In 1993, I bought a new BMW R1100RSA. This was one of the first models of the new R11 line (the "oilheads") released in the US. I knew I was taking a risk by buying a "beta bike", but I believed the hype about BMW quality. Among other things, the number of people who've received awards for 100000, 200000, 300000, and more miles on BMW motorcycles impressed me a great deal
My bike was fine for about the first 10,000 miles (about 10 months). At that point, the first clutch went, rather suddenly. From that point on, there was one problem after another.
Here's a list of the highlights:
Final drive assembly
4 blown head gaskets
3 engine studs pulled out of the block
Oil sight glass blew out
Rear sub-frame cracked
Front shock failure
At about 35,000 miles, after numerous problems and about 9 months in various shops, BMW North America authorized replacement of the entire engine, since they couldn't resolve the repeated oil-pressure related problems.
At that point, the bike was pumping more than a quart of oil into the airbox every 1000 miles!
Roughly 10,000 miles later, with the new engine in the bike, the 4th clutch failed. It looked like the whole process was beginning again! At that point, with the bike in pieces in the shop, I began looking for a replacement.
In total, the bike was in the shop for warranty service for about 10 1/2 months over 3 1/2 years.
So, what have I learned from this experience?
Don't buy a "first year" model bike.
Find and work with a good dealer. I was quite happy with the service I got from Amol motorcycles in Dumont, NJ, and had nothing but the best experiences from Linder motorcycles in New Canaan, CT. The dealers, particularly Linders, were helpful and did excellent work, but they didn't get adequate support from BMW North America.
Document any problems. Keeping good records really helped with my dealings with BMW.
Use the 'net. The BMW-R1100 list was an invaluable resource. Many other owners were experiencing similar problems, and keeping in touch made it much easier to determine what was really happening across the model line.
In some states (NY, in 1996), motorcycles are excluded from the "Lemon Law", so there's no recouse, other than a civil suit, for a defective vehicle.
Know your warranty. When I bought the bike, BMW was offering a 3-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Within two years, that was reduced to 3 years, 30000 miles. A number of my claims, including the replacement engine, would not have been covered under the revised plan. There was a great deal of speculation that this change was related to the number of major service claims related to these new models.
And finally... Don't trust BMW North America! Even with the problems, I was very happy with my R1100RSA when it ran. I put over 45,000 miles on it in 3 1/2 years (minus the 10 ½ months it spent in the shop). It was comfortable, performed well, and had some well thought-out engineering innovations. However, for me the worst part of the entire BMW ownership experience was dealing with BMW-NA customer service. They were repeatedly rude, dismissive, and often lied to me. For example:
BMW-NA held a tremendous open house at their headquarters in NJ to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of motorcycle production. The R1100RSA had been out for a few months, and there was huge interest. At one of the technical sessions to explain the bike (largely to prospective purchasers), several owners, myself included, commented on poor shifting, false neutrals, difficulty engaging gears, etc. In front of a crowd of about 100 people, the BMW technical representative told me to show him my boots, because the problems I was experiencing with the transmission were because I was “shifting wrong.”
Through out the troubleshooting process, including at the time when the oil sight glass window blew out, spraying another factory technician with oil, or when the bike repeatedly blew head gaskets, BMW refused to acknowledge that there might be an oil pressure problem. They would fix each symptom (ie., replacing the sight glass, replacing the blown head gaskets, replacing the studs that pulled out of the engine block), but they refused to support the dealerships in their quest to find the underlying problem.
My bike, one of the early production models, was only available with a white seat. As any motorcyclist knows, that's a poor choice, as it quickly looks dirty. After the rear sub-frame cracked, the original seat would no longer fit (the replacement frame had additional braces and welds that interfered with the seat). I welcomed this, as all the later R1100RS models came with a more sensible seat color. When I asked for a seat of that color—knowing that they were coming off the production line in that color, to fit the revised sub-frame—I was told by BMW-NA that since I originally had a white seat, I'd have to wait (weeks, if I recall) for a custom-produced white seat (on the revised seat pan, to match the updated subframe).
The BMW-NA Customer Service representative would often tell me that I was the only one experiencing these problems with this model. Thanks to the IMBWR list, I was able to document many other riders with similar transmission or oil issues, including listing their names and the dealerships that performed the repairs.
During the extended problems I had with the bike, I wrote a letter to Motorcycle Consumer News, describing some of my issues, and asking if other people had similar problems. In the letter, as in private correspondence to BMW-NA Customer Service representative, I stressed that my goal was to have a running, reliable, BMW, and that I hoped to be riding (and purchasing bikes) for about another 40 or 50 years. Later, during one telephone call with the BMW-NA Customer Service representative, I got a nasty response to the on-going problems from the customer service rep., with him taunting me, saying to me “So, what are you going to do if we don't fix the bike...write us another letter?” That's not what I consider “customer service” for a extremely expensive motorcycle.
If not for the poor treatment from BMW-NA, I would be riding a BMW today.