THIS STEINWAY with a license plate is the 2022
R 18 Transcontinental, the German company’s first American-style full-dresser motorcycle, powered by a 1.8-liter horizontally opposed engine and naked cultural appropriation.
You may wonder why? Or even, what the hell? Is the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide that good BMW felt it had to be copied? What forces have brought this dreadnought to our shores?
I can explain: BMW Group, including Motorrad, is based in Munich, capital of Bavaria, gateway to the Alps and one of the world’s most popular riding destinations. And when Motorrad executives themselves would go out to ride, what did they see? A lot of people in their key demographic—wealthy, independent, European—touring on big, slobbery Harley-Davidsons.
Visitors can even rent them, en masse, for group rides. Believe me, a peloton of Harley baggers dragging pipes around mountain hairpins is quite a sight. It makes sparks like Chinese New Year.
Europeans dig Harleys for complicated reasons, rooted in postwar history and culture. Germans love Harleys because they’re kinky. What attracts them all is the formula’s stubborn, sentimental primitivism, redeemed by charm. And leather.
In many ways the Transcontinental quotes chapter-and-verse from the Book of Hog, especially where the Prophet Milwaukee sayeth, “Everything shall be shiny as hell and heavy as sin.” As kitted—including the side and top luggage cases, oversize front fairing, and optional Marshall Gold Series II audio system—this long-distance tourer rolled off the delivery truck weighing 942 pounds.
I was terrified. Throwing a leg over the Conti felt like mounting a bison. When I pulled the beast upright from its kickstand position I thought I was going to blow an O-ring. I uttered the ancient Midwesterner’s chant of strength—Uftah!
I was white-knuckling all that first day. It took a week before I felt fully in command of Die Königschwein. After two weeks I felt confident enough to take my 14-year-old daughter for a ride. I even felt a teensy bit of pride in mastering what I think is, or close to, the heaviest series-production motorcycle. Ever.
It’s not that bad, really. As it gains pace above walking speed, the Conti’s ponderousness quickly evaporates. In daily traffic it exhibits surprising centeredness and controllability, in parking decks, narrow streets and the like.
However, near walking speed, it feels like Satan’s own free-body physics problem, which you’re in danger of flunking. In the ratio of bulk between human and machine, this two-wheeler feels more like a jet-ski or snowmobile than motorcycle.
“Europeans dig Harleys for complicated reasons. What attracts them is the primitivism, redeemed by charm. And leather. ”
The Transcontinental (a two-up “dresser”) and R 18 B (a “bagger”) use a modified version of standard R 18 frame that accentuates the naughty: more front rake, more front caster. Thus the Conti’s profound proclivity for going straight. Lane discipline is excellent. Indeed, 80 mph in sixth gear is a little bit of ecstasy, with the big boxer engine gently flatulating at 2,200 rpm, the rider enveloped in the breezeless low-pressure zone behind an extra-tall windshield and a fairing as wide as a pool table.
In its comfy riding posture (floorboards, rocker shifter), its chuffing power delivery, its glinting presence, the Conti is undeniably Milwaukee-adjacent. But there are intriguing differences. Harleys have V-twin engines, with the crankshaft oriented east-west. The BMW, hewing to company tradition, uses a horizontally opposed “boxer” engine, with its forged steel crankshaft oriented north-south (longitudinally), and with the big silver-metallic cylinder heads jutting out to the sides, like a boss.
The arrangement has one fairly startling dynamical effect. When sitting at a stop, if you rev the enormous engine hard from idle, the momentary gyroscopic precession of the crankshaft is sufficient to pitch the bike sideways along a force vector of surprising magnitude—like a 30-knot crosswind with your name on it. Whoooaaa, bike! Was die scheisse!
The Conti uses the same 1,802-cc boxer engine found in the R 18 line (air/oil cooled, four valves per cylinder, dual ignition, intake manifold injection). Uniquely, these engines are fitted with overhead valve cylinder heads—pushrods in exposed tubes, the whole lot. BMW claims this retro-engineering pays tribute to the company’s highly regarded OHV engines in icons like the R 5. I’ll allow it, counsel.
In any event, when you roll on the BMW’s throttle at highway speeds, the old-school pot-walloping quickens, gets wider and louder, with just a touch of Bavarian. Max torque lives at 3,000 rpm; you can twist harder but you won’t go much quicker. The six-speed, single-clutch transmission shifts gears like I play Ultimate Frisbee—slowly and methodically.
You’re not winning any deeds to biker bars down at the drag strip, anyway. BMW lists the 0-62 mph acceleration as 6 seconds; and that’s in the hands of its best muleskinner.
The Transcontinental’s aesthetics are about as subtle as black-powder mining. The First Edition’s “Black Storm” paint scheme references the lacquered grandeur of prewar BMW motorcycles, with notes including the white pinstriping and frenched fenders. Its hard-tail profile (achieved with a central cantilever rear suspension strut, all but hidden in the works) is meant to recall the R 5’s “rigid frame.” The fairing obviously pays tribute to some of the era’s finer airships.
If the R 18 Transcontinental wanted to shed a few pounds, it could lose the Marshall audio system. Those things are so rude. Riders cannot hear the music at cruising speed, over the engine and through a helmet, even with the volume at 11. However, others can, for miles around, as your classic-rock playlist spreads across the landscape in Doppler-shifted rings of jackassery.
What’s German for “option delete”?
2022 BMW R 18 Transcontinental
Base price: $24,995
Price, as tested: $31,695
Powertrain: 1,802-cc horizontally opposed two-cylinder, with four valves per cylinder, electronic ignition and pushrod actuation; six-speed single clutch transmission with reverse assist; rear universal shaft.
Power/torque: 91 hp at 4,750 rpm/116 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm
Length/width/seat height/wheelbase: 103.9/40.9/29.1/66.7 inches
Curb weight: 942 pounds
0-62 mph: 6 seconds
Cargo capacity: 100 liters
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