BMW’s Retro-Influenced Concept R18

With a clean silhouette and classic inspiration, a motorbike for the digital age

While the weekend of events that make up the Conc at Villa d’Este and Villa Erba are predominantly car-centric, motorcycles are certainly given their due. In addition to their own display area and Concours competition at Villa Erba, two-wheeled machinery is honored annually by BMW Motorrad with the unveiling of a new concept bike. This year, that bike was the stunning Concept R18, designed by BMW and built by Unique Custom Cycles in Sweden.

The R18 previews the route that Motorrad will be taking with their yet-to-be-formally-announced entry into the big cruiser bike segment. BMW changed their approach radically within the space with their 2014 heritage-inspired, scrambler-style R nineT. Edgar Heinrich, Head of Design for BMW Motorrad, explains why: “BMW has a wonderful history, we don’t always use it, but for the R18 we looked at many classic bikes—the R5, for example, to find inspiration.” With a quick look at the gorgeous R5, which heavily influenced motorcycle design well into the 1950s (after a two-year production run in 1936-37), it’s easy to understand why Heinrich and his boss, Dr Markus Schramm, are so enthusiastic about leaning on BMW’s legacy in the motorcycle world.

The R5 was far ahead of its time both stylistically and technically, from the double-cradle frame made of welded tubular steel for improved handling to simplified controls such as a foot-operated gear-shift. All it was missing when it debuted was rear-suspension and that would come along with the 1938 R51. Designer Rudolf Schleicher (who penned BMW’s first motorcycle the R32) called the R5 his “most important design.” Finding success in the American cruiser market is essential to Motorrad’s success, and with the DNA of a classic model playing a large role in its design, the Concept R18 is poised to be a significant launchpad for the brand’s line of bikes.

Starting with the heart of the machine, a beastly new 1800cc variant of the iconic BMW boxer engine that’s both air and oil cooled, an appreciation for this blend of classic and modern begins to unfold. If this engine goes into production, it would need an air-box, but for the purposes of beauty, the Concept R18 breathes through two polished intakes and their Solex carbs. The result is true BMW boxer sound; undistorted by pesky manufacturing regulations.

Beyond the power plant, further nods to classic BMW motorcycles are found throughout the bike. Most apparent is the faux hardtail look, achieved by neatly hiding the rear shock under the equally retro low-slung single seat, but also the U-shapes of the R5 headlamp-cover—now interpreted as LEDs. The overall cleanliness of its profile (courtesy of the unbroken line that runs from the steering head to the rear wheel hub) makes for a sophisticated look.

It is all about feeling instead of thinking, and not using technology for self-staging—instead giving space for imagination

Edgar Heinrich says, “With its clear aesthetics openly on display, the Concept R18 embodies for me what motorcycling—at its core—is really about. It is all about feeling instead of thinking, and not using technology for self-staging—instead giving space for imagination.” Heinrich further explains that the R18 “appeals to something deep down. You want to just get on it and ride off. But when you get off it again, you don’t just put it in the garage and walk away; you turn around again and give it a final parting glance.”

The overall simplicity of the R18, from the exposed chrome universal shaft drive (a feature long gone from the majority of modern production bikes) to the teardrop black gas tank with hand-applied white contrast lines, is what makes it so exceptional. It’s a clear step away from the bikes of the last few decades that have been increasingly visually cluttered. Now manufacturers seem to be crafting bikes that not only appear to be inspired by their heritage but also adhere to the same design principles those classics did.

While the collection of big cruisers that Motorrad delivers won’t be as stripped down as the Concept R18, the motor and frame are production-ready and given that Heinrich is a customization enthusiast himself, removal of unwanted parts will likely be quite easy. “For me, motorcycles like the BMW Motorrad Concept R18 are a response to a growing need among the motorcycling community: instead of technology, the focus here is on simplification, authenticity and transparency,” he tells us. “I observe an almost romantic yearning for real mechanical engineering. Our aim with this concept bike is to address this and turn it into an analog statement in a digital age. We have a rich history of iconic motorcycles, and they all bear the same design characteristics. We believe that this can still work well together today with the current technology.”

It’s clear that each key piece of the Concept R18 (rumored to arrive later this year) is meant to stand on its own and not make the bike look as though it were incomplete, should it be removed. This is typically not the case with modern motorcycles and one of the biggest challenges custom shops face when reworking them. The fact that Motorrad is taking such things into consideration bodes well for their future—especially considering the aftermarket custom world is driving motorcycle enthusiasm globally.

Images by Hermann Köpf