BMW’s K1600 GT SE has air conditioning, a hi-fi system, heated seats and sports bike grunt. Martin Brundle calls his “a missile”. Is it time to let go the belief that motorcycling has to be painful to be pure?
By Mat Oxley
Motorcyclists don’t ride motorcycles for the luxury. If you want luxury, you drive a car. We ride motorcycles for adventure, for adrenaline, for bugs in the teeth and for the occasional bloodied knee (if we are very lucky).
But the things that make you happy change with the passage of time. When I was younger I used to look at touring bikes — huge, heavy and overladen — and scoff at them. They seemed to have been created for silver-haired bikers who were no longer cool or crazy enough to endure the ravages of several hundred miles on a sports bike. And I was right.
I knew something was up before I’d even got hold of BMW’s six-cylinder 1600 GT SE. I found myself anticipating its arrival with more excitement than if it were a brain-curdling 190mph superbike.
A weekend trip to Spa-Fr ancorchamps confirmed my worst fears. I loved every minute. It’s official, then: I’m old.
But what the hell, with bikes like the BMW around, old age might be OK. That high-speed ride to Spa was something of an epiphany: you mean that riding bikes long distances doesn’t have to be agony? Who knew? I didn’t even have to go to my osteopath when I got home.
BMW has been the acknowledged master of the long-distance haul for several decades.
Its first fully-faired boxer twin — the R100RS — was a revelation to riders in the 1970s. I was never much of a fan of the various four-cylinder models that followed the twin, but the sixcylinder 1600 is something else. At first glance the bike seems like an exercise in excess. Why not just buy a car?
Only motorcyclists know the answer to that one. The BMW is as much of a provider of adventure and adrenaline as any bike. The only thing you’ll have to do without is getting bugs in your teeth.
This is a fabulously luxurious motorcycle. Motorways are something you usually avoid on bikes, but the BMW will devour them for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you so desire. That blast to Spa was autoroute most of the way and hugely enjoyable: crank the cruise control up to 100mph, sit back and enjoy the wonders of Europe of as a blur.
Going in a straight line on a motorcycle was never so much fun — the 1600’s seat may just be the most commodious ever fitted to a bike. All that’s lacking in the superbly appointed cockpit is a mounting point for a silver salver, so you can feed yourself grapes along the way.
I used to view ‘gimmicks’ such as cruise control and adjustable windscreens with scorn. Somehow they seemed impure — sullying the spartan joys of motorcycling. I didn’t expect to take much of them aboard the BMW. In fact they helped make the ride. Cruise control is helpful in a car. It turns out that it’s more than that on a motorcycle. Holding the handlebars and working the throttle hour after hour can be hugely uncomfortable, but it’s such a part of motorcycling that you only realise it’s a pain when you no longer have to do it. Engaging the cruise control allows you to rest your right hand, arm and shoulder; it also allows you to change your position on the bike, so your muscles don’t fossilise on long rides.
The adjustable windscreen is another gamechanger. Many bike riders don’t like looking through a screen because it divorces you from the road, so you lose that immediacy which is one of the great joys of motorcycling.
Adjustability gives you the luxury of choice. At lower speeds you keep the screen down; then you thumb a button on the left handlebar to raise the screen as your speed increases. Fully raised, the screen keeps you out of the wind, so you can comfortably sustain ton-plus speeds all day. The effect on your state of being is huge —wind blast is a major factor in causing fatigue on long rides. Eventually, I found myself using this ‘gimmick’ all the time.
Most motorcycles aren’t very adjustable, unless you want to get out the spanners and fiddle with suspension preload or ride height. The BMW has an embarrassment of adjustability: the screen, engine mapping, suspension, and the heated handlebars and seat, can all be electronically manipulated.
It may just be that adjustable suspension (an ex-works option at £710) is the making of the modern super-tourer. Back in the day, tourers ran soft suspension to make life comfy for the kind of rider who was most likely to buy such a bike. So the machines handled sloppily, dangerously even, for anyone who liked to push on a bit. You would find yourself hurtling into a high-speed autoroute curve, holding your breath and locking your arms against the handlebars, determined to prevent the wobble and weave from turning into anything more disastrous. Some touring bikes still don’t handle that well. For example, Honda’s flat-six 1800cc Gold Wing is heavier and sloppier than the BMW. The Wing was made for American roads, the BMW for European roads.
The 1600 has three suspension modes — sport, normal and comfort — which adjust both spring rate and damping. On the comfort setting the bike feels like a luxury blancmange, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the sport setting the 1600 doesn’t quite handle and steer like a sports bike but it comes very close. Even hammering through bumpy motorway curves through the Ardennes the bike held its line.
Like many BMW road bikes the K1600 features wishbone front suspension, an evolution of the system designed and developed during the 1970s and ’80s by Norman Hossack, a former McLaren engineer. Hossack’s front end — two wishbones and a single shock — replaces the ubiquitous telescopic front fork and offers plenty of advantages, including improvements in stiffness, stability and geometry. I know this from experience, because Traced Hossack’s TT F2 bike in the early 1980s.
I found the adjustable engine mapping a lot less useful than the adjustable suspension, simply because the six-cylinder engine could hardly be more usable in any of its three modes: rain, road and dynamic. Traction control comes as standard, as does ABS.
The 24-valve straight six is one hell of an engine. Peak power is a comparatively conservative 160 horsepower but torque is the number that counts. The six makes 70 per cent of its torque at 1500rpm and top gear roll-on from 100mph is impressive, provoking a huge grin every time you surge towards the horizon. Nought to 60mph takes just 3.2 seconds, about as quick as most 1000cc sports bikes.
An in-line six is not a small engine. It’s wide, which is why the configuration isn’t popular in motorcycling because engine width can compromise enthusiastic cornering. Sixes enjoyed a brief moment of glory during the 1970s, when lean angles weren’t what they are today. Honda marketed the CBX1000 six, its engine designed by Shoichiro Irimajiri who had built the fabled six-cylinder 250/350 GP bike that took Mike Hailwood to glory in the 1960s. Kawasaki responded with its fantastically overthe-top Z1300 and Italian factory Benelli also got in on the act with the Benelli Sei.
Modern day lean angles rule out six-cylinder engines for sports bikes but engine width isn’t such an issue for a tourer, which won’t be reaching knee-on-the-ground cornering angles. BMW has worked to keep the six as slim as possible and it’s also angled the cylinders sharply forward to keep engine weight low.
It seems in some ways that BMW has tried to replicate some of the characteristics of their beloved flat-twins: low centre of gravity and vibration-free running. The six is wondrously smooth, producing its power like a fast-running river, so you can execute instant overtaking moves as if you’re on a sports bike. Really, there’s more power available than you need, but it’s great that it’s there.
Formula 1 commentator Martin Brundle bought a K1600 GT last year and he adores the machine. It may not be a coincidence that he is the same age as I am. Brundle got into bikes quite late, in the 1990s. His first proper bike — he had a Garelli 50 when he was 16 — was a Ducati 916, “which I was never in charge of, if I’m honest”.
Since then he has travelled the same road as many motorcyclists. “If you’re on a superbike your arse is up in the air and you’re on your wrists. You’re stopping for fuel every hundred miles or so, you’re wet through and you hurt like hell. I travel a lot on bikes, but I never do short blasts. I’m always going somewhere, so the BMW is an awesome piece of kit for me.
“I love being on a bike because it reminds me of being in a race car; you’re wearing a helmet, you have to read the road at all times and it hurts if you get it wrong. There’s a real similarity between riding a bike fast and well and driving a racing car. I just love the freedom, and there’s no such thing as a traffic jam.”
Since the 916 Brundle has had a series of BMW tourers and sports-tourers and the 1600 is his favourite so far. “It’s a missile, and it’ll do more than 200 miles on a tank when you’re pushing hard.”
That’s a huge range on a motorcycle. Most sports bikes won’t go much further than a hundred miles on a tank. Even Honda’s VF1200 sports tourer will only go 150 miles when brimmed, which is a joke for a machine that’s designed to go places. When cruising at legal-ish speeds on the BMW (a difficult trick to pull off), the 24-litre tank will take you nearly 250 miles. When you do fill up you are once again reminded that BMW engineers have really thought about what they’re doing. Many bikes feel top heavy with a full tank. The 1600 doesn’t because the fuel load is kept reasonably low.
That’s not to say that the bike is light and easy to throw about. It’s a big, heavy thing — 320 kilos fuelled up and ready to go, but probably nearer half a tonne when you’re twoup and fully loaded. Looking on the bright side, at least this is a motorcycle that allows you to take a friend or a lover with you without them wanting to hate you for the rest of their lives.
At speed you barely notice the BMW’s weight, but when you’re trickling through traffic or parking you do become aware of its bulk and you need to know what you’re doing. At very low speeds you must be nice and smooth, keeping mass transfer to the minimum when you apply the brakes.
Incidentally, Honda’s Gold Wing features a reverse gear to simplify parking. Well, a ‘pretend’ reverse gear, powered by the bike’s starter motor.
The BMW will happily tackle traffic jams, so long as you mind the gap when you’re lanesplitting because the machine is exactly one metre wide with panniers fitted. An Issigonis Mini is only 40cm wider.
Such dimensions make it impossible to chase scooter kids through traffic jams, but this isn’t a huge price to pay for what counts as Babylonian luxury on a bike. And you just know that any scooter kids will swoon with jealousy when they slip past the BMW and hear it pumping out the sounds, like it’s the world’s biggest ghetto blaster.
The only problem with the stereo (another ex-works extra) is that you really need to be a scooter kid to enjoy it, because unless you’re 17 you shouldn’t feel the need to share your music with the rest of the world. And anyway, even if you do turn it up to 11 you can’t really hear above 50mph. The system definitely isn’t worth its £690 asking price. I preferred to use my iPod with earphones; this isn’t usually much use on a bike because of wind noise, but with the BMW’s screen fully raised you can listen all the way to 100mph.
For the record, Brundle’s favourite riding music is 1970s heavy rock. “I never thought I’d listen to music on a bike but I find a bit of Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin really enjoyable.”
The 1600 has too many knobs, buttons and gizmos to go into here. I never used the heated seat or handlebar grips, but I did use the ‘aircon’, a very non-digital system that consists of two ducts that swivel out to funnel cooling air towards you when you’re lucky enough to be riding on a hot day. Simple and highly effective.
There’s only one feature on the 1600 BMW that didn’t make me smile: the transmission. It is so hellishly clunky that I can only assume BMW’s gearbox engineers had just returned from several days of over-indulgence at the Munich beer festival.
Yet this is a motorcycle I always looked forward to riding. Not only that, it’s the kind of bike that will have you dreaming of longer trips, the kind of journeys where travelling means more than arriving.
Brundle is already planning his biggest trip on his 1600 — to the Monza Formula 1 round. “You can fly along on the thing. So far I’ve been to Spa and the Niirburgring on it, and I’ve come home from Niirburgring on the Sunday night. That’s the beauty of the bike — you can do a 500-mile ride after a long weekend’s work. I’m already looking at going to Scotland on it, then Monza is next on my list. That would be a good ride.”
And that surely has to be the ultimate compliment for any touring bike: even when you’re back at home, it has you poring over maps of Europe, wondering where to ride off to next. The 1600 reminds me of an advertisement for a (much, much less efficient) Yamaha tourer of the late 1970s. The ad read: “Sometimes we took the plane and sometimes we flew.”