Small Displacement BMW Bikes of the Past

Motorrad | February 17th, 2016 by 0
BMW R2 1931 750x500

As BMW prepares to bring its new G310 R to market this year, I thought it appropriate to take a look back at some of …

As BMW prepares to bring its new G310 R to market this year, I thought it appropriate to take a look back at some of the company’s previous attempts at offering small displacement, entry models.

By today’s standards, BMW’s first bike was a small displacement machine. As the company, today, competes in the over 500cc premium segment, its first model, the R32 and its 486cc engine would seem rather out of place among the brand’s current offerings. The G 310 R will be the brand’s first offering in the sub-500cc premium segment, in modern times. However, the R32 was not an ‘entry-level’ machine.

BMW R32 bike 750x562

The brand’s first attempt at producing an ‘affordable’ model, the R39 of 1925, too had a single cylinder engine like the G310 R. However, I’m sure that the Bavarians are hoping that the R39’s sales performance is no indicator of how the G 310 R will sell, when it’s introduced. The R39 sold very poorly and was discontinued only two years later. Maybe it was that entry model stigma?

BMW R39 750x500

However, at the time, the failure of the R39 was of little significance as the firm’s more expensive and more profitable offerings were selling well, in the context of premium vehicles. After 1929, and the economic tumult accompanying it, everything changed. The premium motorcycle market largely dried up. Consequently, BMW was forced to bring a machine for the masses to market.

This time, as the world was suffering economically, BMW had slightly better luck. In 1931, BMW introduced the R2. Also utilizing a single cylinder power plant, the R2 had only 198cc, making it, still, the smallest engine of any BMW motorcycle ever. Compared to the rest of the company’s offerings, the R2 cost very little at only 975RM.


The price wasn’t the only draw. Due to its extremely small engine size, riders could operate the R2 without even having a motorcycle license. How comforting. The R2 also enabled riders to evade the road tax. BMW managed to sell over 15,000 examples of the R2, making it a relatively successful model, in the context of the economic climate. However, for greater context, when economic conditions improved in Germany, BMW’s R12 with its high price and its 750cc engine, it catapulted BMW sales to over 10,000 units in a single year.

Fast forward many years, to the 1970’s and BMW is preparing to offer a new entry-level bike. R45 production began in 1978 and ended in 1985. The R45 was criticized as not living up to the BMW name and for being too weak. Just over 28,000 units were sold during its production run. Largely considered as a commercial failure, it failed to sell better than or even as well as its larger sibling the R65. Again, for context, by 1982 the firm was selling more than 37,000 motorcycles in a single year.

Though the past is not necessarily indicative of future events, it seems that maybe BMW’s upcoming G 310 R might have had a better chance of success if it had been brought to market in 2008 rather than during 2016. Too, the brand’s history as a whole illustrates well how the ‘keep going downmarket’ crowd’s strategy is highly flawed, particularly when economic conditions are good.

BMW G 310 R-images-78

BMW Motorrad is an aspirational brand, whose bikes are priced accordingly. Its best-selling models are consistently bikes with engines over 1000cc and its sub-1000cc displacement offerings fail to sell anywhere near as well. Maybe if BMW wants to seek much larger volumes, it should establish another brand through which to do so.

In the 60s, BMW acquired a fellow German firm whom produced small displacement two-wheeled vehicles, as well as automobiles, named Glas. As pursuing too much volume, particularly through offerings below a certain price point is imprudent for a premium brand, resurrecting the Glas name could enable BMW to produce non-premium, volume vehicles without consequence to its core brand’s equity and its concomitantly greater profit margins. This strategy, of course, applies to both its motorcycle and automotive divisions.