Border Crossings

Thirty years ago, BMW’s E12 M535i broke down the barrier between sports car and sedan while the R80 G/S was erasing the boundary between enduro bike and tourer.

Photo: Border Crossings 1
December 3, 2010

The barbed-wire fences, land mines and armed guards are gone now, and all that remains is a one-room building so nondescript we almost miss it. Other than a small sign, there’s nothing to indicate that this was, just twenty-one years ago, one of the most heavily fortified and tightly guarded international borders in the world.

Today, however, it’s just a spot on the road, Germany’s B79, to be precise. The border that for decades separated two countries—the Federal Republic of Germany on the west and the German Democratic Republic on the east—is now a negligible divide, at least politically.

Just as the border between one country and another can dissolve in an instant, so too can the border between one class of vehicle and another. It may be a superficial analogy, but it seems inescapable as we drive from the former GDR into the west in this E12 M535i, the car that erased the boundaries between sports car and sedan.

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And just as this automobile melded the qualities of both to become the world’s first sports sedan, so the R80 G/S behind us did the same for motorcycles. Dual-purpose bikes had existed long before the G/S, of course, but they combined the virtues of a motocrosser and a lightweight urban runabout rather than those of an enduro bike and a tourer. The G/S did the latter, and the adventure bike was born.

We’ve been swapping between two wheels and four for eight days already by the time we cross the old border in Matterzoll, Lower Saxony. Having started in Hanover a week ago, we’re almost finished with the 2,000 Kilometers of Germany, the 2,000-km durch Deutschland. From Hanover, we’ve gone west to Osnabrück and northward to Bremen, then east to Rostock and south to Potsdam before heading westward again through Halle and Wolfsburg back to Hanover. It’s a long drive, to be sure, and it’s also been slow…agonizingly slow. More on that later; first, let’s meet our border-crossing vehicles.

M535i: Nearly invisible

If the M535i had been an East German trying to cross the border to the west in 1980, the year it was built, it would have done so in the engine compartment of an Isetta. (People did…) The in-house history of the M brand, BMW M Power, published a few years ago doesn’t even mention it, going straight from the mid-engine M1 to the E28 M5 as if this car never existed. Searching the BMW Archive, my corporate communications handler on this journey, Florian Moser, can find only the sales brochure printed in 1979—the BMW M Registry seems to have more information on this car than BMW, and Alex Palevsky’s excellent model history in Bimmer #83 can fill in the gaps.

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My own search of BMW’s online archive turns up a single sentence: “This wish for additional power became one of the most important reasons for expanding the model range also in the years to come, BMW Motorsport GmbH established in 1972 providing particularly spectacular input by presenting the BMW M535i with its 160 kW/218 hp six-cylinder in 1980.”

Grammatical oddities notwithstanding, that’s the only official explanation of how the M535i came to make its debut at the 1979 Frankfurt auto show. From the outside, it looked like a mildly enhanced version of the standard E12 sedan, with only the optional front air dam, rear spoiler (one of the squishy rubber ones!) and Motorsport stripes to suggest any added sportiness.

Under its hood, however, lay a hot version of BMW’s M30 inline six-cylinder engine that displaced 3,453cc from a bore and stroke of 93.4 × 84.0mm. With a 9.3:1 compression ratio, single overhead cam and Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, the M30 put out 218 hp (DIN) at 5,200 rpm and 224 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It wasn’t as powerful as the 277-hp M88 six used in the M1, but it was enough to propel the M535i from zero to 62 mph in a claimed 7.6 seconds, rather brisk for the day, and to a top speed of 138 mph.

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Unfettered by catalytic converters, the 3.5-liter M30 was not yet in compliance with U.S. regulations by the time the M535i came out. That left this E12 a Europe-only model, although South Africa got its own version of the car in 1981. From April 1980 to May 1981, 960 left-hand drive examples were built, while 450 right-hand drive cars were produced from July 1980 to May 1981.

All models sold in Europe came with the Getrag 265 “dogleg” five-speed gearbox, mated to a 25% limited slip differential with a final drive ratio that was originally spec’d at 3.25:1 but later changed to 3.07:1, according to BMW data sheets dated 2/79 and 1/80.

The real treat for M535i drivers was probably the Motorsport-tweaked suspension. This used shorter, stiffer springs and Bilstein struts and shocks for a sportier ride than the average E12 5 Series even as the car retained the standard MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm rear arrangment.

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The brakes, too, carried over from the standard 5 Series, which was fine since they were already of a high specification. The front brakes used four-piston calipers against 280mm discs, while the rears used two-piston calipers on 272mm discs.

Outboard of the brakes, the M535i rode on 6.5 × 14-inch BBS cross-spoke (“basketweave”) wheels shod with 195/70VR-14 Michelin XWX tires at all four corners.

Inside, the M535i was easily distinguished from its ordinary E12 counterparts by its high-bolstered and corduroy-covered Recaro seats and BMW Motorsport steering wheel, both of which make its sporting mission obvious at a glance.

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R80 G/S: All-terrain extrovert

Unlike the nearly invisible M535i, the R80 G/S would have crossed the border in a hot-air balloon complete with machine gun for fending off border guards. Since 2010 marks the bike’s 30th anniversary, BMW has been flooding the wires with information and photos that detail this bike’s creation, and Florian has gathered it all up into a folder that weighs as much as my helmet.

In the late ’70s, BMW’s motorcycle sales were slumping badly thanks to a Motorrad lineup of touring bikes that was staid, to say the least. All were powered by the twin-cylinder Boxer engine, which had advanced only incrementally since the 1950s, and the three- and four-cylinder K bikes were still a few years in the future. That forced BMW to use the Boxer in an innovative way if it hoped to broaden its lineup.

Riders had been adapting BMWs for off-road use for years, but the factory had resisted doing so until Motorrad’s head of testing, Laszlo Peres, built himself an 800cc enduro bike in 1977 and rode it to second place in Germany’s 750cc-and-up off-road championship in 1978. Other engineers built similar prototypes, and more enduro success followed, including several gold medals in the 1979 International Six Days Trial.

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It was a major achievement against much lighter and more agile competition, and it inspired BMW’s engineers to start working on an on/off-road Boxer for series production in late 1979. By the end of the year, they’d completed a pair of working prototypes and sent them to Ecuador for a 2,000-km torture test. When the bikes—and riders Halli Hufstadt and Hans-Peter Leicht—handled everything from the hot, humid jungle to the high altitudes and cold of the Andes with ease, the R80 Gelände/Strasse was deemed ready for production.

BMW still figured the G/S for a niche model when it launched the bike at Avignon, France on September 1, 1980. In the shadow of the Papal palace, BMW presented the R80 G/S as a sport, touring and enduro bike all rolled into one, and the press reacted ecstatically. More importantly, so did the public when the G/S was unveiled at Intermot on September 19.

With a dry weight of 367.4 lbs., 410 lbs. full of fluids, the G/S was heavier than a small enduro but 62 lbs. lighter than its touring equivalent, the R80/7. Its air-cooled twin-cylinder engine, designated A10, had linerless aluminum cylinders whose 84.8 × 70.6mm bore and stroke yielded a total displacement of 797cc, while an 8.2:1 compression ratio would allow it to run well even on the low-octane fuel available in remote locations. With a chain-driven cam, a pair of overhead valves and one 32mm Bing V64 carburetor per cylinder, the motor put out 47 lb-ft of torque and 50 hp at either 6,500 or 7,250 rpm, depending on the source. (BMW’s press kit says 6,500 rpm, but Dr. Karlheinz Lange’s normally definitive BMW Engines says 7,250 rpm.) A five-speed gearbox allowed it to stay in its sweet spot at virtually any road speed up to its 104.4-mph maximum.

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As with the M535i, however, the engine wasn’t the most interesting feature on the new G/S. That honor went to the chassis, which utilized the standard R45/R65 street bike frame fitted with a revolutionary single-sided swingarm (dubbed the Monolever) and single shock in place of BMW’s usual dual-arm, twin-shock rear. By mounting the rear wheel on studs, automotive-style, the swingarm allowed ultra-quick wheel removal and rapid tire changes, giving the G/S a distinct advantage off-road, where flats are common.

The G/S suspension afforded 7.9 inches of front suspension travel from its R100/7-sourced telescopic forks and 6.7 inches of travel at the rear. Ground clearance was 8.6 inches, up from 6.5 inches on the R80/7, and seat height was a correspondingly taller 33.9 inches. Also aiding ground clearance was a high-mounted exhaust that took the place of BMW’s customarily low-slung twin pipes.

The G/S had a 200mm drum brake at the rear, and its front brake was a 260mm drilled disc paired with a single-piston caliper. Its aluminum spoked wheels measured 3.0 × 21 inches up front and 4.0 × 18 inches at the rear, which allowed the fitment of true off-road tires as well as dual-purpose rubber like the Metzelers that were developed especially for the G/S with a 180 km/h rating that would allow it to reach its top speed in safety.

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Next stop, chemical plant!

We won’t get to test the G/S’s off-road prowess on this trip—it’s strictly a street rally, though some will be paved with cobblestones. Nor will we get to do any real riding or driving until the rally is halfway over, except when we depart from the designated route. Inexplicably, the organizers of the 2,000 km durch Deutschland have chosen suburban streets with low speed limits and frequent traffic lights instead of enjoyable country roads. If this rally were passing through Los Angeles, it would skip coastal Route 1 or the Angeles Crest Highway in favor of nondescript streets like Vermont Avenue and Torrance Boulevard, with detours to agricultural equipment factories and chemical plants along the way.

Worse, the navigation is almost impossibly complex. Each day’s driving covers around 400 km and hundreds of direction changes—even the relatively short 324-km stretch from Bremen to Rostock has nine pages of single-spaced instructions, requiring constant vigilance and a slow pace if we’re to avoid missing a turn. It ends up taking us twelve hours or more to cover each day’s distance, giving us an average speed of roughly 33 km/h. That’s about 20 mph, which is as frustrating as it sounds.

It’s easier on the bike, of course, because the impossibility of navigating makes it necessary to simply follow the M535i in which Florian is riding as navigator, driving only occasionally. How he manages this for eight days without losing his mind I don’t know, but he deserves big props for doing so.

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Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’re being trailed by a GPS-equipped X5 driven by two of BMW Classic’s best technicians. Motorcycle restoration expert Gerd Helm is tasked with keeping the G/S running smoothly; that it does is testament to his excellent preparation as well as the bike’s robust construction. Serial number 6250015 was one of the 25 bikes used at the launch in Avignon in 1980 and as a press bike after that. It was sold to a private owner in 1983, and in 2008 BMW Classic bought it back again. It has about 19,000 km on the clock when we begin our journey, or around 12,000 miles.

Ex-Motorsport racing technician Heinz Öfner is in charge of the M535i, checking it over frequently during the drive and proclaiming it perfect every time. It isn’t as exotic as the Formula One and World Touring Cars he spent his career fettling, but this ex-press office car served as the pace car at Hockenheim once, and it’s in the superb condition that a life within the confines of BMW would suggest, especially when it’s only been required to cover 5,000 km (roughly 3,000 miles) since it was built in early January 1981.

Although the rally itself doesn’t tax its capabilities, we deviate from the route on occasion to find the roads the rally should have followed—undulating two-lanes that follow the contours of the farmland in the former East German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. While the underdevelopment of this area makes life a struggle for its inhabitants—it’s one of the poorest regions of Germany—it also makes for some really nice back-road driving through the wheat fields.

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Nostalgia trip, with weather

As tuned by Motorsport, the E12 has more than enough braking and cornering prowess to maintain a quick pace. The car exhibits far less body roll than I expected, even when we go in hard and square off a turn, and its brakes are excellent.

What really impresses, however, is its ride quality. Its Mahle/BBS wheels are shod with 195/70-14 Fulda tires rather than the OEM Michelins, and their compliant sidewalls provide a winsome reminder of how beautifully cars used to handle bumps and ripples before the advent of low-profile tires, not to mention run-flats. It’s enough to inspire nostalgia, and so is the incredibly airy greenhouse whose wonderful visibility is a marked contrast to the bunker-like cabins of modern BMWs.

The lack of air conditioning has the opposite effect. It’s really hot—between 34° and 38°C, or 94° to 100°F—on this mid-July rally, and those corduroy-covered Recaros retain an astonishing amount of heat. They’re also exceptionally small and tightly bolstered, which is fine for me but far from comfortable for the much larger German journalist, Auto Zeitung’s Heinrich Lingner, with whom I’m sharing both bike and car.

While it’s moving, at least, the bike is the far more comfortable proposition in this heat. My Dainese leathers may be black, but they’re well ventilated, and the unfaired G/S leaves its rider exposed to plenty of wind. And weather: While we’re eating lunch in Papenburg, just south of Bremen, a storm blows in from the North Sea with astonishing speed and intensity. The wind sweeps umbrellas, chairs and even tables off the patio and into the canal, and a hard rain comes down that won’t let up for hours.

I’m on the bike this day, glad for good rain gear and the all-terrain G/S. Not only is it dark and wet, debris is strewn all over the roads from the trees that have been whipped by the wind. This is precisely the kind of challenge the G/S is made for—weather is part of the adventure on any motorcycle ride, but some bikes are better than others when things turn treacherous.

Just as it is under ideal conditions, the G/S is light and easy to ride, and its relative lack of horsepower—less than half as much as my last street bike, but with roughly equal torque—is a boon. With only five gears rather than the now-customary six, it runs out of steam fairly early but revs willingly to redline nonetheless. Its clutch pull is exceptionally light, and its gearbox shifts smoothly, too—and not only by BMW’s typically clunky standard.

Its brakes could certainly be better, but they’re stronger than I expected and seem well-matched to the bike’s overall character. As with the M535i, the handling and the ride quality provide the biggest surprises. Even on rumpled cobblestones, the R80 G/S provides a smooth, stable ride, and it’s great fun to stand up on the pegs and ride it for miles, desert-style, over uneven surfaces. It changes direction beautifully—much more precisely, in fact, than the last GS I rode back in 2000. Where that R1150 was rubbery and unresponsive, this R80 is quick and agile. It’s also far lighter, undercutting the weight of the R1150 GS by a whopping 176 lbs.

Breaking down the boundaries

BMW’s motorcycles have gone on a drastic weight loss program since 2000, and the dry weight of the latest R1200 GS Adventurer has dropped its poundage to a more manageable 490 even as its engine power has topped 100 hp and its dimensions have grown to Gargantuan proportions—36-inch seat height, anyone? Park an R80 G/S next to one of these monsters and it will look almost dainty.

The same is true of the M535i compared to its modern M5 counterpart. Though we haven’t seen the forthcoming F10 version yet, the outgoing E60 M5 would have dwarfed this E12, and its tall doors and stout A-pillars would emphasize the delicacy of the older car. And that’s even before we consider each vehicle’s weight: At 4,026 lbs., the E60 weighs nearly a thousand pounds more than the 3,146-lb. M535i, and that affects more than just braking and acceleration.

Like the G/S, the M535i expresses a willingness to change direction that is all but absent from today’s vehicles. If physics are something to be enjoyed rather than defied, I’ll take the lighter, less powerful car every time, simply because it’s more fun. I’ll take care not to crash, too, of course—no airbags in this 1981 machine—and I might miss the air conditioning on really hot days, but that’s part of the charm on this adventure.

Thirty years ago, however, neither of these vehicles were even remotely nostalgic. They were revolutionary, crossing the boundaries between established vehicle classifications to create entirely new market segments. That’s something BMW does all the time these days, perhaps to excess, but in 1980 it was a profoundly creative marketing strategy. Few could have foreseen the ease with which those boundaries would fall, or the virtual explosion of category-crossing vehicles that now dominate the market. In 2010, nearly every carmaker offers a sport sedan like the M535i, and adventure bikes in the G/S mold are perennial best sellers.

Boundaries between countries can fall with equal ease, as our over-and-back journey to the former East Germany proves. Yet even though the fortified border is long gone, the division between East and West has proved more durable. Those 40 years spent under Soviet yoke left East Germany paranoid and underdeveloped, something that’s still evident in this somewhat forbidding and rather depressing part of the country. (The neo-Nazi NPD party captured some 7% of the vote in the last Federal elections.) I traveled through here for the first time back in 1988, and other than the lack of armed guards it doesn’t seem to have changed much since.

Between 1952 and 1989, an estimated 1,100 people were killed by land mines or machine gun fire as they attempted to escape this country-as-prison. Looking at the grim towns and Soviet-style apartment blocks that remain, it’s easy to imagine why they tried.

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