A lot has changed to the GS in the last 30 years and the current generation of motorcycles are so incredibly advanced, controllable and fun to ride it’s hard to see where the charm or the point in stepping backward is. So in order to see what all the fuss was about we spent a whole week riding one, on the UK GS Trophy Qualifier and scooting around the best riding South Wales has to offer.

When this bike rolled off the production line in ’84 The Smiths had just released their first album, Britain was hit by a real life hurricane, Tommy Cooper had passed away, the miners strike started and Liverpool won their fourth European Cup. Half of the Brake magazine crew weren’t old enough to have a bike license and adventure motorcycling wasn’t a genre of bike.
Thirty years later, some of the crew can grow a beard and the GS is BMW’s top selling bike and widely regarded as one of the best bikes money can buy. An R 80 GS is such a contrast to modern GS. There is nothing about these bikes that is the same, they are so far removed in purpose, ability and design. The R 80 G/S is a beautiful example of simplicity. There are no frills here, a very basic, uncomplicated motorcycle that even the cheapest off road bikes don’t achieve anymore.

In that time gap the GS has gotten fat and fast, putting on almost 60kg in weight and gaining an incredible 75HP. It took almost that time to become water-cooled, but along the way everything has been thrown away at some point. The drum rear brake has become ABS disc, the front wheel gained a much bigger twin disc, the fork were replaced with the TeleLever system and the engine has gone through two huge re-designs. The only constants are the seat height and the fuel capacity, which are almost identical.

The R 80’s bareness is instantly striking. Around the engine, the Bing carburettors sit bare, just a carb and a throttle cable, some simple crash bars, no sensors, nothing electronic to fail. The whole bike is like this, but at the same time it looks and feels incredibly well thought out.  The position of the controls is good, everything is very easy to access, the starter and kill switch are easy to reach and they still work perfectly.

What’s more impressive is that this GS is still holding strong and cruising through MOT’s (UK Road worthy test) with virtually no love. It isn’t kept preciously in a garage, undercover and polished 200 days a year but still regularly ridden and left outside in the drive almost all year round. While it sports some rust it’s mechanically sound apart from some weeping fork seals.

Key in, fold it flat. Turn it to the on position, swivel the choke dial on and push the starter. The R 80 rumbles into life every time*. It sits there on the stand wobbling away, whisper quite and entirely inoffensive. It really couldn’t be any more different to the wild, loud obnoxious Touratech GS we also tested this issue.

This bike is instantly endearing to ride. As we ride out it becomes very clear why you’d still ride a bike that’s 30 years old. The GS is dreamy to ride. The engine vibrates away underneath you, that pull to one side is ever-present, but once the bike is moving it’s smooth, buttery and entirely inoffensive. It doesn’t go fast, big handfuls of gas don’t end in traction control kicking or power wheelies, the 50hp emanating from the back wheel isn’t going to cause any danger to anyone.

But despite that lack of power, speed and excitement the GS is a happy ride. Slower bikes are often smaller engines but because this is still a decent sized twin it’s smooth and pleasant to ride. It’s not an engine that is particularly comfortable with revving hard, it enjoys being in a higher gear and skipping along, the gentler you are with the engine the better it rides and it’s surprisingly gratifying and fast. You won’t win any traffic light GP’s on it but along the country lanes it has got plenty of poke.

Moreover, the torquey, heavy flywheel nature of the engine makes it very easy to ride. very much a user friendly bike. It’s a challenge to cause it stall and that translates into a novice friendly off-road engine. Once she is moving you’ll do well to mess up. It finds good grip and that lack of power trying to burst forward makes for an easy time. Having said that, the G/S has an inordinate amount of engine braking. It’s a facet of the boxer engine that BMW have slowly worked on over time and a modern GS’s ability to go fast whilst in a tall gear has helped negate the characteristic. Now the R 80 G/S wasn’t designed with the purpose of going fast off-road but it is limited in momentum carrying department.

On the bitumen that G/S handles extremely well, it’s shocking how quickly it turns and changes direction. A combination of factors are at work here, its low centre of gravity, the light weight and the geometry mean that making the bike tip into corner isn’t a progressive thing. A little counter steer sees the bike practically fall over with the shock that you asked it to perform such a task. It is a no effort ride on the tarmac. It’s far, far happier on the twisty roads than in the straight line of motorways/highways. You can get some good lean angle and the boxer feels confident, comfortable and connected to the tarmac.

Off Road it’s a little different. This is clearly where the adventure bike manufacturers has have done their r&d in the last thirty years. The biggest issue with G/S off road is the ergonomics leave it wanting. Maybe riding styles have developed over time, but standing up on the BMW is a little awkward for a taller person. The bar bend is good, but the position feels very low in relationship to the foot pegs. Likewise the middle of the bike is a touch fat, which forces your legs out a little and detracts from the ride ability. I’m going to moan about the foot pegs here too because BMW are still using the same basic design 30 years later and they’re still shocking…

The G/S is surprisingly manageable when sat down off road, it’s a big contrast to more modern machines. It all seems a little more natural to ride this way on the R 80, maybe that is what BMW intended. It works better, the ergonomics make more sense, nothing is uncomfortable about it and the bike still handles well.

*The R 80 did suffer a little non start issue when riding a low speed for an extended period with the lights on for photos. It bumped very easily.

There a few little oddities about the ergo’s. The bike clearly wasn’t designed by a man with size twelve feet wearing motocross boots. There isn’t much room for feet, especially on the rear brake side. The boot catches on the close rear brake pedal and both regularly hit the carb when stood up. It’s not a big issue but it is noticeable.

As you’d expect with a bike of this age the suspension is somewhat basic in it’s design and function. The entire ethos of the original G/S was a bike that could manage everything, a jack-of-all-trades and the suspension epitomises this. One the tarmac it’s comfortable, soft, plush and you could quite easily spend a long, long time aboard the Bavarian steed. It has a magic carpet esque feel, it wallows lots, it’s squishy and floaty. It does bottoms out on bigger hits but at absolutely no point did this ever feel dramatic or did I take umbrage with the performance. You don’t ever expect to hit the dip in the road at full gas and not suffer spine compression, it doesn’t suggest things are possible and so you don’t try to push anything that hard.

Away from the black top the bike is very much the same, it pings and rebounds like a tigger on a pogo stick, but in reality the whole bike is at its limit when this starts to happen, if you back it off and let the R 80 go out its own business it does the job. It isn’t anywhere near as capable as a more modern GS but really outright performance isn’t the goal of this bike so to judge it on such criteria is unjust. It does the job. It isn’t worth writing home about but it’ll definitely get you by. The suspension could be better, maybe you’d need to fit better shocks and forks but that seems over the top.

Brakes are most definitely not a strength in the R 80’s repertoire. The drum rear was the surprise of the package. Drum brakes are shockers normally, nobody uses them for a reason yet the rear brake was acceptable. It did the job, slowed the bike down and was capable of locking if you put some effort in. The front brake on this particular GS however was horrendous, to the point of being scary. Now the leaky fork seal was not helping with this at all, new pads and seals would undoubtedly put this brake in a different league but I’d be doubtful if it would turn it into a stoppie machine. Still, in its current state it was a four-finger pull just to make the traffic lights. ABS was never ever going to be an issue with brakes this bad.

The most enjoyable element of the R 80 is hands down how it changed the perspective of the ride. With the incredible performance of modern bikes you are constantly urged to push on, to ride fast and the thrill they give is as good as any other bike. With R 80 the experience was far rawer, the bike became more of a tool to let you experience your surroundings. A lot of the time I barely noticed I was on a bike and that was extremely refreshing. I wasn’t trying to ride fast, to carry corner speed or see how long the foot pegs can stay on the ground because the bike doesn’t feel interested in any of that and despite knowing the area in which were riding well, I noticed so much that I wouldn’t have normally.

The open cockpit and lack of wind protection bit hard however. During the GS Trophy the weather closed in and quickly became wet, bitter and windy. Despite wearing decent clothing, it the G/S became the bike no-one wanted to ride. The wind protection is non existent, the hand gaurds do next to nothing and suddenly the R 1200 GSA camera bike became a much more pleasurable prospect. Being caught out by poor preparation is never an excuse but in this instance the mistake bit harder than it might do on a modern machine.


It really took us by surprise how enjoyable a bike the R 80 is. The best word to describe it is ‘lovely’. The engine is smooth and enjoyable, the comfort level is really high and the ergonomics are good. There is an element of soul and emotion that the refinement and outright performance of modern bikes seem to have lost. That said character in a bike means bugger all when you’re shivering and cold on top of a mountain or having to bump start your bike because the generator isn’t quite good enough to run multiple electronics at once.

For the first couple hours of riding I was shocked how good the bike was and a little baffled as to why BMW don’t still make bikes like this but as the novelty wore off you start to notice the little bits you miss. You can live without electronic gadgets, but having some wind protection, good brakes and controls that are very easy to use are rather nice. The first five times you blow through a junction because two fingers wasn’t strong enough on the brake are funny, the next five you convince yourself it’s still all in good fun. Almost take out a flock of sheep and that humour dissipates rapidly. Despite those downsides I would seriously consider using something like the R 80 to travel on, purely because the change in pace provides you with an entirely different viewpoint.

Crafted By

Llewellyn Sullivan-Pavey

Photographer, Videographer, Writer, Motorcycle Racer, Dakar Rally Finisher and BRAKE Magazine's big dog, Llewelyn really likes to do things involving motorcycles. He also likes bicycles, coffee, pop punk and making horrendous puns.

Rated - 1984 R 80 G/S
An enjoyable, mellow ride.
On Road Ability8
Off Road Ability6.5
  • Relaxed and Enjoyable
  • Lovely Engine Character
  • Manageable
  • Poor Brakes
  • Odd Off Road Riding Position
7.2Overall Rating
Reader Rating: (7 Votes)
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