Harleys 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. It is faster than any FLH, and is more stable at speed; it handles far, far better in the curves, offers better weather protection and better gas mileage due to the design of the fairing, and has more load capacity than an FLH. The only shortcoming it has 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 two-thirds 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 about 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. Overall though, any of the touring Harleys are good long rider mounts.
The problem with them 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 make 80. 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. When you do that, you begin cutting into reliability though, and that's where I was - I didn't dare leave town on it.
I Was Having Too Many Problems
Right after I bought the bike I had done a mild hopup of the usual sort; cam, carb, and pipes, but it still fell a little short of what I needed. Then at about 85,000 miles I had the heads flowed and put in a hotter cam. After that I was getting about 77hp (barely enough) and 82lbs/ft of torque (fully adequate for acceleration and pulling hills.) But the price I paid was in reliability when running long distances at high speed. The engine had cracked its right case on a trip to the east coast once, then after tearing it down and getting the crack welded, it had grenaded the front piston within 6 months, resulting in another total engine rebuild (my friend who rebuilt the bottom end for me said I should figure on replacing anything in there that " goes back and forth, up and down, spins, slides, or carries a load." He was right.). That was followed a year later by spinning the flywheel on the output shaft, which required splitting the cases once more, and replacing the crank. I could see the handwriting on the wall, and when it suddenly began spitting out a quart of oil every 150 miles at 130,000 miles I decided it was time for a new bike. I could rebuild the engine once more, or even put in a new one, but I'd be left with the same old equation: lotsa torque, but a horsepower deficit.
So 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.
With those thoughts in mind, I went looking. You know what? Harley doesn't make the cut. Nothing they have now meets my criteria. The FLH models are comfortable and have decent load capacity, but they don't handle worth a damn by any standard other than their own. Off the showroom floor, they don't make enough power to haul ass like I want (unless you spend $26,000 on the Screaming Eagle Road Glide, and even it doesn't handle all that well, especially at speed.) The only way to get any power worth mentioning is to spend more money after the purchase to put in their big bore kit, and that only brings the power up to middling levels. To get real power, you've got to put in the parts marked with crossed flags in the catalog, the "race-only" parts that void the warranty. That, my friend, is bullshit. It's one of Harley's shoddier consumer ripoffs, although the basic big bore kit, at about $1,000 installed, is a pretty good deal.
Despite the fact that 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 . . . I'd never respect myself in the morning. Who knows, though, what the future holds?
And Here's What I Found
So I looked to Europe. After looking at Triumphs, 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 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 over 20k.
What follows is a collection of my observations of distinctions between the two bikes after 6,000 miles on the BMW.
What About 'em?
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 (70lbs/ft) occurs. Peak HP (90) is at 7,000, within 700 rpm of redline.
RPMs 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. There 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.
How Do They Compare?
How much better is it than the FXRT? Well, by what standard?
Not that much really, for most riding situations. By most reasonable standards, hardly at all. What's different is how they work.
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. By raw, abstract consideration, the BMW gets the 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, they 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, 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 80, 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 one-gear downshift 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 impressive activity.
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 impede a fast stop when you need to. 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.
The 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, with an unmeasured more available, probably about 25 to 50 depending on speed. The major shortcoming for me with the FXRT has been the range - it just isn't enough. Every gas stop you make cuts 20 to 30 miles out of the day's mileage, and I resent it. Big points to the BMW.
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 you 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. The positive aspect of the foot position is that it is the best position for firm control of the bike.
Comfort on the FXRT is outstanding. The seat, a Corbin I put on five years ago ($350 then) 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 found on the BMW.
FXRTs 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 (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 on it. I run with them all year round, even in the summer because I know, from oil temperature observation, they cool the engine by about 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.
The 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, 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, 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, but in any case it shouldn't be a matter for the law.)
BMW understands airflow 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.
I'm 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 thrown in as a factor.
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. BMW transmissions are built by Getrag, who also builds truck transmissions. For a while I thought they put one in the BMW too, 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 embarassing, 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 or something.
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 the first 100k miles, with the Harley requiring more routine maintenance. That basis, however, would be dishonest, for the Harley is not suitable for my style of riding as it was built: it was grossly underpowered. That situation led me to power enhancements, 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 box.
Gut 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 power delivery is so different it appeals to the brain, not the gut.
Cachet 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 who you are talking to. Knowledgeable people know it represents a quality ride. Others see the rondel and think "yuppie scum." Who cares?
Refinement. Hands down to the BMW. Everything on the Harley is a compromise with its image, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but it does result in certain elements not being as up to date as they could be. BMWs are designed from the ground up to work at one thing, covering miles quickly and effortlessly .
Looks. Harleys always look right to me, but the BMW growing on me the more I look at it and ride it. The FXRT gets the points on this one, though.
Exclusivity. 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. 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 to SoCal and back, and that suits me fine. As to model, it's a wash - both are rare. As to brand, the BMW gets the points. I see more HD's than anything else on the road now, frequently in packs of 6 or 8 identical rugged individualists.
The 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. That is not to say I don't like Harleys or Harley riders any more - there are still lotsa 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.
So 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 was headed for Denver on U.S. 50 with time on my hands, 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.