Bikes we love

What I want: BMW F800GT


I’ve been talking a lot about various cruisers lately — lots of posts on Harley-Davidson, Indian and Victory machines. I think that may be the residual effect of having visited home earlier this summer: cruisers on the brain.

For reasons that I can’t quite determine, that style of bike is king in the Land of the Free. Meanwhile (and this may be one of those chicken-or-the-egg things), the American landscape is one that is particularly hospitable toward cruisers. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s not necessarily the case here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom. Nor many other places in Europe. Our narrow, winding, millennium-old roads and multitudinous roundabouts are not exactly the best places to be navigating a lumbering piece of machinery that weighs more than a high school girl’s basketball team.

Yet, there is still a big part of me that wants to get one (a cruiser, I mean; I wouldn’t know where to put a high school girl’s basketball team). Part of that, of course, is because I’m American. On some weird subconscious level I seem to see owning a cruiser as a declaration of nationality — a loud, chrome-laden means of saying: “I will never give up my US passport.”

But on a larger level, especially as pertains to Harley-Davidson and Indian, the appeal for me is that weird concept of heritage: the idea that by purchasing a particularly assembled collection of metals, plastics, rubbers and toxic fluids, you are tapping into some kind of narrative, that a company’s history and aura somehow runs through every bike and its owner. Yes, I know that is nonsense. I am a rational human being with a functional brain, who understands that inanimate objects do not have a soul or spirit or character, etc. But I am a sucker for the idea of it nonetheless.

I’m in the right place for such thinking. I live in Europe, for the love of Pete. This place is nothing but heritage. Triumph, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Ducati. Hell, even KTM is 80 years old (a). But for me, the company with the weightiest heritage — the greatest veritas — is a little German outfit that’s been producing motorcycles since 1921: BMW.

I feel John — in blue jeans, black leather jacket and sunglasses —
is the cooler-looking one in this picture.

When I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance it was with John Sutherland (b) whom I most identified. I like good things and I’m willing to pay for quality. I, too, would be wary of using a beer can to fix my bike. And like John, there is something about BMW’s heritage of quality, of making really good products, of paying attention to small details, that appeals to me.

And when I think of bikes that I would want that are not American cruisers, machines that are, in fact, appropriate to the riding conditions where I actually live and to the kind of riding I actually do, I most often come back to BMW (and Honda, but more on that in a future post), because it possesses that element of heritage that is so strangely important to me.

Specifically, the bike I keep coming back to is the F800GT. One of the more affordable models in BMW’s stable, it is a hell of a lot of bike for the money — offering 90 horsepower, 63 lb.-ft. of torque, and fuel efficiency upward of 70 mpg for £1,000 less than a Harley-Davidson Sportster.

True, it doesn’t look as good as a Sportster (to me) but over time I’ve found that the F800GT has grown on me. It first started showing up on my radar about the time I was comparing various middleweight sport tourers and I’ll admit my initial reaction to it was lukewarm. Something about that front end wasn’t quite doing it for me. It looks just a bit as if the front wheel was an afterthought. But then I started reading about the bike — about its performance, its low centre of gravity, its bells and whistles, its belt drive (no more fussing with chains!) — and slowly, slowly it started looking better and better to me.

For instance, I’m now kind of fond of that enormous hump of a tank (that’s not really the tank). It looks like the hump of a Brahma bull. I could ride around pretending I’m Guilherme Marchi. Or, actually, not really. Because the 798cc beast that is the F800GT only weighs 470 lbs. (less than my Honda CBF600 SA) and is, by most accounts I’ve read, a joy to be astride. And the parallel twin engine performs a hell of a lot better than a bull, too. Here’s a video of Adam Waheed going nuts on one at Mulholland. If you’ve got the cajones to lean so hard you drag panniers, the F800GT’s got the goods to let you do it.

It’s highly unlikely that I’d ever push a motorcycle to such extremes but increasingly I do enjoy a good curvy road or two, and all that performance can be useful in other ways. I’m doing more travelling for work these days, and that means longish jaunts across the country at European highway speeds (i.e., upward of 75 mph). Having the ability to dance out of sticky situations quickly is obviously an advantage.

I’ve not yet had the chance to test ride an F800GT myself but I have sat on one in a showroom and the ergonomics worked surprisingly well for me. If I remember correctly, my exact words when sitting down and placing my feet on the pegs were: “Oh. Oh, yes. This is me.”

A nice machine for going long distances.

Needless to say, that kind of comfort would come in handy when making a run up to Scotland or out to Norfolk. Plus, it’s a BMW. When you travel for business you generally want to present the best side of yourself in all ways. And I kind of like the image of myself that I get when I imagine riding a BMW. Is that petty? Hell yes, it is. But that doesn’t keep it from being something I think about. I suspect some of the people I interact with might think of it, too.

That said, if everything were equal in the world I’d still choose an Indian Scout, which has similar engine performance and an American heritage and Minnesota connection that makes me swoon. But the fact is, a BMW F800GT costs £2,100 less than an Indian Scout.

That comes with a bit of a caveat, though, which leads to the handful of things that sometimes make me question whether I’d really want the Bavarian sport tourer. The standard price of a BMW F800GT in the United Kingdom is £8,290. That’s a decent value. But conveniently that price does not include a whole host of the bells and whistles that make the bike so appealing. Things like traction control, electronic suspension adjustment, heated grips, centre stand, and so on. To get all the proper features you’ll need to pay £1,200 extra. Thereby pushing the price up to £9,500. If you want panniers, tack on £500 more. Suddenly, your “affordable” BMW costs £10,000.

Of course, that’s still less than a stock Indian Scout, and who knows how much less it is if you consider that the Scout I’d want would have a passenger seat, passenger backrest and screen (I want the one that’s in this picture). But still. When priced at £9,500 the BMW loses some of its lustre for me. I’m not sure it’s sexy enough to cost that much.

And those kind of costs make me wonder what sort of costs I’d encounter in the future. I’m like John Sutherland, remember? I’m not going to take on valve clearances myself. How much will paying a mechanic for such a thing set me back? And speaking of servicing, BMW has had a number of recalls in the past few months, is it possible the reputation of quality and durability is a myth? I’d hate to find that out the hard way.

But most importantly, is the BMW image that I have in my head really one I want to portray? The bike has heritage, without doubt, but do I want to be a part of it? I suspect only time (and the availability of quality used F800GT models) will tell.


(a) OK, well, that’s a stretch. The company traces its history back to 1934 but in truth the KTM name didn’t exist until 1953, and KTM as we know it didn’t come around until 1992.

(b) In doing some research on Sutherland I learned that, although a Minneapolis native, he had a number of deep ties to my beloved St. Paul, Minnesota. Additionally, he died in November 2012, which is exactly when I was reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, the book that obtusely made me realise I needed to get a motorcycle. If you are keen to read into coincidences, all this means that I have been infused with Sutherland’s spirit and my desire to get a BMW is an obvious and natural expression of that.