Back In Time Review – 1990 BMW K1

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I got to spend a couple of hours with a BMW K1 this week, and while that isn’t enough time for a comprehensive breakdown, I thought it’d be nice to mix it up from the usual reviews of brand new stuff and reflect on a classic. Here are my five biggest takeaways from my time with this fascinating German oddball.

1. Limited power yields other benefits.
You know those stories where someone loses one of their senses and the other ones become more powerful? Well, BMW crippled the 987cc K1 with 100 horsepower at a time when the Suzuki GSX-R1100 made 125, the Honda CBR1000F made 132, the Yamaha FZR1000 made 145, and the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-11 made 147.

Why was BMW the K1 so weak? At the time, there was a voluntary 100 horsepower limit for motorcycles sold in several European countries, including Germany. Most manufacturers sold full-output machines in other markets and limited them when necessary. BMW simply capped the power and sold the 100 hp bike everywhere (the US got a 95 horsepower version, thank you very much). No big deal in Germany, but in the US the disparity was obvious.

To make up for the lack in power, the K1’s other “senses” were extra powerful:
Aerodynamics: the most obvious upgrade is in the bodywork. The large fairing and fender combined with the sculpted tail yielded a drag coefficient of .34 (with rider tucked). It was the lowest ever seen on a production bike at the time, and it enabled a top speed of 150 miles per hour (impressive for 100 horsepower).

Chassis: though it was almost entirely covered up by the bodywork, the K1 got a stronger frame than the rest of the K-bike lineup, and it was connected to wider FPS (Fratelli Pedrini Sarezzo) wheels via 42mm Marzocchi forks and BMW’s Paralever rear suspension design.

Introduced on the 1988 BMW R80/100GS, the Paralever rear suspension consisted of a dual-linkage between the transmission and the rear drive. I’ve put about 75,000 miles on a Monolever-equipped K75C, and the reduction in shaft jacking with the K1 was instantly noted and highly appreciated.

Braking: Complementing Brembo triple discs was a state-of-the-art ABS (“Anti-Blockier-System” in German) that was well ahead of its time. BMW was the first motorcycle manufacturer to implement such a system, and it required tremendous development to minimize pulsing in the lever and pedal.

BMW partnered with FAG Kugelfischer (as seen to the left) to create a new plunger system, minimizing feedback at the lever and pedal.

The required hardware added over 25 pounds of weight, but it was incredibly successful and has since become a requirement in several countries. Interestingly, the ABS system was optional on the K1 all around the world – except for the US, where it was standard. I only tested the ABS on the rear wheel, which resulted in a percussive clunk. The only drama in the process is auditory, and the gaps between beats remind the rider how primitive the early system is. But it works!

Each wheel has a ring for the ABS system to calculate the speed differential between front and rear.

Big features like record-breaking aerodynamics and ABS weren’t the only thing that made the K1 ahead of its time – even the simple features like the fuel gauge, a warning light if your brake bulb goes out, self-canceling turn signals, and the clock couldn’t be taken for granted on other bikes for years (in some cases decades) to come. These advancements (as well as the utterly 80s styling) are why I think the K1 is cool…

Photo by Nathan May

2. The bike is cool, but you’ll be hot.
The K1 has a strong presence in person that is difficult to capture in photos – Nathan did a great job with his shots (especially the one above), but I think this bike looks even better in person.

Photo by Nathan May

I’ve always thought the Marrakesh Red/Yellow livery was hideous as I could never get past the whole “ketchup/mustard” dynamic. But I gained a bit of appreciation for it when Peter Nettesheim explained to me that the red/yellow/black paintjob mirrored the German flag, which I’m embarrassed to admit that I had somehow missed for years.

A matching helmet in Peter’s collection.

Now after spending some time with the K1 in this color combination, I wouldn’t have it any other way – except maybe this excellent custom white/black livery from the owner of BMW-K1.com – in fact, you should check out this page he has dedicated to other custom paint schemes.

Back to “the bike is cool, but you’ll be hot.” The first part is subjective, but the second part is fact. Those fairings do a great job cutting through the air, but they’re also quite accomplished at trapping in engine heat. Even while moving at 90 miles per hour on a 72 degree day, my left thigh was getting cooked through riding jeans.

Obviously, it gets worse when you’re stopped, which leads to…

3. You won’t be comfortable at stoplights.
As you can imagine, your legs will become toasty if the motor is running and you’re not getting any airflow. But the K1 is awkward at a stop for another reason – the large fairings force you to awkwardly splay your legs out.

Let’s say you’re coming to a stop and you’ve just shifted down into first. You can’t just slide your foot off the peg and onto the ground. You have to form a “U” by bringing it back slightly, swinging around the fairing, and then putting your foot down. It’s unnatural and I’m convinced that someone in the past has dropped their K1 because they clipped the fairing with their boot and weren’t able to get planted before the ~600 pound machine tipped over. Aerodynamics are great but I think BMW sacrificed a bit too much usability in this case – the fairing should be an inch or two shorter.

The lack of comfort isn’t just while you’re stationary, either. My experience with other BMW “sportbikes” like the R1100S led me to believe that the K1 would be relatively spacious despite its sporty pretensions, but it’s not as comfortable as I was expecting. Over the decades, BMW has been great about making motorcycles that fit taller riders, but I think the K1 is best for someone under 6 feet as the peg to seat distance is too short and it puts too much stress on my lower back after 30 minutes.

Photo by Nathan May

Despite that, petite riders may struggle as…

4. Everything is heavy.
If you take away anything from this post, let it be the word “heavy”. You can tell just from looking at the K1 that the curb weight is significant: this specific bike is a 1991 model, and Ian Falloon’s “The Complete Book of BMW Motorcycles” states that it weighs 571 pounds.

I assume this windshield is heavier than it needs to be, too.

But the heavy feeling is more than just literal. Every single thing about this bike requires a healthy serving of force to go along with the precision: the shifter might be made of granite, the clutch/brake levers double as grip strengtheners, and the throttle isn’t just connected to a cable, it feels as if you’re tugging on a pulley system that controls thousands of miniature explosions a minute. Want 100 (sorry, 95) horses to do your bidding? You’re going to have to earn it.

So many reviews of motorcycles nowadays include some variant of “it feels lighter once you start moving.” The K1 is not one of those bikes. It’s staggeringly stable at high speeds, but anything under 20 miles per hour is a chore. The turning radius is comical – you most likely won’t be able to pull a u-turn on the average two lane street, which means you’re stuck dealing with the annoying fairing again when you put your foot down to back up for your 3-point turn.

It’s impossible to avoid the weight, and it’s something you’d have to deal with on a daily basis. But that’s the thing – you can actually enjoy this daily…

5. It’s an everyday exotic.
This was the biggest thing to me – the BMW K1 is a weird combination of perceived exclusivity and actual practicality. When it was released, the closest competition was Japanese literbikes like the FZR1000. But the insane styling and limited production numbers from 30 years ago have evolved into an air of exclusivity today – would you ever expect to see a pair of FZRs sell for $31,000? K1s are somewhat isolated in the market at the moment: they’re not as valuable as early 90s exotica like a Honda RC30, Harley-Davidson VR1000, Ducati Supermono, etc. But I would never consider riding one of those regularly. You could easily use a K1 as a daily.

Yes, the heat is tough, and the luggage space isn’t BMW-like, but when’s the last time someone wondered about luggage on a RC30? With the K1 you have room to stash away a few things – one of the side pods easily swallowed up my mid-layer and could have stored a bit more if I wanted. There’s even a factory tank bag and soft 3-piece tail bag that truly amplifies the touring factor, if you can get your hands on it.

Or as shown in this garbage photo I took, you could keep a manual, battery charger, and plenty more:

The K1 may have been BMW’s attempt at a sport bike, but the inclusion of features like a fuel gauge back in 1990 make it clear that they also had livability in mind when they designed it.

Most telling might be the Powerlet-style plug from the factory. When it gets cold enough that even the engine heat trapped in the fairing can’t keep you toasty, you’ll be able to plug in your heated gear without an issue. I went across the country on a new $22k+ sport-touring Kawasaki H2 SX SE a couple of years ago and it didn’t have anything similar – you’d have to wire in your own lead to the battery (and Kawasaki is FAR from alone on this). Yet BMW had it on their version of a “sport bike” 3 decades ago.

What other dashboards in 1990 gave you this kind of information?

It’ll easily carry a passenger, it has the one safety feature that I think is crucial nowadays (ABS), most parts are readily available, and the Flying Brick engine is legendarily reliable.

The fat lady sang after three years, during which BMW had produced just 6,921 examples of the K1. I have to assume that values will increase dramatically as children of the 80s get older and wealthier, but this isn’t a motorcycle that has to be relegated to display. Try your hardest to find one with minimal cracks in the bodywork, and I’m convinced you can’t go wrong if you want a classic you can enjoy on the road…just avoid going slow!



Did you enjoy this? Should I seek out some other classics to take a spin on? Got any suggestions? Fire away in the comments, and as always – thanks for reading!

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