BMW is historically regarded as "conservative" but it actually has been stirring the pot for a very long time. Think back to the early-'70s R 90 S sport-tourer that dumped a bucket of flaming hot disco on the old black-with-white-pinstripes-plodding-tourer image and saved Motorrad from potential demise. Remember the "Flying Brick" inline three- and four-cylinders with radiators. Recall the invention of the adventure bike. And so forth. In the last decade, BMW broke into superbikes with a more than competitive inline-four, a notion inconceivable just a few years before the bike debuted.

Now look at this art-deco-meets-bob-job R18 1,800cc boxer “concept” unveiled at the Villa d’Este overlooking Lake Como on the eve of the Concorso d’Eleganza held here and celebrating its 90th year.

BMW Concept R18
This Concept R18 gives more information as to what a production model will look like. The frame, in fact, is the production version on this concept.BMW Motorrad

This is the first time BMW has given the engine a name—R18—and stated that it's 1,800cc. In this sort of long, custom-bike rollout, the engine was first shown in Japan at the Mooneyes Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show in a bike called "Departed" built by Custom Works Zon. The next build was the Revival Cycles Birdcage, a titanium-framed, Ernst Henne-land-speeder-inspired build shown in Austin, Texas, at The Handbuilt Show during the April 2019 MotoGP weekend. Those two were pretty much "here's your engine, have your way with it" projects. The R18 shown here was a BMW Motorrad design handed over to Unique Custom Cycles of Sweden. The end result is one step closer to what we might expect a production BMW cruiser to look like.

BMW R18 Flat-Twin Cruiser
This R18 powerplant first broke cover in the Custom Works Zon “Departed” show motorcycle at Mooneyes Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show.Morgan Gales

Engine displacement is in line with what we've been guessing. In general, the practical bore limitation in an engine hovers in the 100–110mm range, and Harley-Davidson is happy to throw its Milwaukee-Eight 107 pistons through a 111mm stroke. That made 1,800cc a pretty good guess, and 107 x 100mm comes in at 1,798.4cc. Why do I think BMW would go oversquare with bore larger than stroke, rather than the undersquare route taken by Harley-Davidson?

BMW R18 engine.
Engine displacement is guessed to be 1,798.4cc in an oversquare configuration. Said BMW, "The engine must be able to stand alone as industrial art."BMW Motorrad

Several reasons: First, because that’s what performance engine manufacturers generally do these days, and BMW is a performance engine manufacturer.

Second, though the width of this engine is gargantuan when you see it in person, BMW would still want to control how wide it is, and using stroke longer than 100mm would make the engine perhaps impractically wide.

BMW Concept R18
BMW’s Concept R18 engine is massive in scale.BMW Motorrad

Third, this engine is most likely direct cylinder fuel injection and could be twin spark plug, making a big cylinder bore quick and clean burning. Direct injection cools the charge (think of misters on the patio of your favorite desert restaurant) and atomizes fuel exceptionally well since it gets blown in there at pressures as high as 5,000 psi.

The Gasoline Direct Injection and twin-plug conjecture comes from studying the Revival Cycles Birdcage custom which was said to be a runner and had no conventional fuel injectors in its lovely long intakes or anywhere above the intake valve. And while there was definitely a spark plug on the undersides of those big, finned cylinders, there also was a well-positioned place for a second spark plug, though it was filled with a metal plug in it on the Revival build.

BMW Birdcage custom.
Revival Cycles’ Birdcage custom gave hints to a possible direct-injected and twin-plug configuration for fueling and ignition.Brandon LaJoie

GDI is primarily emissions driven, as Euro 5 regulations are coming in 2020, and GDI engines can be run quite lean at light loads thanks to excellent fuel distribution in the combustion chamber.

We would expect power and torque to mimic that produced by Harley-Davidson's great-running Milwaukee-Eight engines, but perhaps with a higher rev ceiling and a bit more emphasis on peak power, in keeping with the heritage of the BMW brand. But 80 hp and 100 pound-feet at the rear wheel on the Cycle World dyno are a good, real-world guess.

What will the BMW big boxer cruiser look like in production form? Nothing like the Revival Birdcage, for one! That beautiful custom is full whimsy, with obvious practical limitations like the 1-gallon fuel tank behind the engine, lack of rear suspension, and carbon-fiber-plank seat. It is a beautiful execution of aesthetic delicacy and happens to showcase the powerplant (with custom Revival engine case and cylinder-head covers) exceptionally well.

BMW’s Concept R18 in garage.
Of course the production model of BMW’s Concept R18 will be nothing like Revival’s Birdcage, but what a way to showcase an engine.Brandon LaJoie

You can bet that this Concept R18 is a big step toward what a production cruiser will look like. The frame shown here is said to be production, as are the brake calipers. Certainly the engine will need more exhaust silencer volume, and an airbox, but this machine takes us closer to the eventual production reality. BMW evokes its own history, of course, in the press material: “The BMW Motorrad Concept R18 is immediately recognizable as a genuine BMW: boxer engine, cradle frame, exposed universal shaft, and drop-shaped fuel tank with its black paintwork and hand-applied contrast lines interpret typical design icons of BMW Motorrad classics, while displaying confidence along with modern-style linearity.”

A Solex carburetor is used here, and an exposed driveshaft is a nice, old-BMW touch. This latter piece is production--the driveshaft will stay exposed.

BMW R18 Flat-Twin Cruiser drive shaft.
Old-BMW touches such as an exposed driveshaft tie to early BMW models, and it will stay this way for production.BMW Motorrad

Said Bart Janssen Groesbeek, designer of the concept bike, “The biggest challenge in the design is to render everything visible. Every part has a functional purpose. There are not many who would dare to take such an absolutely honest approach.” Groesbeek spoke passionately in an onsite interview about how important it is that a bike like the R18 be authentically connected to a company's history. "When you look at bikes from the 1930s, the overall designs are similar apart from the engine configurations," he remarked. "Harley-Davidsons, Indians and BMWs of the era look quite a lot alike, and we have gone back to this with the R18."

As interesting as the hard parts of the Concept R18 are, so is the motivation behind building it.

US motorcycle market new-unit sales continue in uninspirational flatness, and Harley-Davidson’s sales are declining. So why would BMW wish to forge into a shrinking business? Saturation in its successful segments. BMW has done well in its traditional adventure and touring markets, and the S 1000 RR and S 1000 R have put a happily successful stake in the performance wars. The R nineT and its retro-inspired variants flourish as our nostalgia draws us to the scrambler silhouette. More market share is, in a theoretical way, guaranteed by building a heavyweight cruiser. Indian has certainly shown that the right brand building technically excellent motorcycles with resonant styling can gain share even in a shrinking market. But even it is looking to new segments by building the FTR 1200, a flat-track-inspired sport standard.

To help sustain growth, you must play in markets where you are not currently competing.

And even though the heavy cruiser business is shrinking, it is still the great gorilla in terms of sales. Harley-Davidson projected in its first-quarter 2019 results that it expects to ship about 217,000–222,000 motorcycles worldwide by year end. If you are BMW and looking for someplace to grow, like many manufacturers before it, you ask yourself, “What if we got 5 percent of that?” and end up with a number around 10,000 units for the world. It’s not unreasonable thinking. In fact, pretty much every manufacturer has tried it. Still, there remains only one company turning over billions of dollars by building heavyweight cruiser motorcycles and lifestyle-related products. Not that there haven’t been some successes by other manufacturers along the way, but do consider how many large-displacement V-twin cruisers are found on Japanese dealership floors in 2019.

Of course, BMW built a cruiser called the R 1200 C from 1997–2004. It had its merits and did grow market share, but was not a resounding long-term success. When questioned about this during an interview at The Handbuilt Motorcycle Show, Timo Resch, vice president sales and marketing for BMW Motorrad, said that one element of that was that the R 1200 C was based on an existing platform, not a purpose-built powertrain.

“It has been a long-term strategic decision that if we want to continue the success story of BMW Motorrad, which has been for the last several years quite positive, at some point we have to look also at the cruiser segment,” Resch said. “It has had a bit of a reduction, but it is still by far the biggest segment of the premium motorcycle world. We see that as an opportunity and chance for us.”

BMW R18 Flat-Twin Cruiser
BMW has a goal of selling 200,000 models per year by 2020. An R18-powered model will have a key role in that growth.BMW Motorrad

Another interesting point from Resch: “BMW’s strategic goal is 200,000 units a year by 2020, and continue to have sustainable growth after that. To do that, one of the logical steps is to enter into the cruiser and touring segments.”

BMW is already in the “touring segments,” of course meaning baggers, not R 1800 RT sport-tourers.

BMW said that surrounding the loyal “very true to the brand” customers of US manufacturers “there are a lot of people open to switching brands,” information gleaned from customer research, and that the company noticed that more riders were open to switching brands now than, say, five years ago. BMW also feels confident that existing BMW loyalists might add a cruiser to the stable, though that number is small compared to the non-owner target.

BMW R18 Flat-Twin Cruiser
Could BMW capture customers from The Motor Company with a large cruiser-type motorcycle? The Concept R18 looks promising for that plan.BMW Motorrad

“We approach the segment with a 360-degree view of not just looking at the motorcycle,” Resch continued, “but as you said earlier, you are 100 percent right the mental self-image of how you look and feel on the bike are absolutely the key drivers. We will be looking at our clothing, gear, helmets, boots, to really give you this, from our point of view, very BMW but also authentic to the segment options.”

“Authenticity” is much used in this and many other motorcycle press information, and in this case Resch and BMW feel that the difference between the Concept R18 and the previous R 1200 C is simple: “I think entering the cruiser and touring segment with a dedicated engine and drivetrain that is really perfectly suited to do well in this market, we have all the right ingredients. We have to be authentic BMW—the boxer engine is us—and at the same time have all the low-end torque and power customers also expect.”

BMW Concept R18
As 2020 approaches, more concepts showing the direction of an R18-powered production model are expected, but the Concept R18 is a tantalizing study in a more practical design than the first two customs unveiled before it.BMW Motorrad

The previous customs built using the engine have been compelling. This step with the Concept R18 unveiled at the Concorso Villa d’Este is even more so for its greater dose of reality. BMW says to expect to see a production version of the R18 by early in 2020. Until then, it seems likely there will be a few more concepts that will show direction.