Modular Design & Why the BMW R nineT is Such a Big Deal

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The first of the new BMW R nineT motorcycles rolled off its assembly line today, a fact that is only newsworthy because so many motorcycle publications are struggling for content in these coming winter doldrums.

It was only a month ago that we were overwhelmed with stories of new bikes debuting in Milan, and now we motorcycle journalists must scrounge around for anything lurid that is at least tangentially related to motorcycles. I hear there is a law student in Italy selling nude photos of herself so she can buy a new scooter. Juicy.

Who doesn’t like a good tit story, right? But instead I offer to you perhaps the biggest development in motorcycling this year — a story that no one else has thought to discuss, until now — and it is about the BMW R nineT itself, and what it represents not only for BMW Motorrad, but also for motorcycling as a whole.

The Germans pitched the nineT as a motorcycle that commemorates the past 90 years of BMW Motorrad’s history — an old-school air-cooled boxer-twin engine, housed in a fetching new roadster design. The end result is an attractive bike that should be fun for weekend day-trips and coffee shop racing. It’s a pity about the name though.

Branding issues aside, the reality is that the nineT has less to do with BMW’s past, and more to do with the company’s future. You see, the most important aspect of the BMW R nineT isn’t its homage to BMW Motorrad’s rich history on two-wheels, but instead it is the nineT’s modular design, which allows for customers to tailor the motorcycle with ease to their tastes and uses.

A commercial realization of what BMW set in motion with its LoRider concept so many years ago, purpose-built modular motorcycles like the nineT will be the new trend for motorcycles in the coming years, especially as OEMs try to justify bottom lines.

The real technical beauty of the BMW R nineT is the ability to build multiple variations of motorcycle upon the same chassis. For BMW Motorrad, the options are primarily limited to changing out the nineT’s seat and rear subframe, which can take the motorcycle from a chopped roadster, to an attractive two-seater, and finally to café racer aesthetic.

Working with customizers like Roland Sands, BMW Motorrad has ensured that a robust array of official BMW parts are available in the company’s aftermarket catalog for the nineT. The hope of course is that since modifying the nineT was something planned for in its design that then other customizers would jump on board, and offer even more options for the nineT. If you build it, they will come, as they say.

Time will tell on how the market reacts to the BMW R nineT and whether a builder culture can be cultivated around the machine, but that is for the marketers to worry about. Meanwhile in Bavaria, the bean-counters are quietly praying for what designs like the nineT could do for profitability and sustainability.

Basing multiple motorcycles off the same engine is nothing new for BMW Motorrad, and it is something that the European manufacturers do exceptionally well. The European brands don’t have the resources, nor do the volume, to develop a new engine for every new model like the Japanese OEMs do.

Instead, they repurpose engine designs for multiple applications. BMW is a great example of this cost-saving strategy, but no brand does it better than Ducati. Arguably the single-most-expensive piece of a motorcycle to develop, reusing engines not only allows OEMs to bring bikes to market quicker, but they can do so more affordably.

If engines designs are already modular between models and model segments, the next logical step is for chassis to follow the same trend. The BMW R nineT is perhaps the first real application of this idea, albeit in a limited capacity, but larger-scale implementations are just around the corner.

For the accountants and financiers, there is no better lure than the possibility of capturing some aftermarket accessory sales, which can easily pad another 10% to an OEM’s take-home income. Initial tooling and design costs might be higher, but the added benefit of building three motorcycles instead of one, as has been exemplified with the nineT, is a seductive proposition.

This concept also means that OEMs can offer affordable customization packages for each model they offer — something BMW already does to a lesser-degree with its different trim levels and feature packages. The idea will be fully realized when a brand like BMW can offer not only different subframe packages, but also different front-end designs, fuel tanks, etc to any one of its models.

Imagine being able to buy a nineT and having the choice between having Duolever, traditional telescopic forks, or even hub-center steering on your motorcycle. Tricky, but not technically impossible.

The growing electric motorcycle segment will take this concept a step further, as the unique mechanical characteristics of conventional engines will be replaced by different firmware packages for a motorcycle’s electric motor and controller.

That, of course, is something farther along down the pipe. It will happen though, and we will mark the BMW R nineT as the first production motorcycle to embrace this concept of motorcycle production.