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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.

  • kww

    jeez, was is that long ago that BMW had a whole range of boxer bikes? The R, S, ST, and touring models. I think there are a lot of potential customers who won’t buy a parallel twin or even straight 4 BMW, but will buy a boxer. If BMW thinks they can rely on the aftermarket to provide that range, they may be kicking potential customers to the curb again.

    I did check out the R NineT product page, lots of Tshirts and a chain wallet featured, very little technical information (sad).

  • gabe

    Didn’t Harley try this with the Dark Custom?

    I offer some dissent.

    Should customization be the ultimate goal of BMW? And here I was thinking that Orange County Choppers is no longer relevant!

    And having design boutique RSD in your corner is a positive how? I would say that their output is a mixed bag from good, to interesting, to lame.

    The benefits of modular construction aside, I am thinking the R9T could be popular, but also a gimmicky retro vehicle. The likes of the newer Beetle, the Mini, the Thunderbird, PT Cruiser, the Plymouth Prowler…

  • I guess if that’s what it take to continue making motorcycles. But different chassis for different bikes is good, because you can design a bike for a specific purpose. This seems like other than asthetics, the bike won’t be ‘GREAT’ at anything.

  • Doug

    Good article Jensen. There is a shop that is capable of building 3 bike styles using a single chassis of their own design & transmission/motor package:

    1. Sportbike
    2. Cafe racer or Sport Classic
    3. Sport tourer that would be along the lines of a Motus (more solo touring in a Hotrod style than the high tech)

    They are located near you too if you need more Moto content this winter.

  • Jimbo

    Ok, but how much does this bike cost? When are they gonna set a price?!

  • Lincoln

    Great stuff Jensen.

    You could add Triumph to the list. I looked at three of them parked next to each other at the dealer the other week. A scrambler, a cafe racer and a ‘standard’ bike. All the same chassis, tank and motor but three distinctly different motorcycles.

  • Gabe, I’m not advocating a move to a custom-motorcycle business model. Big displacement motorcycles are incredibly personal purchases for motorcyclists — this is about offering as many flavors of motorcycle in one package.

    What I’m really talking about here is making a motorcycle into a platform. It’s a platform for OEMs to get a bigger piece of the aftermarket pie, and it’s a platform that third parties can build off of as well. It doesn’t matter what you think of RSD, some people like their products, and would likely be into what Roland makes for the nineT.

    If anything, your dissent of RSD proves the point. Maybe there is a treatment that RSD does that BMW would never touch, for fear of alienating its core demographic. It doesn’t matter, the bike is a platform, and an RSD fan will buy it and go to RSD that company’s wares.

    All BMW is doing here is making that transaction more likely to happen. Nothing lost, but possibly something gained. Even better, what if a year down the line, they don’t like the RSD look anymore. Normally you’d have to sell the bike, here a nineT owner could just dive back into the parts catalog and bolt-up whatever the flavor du jour is that day.

  • Jake F.

    Jensen says: “Normally you’d have to sell the bike, here a nineT owner could just dive back into the parts catalog and bolt-up whatever the flavor du jour is that day.”

    That’s an interesting point as it begs the question, “to what extent, if any, does adding versatility to a model inhibit future sales?” After all, why buy a new bike when you can easily modify the one you have to achieve the desired result?

  • toddyo

    When did motorcycles become dolls that you dress up with new clothes? “Customizing” your Harley or “farkle-ing” your adventure bike or “cafe-ing” your Triumph is really just about playing with dolls. Put $5,000 of chrome, pipes, guards, racks, bags, etc. on a bike, ride it to Starbucks to show off, sell it with under a thousand miles, rinse, and repeat.

    I was okay with new riders buying motorcycles so they could play dress-up (looking at you, Harley riders), but now the bikes are all about playing dress-up, too, and it is stifling motorcycle technology/advancement. Now if manufacturers used the profit from selling all these motorcycle mannequins to put out new product every two years for enthusiasts (like they used to do in the early 80’s), that’d be great. But instead we get rehashes like the nineT, a bike specifically designed to be a clothes horse for $$$$ parts.

  • Sid

    @toddyo – bikes have been tinkered with since the beginning. Reference to dolls is your problem

  • johnc

    modular design (base platform, offering multiple ergonomic and cosmetic options to the owner) is nothing new in the motorcycle world … pierre terblance designed the v12 concept for moto guzzi a few years back, that were unveiled at eicma. the concept was voted best design at eicma by all the designers.

  • TRL

    “customizers like Roland Sands”…well spoken.

  • SkidLid

    I’d love the chance to add some well incorporated customizations. I’d buy a new Street Triple today if Triumph sold a kit for the older dual round headlight style.

  • kww

    Honestly, how is this bike not a retrograde of the R1200R?

  • Jimbo

    It looks much nicer than a R1200R, and doesn’t have the stupid a-arm/balljoint/strut front suspension.

  • Gabe

    Having a customized bike in which all the parts came from the dealer catalog seems antithetical to the whole customization thing for me. I much rather spend time with the measuring tape, micrometer, perusing part fiches, ebay, and scrap yards if I want to create something somewhat unique.

  • Richard Gozinya

    @Jimbo I’d actually like to compare the two, as they’re essentially the same bike, with different front ends. Same weight, same engine, pretty sure wheelbase, rake and trail are all the same too. Could be a fun test, to see the real effects that Telelever front end has.

  • SkidLid

    No one said the modular platform idea is to be unique. Moto Guzzi does similar things with it’s V7 line. The point of having modular platform is to add extra options for buyers, so that if someone wants a BMW power crusier then get the NineT PC option instead of buying it from another brand. Or, if someone just has to have a BMW cafe then BMW doesn’t have to design a whole new bike or lose the cash to

  • Sean

    There are platforms and plaforms. My BMW F800S shares lots of parts with others in the F800 series, but i doubt that it would be practical to try to change my bike into an F800R or GT.

  • jim

    seems like honda just did that with those 500s. fairly effectively too