BMW R90S History

Sometimes history is made not by making something happen, but by preventing something from happening. The impact of the BMW R90S is something like that.

Prior to 1969, the BMW line-up was poorly positioned to do battle with emerging multi-cylinder powerhouses put on the market by Honda, Kawasaki, Triumph and BSA.

The lineup in 1968 consisted of the 294cc, 494cc and 594cc air-cooled opposed twins. None of the bikes, which were based on improved post-war boxer designs and produced about 41 horsepower, were anywhere near a match for the 60-70+ horsepower delivered by the competition.

In 1969, BMW made a step toward competitiveness with the introduction of the R75/5 with a 745cc version, but the competition was still outrunning the best BMW had—literally.

The R75/5 did bring some important changes that would be hallmarks of the progression toward a more modern product all around. The leading link “Earles” type front suspension was dropped in favor of telescopic forks. Other improvements included a high pressure oil system, a new 12V electrical system had a 200W generator that supported electric start, and other features and color options beyond the traditional black.

The R75/5 had refinement and more punch than its predecessors, but it still was not in the ballpark as far as all-out performance.

As a result, sales and profits for the motorcycle division of BMW were not up to expectations and the very existence of BMW motorcycles hung in the balance by the early 1970s. The back story on this was told by motojournalist and vintage motorcycle expert, Mitch Boehm in an article in the December 2014 issue of Motorcyclist.

It turns out that leadership from the BMW automobile operation actually stepped in to turn things around and prevent the motorcycle division from being shut down. Addressing the need for a higher performance machine with updated features like disc brakes, a five speed and more sporting image, the R90S with its 898cc engine was the result, which hit the market in 1974.

Extreme attention to detail, the slick “smoke” two-tone paint scheme, bullet-style chin fairing and about 66 horsepower at 7000 rpm conveyed the image and packed the punch to pull BMW motorcycle sales out of the doldrums. Its performance cred was backed up by Reg Pridmore’s claiming of the Superbike crown and Helmut Dahne winning the Production TT in 1976.

The success of the R90S not only prevented the motorcycle operation from being cut back or eliminated, it led to yet another step up the performance ladder with the release of the 980cc R100S series in 1976.