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The BMW K1: A Futuristic and Timeless Machine

“The K1 may not be a track weapon, but it’s an extremely capable high-speed touring bike, poised and confident on the road and easily capable of triple-digit speeds.”

—Motorcycle Classics, April 2016

1989 was a historic year in Germany. The Berlin Wall came crumbling down and BMW built the K1. Recently I dove into the archives and re-read three motorcycle magazines from the last year of the 1980’s.  Rider, MotorCyclist, and Cycle World all featured the futuristic BMW K1 on their cover in late 1989. Each magazine had a comprehensive road test of the newsworthy K1 and gave it accolades for its innovative design and groundbreaking technology. Revisiting these articles reminded me of what a special place the K1 occupies in post-war BMW motorcycle history. Almost thirty years after it was conceived, the BMW K1 still makes a statement.

The BMW K1 dominated the motorcycle press upon its introduction in late 1989.

The K-series was developed in the early 1980s and represented a radical departure from BMW’s traditional motorcycle offering. In 1984, BMW launched the liquid cooled K-series as an ultimate replacement for the aging air-cooled boxers. In retrospect, BMW’s plan was akin to Porsche building the liquid-cooled eight-cylinder 928 as a replacement for the venerable air-cooled 911. Both plans failed as the 911 and BMW R series bikes still represent the pinnacle of their respective markets.

The liquid-cooled Porsche 928 was also supposed to replace its air-cooled cousin.

In the late 1980s, the K1 was a Buck Rogers futuristic machine. The K1’s corporate mission was to quash the perception that the company only made stodgy flat-twin touring bikes—it ultimately succeeded. With a claimed top speed of 150 miles per hour, the K1 was not merely a desguised K100 with bright new clothes. It was lower, longer, and materially faster than a K100. Remarkably stable at triple-digit speeds, the K1 was designed for autobahn cruising.

The K1 was designed for autobahn speeds.

To create the K1, BMW engineers in Spandau started with the K100 and then took it to another level. Features like anti-lock brakes, 16 valves, and an anti-jacking Paralever rear drive shaft were just the beginning. The K1 engine adopted a more modern fuel injection system and enjoyed many other internal performance upgrades including a 16-valve head. The end result was increased torque and higher peak horsepower. Pushing the envelope of European power regulations of the day, the K1 produced nearly 100 horsepower. It had staggered rims—17-inch wheels up front and 18-inch wheels behind. The upgraded Marzocchi forks had slightly less rake than a standard K100. Massive Brembo brakes were installed to deal with the additional weight. Some of the K1’s groundbreaking technology like ABS and 16-valves took more than a decade to become mainstream features at other motorcycle manufacturers.

Photo by Ken Richardson: The K1 was one of the first motorcycles to be equipped with ABS.

Here is what the press had to say in 1989:

“The K1 possesses a mid-range power punch that seems as strong and smooth as that of a Hurricane 1000. From 2000 rpm up, the bike pulls strongly, but when the tach needle hits 4500 rpm, the bike leaps forward, pulling hard until just before redline, where the power begins to taper. Because it still spots some of its competition by 38 horsepower, the K1 won’t win an all-out top-speed run, but should still be capable of pulling a respectable 150 miles per hour. —Cycle World, August 1989

Borrowed from the off-road G/S model, the K1 utilized BMW’s new Paralever drive shaft which was (and still is) an engineering marvel. The K1 was cloaked in a sleek shell of seven complex interlocking pieces of glass fiber. The slippery aerodynamic machine sliced through the wind with a low drag coefficient of .34—the lowest of any production motorcycle at the time. The first year models came in German flag livery—schwartz, rot und zenf (black, red, and mustard). Later U.S. series bikes were dressed in blue and charcoal gray, eventually losing the flamboyant K1 billboard lettering.

Photo by Ken Richardson: The innovative BMW Paralever rear drive.

“The K1’s chassis actually has a multitude of changes, including a longer wheelbase, shorter trail, larger diameter frame tubing and BMW’s Paralever rear-suspension system.” —Cycle World, August 1989

The K1 is not without flaws. When fully loaded with fuel, it tips the scales at almost 600 pounds. The fairing design is problematic, with the engine blasting the rider with heat. Another drawback is its length and subsequent turning radius. The K1 needs 22 feet to turn a half circle. Finally, there is nearly no room for storage—a pair of underwear can barely fit in the lockable fairing storage bins. (BMW did offer a tank bag and a soft luggage option for those who needed extra space).

The K1 was much longer than a standard K100 and this gave it a terrible turning radius.

And then, there was the price. In its first year on the U.S. market in 1990, the K1 listed at $13,000 (more than $26,000 in today’s dollar terms). With that sticker price, there were few takers. Fierce sportbike competition from Japan undermined demand for the K1. Also, its size, weight, and overall mass made it less competitive from a performance standpoint. Ultimately, the K1 became a niche product for well-heeled BMW enthusiasts. Production ended in 1993 with only 6921 units produced. Even though the K1 failed in the marketplace, it succeeded in modernizing BMW’s image.

Photo by Ken Richardson: The Turtle Garage K1 is an investment-grade example

Turtle Garage has a 1990 K1 with just over 4,000 original miles. It is my preferred choice for cold weather riding. The fairing envelopes the rider and the four-cylinder engine throws welcome heat for those cold fall rides. It’s also a fun bike to ride to dealer events as it always starts a conversation. The K1 is also fun to ride. In 1989, MotorCyclist noted the following:

“This is the first BMW that I can actually flick into a corner and come out hard enough to drift the rear tire….the seat is great, and the fairing does an excellent job leaving only my head in the wind, and without any nasty buffering.” 

The 1990 BMW K1 looks fast, even standing still. The K1 might be a love-it-or-hate-it machine, but there’s a lot to love about it. Given its limited three-year production run, the K1 is a relatively rare item for a modern production motorcycle. Today good examples that regularly show up on eBay Motors and elsewhere and are a relative bargain at around $10,000. Impeccable investment-grade examples are still a good deal at slightly higher prices.

The following photogrphs show the various color combinations that were available during the three-year production run of the K1:

Blue and yellow was less popular int he U.S. than red.

For 1993 BMW offered the K1 in gray without flamboyant graphics.

European buyers had a wider choice of colors, especially in the later years of production.

The K1 in gray with graphics

 

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2 Responses to The BMW K1: A Futuristic and Timeless Machine

  1. JK of Miami July 24, 2017 at 3:42 am #

    Very nice overview of this iconic motorcycle. I bought a brand new “ketchup and mustard” version in 1991 and still own two of them today.
    Are these BMWs collectible sleepers right now like the Lamborghini Countach use to be…?

    • Philip Richter July 24, 2017 at 5:58 am #

      I think they are sleepers. I’ve always loved them and thought they were exotic. If you really get deep into the specs it really was very different than a K100. The modifications were significant. I think they could take a similar path as the Countach in the sense of becoming suddenly interesting to collectors. The K1 has everything going for it: It’s bespoke, low production, and outrageous. You will not see one going down the road. The question is not if but when….

      Thanks for being a reader of Turtle Garage.

      Philip

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