~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Monday, July 04, 2005

To Forgive is Divine

Motor Cycle News No excuses, indeed.

Let me say at the outset that I like BMW motorcycles. I've owned five of them over the years, certainly ridden more than that, and expect that I'll own one or two more before the Big Dirt Nap. So understand right here that I'm not picking on BMW or the new K1200S, I'm talking about how we perceive the motorcycles we love and forgive their sins.

The New BMW K1200S superbike is finally into the marketplace and the first tests have been seen in the moto press. The first report I read was from MCN in the UK and they compared the bike to the Kawasaki ZX12R and Suzuki Hayabusa. Naturally the BMW was chosen as the best of the three bikes even though it had less horsepower, was slower, has sloppy low speed throttle response thanks to incomplete development of the EFI, can cost $1500 more (likely $6k more in the US) and the styling is "oddball."

One could be cynical and say that MCN like many magazines is...um..."sensitive" to the feelings of BMW and their new flagship bike. Naturally I would never suggest such a thing as a connection between advertising and review results although my experience with bike magazines many years past and more recently with the automotive press indicates that it is possible to for manufacturers to have some influence on magazines. No doubt you are shocked at the notion that commercial considerations could intrude on the purity and sanctity of the Press.

Rather than be cynical (perish the thought) I'll ascribe the laurels often heaped upon BMW and some other companies as being the result of what I call the "Forgiveness Factor." Such is the prestige of some logos or even national reputations that certain shortcomings that would be glaring faults in other brands are simply ignored or "forgiven" in the more the more laudatory brands. I like the religious sounding "forgiveness factor" for our penchant to forgive the shortcomings of our favorite bike brands.

For many riders, their fealty to a brand is akin to a religion. This is true of Italian bike owners, German bike owners, and especially Harley-Davidson owners. Harley owners are the most fanatical of course, forgiving all sins in the name of the Motor Company and St. Willie G. Davidson, amen. As a Harley dealer told me once about buying a Harley, "It's like joining a #$%^$ cult or something."

My official Forgiveness Factor scale runs from 0 - 10, zero being no forgiveness for problems with a bike and ten meaning everything can be forgiven. A 10 usually means there is more to be forgiven, also. Most great classic bikes like Vincent, Brough, and even the lower tier machines like Bultaco or BSA are given 9s or 10's because they are now classics of their time. We may forgive the elderly many things by virtue of them having impressed themselves and our experiences with them, onto our lives and memories when we were younger.

On the Forgiveness Factor scale Harley's are given an 8 because to not forgive nearly everything about them is un-American and disrespectful to the flag and all those diligent workers in America, Taiwan, and Japan that are building parts for assembly into real American motorcycles.

Typically, a Japanese bike would rank very low on the Forgiveness Factor scale, probably about 1 or 2, as the Japanese bikes have no actual soul to connect with emotionally and must make up for that by being as mechanically perfect as robots and honor bound engineers can make them. A shaky electrical system or final drive failure in a modern Japanese bike is rare, it simply would not be acceptable to some 60 hour a week engineer who's personal and national honor are at stake in each wiring harness connector and fuse block. Frankly, I admire that. Since our expectations for Japanese bikes are so high, as their own expectations are so high for their own work, we forgive them less. We also get better motorcycles that way.

On the other hand a mistake in a design by a German engineer would not be cause for loss of face with one's peers or a cause hari-kari, merely another reason to take a week off in Spain or Italy to unwind from the stress of having to redo the design next year. In that same vein, a mistake by and Italian engineer would not result in huge stress as he did the best he could and besides, the bike handles so wonderfully and sounds so good, why worry about it? Let's go to lunch, drink wine, and whistle at beautiful women! In our stress filled, schedule driven, rat-on-a-treadmill world, somehow the crazy Italian concept has appeal and is more easily forgiven.

I have applied the Forgiveness Factor to nearly all my previous bikes and apply it currently with my beloved Aprilia and it's tendency to occasionally display for no apparent reason "error code 1" on the instrument cluster. All bike owners forgive their mount's shortcomings to one degree or another whether they admit it or not. I'm not sure it's good for the Press to be so accommodating though.

Italian bikes are famous for style, performance, and quirkiness, a well rounded and complete cachet that is uniquely Italian and when you buy an Italian bike you are required accept certain things like shaky parts availability as a given, it might even be in the owners manual somewhere. There will be electrical quirks for example. Italian electrical systems seem often to be a marriage of Italian and French parts and in what universe could the marriage of anything Italian and French be good? Ok, French bread with garlic and Italian cheese comes to mind but other than that?

Why put up with this grief when you could just as easily have purchased a Yamaha and gotten better response from the support system? Grief is endured because Italian bikes have an air about them, a feeling when you ride them; a crazed Italian passion for motorsports fused right into their alloy that makes them a unique experience in motorcycling. To experience that is worth the price, mostly.

In part it is because of the aforementioned Italian bike soul, a mystical blend of handling, performance, and sound, that indefinable quality that is so delightful, that we give Aprilia, Ducati, Moto-Guzzi, etc. a Forgiveness Factor of about 7. Many things are forgiven Italian bikes that, should they occur in a Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, or Kawasaki, would bring a class action lawsuit against Japan, Inc. For Italian bike owners, quirky electrics, fairing screws made of recycled Fiats, and a parts system always at lunch drinking good red wine is just a part of the culture and fun. You wear the inconvenience like a badge of honor, a symbol of your own passion for motorcycles and willingness to forgive for the sake of that motorcycle passion in the bike's designers and builders.

In the '50s and '60s, you wanted one of these to tour the world and know you'd make it.

But back to BMW. BMW enthusiasts are very close to Harley enthusiasts in blissful forgiveness of their favored brand. BMW have created a reputation for reliability that is rooted in the great "/2" series bikes of the '50s and 60's (Note to Beemer cognoscenti: I know that "/2" was actually only a few specific models but it's become a generalized term of all mid-century Beemers). At a time when traveling by American or British motorcycle meant carrying every spare part but a frame and probably needing them, BMW owners carried the nicely complete, high quality factory tool kit and a tire patch kit that came with the bike and probably never needed them anyway. In thousands of miles of travel with the five BMWs I've own (1969 - 1992 model years) I only recall ever opening a tool kit on the road once. When I was in Colorado on my new 1974 R90S I found a small external lock nut on a valve cover stud had loosened. That's it.

Along the way BMW has blessed us with, gear box clunk, plank hard seats, too soft cast wheels, EFI glitches, and more recently, weak final drive units on the GS series. All are forgiven because BMWs are reliable. Everyone knows that they are reliable. It's beyond question. They are German engineering of the highest caliber (BMW says so) so BMW are assigned a Forgiveness Factory of 5 by most owners whether they realize it or not.

BMWs do ride differently than other bikes, have a distinct feel about them, a Wagnerian sense of powerful capability and durability on the road. It's so good in fact that sins are forgiven for the experience of the ride. BMW has marketed their perceived reputation for quality as cleverly as Harley-Davidson has marketed their "bad boy" image. Therefore, for BMW much is forgiven by it's enthusiastic customers and even the Press.

What does BMW give in exchange for this moderate Forgiveness Factor of 5? The Italian bikes give passion, style and all that, but no one ever accused German bikes of having either passion or style. So why give the BMW K1200S a Forgiveness Factor of 5? Because it does have that cachet of German engineering quality, fully deserved or not at this point. The cachet is worth more than the reality so some forgiveness is in order.

[A small aside: I've worked for a German company for the past couple of decades and know the German engineering mindset well.]

So it looks to me like the BMW K1200S benefits still from this Forgiveness Factor built on the reputation of the old /2 bikes and cultivated so carefully by BMW over the decades. According to MCN the K1200S still has obvious fuel injection mapping problems and the performance is less in nearly every respect than it's Japanese counterparts. So it wins. All shortcomings are forgiven to a point sufficient to make the K1200S the winner. Watch it happen in other magazine tests too.

Seems odd that people will happily pay in the US $6000 more than for a Hayabusa, get a little less motorcycle in many respects. But they will get a BMW and all the important intangibles attached to that marque and that's what really matters. So it is with Italian bike owners too, we forgive a lot, maybe too much, but at least we don't have to pay a 30% premium for the privilege.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. I could forgive this bike much.

The big, new BMW isn't nearly as interesting to me as the Aprilia Futura with it's melodious V-twin, slightly avant-garde Italian styling, and scarcity on the road. The Futura is older, slower, has no ABS, and parts and accessories are a challenge. It is no match for the K1200S in any objective comparison. Just the same, I'll take the Futura, out of production though it may be, quirky electrics and all, just in the name of passion and style. All it's shortcomings would be forgiven, allowing it in my heart, to win over the BMW K1200S.

BMW may have out pointed the Kawasaki and the Suzuki in the MCN review by using the unacknowledged Forgiveness Factor but using the same system in my world, Aprilia wins over the BMW. No doubt you think I'm crazy or stupid (I've been called worse and fairly recently) for preferring a six year old Italian design of the latest state-of-the art German design. I'd rather ride a 1974 Bultaco 250 Pursang than a new YZ250 too. Personally, I think it's crazy to pay thousands and thousands of dollars more just for a badge and technology that you don't need but that some how fits into the Forgiveness Factor also. It's ok though, regardless of what you ride or why you chose it, because in the end, riding a motorcycle, choosing a motorcycle, is never about logic anyway, it's more like choosing a religion.


Anonymous said...

I started riding about 5 years ago and am a victim of MBD (Multiple Bike Disease.) Perhaps realization is the first step towards a cure.
My first was a BMW 1973 R75/5, the second was a Kawasaki 2001 W650, and third was a BMW 1999 R1200C. I sold the W650 and now have a 1997 BMW R1100R as well. The Germans did a number on me!
They all have their quirks... ok, the Forgiveness Factors range from 7 to 9. Yes, they're somewhat high.
-Is it a conscious decision? Yes.
-Is it necessarily a rational one? No.
-Is it based on ideas and concepts that one's own subconscious chooses to express in some inexplicable manner? Perhaps.
As a wise man once told me, "There is no perfect bike, just as there is no perfect woman." I guess that's my rationalization for having more than just one.


P.S. I discovered your blog about a year ago and try to read it often. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

Whoa, deja vu!...
I think there is a problem with the blogger software. July 4 2005, seems to be a repeat of a previous post... yup, I've read 'em all. Thanks for the great reading material, keep it up!

Allan Pollock

Anonymous said...

I've got a Aprilia Caponord. My second Italian machine, my first was Alpha GTV6 back in the mid eightys. Man, I just love Italian Style! Every time I start the Capo I get a grin going. A bonus is I've never seen another one, unlike the HD army. Forgiveness Factor of 9 even though there is'nt much to forgive.

Anonymous said...

yeah, the futura is the one that started it. you can say there are better imitations out there, because there are -- imitations often fix the bits and things left undone by the real mccoy. but a better imitation is still just an imitation. if you want refinement, get a bmw, if you want passion and vision, then the aprilia will soothe your soul.

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