Here’s a question: Is it better to have a classic bike that’s more-or-less in stock condition, or one that’s been customized?

It’s a fair question, as many surviving vintage bikes have some manner of modification, although most aren’t tweaked to the extent of this 1974 BMW R90S, for sale at an upcoming Barret-Jackson auction. It’s an all-time classic machine, although the customization may scare some buyers away. But maybe that’s a good thing—maybe the bike will end up in the hands of someone who wants to ride it?

It’s got that airy-fairy look that so many cafe racers espouse to. Does it work? You be the judge.

What made the R90S so great?

A truly great motorcycle needs to have reliability, adequate power, and style. In the early 1970s, most of the motorcycle manufacturers had one or two of those goals nailed down, but rarely all three. Then, in 1973, BMW released the R90S. It was a big step forward for BMW, but not as hyped today in the same way as the Kawasaki Z1 900, the Norton Commando, or the Ducati SuperSport. But, it combined the best characteristics of all those machines.

First off, BMW used a solid air-cooled OHV flat twin engine, basically a bored-out R75/5 engine with a five-speed gearbox. Nothing too earth-shaking here; BMW had been building boxers since the 1920s. They weren’t silly-fast, but every generation improved on the previous. With a claimed 67 horsepower, the R90S lagged behind the Z1 900 and the hottest stuff from Italy, but it was more than most of the competition. With familiar pushrod arrangement mated to a two-valve head, the 898 cc engine was reliable, and that was what really won riders over. The R90S did have some racing success (Reg Pridmore won the 1976 AMA Superbike championship on an R90S), but its price tag meant this was more of a gentleman’s express machine, rather than a disposable bike to be banged about on-track.

The gentleman’s express format was sort of a predecessor to the touring bike, a bike design that combined a powerful reliable engine with some touring accoutrement and high fit-and-finish. Arguably, the most famous example would be the pre-war Brough Superior machines, although other manufacturers built similar models. But by the early 1970s, cars were for covering long distances, and most motorcycles were only intended for fun or transportation over shorter distances.

Wait, what? Where’s the second brake disc?

The R90S could handle the long hauls, though. Its engine was up to the task, and BMW fitted early versions with a 240-watt alternator (boosted to 280-watt output in later models). Heated gear wasn’t even really on the market at this point (Gerbing started making its earlier designs in the 1970s), and accessory lights weren’t as common as you’d see today. Yet, BMW had the foresight to build its bike with extra charging capability. There was even a voltmeter up front, so riders would know when the battery was going flat. For riders used to Joseph Lucas electrics, or super-dodgy Italian wiring harnesses, this was luxury, sheer luxury!

Of course, shaft drive was standard, so riders wouldn’t have to constantly mess around with cleaning, adjusting and lubricating a chain. Dual front brake discs came standard. With 6.3-gallon fuel capacity, riders could go a long distance between fill-ups. Even when gasoline was basically as cheap as water, in the days before the Oil Crisis, motorcyclists appreciated this.

As well, the machine came with a sporty headlight fairing as standard, which would cut windblast at speed. The whole bike had clean lines, which isn’t surprising when you find Hans Muth designed it. There was adequate room for a rider and pillion, and a trim tailsection that looked like it belonged on a cafe racer. Production machines had a two-tone paint job that still ranks as one of the prettiest finishes to ever grace a BMW.

The R90S was expensive when it came out, as pricey as a car in some markets. Yet, it was a special bike, and 50 years later, if you see one on the road or in a parking lot, many riders will give it a good lookover. It is a true classic.

That shiny gas tank doesn’t have quite the same appeal as the two-tone paint on the original.

The customized version

And then, we have this bike. It’s supposedly a 1974 R90/S. Or is it?

Note that the front end only has a single disc brake, and the /S models are supposed to have a dual disc front end. Is this a front fork off a R90/6, put onto this machine for customization? Or is the bike actually an R90/6? If it’s an R90/6, that means its engine makes less horsepower, among other differences. Also, the ad says this machine has a four-speed manual gearbox. Even the R90/6 has a five-speed, so what’s going on here?

Then there’s the whole cafe racer custom theme. The auction listing doesn’t say who did the work, or when. But, it looks an awful lot like the Honda VTX800 cafe racer custom that Jesse James built back in the early 2000s, which grabbed plenty of ink in Cycle World.

Unfortunately, this custom job doesn’t have the same trick rear brake as that creation. It does appear to be a rather tidy build, though. Is it as nice as an original, unmolested R90/S? Maybe not, but perhaps if you’ve got one of those in the shed already, this customized machine might be more appealing. You can check out a few more details of the bike on the Barret-Jackson website, if you’re curious. This bike comes up for sale at the Scottsdale auction in March, if you really want to buy it. I’d contact Barret-Jackson and sort out the finer details first, though.

Photos: Barret Jackson

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