Slumming barge style: a GS on the cheap….


For several years I’ve looked to pick up a winter hack late in the year with a view to selling the bike on for the following summer. Play your cards right and the profit should at least allow for free winter biking, leaving any other conveyances snugly tucked up when the salt hits the roads. Going down this route allows you to try a variety of machines year by year for free.  At the tail end of last year I was fortunate enough to source a BMW R1100GS with an MOT for a grand. It had to be done, but always with the head rather than the heart…..

BMW’s boxer twins tend to hold value well, but all GS models are exceptional (earlier air-cooled versions have increased in price to the point where they are a long way from hack money). Scrape the bottom of the barrel for a cheap 1100 and you’ll be competing against a diverse cast of dreamers and knowledgeable enthusiasts – i.e. those who hankered after a GS when the bike became almost de rigeur among a riders of a certain age, and those who know the beast and are looking for another helping on the cheap. It’s a sellers market driven by demand.  This means a cheap one will be cheap for a good reason….. Buyer, beware. Don’t get swept away by the bike’s image: bottom line is we’re talking about a machine which will have seen better days: the 1100 was in production from 1994 to 99, and these are bikes which tend to be well used.

There’s a good reason for that: we are talking about a unique ride experience generally well suited to UK roads, powered by a user friendly lump recognised for its longevity and ability to clock up high miles without complaint (although other moving parts may have taken stick). This was the machine that heralded a revolution is our riding habits: long travel suspension allows tyres to cope with deteriorating road surfaces and poor conditions, and a responsive mid range is of far more use to the average rider than achieving max torque over 10k revs. Throw in the commanding ride position and robust shaft drive and suddenly an overweight German with questionable looks and relevance is transformed into a  funky icon with Teutonic practicality on tap.

The GS (along with Yamaha’s under rated TDM series, see below) signalled a swerve from sports bikes and sports tourers, the consequences of which are demonstrated by the health of the adventure sector in today’s market.  Your call…….

get that weight off and the 1100 can be transformed, but not on the cheap………    (click to enlarge)


Telelever front, Paralever rear

Both ends of the 1100GS are unusual and buyers should be aware of the implications.  The Telelever front end has its origins in the early 1980s British Saxon design. Telelever forks are responsible only for steering; a swing arm extends back from the fork tubes and connects to a single shock absorber. This means less unsprung weight, and since braking and suspension forces are not applied to the fork tubes, the result is a smoother front end experience – without the characteristic diving associated with conventional forks.  As long as the shocks are in good condition and the rider can adjust to the feel, the system does offer a significant advantage, especially on poor surfaces. K series BMWs offer a further refinement in the Hossack inspired Duolever front end, which is arguably better suited to the greater power offered by BMW’s four cylinder machines.

The paralever rear on the GS is often overlooked: that  front end gets all the attention. But a single sided swing arm linked to a single shock absorber makes good design sense if allied to a shaft drive design, as is the case on the GS. Paralever is a refinement on the original R80 GS’s monolever system, permitting increased ground clearance. Many riders have been surprised by the GS’s smooth and predictable handling at speed, and the unconventional suspension set up positively contributes to the bulky machine’s stability when cornering. The set up also comes into its own when the going gets tough: it’s a formula that is well suited to Brit roads and Brit weather.

What you should know

As a general rule any mechanical problem well to the rear of those boxer heads should be looked at with trepidation – we’re talking clutch / gearbox / drive-train. The casings have to be split to sort the following:


If the casings are being split, the clutch may as well be replaced anyway, since the stock item is inexpensive – it’s the labour involved in reaching it that will damage your wallet. A UK main dealer quoted a ‘ballpark figure’ of £800 plus VAT for work which involved splitting the casings. An independent specialist will be cheaper – but you should still budget for a minimum of £400.

THE DRIVESHAFT  itself should be free from any knocking when the rear wheel is rotated on the main stand. It’s worth putting  hand on the drive itself to make sure there are no nasty vibes. Problems relating to the driveshaft or paralever rear can be costly.

REAR AXLE BEARINGS will have cried enough once you get much beyond 50k miles. Our main dealer quoted £300 to replace them. Go to an independent and you should be looking at £150 – £200 tops.

ABS  The 1100’s ABS is non servo operated which means you still have normal braking power in the event of malfunction, and of course it can be discarded altogether.  After the bike moves off you should hear a clunk as the ABS kicks in and the dashboard ABS lights go out. If they don’t, for whatever reason, don’t walk away – get the price adjusted down.

SHOCKS  Paralever and telelever are a good road going combi, but depend on the quality of the shock at either end: refurbishment is a cheaper option than replacement (see contacts box). Rear shock adjustment is prone to seizure.

Setting aside the above issues, apply the same sort of logic that should be applied to buying any other bike. BMW owners score highly for maintenance – there really should be some fat service history. Ask for it. Check that the alternator belt has been replaced within living memory – they should be done between 35 and 50k miles intervals, depending on  which expert you ask… Do try and test ride – this bike will feel different if you haven’t experienced a GS, so a test is arguably even more important than usual. Do an HPI check.

How it rides

The bottom end can be a bit lumpy – the GS was fuel injected from the 1100 on and purists prefer the smoothness of the earlier carbed bikes. Having said that, once underway a GS should pull smoothly through the rest of the range – the middle of which is particularly fat and rewarding, making the bike an ideal A road conveyance – compared the down shifting often required on your average sports 600, overtakes are straightforward and relaxed courtesy of torque on tap exactly where you need it.

Earlier (and some later) GS models were streamlined compared to the 1100. There is no getting away from it – the sheer bulk seems unnecessary and undermines what was otherwise a ground breaking design. As a result the bike can feel top heavy at slow speeds. Chuck in a recalcitrant gear box familiar to many boxer riders and in the 1100 you have a conveyance horribly ill suited to urban riding. Think of the bike as an upright sports tourer, at home on bigger roads, and you’re getting there.

Although the Telelever front end theoretically lessens the sensation of diving on the brakes, older examples may well have a trampoline like sense of weight transfer. The only real cure for this is to get both shocks out and sent off for refurbishing – they’re going to need it if they’ve been in situ for twenty odd years. Sort this and the difference will be remarkable – you may never hanker for a conventional front end again.

Potential issues aside, a sweet 1100 is still a wonderful, effortless UK road performer, gliding over our troubled road surfaces while happily leaning and holding a predictable line at speed. The 5 speed box and emphasis on mid range conspire to limit top speed to around a true 90/100 mph: more than that is entirely missing the point of the beast. Just try and stay clear of the city streets….

Where to find one for a grand

That is a massive ask – these are rare below £2k.  I spotted a tatty one taken in as a trade part ex, and the vendor was subsequently messed around by an ebay dreamer. He needed to clear space and accepted a grand. I’ve not heard of a cheaper one but if you don’t ask…

Buy in winter – just beforer and after Christmas can be a happy hunting ground for punters. Check Gumtree, the local press, adventure rider and enthusiasts websites.  Dealers tend to know the value of the bike and should be a last resort – unless they happen to be a BMW dealer….  which sounds like a contradiction, but isn’t: virtually all Motorrad dealers trade on the tat and wouldn’t let an old shonker- even a reliable old shonker – within a mile of the showroom.  Pester them to ring you when they’ve got an 1100 to trade – it may well turn out you’re onto a cheap bike with history that the dealer originally provided. Result.

If you do find a cheap one which needs work beyond the scope of your mechanical skills, check out independent BMW specialists: the GS’s peculiarities mean that finding the right establishment could save a lot of time in the long run. A BMW main dealer told me that his workshop is prepared to offer concessions on out of season jobs: ask away. You might be pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer.


Yamaha’s TDM series comes to mind both in terms of value and relevance to the adventure bike sector, although the TDM is pretty much 100% road dedicated. Loved on the continent and under rated in Blighty means there are bargains out there. The second generation of 850s (1996 – 2000) offer real value and represent a significant upgrade over earlier bikes.  Aprilia’s Caponord has recently been totally re-designed, meaning that earlier incarnations have seen used values take a hit – they can be found for a couple of grand. If you want a reliable motor with real power and decent handling on offer, the Capo should be on the Adventure bike shopping list. As with the Capo, recent model developments have seen  Ducati’s earlier litre Multistradas drop in value – hunt around and you’ll find a decnt one for around £2k. And as you would with a GS, look for as full a service history as possible.

A massively left field choice would be a big single, and none came bigger than Suzuki’s legendary Dr.BIG. An 800cc single is going to be a unique ride experience by definition, and values are starting to rise. The lump is robust but the suspension will need help. The earlier DR 750 version is a fair bit lighter than the 800 and further weight can be shed by loosing the massive enduro fuel tank. You can pick up a decent one for £1000 – it’s a far more engaging ride  and a lot less money than something like an Africa Twin. Keep it, and you’re looking at an investment.

 UK contacts

  •  – boxer parts specialist
  •  Phil Hawksley aka boxerman, servicing and repairs:
  •  ABE offer a shock refurbishment service: 0208 858 9052
  • CW Motorcycles in Dorchester are one of the oldest established main Motorrad dealers with in depth of knowledge of the marque going back to the 1970s. Ian Wilson runs the service team: 01305 267 262.
  • Ocean BMW are another main dealership and offer out of season deals on servicing and repairs: call Peter Cramp on 01752 202828









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