BMW R1100RT Review & Buying Advice

Looking for a tourer on a tightwad budget? Look no further than BMW’s plastified mile muncher, the R1100RT 

What is it?

A fully dressed tourer on the cheap – heated grips, electric screen, ABS, fuel injection, built in hard panniers and shaft drive. The hipster proof R1100RT remains one of the cheapest ways into used BMW boxer ownership in these inflationary days of the tight trousered café racer conversion.

Riding Impressions

In a word, regal. The RT wafts over bumps on quality suspension, steadfastly refuses to dive under heavy braking thanks to its Paralever and Telelever suspension and makes the rider feel imperious – just like a BMW should make its rider feel in fact.

Belying its porcine presence, handling is light and precise. Weight is carried low (one of the principal advantages of all Boxer-engined bikes) and the riding position rates A+ for comfort. The huge 1000-mile-day equestrian riding seat is adjustable for height and the cast alloy bars put the rider in evenin’ all plod riding territory – the view from the saddle is perfect.

Torque is ample, making the RT a surprising hit as a commuter too. Just learn how wide the panniers are before you start to filter. The engine is perhaps the best bit. Mechanically quiet at idle but with proper character once you wake up its 90 horses, the boxer 1100 is as happy at 20mph as it is at 120mph.

Practicalities

Until you’ve cashed in all your self respect and owned a big tourer with hard cases, rack and a lockable fairing glove box, you just won’t believe how incredibly useful they are. You can finally do normal things, leaving your jacket and helmet on the bike as you walk around Tesco like any normal person buying milk. Amazing.

Value

Hard to beat. This was an expensive high-end bike when new and was built to last in the German sense. The oldest ones are now over 20 years old so you can get a reasonable runner for £1500 which, with some caveats (read on) can land you with a bike that may well last and last.

Running Costs

45 – 50 mpg in general – very acceptable. Internet traders like Motobins will provide all your service items at no more cost than for Japanese bikes and there are a few trusty breakers for other stuff. With no chain or sprockets to replace and a set of hard wearing tyres like Michelin Pilot Road 3s fitted, the RT is about as cheap touring transport as you’re likely to come across in day-to-day expenditure.

Maintenance

Anyone buying a 20 year old RT isn’t going to be visiting BMW to get bent over their service counter so shed time is a must. Luckily routine jobs are easy – just make sure you buy a decent quality hex head socket set before you start. Fork seal replacement is about the easiest you’ll find on any bike ever made. An oil change is a 15 minute job. Transmission and final drive oil changes are also easy (use fully synthetic oil) and plug swaps are a welcome change if you’re coming from a water cooled multi – just make sure you have a BMW specific removal spanner as they are set deep.

The RT uses four valve heads with old style screw adjusters so valve adjustment is simple and cost free too – no buying shims.

The biggest deal for an RT is to get the throttle bodies synchronised as perfectly as possible and for this you will need a pair of vacuum gauges or similar. Without correct synchronisation, the big twin can stumble at idle and surge at light throttle loadings.

Surging?

The RT has a long trail of internet infamy behind it for surging on a light throttle, especially in US forums. I personally believe this is to do with the US model’s Motronic fuel injection being leaned off at lower rpm to aid the life of the catalyst with some (removable) electronic mapping, making any slight imbalance profoundly noticeable under lean running conditions. Luckily many Euro bikes don’t have this gubbins, and I have to say surging in European forums doesn’t get anything like the press it does in the US. Whatever – throttle body sync is something you will learn to love with the RT, just as Bing carb balancing was in the old days of the airhead.

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Finish & Reliability: What’s good…

A high-end product in the first place means you get stainless fasteners and exhaust, well produced fairing panels, quality aluminium castings and engine paintwork and a refreshing lack of corrosion. Even a 20+ year old RT can look very smart with the minimum of owner care, and all that bodywork means it was designed to be easy to clean. Coupled with the long developed Boxer engine which is documented to run for over 300,000 miles (and there are some extreme examples of over double that) then you’ve got the basis for a bike that can last a very long time.

…and what’s not

Unfortunately every silver lining has a cloud, and the RT has several cumulonimbus sized whoppers waiting to piss an invoice shower onto your bratwurst barbecue:

  • Headlight

How it got released like this I’ll never know. We are in head torch territory. Awful.

  • Brakes

The RT has a non linked ABS braking system that (surprise!) can give trouble, with warning lamps refusing to go out meaning instant MOT failure these days. It’s not a big deal. Budget-minded RT owners simply disconnect the system and pull the bulbs – the RT reverts to standard braking once the ABS is disconnected, unlike the later more complicated 1150 series – a good reason to choose the 11 over the 1150 as a budget tourer. Resolution of ABS faults can be simple (a result of low voltage in cold weather start ups triggering the ABS fault display) or expensive (ABS pump/module failures). Other brake failures I’ve seen are front master cylinders and more typically worn bobbins on the front brake rotors. Again, Motobins will sell you these.

  • Hall Effect Sensor
bmw r1100rt hall effect sensor wiring failure
Broken insulation in a Hall Effect Sensor. This will spoil your day

The 1100 RT suffered from ill-chosen wiring running between the Hall Effect Sensor (a magnetically triggered engine timing device located on the front of the engine) and the bike’s main wiring loom. The issue is that the wiring insulation which passes over the top of the engine breaks down due to heat and age. As a consequence the bike may fail in a spectacularly embarrassing and clattery succession of misfires on humid or wet days. Most RTs are affected but again it’s not a big deal. Replacement is easy and DIY able. Cost – £150.

  • Left hand cam chain tensioner

The left hand cam chain tensioner is located on the top of the cylinder barrel in front of the left throttle body and is a recognised design flaw. Being spring and oil pressure actuated, it suffers from both fatigue and oil leak-down once a hot engine with thin oil is shut off. When you start the bike after leaving it a while, there will be an almighty clacking while oil pressure builds back up and the left cam chain is again under tension. People will stare at you in petrol stations – it’s that kind of noise. The right one, being located on the bottom of the barrel does not empty itself and so doesn’t suffer in the same way. The fix is a simple two-piece upgrade available for about £100 again from Motobins (Motobins are not paying me for this, I just find them a a good shop to deal with).

  • Front Telelever arm

Depending on where you live (especially northern Europe which salts roads) these can rust around the lower shock mounting leading to sudden and exciting total loss of front suspension. Check condition of arm.

  • Gearbox

Here’s where it gets problematic for the RT and its use as a budget/long term option as a used tourer.

First the gearbox action. The RT uses a 5 speed gearbox (the later 1150 went to six) and cable operated dry clutch. The clutch itself is light and progressive but the change can be a bit, er Massey Ferguson. There’s precious little snick snick with an RT, more of a clunk clank. This is not universal and depends largely on the gear you are in, the condition of the gearbox, its oil, the temperature, how the FTSE 100 is doing and the rider’s willingness and ability to shift in a way the BMW approves of. Put simply, you will either learn to live with its quarry door horrors, pre-load the shift lever before changing up and learn to shift down matching engine speed to box speed or you’ll instinctively hate it and sell the bike quickly.

Secondly reliability. What?!!? I thought BMWs were reliable! Ahem. The gearbox, (produced by Gertrag for BMW) went through three different iterations in BMW’s 1100 series – the M93, M94 and later M97 coded boxes. The early ones and later ones all suffered different problems with wear on the shifter forks, premature wear in the dogs (the sticky out bits that lock different gears into a power transferring position) and bearings eating into gear facings, though the M97 is generally regarded as better. Look for anything unusual – popping out of gear and ‘hiccuping’ under power especially – and anything more than a light paste of metallic particles on the magnetic drain plug when you change the oil means unhappy times lie ahead. The box itself is noisy in use and can sound like an old Seddon Atkinson truck whining up to speed. This is not something to worry about – it’s character as they say. As a nice touch, the gearbox was designed to not sickeningly bang into first gear a la all Japanese bikes. This is a very welcome feature for those who are mechanically sympathetic.

Lastly spline failure. The dry clutch runs on a splined input shaft which can become damaged over time. There is a good deal of BMW folklore which says the transmission should be split from the motor occasionally and this shaft greased with moly to avoid damage. Other people never touch them. There’s also the story that a number of gearbox units were manufactured misaligned leading to pressure on this part and so early failure. Taking into account the fact that only people who have spline failures go on to the internet to complain about how much BMW charged them and everyone else stays quiet, it’s likely that a small number of transmissions were indeed faulty and yes, occasionally splines do fail. Twenty years down the line, I’m now of the opinion that if you get a good one, you get a good one. Be lucky. Rebuilt replacement boxes are available on an exchange basis but are pricey.

  • Final drive

It’s not unknown for the drive shaft to fail at the universal joint. This can take out the Paralever swing arm if you’re trying hard enough – listen for rhythmical knocking increasing with speed but independent of the gearbox (but don’t do this with the bike running in gear on the centre stand. You will hear all sort of bad things in an unloaded transmission). The final drive unit bearing and splines can also fail. Weeping seals should be investigated – any loss of oil is bad, and the weeping may in fact be the result of a slack bearing. Investigate in time and all will be fine.

Other stuff? Occasional starter motor and alternator failures, cracked aluminium frame tabs from accidents and drops, the ball joint in the telelever arm wears out eventually and swing arm bearings also go. Same as any bike then.

Of course reading about the RT’s faults and transmission failure rate online is like that ship that hit an iceberg. Not all ships hit icebergs – but when they do, everyone gets to know about it.  In point of fact, most RTs easily survive 100,000 miles with regular maintenance and many do much, much more. For me that makes the RT one of the most hipster-proof bargains of 2017.

2 Comments

  1. “You can finally do normal things, leaving your jacket and helmet on the bike as you walk around Tesco like any normal person buying milk. Amazing.” .. probably could have done with one of these rather than the 750SS for our French trip .. would have avoided looking like a dubious leather clad couple grasping our baguettes.

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