Are Great Bikes, But . . .
Harleys generally are excellent long-range mounts, and the
FXRT model was the best of the bunch. It never sold well
though, because it "didn't look like a Harley"
according to some folks who believe the looks are more important
than function. Its older brother, the FLH (and all
its variants) gets most of the attention from the touring
crowd, but the FXRT was the way to go for the guy who really
cared about traveling more than image.
problem with Harleys though, is that while the antique engine
design turns out adequate low-end torque in stock form,
it does not generate enough horsepower to sustain high-speed
cruise, say 80+mph, mile after mile after mile. Throw in
a headwind, and you may not even be able to hold 80 on a
grade. Torque makes acceleration and pulls you up hills,
but horsepower is what makes "fast," and if you
want to make a Harley fast, you have to build the motor
up. I had done
that, but when you do it, you begin cutting into reliability,
and that's where I was after 130,000 miles, I didn't dare
leave town on it any more.
I Went Looking
First, I established my parameters. It should be comfortable.
It should have a good load capacity. It must have good range.
It must handle very well. It must be reliable. And it must
be swift. I don't mean fast like a japsickle crotch rocket,
with a ridiculous top speed. I mean swift, that is, effortlessly
fast for a long, long time.
know what? Harley doesn't make the cut. Nothing they have
now meets my criteria. Unfortunately, the FXRT went
out of production in 1994, and there is no analog to it
in Harley’s current stable.
The closest you can come is the Screaming Eagle version
of the Road Glide with Harley’s factory big-inch motor,
but it costs $26,000 out the door, and doesn’t handle all
that well anyway.
That is an outrageous price, especially considering
that they could have built the motor to the same spec at
no additional cost in the standard version of the bike.
That’s bullshit, friend, and I resent it.
I found that despite the fact the Japanese make some killer
motorcycles, including some dandy long-riders that meet
every aspect of my criteria (the ST1100, at about $12,000
comes to mind) I couldn't bring myself to buy one. Yeah,
they might be made in Ohio, but . . . No, it doesn’t make
sense, but there it is.
Here's What I Found
So I looked to Europe. After glancing at Trumpets, Ducks,
and Geese, I studied up on the BMW. I have owned a couple
BMW cars, and while they may be sneered at as "yuppie-mobiles"
by some (and with some justification too, if you just
look at the driver instead of the car,) they are in
fact damn fine high-speed, hard-driving cars that last nearly
forever. BMW bikes have a similar reputation among serious
long riders. So that's what I bought, a BMW R110RT, a boxer
twin, with 1100cc and 90hp. Ready to roll, it was $15,990,
MSRP. Add in a few extras for comfort and convenience, (trunk,
handlebar setback plates, seat, cylinder and saddlebag scuff
guards, heated grips, with a price break from the dealer
to sweeten things) and it was out the door at a little
over $17,000. A Harley, similarly set up, would have been
follows is a collection of my observations of distinctions
between the two bikes after 6,000 miles on the BMW.
BMW bikes, like the cars, are highly refined machines, designed
to get you down the road in a hurry. They only come into
their own when pushed hard, either speed or handling, or
both. Furthermore, you MUST use rpm's more than a Harley
rider is accustomed to to get useful power out of the engine
- below 3,000 it's a slug, and it doesn't really start singing
until 5,0000, where peak torque occurs. Peak HP is at 7,000,
within 700 rpm of redline.
don't hurt engines though - excess piston speed and unregulated
valve activity does. The BMW is a short-stroke engine that
gets its displacement from bore. So although rpms may be
high, the piston is not moving all that far up and down
with each trip, thus, piston speeds are relatively low compared
to a Harley with a much longer stroke.
are four valves per cylinder, which means that each is quite
lightweight, and the pushrods are very short (the cams,
one per cylinder, are mounted halfway out the cylinder,
run by a chain from the crank), and consequently lightweight.
That means that they can be controlled with relatively light
springs, lowering the pressure required to be exerted by
the cam to open them.
You’d almost have to want to to float the valves
in a BMW.
Do They Compare?
How much better is the R1100RT than the FXRT? Well, by what
that much really, for most riding situations. By most reasonable
standards, hardly at all. What's different is how
There is a pretty substantial difference in the way they
handle. BMW has what I'll call "flickability"
in tight curves. Turns that would require a hard arm-wrestling
match to get a response out of the FXRT in time to make
the next apex are a matter of a thought and a twitch on
the R1100RT. Given a sweeping, fast curve, the BMW might
handle it 10 mph faster than the FXRT - the BMW has some
frighteningly-serious leanability, and Metzler steel belted
radial tires that stick like fly's feet. Each is eminently
stable in a straight line, but the quicker steering response
of the BMW also means that it is less stable hands-off (think
lock the throttle to put on a pair of gloves), and
will quickly develop a wobble decelerating with no hands
on. Each handles well, better than 95% of riders will ever
use. I know there are non-Harley riders out there who will
take issue with that, but my guess is that if they do, it’s
because they have not ridden an FXRT.
It not only handles curves and turns well (albeit
with slower steering response that a BMW) it is extremely
stable at high speed.
I once ran mine on a New Mexico desert highway for
miles at 115mph with saddlebags and top box on it, and 30lbs
of tent, etc. bungied to the back seat, with nary a twitch.
By raw, abstract consideration, the BMW gets the
handling award. In real-world use, it's a draw.
The FXRT has an honest-to-God observed speed of 116mph (as
modified; about 95mph stock,) and a bit more unobserved
above that; call it 120 on top. The BMW is electronically
limited to 125, I think because of the H-rated tires - mechanical
top end would be about 10 or 15 mph beyond that. (FYI,
the Metzlers are simply the best I have ever ridden on,
especially in the rain. Comments on the Virtual Biker tech
board have said how good Metzler ME88's are for Harleys.
I believe it now, and will switch next time.) Top speed
is not a major consideration to me beyond a certain point,
but what I'll call "ease of speed" at high cruise
is. The BMW gets points on this - the faster you go the
happier it gets. Its natural cruising speed is 85 to 100
mph, autobahn speeds. The FXRT starts to run out of happy
at 85, and that is probably why I have had problems in recent
years. You can ride 'em hard, or you can ride 'em long,
but you can't ride 'em hard and long. Points to the BMW.
Cruising acceleration is important though, for passing.
When running on the FXRT all I have to do to pass from cruise
speed is roll on the throttle because the fat part of the
torque curve starts at cruising rpm, about 2,800 to 3k.
It's what Harleys are best at. I can pass relatively quickly
in fifth gear from cruise speed on the BMW, but if it's
a short stretch, or traffic presses, a downshift (or
two) is called for. Not a big deal, that's what shift
levers are for, and rpms are there to be used, but . . .
points to the FXRT here for making it easy, and a viscerally
My FXRT has a single disk Harley brake on the front, and
now it has a GMA caliper and cast-iron disk on the back.
It stops adequately, but not spectacularly. I have never
run into anything with it, or really felt the need for more
brakes. Once you have enough brake to lock up a wheel you
have all the brakes you can use. After that, it's just about
feel and ease of braking. But, I have ALWAYS had to use
the brakes gently when it's wet or otherwise slippery, and
that can really inhibit a fast stop when you need one. Allowed
stopping distances in the rain ought to be at least doubled,
and things like white painted crossing markers are always
something to be careful of.
BMW has Brembo dual disks on the front, and a single on
the back, and an anti-lock braking system. I have
tried it out, and it works damned well. It takes an effort
of will, after 30 years of working hard not to lock up the
front end, to decide one day that you are going to squeeze
the front brake as hard as you can and see what happens.
The answer is: nothing special. It just stops hard and fast
with no fuss. The same things happens at the back. It is
a great deal, and all bikes oughta have it.
Range. There is a very easy 250 miles in the BMW's tank,
plus an unmeasured more available, probably about 25 to
50 depending on speed.
That means if I start the day with a full tank I
need only fill up twice more to put in what I call a respectable
only real shortcoming the FXRT has had for me is a fuel
tank that's waaaay too small - the range, at high speed,
is only about 150 to 175 miles with a stock motor, about
half of what it should be. If you are crossing Nevada, for
instance, where there's gas every hundred miles or so, you
have to stop at 100 miles because you won't make the next
station on that tank. If you figure each fuel stop knocks
20 to 30 miles out of the day's travel, you can see that
you want to minimize them, but the FXRT's small tank demands
a couple or three extra stops a day. Big points to the BMW
on this one it’s a major issue for me.
With the addition of the BMW comfort seat (read "wider
and flatter"; $177) and handlebar riser/setback
plates ($50), I find the BMW is very comfortable.
That comfort is enhanced by the fact that the seat can be
adjusted up and down through a range of 1.5 inches, for
a change of bend in the knees when I stop for gas. I had
wondered if having my feet nailed in place on the pegs,
instead of the FXRT footboards, would be tiring. It is not,
at least for me, and that's even during a three to four
hour run between gas stops. I might stretch my legs out
once or twice during the last half of that, but that's all.
I did a 600 mile day coming back from a trip to SoCal with
no trouble; coulda gone quite a bit further, and no doubt
will in the future. The positive aspect of the foot placement
on the BMW is that it’s the best position for firm control
of the bike.
on the FXRT is outstanding. The seat, a Corbin I put on
five years ago ($350 then; who knows now?) is as
comfy as the living room couch. The floorboards enhance
that comfort to a high degree. My knees never get a chance
to cramp up because I have to stop for gas every two hours
or so anyway. The downside of floorboards and the seating
position is that I never feel "unitized" with
the bike, that is, an actual part of the operating system,
as I have become on the BMW.
have the best fairing Harley ever made. It was designed
in a wind tunnel, and it shows. It cuts fuel mileage by
very little, if at all, and the air pocket behind it is
exceptional. The windshield height (fixed, but custom-cut)
allows me to look over it in good weather, and through it
in the rain and cold. It handles wind gusts well: since
it is frame-mounted it does not pass inputs to the steering,
as bar-mount fairings do. The fairing has lowers as an option.
I run with them all year round, even in the summer because
I know, from oil temperature observation, they cool the
engine by about five to ten degrees due to the additional
air they duct to the cylinders. I don't notice any summer
discomfort from being shielded from the wind by them.
downside to the FXRT windshield comes when I must
wear a helmet. The windshield I use pushes the air up high
enough to go over my bare head, but the turbulent flow off
the windshield reaches the top of a helmet and bats it around,
giving me a knot in the back of my neck by halfway through
the day. For that reason (and others), I don't wear
a helmet if I don't have to. Winter riding results in a
"have to" for me. I like the warmth a helmet provides,
so I willing wear one then, and put up with the neck ache.
(Comment: the safety factor of a helmet is not a consideration.
Statistically, NHTSA accident/fatality figures show they're
a wash. That means that while they may not save lives, they
don't take them either. Wear 'em as you please, or not;
I do both.)
understands air management. Their fairing is a model of
efficient design, with a windshield that is electrically
adjustable up and down through 2.5". I thought before
I used it that it was just a gimmick: not so. With the shield
all the way down, my head (helmeted or not) is
in the full air flow off the windshield, and that airflow
is purely smooth, more than it is even on a unfaired bike,
where the air is churned up by the front end. The Shoei
Syncrotech full-coverage helmet I have been wearing just
sits in that airstream like a rock in a brook - absolutely
stable. A day-long ride with it results in zero neck cramps.
The helmet has a vent in the chin that ducts air up across
the inside of the visor to clear fog. I don't always need
it though, and sometimes the air, which winds up on my forhead,
is too chilly for comfort. I just run the windshield up
an inch or so and it cuts off airflow to that vent. Or on
my neck, or wherever. Need rain protection? Run it all the
way up and it becomes a barn door to hide behind. Different
positions result in a variety of airflows to meet the situation
of the moment. During the summer I'll wear a shorty helment,
or no helmet when I can, and enjoy the wind in my face when
I want it.
gonna rate them as equally comfortable over the course of
a day, but the BMW has an edge when it comes to comfort
with control (footpeg position) thrown in as a plus
The transmissions are interestingly different. Harley transmissions
resist being shifted hard and fast - the inertia of the
gearsets and engine rpms will make them clash if you try
to fan the clutch and jam a shift too fast.
Shifting a Harley is a leisurely business.
transmissions are built by Getrag, which also builds truck
transmissions. For a while I thought they put one in my
BMW by mistake, for I couldn't get any shift not to grind
and clank. Then I found the secret. All you do is preload
the shift lever a bit with your toe, then just tap the clutch
lever, and "snick!" You're up or down a gear.
Miss a shift though, and hang up between gears with the
clutch in, and you are gonna make some horribly embarrassing,
loud, grinding noise that oughta come from a road grader
before you find the right one. And you'll usually do it
coming up to a corner behind a convertible full of girls
I'm tempted to compare the two bikes in stock form, ridden
as designed to be ridden. Taking that as the basis, I'd
say they were probably equally reliable for at least the
first 100k miles, with the Harley requiring somewhat more
(Valve adjustment though, is not one of the items:
Harleys use hydraulic lifters.)
I personally know guys who have put 150,000 miles
on them with no problems, and there are engines out there
with a verified 200,000 problem-free miles.
All of those cases though, involve stock engines,
or engines that have had very minor mods, such as air cleaner
and exhaust swaps.
my purposes though, to compare stock engines would be dishonest,
for the Harley is not suitable for my style of riding as
it was built: it is grossly underpowered. That situation
led me to make significant power-increasing mods to the
FXRT, which impacted reliability as the miles built up.
The honest comparison must give the points to the BMW on
this issue. It's ready to ride like I do right out of the
impact. Points to the Harley for its sound and power development
and sheer presence, hands down. The rumbling idle is a
turn-on, and the low rpm punch when power is rolled on
is always a rush. Cruise along, drop a gear and grab a
handful of throttle, and it sounds like someone kicked
open hell's back door with all the hammers going, and
you get a kick in the butt that you'd have to be dead
not to appreciate. Idling, the BMW makes me think of an
outboard motor. There are exhaust systems available, but
even they will never approach the rumble of a big twin,
and the BMW’s power delivery is so different as to not
be in the same realm:
it appeals to the brain, not the gut.
is really an intangible, but I must say that while the
BMW is not a "babe magnet" like a Harley, I
get as many "Nice bike, mister" remarks about
the BMW as I do the FXRT. Maybe that's more a comment
on the FXRT though, than on the BMW - they never did sell
well. The BMW marque cuts both ways, depending on whom
you are talking to. Knowledgeable people know it represents
a quality ride. Others see the rondel and think "yuppie
scum." Who cares?
Hands down to the BMW. Everything on the Harley is a compromise
with its image, which is not necessarily a bad thing,
but it does result in certain elements not being as up
to date as they could be (the FXRT made fewer of these
compromises than any otherHarley model, and that is why
it didn’t sell well.). BMWs are designed from the
ground up to work at one thing, covering miles quickly
It gets the points here.
Harleys always look right to me, especially the engine,
but the BMW is growing on me the more I look at it and
ride it. The FXRT gets the points on this one, though,
because to me a large part of the attraction of motorcycles
is their “mechanicalness,” and BMW’s hidden engine detracts
from that appeal.
One of the things I have always liked about the FXRT is
that I don't see one a dozen times a day. Ditto for BMWs.
I read that they sold 78,000 bikes last year, and I don't
think they care if they sell 78,001. I only saw two other
R1100RTs on the road during a ten day trip from Seattle
to SoCal and back (and zero FXRTs), and that suits
me fine. As to model, it's a tie- both are rarities
on the road. As to brand, the BMW gets the points.
I see more HD's than any other single brand on the road
now, frequently in packs of 6 or 8 identical rugged individualists.
tribe. I am sick to death of the poseurs I find on Harleys,
and ads touting "attitudes," and similar syndromes.
Twenty grand, twenty miles, and a three-day growth of
beard don't make a biker. Measured per capita, I find
more knowledgeable bikers (and especially long riders)
on BMWs than I do on Harleys nowadays. That is not to
say I don't like Harleys or Harley riders any more - there
are still lots of good ones around. But the tribe as a
whole has gone sour - "decadent" might be good
word to apply to the phenomenon at this juncture.
there's the 6,000 mile analysis. The Harley is the rowdy,
well-upholstered blonde country wench, maybe not too bright,
but a handful in the haymow. The BMW is the Black Velvet
billboard woman, quiet and sophisticated, found in the dark
by the whisper of silk sheets. If I were headed for Denver
on U.S. 50 and not in a rush, I'd take the FXRT. If I were
in a hurry, or if the destination was San Francisco via
the Coast Highway, it'd be the BMW for sure. Fortunately,
I have both.
by the website at http://www.wildwestcycle.com
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