continental Twinduro TKC 80 front/rear.

Emissions related Secondary Air System (SLS) and electronic fuel shut-off valve increase engine wear, add weight and complexity Remove all aforementioned system components; install European starter cover and lower airbox housing that are not drilled out for SLS, fuel vapor return lines, etc.

Stock jetting in 32mm Bing inadequate for new exhaust system Install larger jets. 

Electric starter old and fatigued Install new Nippondenso Toyota truck starter, adapted for late-model BMW airheads, requires less amperage and is 50 percent lighter than stock.

No extra fuel or water storage for remote travel Modify aftermarket pannier frames to hold removable Rotopax 1-gallon fuel and water cells.

Stock panniers not watertight; when removed, hard cases difficult to carry with other gear; hard case volumes are fixed Adapt versatile, removable, collapsible, waterproof Mosko Moto Scout 25-liter pannier kit to existing pannier rack.

 

Initial Ride Impressions

The stainless exhaust’s throaty roar is more like a large displacement thumper and provides excellent auditory feedback. The suspension and brakes will require more road and trail time under load to maximize the setup’s capabilities. We rejetted the carburetors twice, and they seem very responsive across the RPM range. On an older bike, Clearwater’s Darla lights drastically improve the riding experience. Mosko Moto’s Scout 25-liter panniers easily adapted to another manufacturer’s rack, and the Scout 30-liter duffle fits perfectly on the R 100 GS-PD cargo rack. 

An R 100 GS took me through war zones, deserts, and mountains. An electrical engineer in Trittau, Germany, helped mount the Paris–Dakar parts, and a police motorcycle mechanic in Ljubljana, Slovenia, synched the carburetors. I later commuted on it daily for four years. I’m secretly jealous that my R 100 GS-PD will continue on adventures long after I can’t. It’s more a lifelong friend than a bike, and this build, an homage. 

 

Trevor Dunne

As a youth in South Africa, Dunne raced a Kreidler 50cc and Zündapp 125cc. Sponsored by a shop in Pretoria, he wrenched on bikes to earn cash. His high school girlfriend, daughter of a US embassy employee, suggested applying to American universities. During the initial visit to California, Santa Barbara’s riviera caught his eye and reminded him of Durban, where he grew up. In 1975, he began studies at UCSB.

Dunne raced bikes and worked at Suzuki of Santa Barbara (the dealership also carried Husqvarna, BMW, and Ducati) to cover his education. With an advanced degree in industrial engineering, he landed a job with an aerospace firm. Dunne opened Dyno Cycle as a side gig and eventually left aerospace to focus full time on the shop. He has raced bikes by makers Cagiva, Ducati, Gilera, Yamaha, and BMW.

In 2000, he opened Ducati of Santa Barbara. Trevor’s daughter Daniela, also a rider, and son Carlin also worked there. In 2013, Carlin won the grueling Baja 250 and 500 as a solo rider. Among other accomplishments, he had four wins at Pikes Peak. At that famed mountain course in 2019, riding with the fastest time on record and just before the finish line, Carlin had a fatal accident. Daniela has established the Carlin Dunne Foundation to assist young riders with mentorships and advice and help extreme athletes with cranial injuries. Currently, Trevor focuses on custom manufacture, prototypes, vintage repair, and specialty parts.

Special thanks to Trevor Dunne for his taking on this project during difficult times. Gina De Pasquale did the precision GS riding for the photo shoot, and proofread the draft article. Friends in Germany hunted down parts, and BMW shops in Southern California helped locate what was available in the US. 

 

Vehicle Specs

Stock Specifications

1994 BMW R 100 GS (with factory Paris–Dakar components)

 

Power/Engine

Engine type: 979cc, air-cooled flat opposing 2-cylinder (boxer), 4-stroke

Engine bore x stroke: 94mm x 70.6mm

Compression ratio: 8.5:1

Valves: two per cylinder

Horsepower: 60.0 horsepower at 6,500 rpm

Maximum torque: 56 pound-feet at 3,750 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed 

Final drive: shaft (Paralever type)

Clutch: cable operated, dry single plate

 

Miscellaneous

Fuel system: 2x Bing 32mm carburetors

Tire (front): 90/90-21T

Tire (rear): 130/80-17T

Dry weight: 454.6 pounds

Curb weight (wet): 519 pounds (with 9.24-gallon tank)

Brake (front): single 285mm disk, 2-piston Brembocaliper

Brake (rear): drum type, cable operated

Approx. fuel economy: 48 mpg

Fuel capacity (Paris–Dakar): 9.24 gallons

 

Resources

benchmarkworks.com, Toyota truck starter adapted for airhead BMWs

bingcarburetor.com, carburetor jets, rebuild kits, new parts

boxer2valve.com, various stock and aftermarket R 100 GS-PD parts

boxercafe.com, replacement fenders, fairings

boxxerparts.de, various stock and aftermarket R 100 GS-PD parts

carlindunne5.com, foundation honoring Carlin Dunne’s life; support extreme sport athletes with TBI and similar injuries, and rookie/young rider mentorship

clearwaterlights.com, auxiliary motorcycle and off-road lights

Dyno Cycle of Santa Barbara

hpn.de, the original BMW airhead rally bike builders, highly specialized parts

moskomoto.com, Scout 25L pannier kit, Scout 30L duffle, Fatty tool roll, Pico tank bag, Navigator cell phone pocket

racetech.com, front fork and rear Öhlins rebuild/performance upgrades

rotopax.com, fuel and water canisters

terrycable.com, heavy duty rear brake cable fabrication

touratech.com, footpegs

 

Our No Compromise Clause: We carefully screen all contributors to make sure they are independent and impartial. We never have and never will accept advertorial, and we do not allow advertising to influence our product or destination reviews.


Recommended books for Overlanding


Crossing The Congo: Over Land And Water In A Hard Place
by Mike Martin, Chloe Baker, Charlie Hatch-Barnwell
From $32.5
Dreaming Of Jupiter
by Ted Simon
From $16.81

For Bryon, overland travel is often vocational necessity rather than a purely adventurous pursuit. To accomplish field research for a PhD in archaeology, he frequently rode a gear-laden BMW R100GS/PD roundtrip from Scotland to Croatia. He then worked as a contract archaeologist, taught field survey and excavation, and collaborated with the Department of Pre-and Protohistory, University of Zürich, before starting a consulting company. Work has led him to the Middle East, South Pacific, Americas, Africa, and Europe. Bryon is a photographer, scuba instructor, pilot, wilderness EMT, and certified public safety off-pavement vehicle operations instructor. He also conducts specialized safety courses for workforce members deployed to adverse locations, is on a search and rescue team, and serves in a law enforcement diving unit.