Let’s say we hop into Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine and set the date for October 1936 and Berlin as a location. With us, we bring a photo of the 1998 BMW R 1200 C. We show it to BMW R 5 designer Rudolf Schleicher. The revulsion is immediate, and he runs to the local Kneípe to drown his sorrows. “Was haben sie meiner geliebten Marke angetan?” he wails.
But, before he can drain a keg of Gorkauer, we pull out a photo of the 2021 BMW R 18. Schleicher pores over the image, regains his composure, and sighs, “Sie erinnern sich an mich.” All is well again in 1936 at Bavarian Motor Works.
BMW wasn’t shy about the 1936 R 5 being the inspiration for the R 18. By any standard, the R 5 was a groundbreaking motorcycle. The R 5 instituted the revolutionary idea of shifting the four-speed gearbox with your foot, rather than your hand. The racing-based double-cradle tubular-steel arc-welded frame was enhanced by a telescopic fork with hydraulic damping—hardly the norm. Finally, the OHV 500cc boxer twin pumped out 24 horsepower, which was enough to transport the R 5 at a superbike speed of 84 mph. A motorcycle for the ages, indeed.
While the 2021 BMW R 18 doesn’t aspire to superbike performance, it does share the unmistakable styling cues of the striking R 5. The retro feel of the R 18 is as undeniable as it is intentional. As a result, the R 18 isn’t so much a cruiser as it is a classic—something no one ever called the R 1200 C.
We first got wind of the R 18 when a concept version was revealed at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in May 2019. It took BMW designers over a year to complete the R 18 Concept’s translation into the R 18 First Edition—a chrome-enhanced version of the standard R18—and it was well worth the wait.
The excitement for the 2021 BMW R 18 First Edition begins the moment you see it. The 1802cc Big Boxer motor and the machine-drawn pinstriping on the fuel tank and fender immediately captivate your attention. The proportions are larger than life, yet the flawless form grounds the R 18 in reality. The motorcycle is inarguably charismatic, even before you start the motor.
As large as the cylinders look when approaching the R 18, it is impossible to fully prepare yourself for their size once astride the motorcycle. They are impressively mammoth, making a statement about the power in which you are about to imbibe.
Any thought that the R 18 is a traditional cruiser is abandoned when you familiarize yourself with the rider triangle of the pegs, grips, and seat. In many ways, this is an extension of the R nineT Leitmotiv. The R 18 has a classic upright posture, rather than a fully relaxed cruiser reclining position. It is both comfortable and purposeful. The R 18 is about more than profiling, which it certainly does well. Riding is also a priority, as you would expect from BMW.
No key is required to start the BMW. Instead, I have a fob ensconced in my riding jeans’ pocket. A press of the power button brings the electronics to life. Lights flash, and undetermined clicking occurs. The R 18 has an analog-style speedometer, buttressed with a backlit LCD display, with the gear-position indicator featured most prominently.
When it comes time to push down on the red start switch, be prepared. The Big Boxer motor comes to life violently. The 107mm-wide pistons shake the R 18’s chassis vigorously as they power through each cylinder’s 100mm stroke. The initial eruption lurches the motorcycle enough to cause a tip-over, if you aren’t paying attention. This is a starting sequence to relish, and it is the perfect way to begin a motorcycle ride. Welcome to the Brotherhood of the Big Boxer.
Before you go, you are given the choice of three ride modes—Rock, Roll, and Rain. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the marketing discussions regarding that nomenclature.
I would hope someone was arguing to mimic the style of the Moto Guzzi California 1400 mode names. Had that come to fruition, the R 18 would have offered Schnell, Tourismus, and Régen. The reactions of the focus groups to that would be entertaining to see. Regardless, Rock, Roll, and Rain it is.
The modes are differentiated by throttle response, traction control, and engine compression braking. The Rain mode has the most protective settings, with the Rock mode letting you run with less oversight.
Unlike the high-performance modes of the Moto Guzzi California 1400 and Ducati Diavel 1260 Euro-cruisers, which are genuinely snappy, the BMW R 18 doesn’t go overboard in the most-aggressive Rock mode. The Rock mode is so friendly and usable, while still providing plenty of spunk, that it renders the Roll mode redundant. Certainly, if the road is wet, the Rain mode is the power delivery of choice. Otherwise, set it for Rock and let’s roll.
In the first few blocks, you’ll notice a few things. As soon as the 2021 BMW R 18 gets underway, its 761 pounds virtually cease to exist. The side-to-side torquing produced with the transmission disengaged also departs, and the Big Boxer feels as creamy as a stick of Fond O’ Foods butter. The transmission shifts confidently, though first gear feels a bit high; the rest of the ratios are ideally spaced. The hydraulically actuated single-disc dry clutch has great feel, though it requires some hand strength.
If you have any sort of sixth sense, you’ll feel eyes on you. The R 18 is an attention-grabbing device. Random drivers will give you a thumbs-up, and kids look at you with countenances that reveal a possible great awakening.
The R 18 motor’s charisma is especially present at stops when you shift into neutral and the front end does the dance of the Big Boxer. Yes, big-inch rubber-mounted Harley-Davidsons do that, too. However, the BMW motor stays put, so it’s all about the active chassis. For whatever reason, I’m much more enamored with the R 18’s at-rest vibration than on any other motorcycle I’ve ridden.
The motor is muffled to world standards, so it won’t annoy anyone. Fortunately, BMW engineers were able to give the Big Boxer a voice with a satisfactory personality. One can only imagine what sort of cacophony those twin pushrod-actuated 901cc cylinders can produce when less aggressively muted.
Riding the 2021 BMW R 18 around town is an undiluted pleasure. It’s just fun—there’s really no other way to describe it. When you want to tool around and enjoy your urban environment, the R 18 will oblige without requiring a button-push to get into the Roll mode.
At the drop of the hat, you can twist the throttle and enjoy satisfying acceleration, while wowing spectators. The rev limiter on the Big Boxer is high enough that you don’t need a tachometer to tell you it’s time to shift.
Those not well-versed in motorcycling will wonder if you’re on a vintage motorcycle, as the R 5 hardtail styling with covered fork tubes telegraph to the uninitiated. If you like to ride under the radar, the R 18 is not your motorcycle.
Here in California, we get to filter and lane-split, as should be the norm throughout the United States. Until you get intimately familiar with the width of the motors at the valve covers, you will be splitting with gritted teeth—unless you don’t mind creasing the door of an automobile as you ride through.
Rest assured, I never did that, and it could just be a bit of paranoia on my part. The gap between the handlebar ends may just be enough of a feeler gauge to prevent unwanted metal-to-metal contact with unsuspecting motorists. BMWs always have their own personalities, and it takes some time to get to know the R 18. Happily, the process is altogether enjoyable.
With as much power as the Big Boxer provides, highway speeds are not intimidating. Although top speed is advertised as “over 111 mph,” it starts to feel a bit sketchy at 100 mph—more than enough for any sensible person, and even those of us who sometimes don’t think things all the way through. The windblast isn’t bad at, even at normal extra-legal speeds. You sit in the bike, and the front end, including the bulbous headlight, offers a bit of wind protection.
Putting the open road on the table means you are encouraged to take it out for weekend rides into the twisting byways of the surrounding hinterlands. Here in Los Angeles, we have the Mulholland Drive bisecting the city as it winds its way through the Hollywood Hills. Fun in the twisties is a daily occurrence for us—it makes up for quite a bit.
It should not surprise anyone that the R 18 handles confidently. BMW is a company that values performance, and the R 18 is no exception. On paper (or pixels), it has a few things that might make a cornering fanatic wince—a 761-pound curb weight with the 4.2-gallon tank filled, an exceedingly leisurely 32.7 degrees of rake, nearly six inches of trail, and a wheelbase topping 58 inches. Those numbers are reminiscent of the Bismarck. Yet, it works.
We have seen some odd geometry numbers from BMW—check out the specs for the F 900 R—and it’s a reminder that we ride motorcycles rather than crunch numbers. Absolutely, the R 18 is a stable beast. When you’re in a corner, you are set. However, should you feel the need to change your line, the R 18 will oblige should you use some body English and apply proper pressure to the sweeping handlebar. Yes, it turns.
The R 18 has reasonably good cornering clearance. The Bridgestone Battlecruise H50 tires will uncomplainingly take you to the moment that the peg feelers touch the pavement. When you get to that point, however, the tires will be the least of your concerns.
Over the years, we have ridden motorcycles that have peg feelers that abruptly make their presence known. A past-version of the Honda CB1000R comes to mind as a serious offender. While the BMW R 18 isn’t quite so bad, partially because it isn’t moving like a sportbike, the peg feelers are not fun.
In one seemingly casual corner—I definitely was not hoofing it—the feeler touched down so violently that it bounced my foot right off the peg. The entire chassis was seriously disrupted, and I considered myself lucky to stay on two wheels. Although not all feeler/pavement interactions are that disconcerting, it plants a seed of distrust in your head. BMW promises accessory footrests and floorboards later this year—look very closely at the choices before rolling the R 18 out of the dealer’s driveway.
Whether in the city or on rural rides, the suspension works well and doesn’t draw attention to itself. There are no damping adjustments, and I wouldn’t turn my nose up if BMW offered some sort of semi-active electronic suspension.
BMW got the settings right for a wide variety of applications. It’s on the firm side, as it needs to be. Spiking when hitting potholes or dips is eliminated, though you still are well aware that you nailed something. In the canyons, the R 18 doesn’t wallow and provides needed feedback that keeps you out of trouble.
It doesn’t hurt that BMW wasn’t stingy with travel, offering nearly five inches of fork travel and the single rear shock (with spring-preload adjustment to account for a passenger) moderating 3.5 inches of wheel travel.
BMW empowered the R 18 with three 300mm discs for slowing down, along with the mode-dependent engine compression braking. In most cases, you won’t need to work the brakes hard—the motor provides nicely organic deceleration.
The actuation of the braking may offend purists—too bad. When you pull on the hand brake lever, it actuates the two front calipers, along with an amount of pressure to the rear caliper that varies with conditions. This is all imperceptibly controlled by the BMW Motorrad Integral ABS.
In practice, I never felt this happening. Without a doubt, two-wheel braking is better than one-wheel, especially on a heavyweight motorcycle. If you must have one-wheel braking, use the foot brake pedal. It only activates the rear caliper—prepare to be underwhelmed.
With the power and handling delivered so nicely by the R 18, long rides are encouraged. The two-up seat isn’t quite so inviting after a couple of hours of non-stop riding, so be sure to budget in some walkaround time to let your rear recover.
Enjoying the R 18 is not any different than getting the most out of any motorcycle—you have to understand it and accept the machine on its terms. The cruiser purists who don’t like the mid-mount footpegs can just walk away. There’s no point in complaining about it. The pegs are where the pegs are, and they aren’t going anywhere. BMW considers the peg position to be a feature, not a bug, and I have no problem with that.
The ergonomics of the R 18 set it apart from your standard cruiser. As I mentioned earlier, the R 18 is very much a close relative of the R nineT, even though it doesn’t appear to be at first glance. BMW marketers and engineers will tell you that the success of the R nineT opened the door for the development and deployment of the R 18. There is a convincing natural bridge between the two, in both intent and DNA, once you recognize it.
Even with that transition, the all-new R 18 is a revolutionary motorcycle for the German factory. We’re told that there will be variations on the R 18 theme sooner rather than later—I’ll take a single-seat bobber, thank you very much.
In the meantime, the 2021 BMW R 18 is a spectacular motorcycle with a unique take on the cruiser genre. That will expand the cruiser market, rather than simply steal riders from other brands. We like that from a business standpoint, and I love the R 18 as a motorcyclist. It is an unforgettable ride.
Action photography by Kelly Callan
- Helmet: Scorpion Exo-R1 Air
- Jacket: Joe Rocket Sprint TT
- Gloves: Joe Rocket Café Racer
- Pants: Joe Rocket Accelerator
- Boots: Tourmaster Vintage WP 2.0
2021 BMW R 18 Specs
- Type: Opposed twin
- Displacement: 1802cc
- Bore x stroke: 107.1 x 100mm
- Maximum power: 91 horsepower @ 4750 rpm
- Maximum torque: 116 ft-lbs @ 3000 rpm
- Maximum speed: Over 111 mph
- Compression ratio: 9.6:1
- Valvetrain: Pushrod-actuated OHV w/ two camshafts; 4 vpc
- Cooling: Air and oil
- Transmission: 6-speed (w/ optional reverse)
- Clutch: Single-disc dry w/ slipper function
- Final drive: Shaft
- Frame: Steel-tube double-loop
- Front suspension; travel: Non-adjustable 49mm Showa fork; 4.7 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Cantilevered spring-preload adjustable Sachs ZF shock; 3.5 inches
- Wheels: Wire-spoked
- Front wheel: 19 x 3.5
- Rear wheel: 16 x 5.0
- Tires: Bridgestone Battlecruise H50
- Front tire: 120/70 x 19
- Rear tire: 180/65 x 16
- Front brake: 300mm discs w/ 4-piston Brembo calipers
- Rear brake: 300mm disc w/ 4-piston caliper
- ABS: Standard w/ linked braking
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 68.1 inches
- Rake: 32.7 degrees
- Trail: 5.9 inches
- Seat height: 27.2 inches
- Fuel capacity: 4.2 gallons
- Curb weight: 761 pounds
- Color: Black Storm Metallic
2021 BMW R 18 Prices
- Base model: $17,495 MSRP
- First Edition: $19,745 MSRP