Thursday, January 29, 2009

BMW Versus Bonneville

I like riding my Bonneville, but when the opportunity arose to give Bruce's BMW a go, it was quite the eye opener, and quite a change from my more sedate 865cc twin.My Bonneville is styled to look like a motorcycle from thirty years ago, though inside it has an engine that is modern in all respects, double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, unit construction with a five speed gearbox and a modern low maintenance o-ring final drive chain. The engine puts out 60 true horsepower with minimal vibrations, no oil leaks and a solid history of reliable performance. New Bonnevilles have been around since 2000, the original appeared in 1959, more or less.Bruce's GS 800 is the epitome of all things modern in motorcycling, a water cooled parallel twin, slightly smaller in capacity than my Bonneville but it's an engine that produces 75 horsepower, far more than the 60 attributed to the Triumph. The GS800 has been a much anticipated ride in the US, as it is a new model for this country, and the motorcycle press has been gushing about it.The larger GS1200 produced by BMW has been an enormous success, more than 100,000 built so far in various air cooled capacities, combining road going qualities with the ability to take to dirt tracks when desired. However the 800 is a hundred or more pounds lighter, similar to the Bonneville at around 500 (225kg) and with a slightly lower seat height, low enough I could tip toe when astride the 800. Bruce finds it tall enough that when he has attached all the bags he finds it easier to step on the foot rests to get on and off the beast:The BMW is not styled to appeal to the nostalgic motorcyclist, as the engine is purposeful, painted black and a snake's nest of hoses pipes and wires, quite unlike the clean look of the air cooled Bonneville:It is what is expected of the modern motorcycle. Furthermore it operates with a mass of electronic doo-hickery that appeals to me not one bit. Of course fuel injection is the order of the day (as it is on the latest generation of Bonnevilles for clean air purposes) but Bruce the engineer tells me owners have reported numerous failures of electronic parts including the complex ignition systems that killed off my 250cc Vespa GTS. There is something perverse about the perceived need to create a complex ignition system to defy thievery that ends up denying access to the legitimate owners. The Bonneville lacks all sophistication.The BMW has three disc brakes where the Bonneville has two, and the BMW's two front discs managed to let Bruce down:One of Bruce's front disc calipers fell apart while underway, jammed the front wheel and brought him abruptly to the ground. That was a problem apparently known to BMW for they changed the length of the bolts while Bruce convalesced with a temporarily mangled foot. None deterred he loves the bike with it's accessory travel gear, sophisticated hard luggage:And electric plugs for heated clothing and electronic navigation capable of finding it's way to the southernmost point in the US for example:Bruce's GPS was also capable of leading him to Starbucks on Duval but it took my own internal compass to get us to Sandy's for a fish sandwich and a cafe con leche for lunch, and prices that would make Starbucks blush: Bruce loves his gadgetry, and laughs at my preference for the old fangled ways. I enjoy using my paper maps and I like the serendipity that comes with not always knowing where you are going. He even pulled out his in-car GPS when we drove one evening to a restaurant near my home (he trailered the BMW from Santa Fe across the snowy high plains). He is so dependant on electrons I think sometimes he forgets he can look out of the window, not just for the beauty but to figure out where he is going.
I enjoyed riding the BMW, with all its acceleration and perfectly balanced ride. I didn't like standing on tippy toe when stationary and the shaped saddle is hard to get used to after the freedom the Bonneville allows to slide back and forth as one wishes. The gearbox is smooth though the plethora of six speeds is more than I need. For people like us who travel mostly at 80 mph (130kph) or less there is more pleasure in acceleration than absolute speeds and the BMW can pass much quicker than the Bonneville.In terms of performance the motorcycles are a reasonable match, even on the gravel where the Bonneville kept up just fine at slow speeds with the more off road GS. A Bonneville Scrambler would be more indicated for serious frequent fire road rides but I have always preferred true road bikes, especially as we don't have fire roads in the Keys. Bruce's GPS didn't locate the pleasures of the dirt roads on Sugarloaf Key but with my head to guide us once again, we took a ride a couple of miles through the mangroves enjoying the winter evening together out of sight of all landmarks visible to GPS:Both motorcycles come with a long list of accessories from historically reputable factories so you can make what you want of the basic machine. I bought the Bonneville in 2007 for $8,000 and I believe the price has risen even in these deflationary times to something over $10,000. Bruce bought the GS with a lot of accessories, bags and the like, last year for $15,000 but he did get a lot more machine with its superior suspension and slightly higher fuel mileage and its off road pedigree. To my surprise I am entirely content with my symbol of 1970s motorcycling in modern guise. But I am a Luddite and entirely content also to live my simple electron free lifestyle.Besides, 60hp, in these islands in the twilight of my years is plenty thank you. And with 22,000 miles on the clock (35,000 km) the Bonneville has lots of life left, as I hope do I.